Knowing how to write a movie synopsis is an absolute must for anyone trying to shop a screenplay or work within Hollywood. But how can you compress the complex thoughts of your story into a one-page doc?
At some point or another, we all have told a story to a friend. If we're tight on time, we've given them the highlights — just the big emotional punches and payoffs. And if we told it well, we get the reaction we wanted. That story would be a synopsis, and when you work in Hollywood, you have to master that art. Being able to provide a synopsis is an excellent and essential skill to have across the board in this town.
Today we'll learn how to write a synopsis, look at an example, go through a screenplay synopsis checklist, and get our film synopsis skills going.
So let's go!
What is a movie synopsis?
How long is a movie synopsis?
A synopsis is usually one to three pages long, depending on what you're using it to do within the industry.
What about a TV episode synopsis?
Yes, you need to write a synopsis of the pilot and subsequent episodes in your screenplay bible. So, what do those script synopses incorporate? You want them to be around one page for the pilot, and then have each next episode be 1-2 paragraphs in length. Enough to detail the significant events and ending of each chapter. Again, You'll only use these in the bible. When you're submitting episodes to be approved by the network, you'll provide a treatment.
What belongs in your screenplay synopsis?
When you're writing a synopsis, you want to cover each act and story beat that matters. I like to think of a screenplay synopsis as an extended trailer with an ending. You want to build the best version of the story that covers the beats that matter in the world makes this work viable in the marketplace.
So what should be in your synopsis?
Movie/TV synopsis checklist:
- Limit your synopsis to one to three pages
- Define each act and what moment marks each act break
- Give us the world of the story and how each character arcs
- Include the most critical conflict or events in the story.
- Each paragraph needs to flow into the next, like a coherent story
- Include a sentence or two about your ending and how you leave the characters
- Let the tone of the screenplay come across in the way you write
- Proofread your synopsis for style, grammar, and usage.
Who uses a screenplay synopsis?
Your screenplay synopsis is a great tool to master for your first job as a Hollywood assistant, mainly because you'll spend most of your nights and weekends writing coverage for your boss. If you're working on a film treatment or an outline, you want a synopsis to be able to communicate your story and its beats to an audience. Also, as a writer, sometimes I send a one-page synopsis to producers to get them excited about reading my full draft or to help them sell it in the international market at a festival like Berlin or Cannes.
People use these all over the industry. On your first day as an intern, you might be asked to write four or five of them. So get good at it quickly!
Movie synopsis example
If you want to read an example, look at this one provided by Script Mag. It takes the story of A Few Good Men and boils it down to all the relevant details. This one is written as it belongs in a screenplay coverage. It highlights the characters, world, stakes, and ties everything up neatly in the end.
This example clues us in on the way to write and summarize even a complicated story.
What about this one from Ransom provided by Writer's Digest?
"TOM MULLEN is a rich businessman who made his fortune creating a successful airline company from scratch. While he and his family are in Central Park, his son, SEAN, is kidnapped. Tom and his wife KATE’s worst nightmares are confirmed when a kidnapper contacts them and demands a $2 million ransom. The Mullens call the FBI for help.
After being kidnapped, Sean is held in a basement. There are not one but five kidnappers, all working together—led by violent police detective JIMMY SHAKER, who resents rich men like Tom who can buy their way out of trouble and are oblivious to the hardships of those around them. Shaker tells his conspirators that the boy will be killed once the ransom is given. Shaker anonymously calls Tom and arranges a dropoff. Tom follows all directions and hands the $2 million to one of Shaker’s henchmen. When Tom demands his son in return, the henchman is confused. The henchman flees, but police swarm the area. Gunshots are traded, and the henchman is killed.
News of the shooting/ransom appears all over the NYC media, adding to Tom’s problems. Shaker sets up another drop, but Tom surprises everyone by appearing on live TV and saying he will pay no ransom. Instead, he offers the $2 million as a bounty on the kidnapper’s head. He says if Sean is released, he will press no charges. The bold move is met by disapproval by the media, the FBI, and most especially Kate, who screams at her husband to take back the bounty and pay the ransom. Tom explains that he would pay any amount of money if he really thought Sean would truly be returned, but he believes the kidnappers have no intention of giving Sean back; therefore, a bounty is his best option. Kate is unconvinced.
More Shaker phone calls come, and threats are exchanged. Despite the pleading of Kate and the FBI, Tom publicly ups the bounty to $4 million. Shaker calls and fires a gunshot, making the Mullens believe Sean is dead. Tom collapses from despair. Meanwhile, Shaker’s cohorts all want to abandon the plan, kill the boy, and leave town. Realizing his plan has unraveled, Shaker kills his remaining co-conspirators, under the guise that he, a policeman, came upon an apartment where the tenants opened fire. Sean is found and rescued, and Shaker is hailed as a hero cop by the media.
Soon after, Shaker arrives at Tom’s apartment to collect his $4 million reward. As Tom is writing the check, he notices his son in the next room urinate in fear (as the boy recognizes Shaker’s voice). Shaker knows the jig is up and threatens to kill everyone in the house, but Tom convinces him to go to the bank so the money can be wired. En route, Tom tips off police to the situation. Cops converge on Tom and Shaker outside the bank. Shaker panics and opens fire. A running shootout ensues, and Shaker is killed when both Tom and the police return fire on Shaker at the same time."
Again, this helps us encapsulate a movie and is written in an exciting way that sells both the concept and the feature that follows. It includes important twists and turns that push the story forward. We understand the acts too. It seems like writing a movie synopsis can be hard, but when I get overwhelmed I like to think about the three most important keys to the script synopsis.
What are the three keys to a great story synopsis?
We love lists, and I like boiling things down for our readers. The truth is, your movie synopsis is not hard to write if you remember these three things:
- Accurately tell your story in the tone intended. If it's a comedy, make us laugh. If it's a mystery, surprise us. If it's a thriller, scare us.
- It makes sense with the first read. No extraneous plot points or tangents. It's the story and just the story.
- The person reading it can easily retell it to someone else without getting confused or caught up.
Movie/TV synopsis template
To make your life easier, I came up with this script synopsis template you can use when working on your material. You've probably read our article on the logline, but you might want to refresh yourself on skills like character development to make sure the beats we see in the synopsis in each act give us the emotional things to go along with plot and story.
So check out our template and put it to good use!
What's next? Use our Story Map!
Are you trying to get the beats of your synopsis onto the page? Try our story map outlining tool! We all know writing a screenplay is incredibly hard. While it gets easier as you go, every story is a new battle. When I sit down to write, I chase treatments, beat sheets, and outlines before I open my screenwriting software to tackle the story. One thing that's always helped me is thinking about the writing process like a search for buried treasure mostly because I love a good treasure hunt movie.
Anyway, I worked hard and came up with a Story Map that I try to fill out before I write every spec screenplay. And now you can try it too!