A screenplay synopsis is essentially a one-page pitch for your script. When you go into a pitch session, you may even hear it referred to as a “one sheet.” Not to be confused with the one sheet promo used in film marketing, but both the promo and synopsis are called “one sheets.”
A script synopsis has just one purpose and that’s to get a potential screenplay buyer or film financier to read the material. The venue in which you pitch the script determines the length and depth of your synopsis.
The first and most frequent situation in which you’ll need to use a synopsis is in a cover letter or email. Since a cover letter itself must be no longer than one to one-and-a-half pages, the synopsis here will be an extremely truncated version — usually two or three paragraphs, but sometimes only one.
In this shortened version, word economy is crucial. You want to communicate a sense of time, place, character, story and conflict all in about five to six sentences and make it compelling enough to entice a producer of financier to read the whole script. As an example of how a cover letter synopsis should read, I’ve created one for the highest grossing movie of all time.
4.3 light years from Earth, a jungle paradise holds untold riches for its human visitors. It also harbors unspeakable dangers. Send in the Marines.
Jake Sully, an Earth-born soldier confined to a wheel chair, joins the security faction of an interstellar mining operation. Through cybernetic mind-transfer, he inhabits the agile body of an alien aborigine to run reconnaissance and gain the trust of the planet’s indigenous population. All for the company’s nefarious purposes.
But Jake’s interaction with the natives fosters sympathy for the planet and the beings which the company are destroying. Loyal to a cause greater than himself, Jake, along with a group of like-minded Earth scientists, organizes an uprising that pits alien natives against human war machines for an other-worldly battle of Armageddon.
For a cover letter, you wouldn’t want to go much longer than the above synopsis as you have other things you need to go over in your correspondence.
But everything is covered. A sense of time (the future), place (another planet), character (Jake Sully, the evil company, the natives and the sympathetic scientists), story (it’s Pocahontas meets Star Wars) and conflict (an evil mining company versus a disgruntled employee and his aboriginal wards).
You’ll need to write a longer synopsis when you’ve been invited to make an oral pitch to a producer or studio exec. This is where the one sheet comes in.
Typically, you’ll go into the meeting. Chit-chat a bit. Then you’ll launch into a three to five minute pitch. If the producer or exec has some questions, your pitch might stretch out to ten to fifteen minutes. Either way, you’ll know whether or not the person is interested in your material. She might then ask for a one sheet or you can offer it as you leave.
Another use for the one-sheet-length synopsis is when a producer has bought or optioned your screenplay and is trying to drum up financing for it. The producer will create a business summary that includes the talent attached (actors and director), the estimated budget, the proposed shooting locations, any financing already in play and any distribution deals already struck. It will also include a logline and a one-sheet-style synopsis.
The one sheet tackles everything the cover letter synopsis does, but it goes into much greater detail.
Here is how a one-sheet synopsis for Avatar would go:
On the jungle planet of Pandora, a world over 4 light years from Earth, being human is something akin to life as a rabbit in a lions’ den. Sooner or later, you’re going to be lunch.
That’s why the best way to get around the planet for the newly arrived contingent of humans is either in heavily armored vehicles or as a cybernetic-controlled Pandoran aborigine. Or an “avatar”.
Jake Sully is one such human who assumes control of an avatar. A crippled war veteran, bound to a wheel chair, Jake relishes the opportunity to let his mind helm the body of a nine-foot-tall Na’vi hybrid. But this privilege comes with a price. Employed by the security faction of an interstellar mining company, Jake is offered his legs for the cost of his morality when Colonel Miles Quaritch asks him to infiltrate the Na’vi and gain their trust.
Also working for a team of Earth scientists, Jake, in the body of his avatar, heads into the Pandoran wilds — a place of unimaginable beauty and equally inconceivable dangers. One such danger — a creature called a “Thantor” — separates Jake from his colleagues in a frantic hunter vs. prey chase that ends with Jake leaping over a cliff and down a waterfall.
Unable to reconnect with his team, Jake is forced to fend off the planet’s unending swarm of predators as night falls. It’s an exhausting proposition and Jake’s avatar is only saved from certain consumption by a real Na’vi. A stunning female named Neytiri.
Neytiri, it turns out, had designs on killing Jake herself, but a signal from the Tree of Souls persuades her against it. So she reluctantly allows Jake to follow her into her village where her tribe is also skeptical of the newcomer. He looks like them, but he’s no less a fish out of water. Neytiri describes him as “like a child.”
As Jake’s avatar sleeps in the Na’vi village, Jake himself is allowed to reawaken from the cybernetic control pod back at the mining compound…
I think you get the idea here. You’re essentially summarizing the story in its entirety. Your goal is to reveal enough of the script to pique the reader’s interest, but leave enough out so that they crave story details.
The one thing you don’t want to reveal in your one sheet synopsis is the ending.
So go into depth about the story, character and conflict elements of Acts 1 and 2, but reveal next to nothing about your Act 3. You may want to pose questions for the reader instead.
For example, a few questions you might want to leave the reader with in the Avatar synopsis are: “How will the Na’vi’s primitive weapons fair against the high-tech humans?” “Will Neytiri forgive Jake for the “sky people’s” destruction of her world?” “Will Grace Augustine survive her wounds?”
Pose a variety of questions, but not too many. Again, the goal is to get the producer or exec to pick up the screenplay.
How does the one-sheet synopsis differ from a script treatment?
A treatment is not a story summary, but rather an intricately detailed, plot point for plot point outline of the entire screenplay including the ending. You would never leave a producer or exec a treatment after a pitch.
Treatments run anywhere from 5 pages to 30 pages depending on their use, whereas a synopsis should never go for more than a single page.
While a synopsis is meant to get somebody else to read your screenplay, a treatment is used to either help the writer fasten his story or to provide cliffs notes for a director or producer. And, contrary to a popular myth out there, studios don’t buy treatments from unsold spec writers.