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Writing a synopsis for your screenplay

You’re going to need a short synopsis for your script.  It should be a little less than 1 page long and clearly show your characters and story.  You’re going to use it when you send out query letters or when someone you meet wants to learn more about your script but isn’t quite ready to read the entire screenplay.

A couple of things to remember – there’s different types of synopses for different purposes.  What I’m going to show you in this post is how to write a short synopsis that you would include in a query letter in an effort to get your script read by a producer or director.  Sometimes longer synopses are called treatments and can range in length from a couple of pages to more than twenty pages.  There’s a variety of reasons why a producer will request that you write a treatment but to be clear I’m not covering treatments (or longer synopses) in this post. The purpose of this short, less than one page synopsis, is to get a producer, director, or agent to read your entire script.

Always stay focused on exactly what you’re trying to do with this synopsis which is to get people to request the full screenplay.  You want to tell your story and demonstrate mastery of your craft.  You want to give the person reading it a clear idea about what your story is about.  You want the reader to know you have clearly defined characters with a solid story that has a beginning, middle, and end.  But you don’t have to give everything away.  In fact you simply want to intrigue them enough so that they can’t wait to read the entire screenplay.  If you have a twist ending you can tell them about the twist without giving it away. Make them want to read the full script.

Below you’ll find two examples.  I didn’t chose these because I think they’re perfect and can’t be improved, I’m sure they can, but if you’re wondering what a screenplay synopsis looks like these should serve as good examples.  I’ve used them both for a little while and they have worked.  I also choose these synopses because these are the two scripts I pitched in my example query letter so it will give people a complete view of what I send out.


“IRREFUTABLE EVIDENCE”

Synopsis by

Ashley Scott Meyers

“IRREFUTABLE EVIDENCE” is a post-modern noir mystery set in present day Los Angeles. Utilizing a limited number of noirish claustrophobic sets, and no need for stunts or major special effects, “IRREFUTABLE EVIDENCE” could be made on a limited budget.

“IRREFUTABLE EVIDENCE” is the story of an innocent man, Gene Magar, trapped in a noir world, trying desperately to escape his mundane job as an insurance salesman, and his miserable home life with a tyrant wife. He finds such an escape in Mary-Beth Singer, a client who’s husband has recently died. As their relationship deepens, so does the suspicion that surrounds the mysterious death of Mary-Beth’s husband.

There’s Mary-Beth’s other lover, who’s dead set on getting a cut of the hefty insurance money due Mary-Beth, even if Mary-Beth doesn’t love him anymore. And there’s the old noir detective with his own code of ethics, determined to figure out what exactly happened to Mary-Beth’s husband.

As Mary-Beth and Gene make plans to escape with the insurance money, her lover, now insanely jealous, develops his own plan to get the money. Meanwhile, the detective starts to piece the mystery together; Mary-Beth’s husband didn’t die of “natural causes.” Before it’s all over Gene is trapped in a web of murder and deceit, going to jail for two murders he didn’t commit, and one murder that never even occurred.

“IRREFUTABLE EVIDENCE” is a Hitchcockian tale of mistaken identity and murder, human weakness and individual deficiencies. It’s a fatalistic noir tale of one man’s vain struggle to escape his own limitations, unfortunately an impossibility in the world of noir.


“THE MEANING OF HIGH ART”

Synopsis by

Ashley Scott Meyers

“THE MEANING OF HIGH ART” is a Shavian look at what it takes to make it as an artist– talent, perseverance, a little luck, but most importantly a shrewd business sense. It’s the story of an idealistic artist hailed as a genius for work he did as a joke while drunk, who tries in vain to get people to appreciate his “real” paintings.

Leonardo Bailey (Leo) is a talented artist with a peculiar talent for painting realistic, although hugely depressing, paintings of New York City. Unfortunately, people hate reality, and thus, his paintings. One miserable evening, while getting obscenely drunk, he paints several colorful, impressionistic happy faces. And it’s a huge success, and he’s economically forced to paint dozens of “happy, sappy, stupid” paintings. His career continues to skyrocket. And with such success comes a new penthouse apartment, a speedy new sports car, and the admiration of Jenny, the beautiful young woman he’s been lusting after.

