Reader Mike James sent in a synopsis and asked me what I thought of it. I thought it was a good chance to actually put some of the ideas I’m trying to teach to work so below you will find Mike’s synopsis and my criticism of it. Keep in mind as with any writing my opinion is just that – my opinion. Writing is very subjective so you don’t have to agree with my comments. I might be completely off base. I also encourage you to post your own comments so Mike can improve his synopsis and others can learn from your ideas. Constructive criticism only, non-constructive comments will not be posted.
If you’re wondering about the basics of how to write a synopsis please have look at my post: Writing a synopsis for your screenplay.
“HOLLYWOOD HOUSE” is a coming of age “dramedy” that takes place in the late 1970’s during disco’s heyday. The story is a semi-autobiographical account, based on my high school experiences growing up on Long Island.
Clay is the new kid in town. He moved from the tough Brooklyn streets with his family to the suburban community of Uniondale. Clay’s a shy young man who is not very enthusiastic about his new home. Upon arriving, he meets a new neighbor, Keyon, an ambitious teenager who interest includes rap music, girls and basketball.
He welcomes Clay into the neighborhood and invites him to play a game of basketball. During the game, Keyon asks about Clay’s interest in a new form of music, rap. Keyon invites Clay to a high school dance and introduces him to three of Keyon’s friends.
After the dance, they all go to a local ice cream parlor to hang out. They discuss the possibility of not only deejaying for money, but to make a push to be the best D.J. group on Long Island. It is at the restaurant that the group “Hollywood House” is formed.
Together, they bring all of their hard-earned money from the summer and purchase equipment (turntables, speakers, mixers, etc.) to get started in the business. One of the friends (Jason) arranges their first gig at a Catholic high school he goes to. Though the gig is for free, they gain more exposure and request for services. While at the dance, Clay meets a girl named Angela and develops a friendship with her.
Back at Uniondale high, a rival deejay group challenges them for bragging rights. Meanwhile, Clay’s school grades begin going downhill and his parent’s grounds him from participating in deejaying until his grades improve.
Clay accepts Angela’s assistance with some of his schoolwork. The friendship between Clay, Keyon and the gang becomes strained by Clay’s non-participation in the group and the fact that Clay’s new-found friend just happens to be white.
“HOLLYWOOD HOUSE” is one of those Spike Lee-type comedy/dramas that harkens back to the early days of disco, rap & hip-hop. Racism, peer pressure, and love are just many of the topics the film covers. The story will resonate with those who’ve experienced the highs, lows and in-between of being in high school.
Mike sent this as a MS Word attachment and when I opened it at first glance it looked pretty good – meaning without reading a single word it looked like a screenplay synopsis. It was slightly less than one page long (and in a normal font size) and the paragraphs were pretty short and broken up nicely. This may sound like a strange comment but trust me, producers read hundreds of these per year and making a good first impression is essential. If you cram a two page synopsis onto one page in a small font with long paragraphs and no breaks you’re dooming your synopsis before the producer has read one word. You don’t want to over whelm the person reading your synopsis. A page with lots of writing on it and little white space is exhausting to look at. Remember, all you’re trying to do with this synopsis is entice people to request the full script so you don’t have to give everything away. Just briefly describe your story in enough detail as to give people a feel for the story, characters, and tone.
After reading the synopsis it’s clear that Mike has a story with a beginning, middle, and end and I get a sense of the characters and tone of the story – all very important things to do with your synopsis.
The biggest criticism I have is that I think the whole thing seems too ordinary and bland. I don’t see what’s so special about this story or his high school experience that would merit making a movie about it.
The good news is that I think he can fix it. When I write my own synopses I like to just get the story down in the basic beats and then go back and try and jazz it up. Because he’s done a good job with the basics (structure, characters, and tone) I think he’ll be able to make this synopsis work with a little rewriting. He’s got to make the story more interesting.
The first sentence is this:
“HOLLYWOOD HOUSE” is a coming of age “dramedy” that takes place in the late 1970’s during disco’s heyday.
What about changing it to something like this:
“HOLLYWOOD HOUSE” is a coming of age “dramedy” that takes place in the late 1970’s during the birth of rap music.
Unless you’re writing a Will Ferrell comedy I would leave disco alone. Rap is cool today disco is a past musical dead end and I don’t think you’re going to sell a script that’s about trying to rekindle disco music – especially when your story really sounds more about the birth of rap than the death of disco.
