Sunday, November 16, 2008

Why Sweating Over A Very Short Synopsis Is Worth The Effort

I recently submitted a number of projects to the wittily entitled Son of The Pitch competition, organized by the Cheltenham Screenwriters Festival. The brief was straightforward: A logline of 25 words or less plus a synopsis of no more than 150 words. A simple written pitch, designed to pique the interest of the jury and eventually a panel of industry pros at the festival itself in the summer of 2009.

Now, I’ve written hundreds of loglines before, so that part of the assignment wasn’t too challenging. But as I got down to work on the synopses, I realized I’d never had to write within such strict limitations in terms of length before. I’d always taken as my yard stick a maximum of one page, which can run anywhere up to about 450 words. Three times the maximum set for this competition!

And you know what? Having such a limited number of words with which to sell my stories, actually made my pitches sharper! Not only did I have loads of fun doing it, it also taught me a few valuable lessons, all of which have to do with discriminating between essential and superfluous information. Here are some of my conclusions, not necessarily to be digested in this order …

  • Whereas in a logline you don’t have room for much more than an adjective and an occupation with which to describe a main character (e.g., a psychopathic window cleaner), in the synopsis you can flesh out the character by briefly describing how they respond to a dilemma or challenge. In other words, a dynamic image of the character struggling with something or someone carries more information than a flowery but static description of their personality.

  • Rather than attempt a blow-by-blow summary of the plot tent poles, describe one or two key dilemmas which show what kind of arena the story is set in. This gives a sense of the “size” of the story (big action set pieces, small domestic scenes, a confrontation in outer space, etc.).

  • If it’s relevant, then mention a specific location. This immediately conjures up images and associations in the reader’s mind and sets your story apart from the crowd. For example, a synopsis of Pixar’s Ratatouille just wouldn’t be the same if it didn’t mention the story is set in Paris …

  • Reserve some space to name the screenplay's genre, or perhaps what kind of existing film it’s similar to. This indicates what audience you have in mind.

  • Take a sentence to say something about what theme the story addresses, what questions it’s asking. This provides some insight as to what has moved you to write the screenplay, what your motive or interest is in the story.

I’m sure I’ve left out some important stuff, but these are the main points that I gleaned from a few days’ hard work. They are all ways of including one or more distinguishing elements from your screenplay in the pitch. Something that emphasizes its originality, while also demonstrating that you’re familiar with the industry’s parameters.

Whether or not the sweat I put into my very short synopses will convince the selectors to choose one of my ideas for Cheltenham, remains to be seen. But I promise if they do, I’ll put the synopsis up here for your enjoyment …

1 comment:

Anonymous said...



Producers love it when I get to the point.

They are so stressed out and worried about financing that they got not time.

You ever met some crazy but brillian producers?

They are not writers.

So let all write a short synopsis.
I have mine.