Leo finally gets a show along side of another great artist, Alfred Doolittle. But Leo hates Doolittle’s work, and when he meets Doolittle, he tells him so. Doolittle simply smiles and agrees, explaining that his mediocre art work is merely a wise business decision, shallow and superficial, but infinitely marketable. Leo becomes determined to sell his “real” paintings.

Leo slides one of his “real” paintings into his next show and the critics rip it to shreds. Meanwhile, a homeless man steals some of Leo’s “real” paintings and shows them as his own. And the homeless man receives massive critical acclaim for Leo’s work. Utterly distraught, Leo breaks up with his girlfriend and prepares to plunge off the balcony of his penthouse apartment. But Doolittle arrives and points out that killing himself will only increase the value of his “happy, sappy, stupid” paintings. Completely frustrated, Leo tells the public the truth, that his “happy, sappy, stupid” paintings were the result of a drunken stupor, not the work of a true artist, but everyone just laughs, figuring it’s the ranting of a temperamental artist. And now, combined with the suicide attempt, the value of his “happy, sappy, stupid” paintings enters the stratosphere. In a last ditch effort to make his “real” work seen, Leo takes off after Doolittle and ends up learning the ultimate lesson about art, life… and most importantly the business of art.

“THE MEANING OF HIGH ART” is a broad comedy for all the people who think they have a vision (however misguided that notion may be), and feel surrounded by people who don’t. It’s a comic quest about truth, genius, and what “high art” really is, and it’s the ultimate revenge on all the doubters who couldn’t see genius and originality if it hit them square on the head!


I think both synopses make it clear that my screenplays have clearly delineated characters and a solid structure with a beginning, middle and end.  While this may not seem like much of an accomplishment, if you can accomplish that in your synopsis you’re probably way ahead of the pack.  In fact I think this is more important than trying to be overly cleaver or hilariously funny with your synopsis.

With Irrefutable Evidence I open the synopsis with a bit about the production budget – saying it could be made on a limited budget.  Most of the producers who I send this to are low budget producers and this script is a perfect vehicle for them and I want to make that clear.  I don’t think you need to bring attention to the budget you foresee for your project unless it’s a selling point.  For most of the people I send this to a minimal budget is a selling point.  But I would take it out if I were submitting it to larger more established production companies.

The first paragraph of The Meaning Of High Art synopsis and the second paragraph of the Irrefutable Evidence synopsis is a sort of quick summary almost log line of the entire script.  What I’m trying to do is get people to keep reading by giving them a little taste of my story and characters.  With The Meaning Of High Art it’s my high concept pitch, if there is one: an artist makes it big on some paintings he painted as a joke while drunk.  Hopefully people can see the humor in the basic set up without me having to be overtly funny in the synopsis.

With Irrefutable Evidence I pretty much give away the ending… sort of. Film noir isn’t so much a “who dunnit” as much as a “why they did it.”  While I’ve given clues about what happens the really interesting thing about this story (I think) is the unraveling of Gene’s character and his inability to avoid his ‘fate.’  I’m hoping people will recognize this.

My synopsis for The Meaning Of High Art basically captures the character of Leo and hopefully makes it clear that this story is about a struggling artist with some funny twists.  It’s been many months since I wrote it and looking over it now I think it could actually use some polish.

Read my post How to write a professional query letter for your screenplay.  The idea is to send a producer a short query letter with a couple of synopses in it.

Then read my post Getting your screenplay to producers and production companies.

Between these three posts it should give you everything you need to know to start getting your scripts to producers.

I’m sure people will have lots of great ideas about how to improve these synopses and I’d love to hear them.  What do think I did wrong and how could these synopses be improved?

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