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MEET THE READER: "Why I Hate - Really Hate - Writing Synopses"

When covering a screenplay for a studio or a production company, the analyst’s brief is to read the script, write a synopsis, and then pen an assessment. Ray Morton shares four main elements a synopsis must present and why it pays off to put in the work to make your screenplay structurally sound to avoid a PASS from a reader.

When covering a screenplay for a studio or a production company, the analyst’s brief is to read the script, write a synopsis, and then pen an assessment.

I’m fine with reading the script. And I’m fine with penning the assessment. But I hate writing the synopsis. Absolutely hate it. I hate it so much that I have actually turned down certain assignments because I couldn’t bear the thought of having to do the precis. I hate it so much that I’ve eliminated it as part of my private screenplay consultations. When I work with a private client, my fee covers the reading of the script and the writing of a detailed assessment, but if they want me to write a synopsis it will cost extra – a lot extra.

Here’s why:

The synopsis in a piece of screenplay coverage can only be 1 – 2 pages long. Since the average screenplay runs between 90 – 120 pages, clearly a great deal of reduction is required. With so little room to work with, a coverage synopsis can’t be a scene-by-scene summation of the narrative. So instead, the synopsis-writer needs to outline the spine of the story.

To do this, a synopsis must present four main elements:

  • The story’s premise: a synopsis must clearly lay out the primary conceit of the story
  • The story’s structure: a synopsis must clearly lay out the story’s beginning, middle, and end and include all of the necessary dramatic elements – the inciting incident, the End-of-Act I plot turn, the End-of-Act II reversal, all major plot points, the key set pieces, the climax, and the resolution.
  • The story’s logic: the synopsis must clearly lay out the cause-and-effect of the narrative’s progression: how Plot Point A leads to Plot Point B; how Plot Point B leads to Plot Point C; and so on. It must also lay out the basic rules of the narrative’s specific world and how the story unfolds in accordance with them.
  • The story’s focus: the synopsis must convey how all of the narrative’s plot points are related to the story’s premise.

[MEET THE READER: Five Questions to Ask (and Answer) Before You Start Writing]

In order for the synopsis-writer to present these elements, they must be clearly discernable in the screenplay. Unfortunately, in many specs by new writers (and in quite a few by seasoned scribes) these are exactly the elements that are often not clear:

  • Inexperienced writers will often come up with a basic idea for a movie and then think of a number of different premises that could be used to dramatize that idea. A properly conceived and constructed dramatic narrative can only have one premise, but newbie writers – unwilling to kill any of their darlings – will try to cram all of their premises into the same script. And when they do, the result is an unfocused narrative that tries to service so many core concepts at the same time that it can often be impossible to determine what the story is supposed to be about.
  • Also, new writers tend to focus on scenes and sequences rather than overall construction, so the narrative line can often be rambling, confusing, or (sometimes) incomprehensible. In addition, many aspiring screenwriters these days are over-enamored with gimmicks – especially non-linear narrative. Too many young writers forget that a story still needs to have a clear beginning, middle, and end, even if they are presented out of order or in fractured fashion. 
  • Finally, new writers often have a lot of trouble with story logic. They can do a decent job of setting down all of their narrative’s main plot points, but then have a hard time connecting those plot points with a believable and understandable cause-and-effect that allows them to add up to a coherent whole at the end.

If a script lacks a clear premise and/or a well-constructed story and/or a narrative focus and/or narrative logic, I have to create all of those things in order to write a coherent, compact synopsis.

[MEET THE READER: How to Fix Your Story - Digging in the Wrong Place]

And so I end up having to do the work the script’s writer either couldn’t or didn’t do. And I don’t want to do that. Because it’s hard – really hard (which is why the writer either couldn’t or wouldn’t do it). And it takes a long time (I can usually write an assessment in an hour or two, but then have to spend many hours and sometimes even a day or two to craft a decent synopsis from one of these spineless screenplays). And to be honest, it’s not worth it -- I get paid by unit of coverage, not by the amount of time it takes to write that coverage. So I will earn the same amount of money for crafting a synopsis for an incoherent screenplay as I do for crafting a synopsis for a coherent script. And it’s not that much money, so it’s simply not worth it.

Ultimately, this all boils down to something one of my fellow analysts once said about this situation: “I don’t want to work harder on your story than you have.”

As always, there are no shortcuts. Creating a strong, focused, and logical narrative structure is really hard work, but it must be done (because -- as far as I’m concerned – a solid story structure is the single most important element of a viable screenplay). And the writer is the person who must do it. If you find this to be a difficult or an intimidating prospect, then don’t be afraid to get help from a teacher, a collaborator, or a consultant. Just don’t leave it up to a reader or analyst to make your story understandable, because if you do I guarantee it will just tick them off and a ticked-off reader is the quickest route to PASS.

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