To learn how to write a synopsis, firstly we need to give an answer to what is a synopsis. While it is correct to define synopsis as a short screenplay summary written in the present tense, this is not a sufficient definition. Because synopsis may have other purposes than providing a summary of a screenplay, and these aims can broaden the meaning of the synopsis. Therefore, we think that it would be useful to distinguish synopsis in terms of purpose before talking about how to write a synopsis.
In our opinion, there are 3 types of synopsis according to their purposes.
- The first synopsis is usually written to present a brief summary of the story which the scriptwriter uses for himself or shares with his colleagues while the screenplay is still in the draft.
- The second synopsis is written for promotional purposes, which we usually see behind DVD boxes.
- The third synopsis is used in the screenplay or project development stage to apply to various sponsors or funds and present the idea to film professionals.
These three synopsis types show various differences. The synopsis written for the promotion purposes addresses the mass audience, but the synopsis you use to apply for funds must be addressed to only film professionals. For example, in the synopsis for the audience, you can hide some part of your story to provide curiosity, however, the synopsis that you write for professionals needs to reveal the story clearly.
Synopsis type, which we will discuss in this post, is the one that you will use to present your screenplay to film professionals. Now, let’s search for the answer to the question of how to write a synopsis, prepare a synopsis example, and underline the points that you need to pay attention to.
Probably you have heard the term 5W1H which is used generally in journalism. This term is used to describe the key points of an event by using what? who? where? when? why? how? questions. We will use this method to reveal the main elements of a screenplay.
The question of who? reveals the main character or characters as you can guess. The main character is usually a person but depending on the type of story, it may be a community, a place, an animal, or in some cases even an object. For example, The Dress (De jurk, 1996) follows events that revolve around a dress. In Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011), the main character is a group of men includes prosecutors, doctors, and police who investigating a criminal incident.
After identifying the main characters, we need to define them briefly. So we will talk about certain features of the characters. First, try to write the general features; the profession and age of the character can be two of them. For example, the main character of the film Time to Love (1965) can be described as ‘Halil (35) is a painter who decorates the houses’. The profession is generally suitable for describing most characters, but our general definitions do not always have to be a profession. In addition, you cannot use this feature in screenplays where the character is not a person. So, you just need to write one or two general features of character according to your screenplay and character.
After the general features, you can add one interesting and decisive feature. For example, in Time to Love (1965), Halil is not an ordinary painter, he is a lonely man who falls in love with a photograph of a woman. According to this, the character can be defined as ‘Halil (35) who is a painter who makes the interior decorations of the houses falls in love with the photograph of a woman that he sees in one of the houses he decorated.’
If you define conflict in the features of your character, your definition will look more interesting. For example, Coen Brothers focus on a week of a musician in Inside Llewyn Davis (2013). But what kind of musician? ‘A talented musician who cannot realize himself’. As you can see, we have defined the character in a more specific way, with two conflicting expressions: talent and inability for self-realization.
Remember, even if you tell the story of an ordinary person, you can always find a distinctive and interesting feature that you can add to your character. Let’s briefly summarize what you need to do to define characters:
- Identify the main character or characters.
- Specify one or two general features of the character.
- Specify a distinctive and interesting feature of the character.
‘What’s happening in the story?’ When we ask this question, all you have to do is identify 4 main events/actions that are related to each other throughout the screenplay. In order to identify these events, you can take note of all the events and reduce the number of events to 4, or you can consider these events as introduction, body, and conclusion as in the classical narrative form.
Here’s an example of main events in The Time to Love (1965):
I. Halil encounters Meral.
II. Meral wants to flirt, Halil refuses her.
III. They fall in love, but they can’t be together.
IV. They both die.
You should write the events in a very simple way as in the example. These four lines you create are actually the first version of your synopsis. You need to develop each line by using the questions where? when? how? and why? to create final synopsis. But you don’t have to use all the questions on each line if the answers are not meaningful and necessary. For example, for the first line, when we ask ‘Where does Halil meet Meral?’, we can get a meaningful and necessary answer. Because the answer will define where the story sets. But we do not need to ask this question again for the second line ‘Where does Meral want to flirt?’. Because this is unnecessary and meaningless information.