In the second sentence he says this:
The story is a semi-autobiographical account, based on my high school experiences growing up on Long Island.
What’s so special about his high school experiences? We all went to high school and we all have some fond memories but what’s so special about his high school experience on Long Island that it should be made into a movie?
What about changing that sentence to something like this:
The story is a semi-autobiographical account of my high school experiences growing up in the late 70’s in New York and being a part of the birth of rap music.
Maybe he went to school with some people who eventually became famous rappers and were at the forefront of the movement. If so include that. Rappers always have colorful names so try and use some of them as references – even if the reader has never heard of the specific rappers that Mike knew it will still add color and authenticity to the story.
What if the second sentence was something like this:
The story is a semi-autobiographical account of my own experiences growing up in the late 70’s and partying with the pioneers of rap music – guys like D.J. Pimp Daddy and M.C. Busta Brown.
All the rappers names are made up (I’m sure you can tell I’m a white boy from Maryland!) but the point is the same: adding some cool sounding names ads color and authenticity to the synopsis as well as giving the story an “insider” angle. Which script would you rather read: a story about a kid in high school during the dying days of disco or a story about a kid who was involved with the guys that invented rap music?
I think this is a typo:
Keyon asks about Clay’s interest in a new form of music, rap.
I think it is Clay asking Kenyon about rap, right? Always clean up typos. Anyone can clean up typos if they care enough to spend the time doing it. Make sure you care enough.
The middle 6 paragraphs tell the story (which is good) but without much pizzazz. Each sentence just needs to be jazzed up.
For instance, the third paragraph has this sentence:
Keyon invites Clay to a high school dance and introduces him to three of Keyon’s friends.
High school dances aren’t the coolest thing in the world. What if Kenyon took Clay to an underground party where Clay hears rap music for the first time? I realize that I might be actually altering the script but I think part of the use of your synopsis might also be to find the weak parts of your story. A high school dance gives me the impression of a boring 1950’s movie. It’s not anything I care to see. But an underground party in the late 70’s with some of the pioneers of the rap music… now that’s something we’d all like to experience!
I think some additional short character descriptions would also do a lot to add color and texture to the synopsis. What’s unique about Kenyon’s friends? What dose Angela look like? Again, make it sexier – is she the cute girl next door type or is she the hottest girl in high school?
I like the first sentence of the final paragraph:
“HOLLYWOOD HOUSE” is one of those Spike Lee-type comedy/dramas that harkens back to the early days of disco, rap & hip-hop.
It does a lot to tie things together and tells the reader exactly what type of story this is. Although I would remove the disco reference!
However, the themes that are mentioned in the next sentence (racism, peer pressure, and love) don’t seem original enough. “Peer pressure” is too trite, “racism” seems a bit over used these days and “love” was old when Shakespeare was writing. I think he could find more original themes or at least make the ones he has seem a little fresher.
Here’s the sentence from the final paragraph:
Racism, peer pressure, and love are just many of the topics the film covers.
Maybe this would work better:
Growing up in a racially charged world, teenagers trying to find their place and high school love are some of the themes the film covers.
The final sentence just seems sloppy:
The story will resonate with those who’ve experienced the highs, lows and in-between of being in high school.
What exactly does that mean? Does it mean the script will resonate with every single person in the world since pretty much everyone has experienced some highs, lows and in-betweens while in high school?
I think something a little more specific would work better:
The story will resonate with anyone who had a dream in high school and made a naive attempt to make it happen.
I’m not into high concept stories so the fact that this story doesn’t have one doesn’t bother me. But what that means is that for this to be a good script it’s got to be well executed and right now I’m not sure that this synopsis convinces me that it is. The synopsis as is seems very plain and I’m guessing the script probably is too, at least that’s my impression. It reminds me of the film Koolie High – which was a great film although probably not one that a studio would make today – so I think a sentimental story about high school kids that pulls at the heart strings could work, especially against the backdrop of the last 70’s and the birth of rap music.
I don’t want Mike to get too down on himself because of my (and other’s criticism) so I want to make one last point. Years ago I read scripts for an agent who would look at virtually any submission that was sent to him (or should I say I would look at them for him!). I would say 97% of them were such a mess that they were literally un-filmable. They were incoherent messes and made no sense. Because he was able to clearly tell a story I would say this script is probably in that final 3%. He just needs to get it over the hump and into that final 1% before he starts sending it out.
What do you think of the synopsis?