How to Write a Synopsis for a Movie
Those working in the film and television industry will rarely be jumping up and down at the prospect of reading your full script, which is why you need a synopsis that details your idea concisely.
What’s the point of a movie synopsis?
A synopsis is used as part of a one-sheet, which producers will often request to determine whether they’re interested in your idea, and you as a writer, or not.
It’s a summary that details your movie and is delivered in a format that’s easy to understand and, most importantly, quick to read. That’s the key consideration when dealing with movie pros: speed.
If you want to make it as a professional screenwriter, you’ll need to deliver one-sheet after one-sheet – after all, only one in ten spec scripts ever make their way into production. However, if you hone your craft and deliver what the industry demands of you, you’re in with a good chance of making it into that small percentage.
Most writers write a synopsis once they’ve finished a script to use as a tool to use when reaching out to prospective producers or collaborators. However, it can also be a good idea to write a synopsis before you even begin writing the script so that you can concisely describe what your story’s about and give yourself some direction when writing.
Many films in Hollywood are commissioned based on a synopsis alone, before the script is even written.
What to include
An effective movie synopsis should summarise the key beats/moments in your script – it should give the reader an idea of what the movie’s all about.
Typically, a synopsis, or plot summary, takes up one side of a sheet of paper, which is around 400 words. That way, the reader can scan the summary and find out everything they need to know about your script in a matter of minutes. If they like what they read, they’ll contact you. If you don’t hear back, you should approach other producers until you find one that’s interested.
Most of the interest in a movie is in the conflict you present and how it’s resolved, so that’s where your focus should be when writing a synopsis. However, you need to make sure you don’t give away the whole story but instead just introduce the characters, plot and make the reader want to know more and, more importantly, want to watch the movie. It’s not dissimilar to writing a movie review.
Writing your synopsis
Start with your logline and expand it into a three-act structure – you can literally break this up into beginning, middle and end to get started.
When writing your synopsis, keep in mind the following:
- It should be one page or less – industry pros haven’t got time to read more
- Include a couple of sentences about your opening
- Describe the location
- Introduce at least one of your characters (preferably the lead)
- Don’t mention more than 3-4 characters as it will become too complicated
- Include the most important events and conflicts
- Include a couple of sentences about your ending (resolution)
It’s crucial that you think like a professional writer, not just a screenwriter, when writing your synopsis. It should be clear, concise and easy to understand – not just for industry professionals but also wider audiences.
To help with this, use present tense except from when describing events that came before the story. It’s also important that you create a narrative with your synopsis – paragraphs should flow and feel logical.
After reading your synopsis, the reader should feel excited about your story and think it would make a good movie, so make sure you capture that in your summary. Try to write in a style that reflects your screenwriting style and personality as it will feel more authentic – producers are always looking for new, different voices.
When you’ve finished writing, proof your synopsis for grammar and spelling as well as format. The film industry adheres to strict standards that you must meet, or you won’t be taken seriously.
Questions to ask before sharing your synopsis
Before sending your synopsis to a producer, ask yourself the following questions:
- Does my synopsis accurately reflect my story?
- Is my synopsis easy to understand and retell to others?
- Does my synopsis avoid unnecessary details?
- Does it capture the atmosphere and excitement of my movie?
If you’re happy that what you’ve written is in-line with the above, you may be ready to start approaching producers. Just to be sure, show your synopsis to a close friend, or whoever usually reads your scripts, to get a second opinion.
Movie synopsis examples
Writer’s Digest author, Chuck Sambuchino, has composed a catalogue of movie synopsis examples. Browse some our favourites:
- The Wrestler (2008)
- A History of Violence (2005)
- Robocop (1987)
- Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)
- The Fly (1986)
- Fearless (1993)
Note that Sambuchino includes all the main aspects of a synopsis as detailed above.
Developing your skills
As with almost everything, practice makes perfect when it comes to writing an impact synopsis. We suggest making a list of your favourite films as well as a handful of films that are out of your comfort zone and writing a logline and a synopsis for each of them.
You can then review where you might not be quite hitting the mark, do better on the next one and keep going until you’re in a position where you can write a superb synopsis for your movie.
If you have an agent, it’s a good idea to run your synopsis by them before submitting so that they can provide feedback. After all, no one knows the movie industry quite like an agent.
What to remember
Read a handful of movie synopsis examples before trying your hand at your own. When writing your synopsis, don’t reveal too much information – only reveal the key plot points and introduce your lead character(s).
Always leave the reader wanting more. Be sure to keep your synopsis to 400-500 words at the very most and remember to proof it, and get feedback, before submitting it anywhere.