Now, let’s ask the right questions:
I. Halil encounters Meral
Where and when does Halil encounter Meral?
Halil encounters Meral in a summer house in the Princes’ Islands on an autumn day.
II. Meral wants to flirt, Halil refuses her
Why does Meral want to flirt?
When Meral finds out that Halil is in love with her photograph, she becomes interested in Halil and wants to flirt.
Why does Halil refuse her?
Halil thinks that a third person between the photograph and him will harm the love he dreams of.
III. They fall in love, but they can’t be together
How do they fall in love and why can’t they be together?
After Meral leaves the island, Halil starts to regret and makes her way to Istanbul to meet with Meral again. The two young people come together, but Halil discovers the class difference and gives up the idea of marrying. Meral is forced by his family to marry his ex-lover Basar.
IV. They both die
Why do they die?
Meral escapes on the wedding day and returns to Halil, but Basar finds and kills both of them.
We gave the answers. Now let’s create the synopsis by including the character definitions:
Halil (35) is a painter who makes the interior decorations of the houses. Halil falls in love with the photograph of a woman that he sees in one of the houses he decorated and he encounters the woman in the photograph (Meral, 25) in a summer house in Princes’ Islands. When Meral finds out that Halil is in love with her photograph, she becomes interested in Halil and wants to flirt. Halil thinks that a third person between the photograph and him will harm the love he dreams of and he refuses Meral. After Meral leaves the island, Halil starts to regret and makes her way to Istanbul to meet with Meral again. The two young people come together, but Halil discovers the class difference and gives up the idea of marrying. Meral is forced by his family to marry his ex-lover Basar (30). Meral escapes on the wedding day and returns to Halil, but Basar finds and kills both of them.
Synopsis: Last touches
We succeeded in creating a meaningful text by revealing the key points of ta screenplay. After that, you can make some additions. For example, you can remove the phrase ‘one autumn day’ if you want to make the synopsis shorter. Or change the last sentence as ‘Basar finds and kills both of them and put an end to this poetic love story’ to give an impression about the tone of the film.
Remember, the first synopsis you create with this method is not a synopsis, but a synopsis draft. Always try to change the expressions and make the synopsis compiled. Ask friends to read it and identify parts they don’t understand and then re-write it.
In this example, we focused on the methodology of the writing and don’t search for perfection in expressions. But if you use more effective expressions, the effect of synopsis will be greater. You can interpret the actions of your characters to provide this effect. For example, Halil’s rejection and then his regret could be interpreted and expressed as ‘a dilemma between the love he dreams of and reality.’
Don’t hesitate to mention the important details in your story and give spoilers. Because professional evaluators do not think as an audience: They don’t want to be surprised, they want to know all the important details about the project. You should place important information in the synopsis brief and clear. For example, write the end of the film clearly in the synopsis, even it is a surprise ending.
A synopsis is not an area where you can benefit from a visual expression like in a screenplay. When you write a synopsis, you should use a narrative writing style with the event, person, place, and time elements. So, do not include descriptions and dialogues in the synopsis.
The maximum length of a synopsis is 1 page. You do not need to prepare two different versions like short and long synopsis. A single half-page synopsis would be the ideal choice.
Synopsis samples that you search and find on the internet may not be successful examples. Because these examples mostly intended to present for the audience, not for professionals. Rather than working on a synopsis example, it would be much better to create a synopsis of your own by following the steps outlined above.
So we finished the synopsis section, the next section will be about writing a treatment.
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A synopsis is a short summary of a screenplay written in the present tense.
The maximum length of a synopsis should be 1 page.
A synopsis is not an area where you can benefit from a visual expression like in a screenplay. When writing a synopsis, the narrative writing style is used with the event, person, place and time elements.