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November 3, 2021

How to Write a Movie Synopsis

So, you've written your movie screenplay. You've polished it to a high standard. You've had great feedback on it that you've acted on. You've formatted it correctly, and you're ready to start the next part of the process; approaching agents and executives. But do you know how to write a movie synopsis?

One of the critical elements to the package you send out to directors and producers is the movie synopsis. This is different from a treatment written before the script and outlines the main ideas and a range of possibilities for the narrative.

How to write a movie synopsis

A movie synopsis neatly summarizes your film and allows busy agents and executives to get a taste of your whole screenplay before they read the first few pages.

The main part of your movie's synopsis: The arc

The main element your movie synopsis should convey is the sense of the story arc. Producers, executives, and agents want to understand how your story starts, where your story is going, and how it concludes. For this reason, you must give away your ending in your synopsis.

Suppose executives and agents understand the story arc. In that case, they can determine whether your story is gripping enough and whether there are enough unexpected twists and turns in the plot to keep the audience engaged.

In your screenplay, executives and agents are going to be looking for something that treads a fine line between satisfying expectations of the genre and something original and new that will intrigue your audience. Your job is to try to convey that clearly in your synopsis.

There is no right or wrong way to write a synopsis. One solid way is to start by writing a list of all the key plot points in your story. If you know you've written a three-act or five-act structure, then this should make it easier as you have a pre-determined system you can flesh out.

Don't try to include everything. You want to put enough details down for the story to make sense, but you only want to give away the essentials.

The world of your movie

As well as the arc of the story you want to give some sense of the world in which your move is operating and the genre. If you've written a dystopian movie or a sci-fi epic, provide a brief sense of what the world is like and how that impacts the plot and your characters.

If we were writing a synopsis of Aaron Soronsoky's A Few Good Men, we would want to emphasize that although the film deals with the Guantanamo Bay military base in Cuba in the 1980s, it is a legal drama, not a war or action film. Therefore most of the plot takes place inside a courthouse during a court-martial.

Another example is the 2016 film Passengers. While it is a sci-fi movie and details about the fact this is a world where travel for light-years through space is possible, the 'world' of the film is the spaceship The Avalon itself as this is where most of the action takes place. The movie also crosses genre boundaries as it has elements of romance in it.  

Key sharacters

As well as giving details of the plot, the synopsis also gives some brief biographical information about each of the main characters.

Minor characters do not need to be mentioned in the synopsis unless they play a crucial part in a vital plot detail.

You should try to give a sense of the motivations of your main characters and if you have space for any character foils. What is driving them? Why do they make the choices they do? What are their personality traits?

You can also give a sense of how your characters interact with each other. If two characters are romantically linked, then we want to know the extent of how this attraction works, how they came to be together, and how they might fall apart.

What are the stakes?

Another factor you need to convey in your screenplay is what is at stake for your characters or the world your characters inhabit?

The higher the stakes, the more jeopardy we are likely to see our characters and the more pressure they are put under.

In The Dark Knight Rises, there are high stakes for both the world and the characters personally. Bane - the main antagonist - threatens and eventually reveals the truth about District Attorney Harvey Dent's criminal activity in the previous film The Dark Knight. This could potentially lead to the people of Gotham losing faith in the law enforcement of the city. Bane also threatens to destroy Gotham with a nuclear device.

For Bruce Wayne/Batman, the personal stakes are high - revelations about his identity could also render his vigilante activities redundant, destroy his business and personal relationships.

In Finding Nemo, the stakes are high as clownfish Marlin struggles to find his child son Nemo. If he does not find him, Nemo will likely die without his protection or be lost in the vastness of the ocean.

What are the stakes in your movie? How do they affect or how are they a result of the personal relationships between your characters?

How long should a movie synopsis be?

Every agent and executive will have different guidelines for submitting a screenplay and a synopsis to them. Some will want a more detailed synopsis with a smaller sample, and others will ask to see the complete script with no synopsis, while others will just look at a synopsis.

Check the submission guidelines for the agents and executives you are sending your script and synopsis to. Sending a generic blanket email with the same synopsis and introduction letter is not a good tactic.

You want to show the agent or executive that you have read the submission guidelines and are approaching them because you genuinely want to work with them.

Having said this, a screenplay synopsis should be between 1-3 pages. It might be good to prepare a longer 3-page synopsis and a shorter, snappier one-page version.  

Formatting your movie synopsis

You must format your move synopsis correctly. Don't format it double spaced as you would a manuscript for a novel, and don't include dialogue.

Instead, write in short single-spaced paragraphs separated by a line every time you want to jump to the following key plot point.

Writing in chronological order is the most logical way of ordering your synopsis. However, you don't have to feel confined by this. If it makes more sense to group a plot point that occurs later in script earlier in the synopsis or vice-versa, then prioritize making the synopsis make sense rather than giving a completely accurate breakdown of your plot. Remember, the synopsis is a document in its own right, separate from the script.  

Place your name and contact information as well as the name of your script in the header. Use page numbers in the footers. Avoid big and unusual fonts. Stick to size 12 Times New Roman or Arial.

If you're sending your synopsis and script by email, check with the guidelines for individual agents and executives about whether to send it as a PDF or a .docx Word document. It's rare today for executives to want postal submissions.

It's worth spending the time getting your synopsis right

After completing your script, you may feel that the movie synopsis is the least important part of your package. After all, if you've got a decent script, this will stand out regardless of how good your synopsis is. The script is the product that is going to be made, right? Wrong.

The movie synopsis is often the first thing executives and agents will turn to after the introductory letter. That's why it's so important to understand how to write a movie synopsis correctly! A poorly written synopsis might impact the way they read the script and might even lead them to bother reading it at all. It is therefore putting in the effort and getting it right.


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How to Write a Movie Synopsis
Harry Verity

Harry is a professional writer. His first novel The Talk Show was published in the U.S and the U.K by Bloodhound Books in 2021 and he is currently working on adapting it for screen using Arc Studio. He's also written for Media Magazine - a UK magazine for students of A-level Film, Media and Television Studies. His journalism has appeared in The Guardian, Readers' Digest and Newsweek, amongst many other publications. He has just finished his second novel for young adults, set in a boarding school. He holds a BA in English from Loughborough University.

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