A treatment or a synopsis can be an indispensable tool, both for writing and marketing a screenplay. In this article, we’ll look at the relationship between the treatment, synopsis, summary, logline, scene cards and coverage. A synopsis can be a story guide for writing your screenplay, or be written afterward the final draft as part of your film’s press kit. So, how do you write a good synopsis? First you have to know the basics.
Synopsis vs. Treatment
In many ways Sam Witwicky is like every teenage boy. He’s interested in girls and cars, and bored with school. But that’s where the similarities end. Smart and witty, Sam is destined for bigger things than his peers. When his father agrees to match funds toward his first car, Sam’s excitement quickly turns to disappointment with the purchase of a beater 1976 Chevy Camaro that appears to have a mind of its own. But when the hottest girl in school, Mikaela, needs a ride home, Sam can’t resist, and before long the Camaro steers the two of them together.
That’s only the first paragraph. The entire Transformers synopsis is seven paragraphs, 544 words. If your synopsis is longer than a one page, it’s turning into a treatment. The term treatment came about from when a studio would ask a writer to read a novel the studio had optioned or purchased and to write down how he or she would treat the novel as a screenplay. Treatments are in a short story format and typically about 40 pages long.
Some writers create a treatment to get their ideas quickly on paper, as a first step toward writing the screenplay. In the case of Superman Returns, the treatment was longer than the finished screenplay! Having a treatment is more common in television, where a head writer assigns members of a team to write specific scenes. Having a treatment keeps everyone in the same story. A treatment is not coverage (the story notes written by a production company reader when evaluating a screenplay).
Scene Cards and Step Outlines
An alternative to the treatment is scene cards, typically handwritten on 3x5 index cards. Each story beat in a screenplay is written on one card to represent one scene in the film, representing about two and a half minutes of screen time. For a 100-page screenplay, which is about 100 minutes of screen time, that’s about 40 scene cards. These days, 120-page screenplays seem long. There aren’t so many 120-minute movies anymore.
Here are the first five scene cards from my latest screenplay, the martial arts comedy Book of Z:
1) Los Angeles Koreatown - Night: Lot, carrying The Book of Z in his briefcase, is ambushed by Gasso and his henchmen ninjas.
2) Max’s Apt. - Night: Max yells out the window, “Leave that old man alone!”.
3) Koreatown - Night: Max races to fight and touches The Book. Gasso scared away by fire engine.
4) Max’s Apt. - Night: Lot washes up. Max phones Lot’s suspicious daughter Nichi.
5) Palace of Tae Kwon Do - Night: Gasso rallies ninjas, “Attack!”
If you type your scene cards as one document, like the above, it becomes a step outline.
Summaries and Loglines
Every film needs a one-paragraph summary. Here’s an example of a summary, again from Transformers:
For centuries, two races of robotic aliens – the Autobots and the Decepticons – have waged a war, with the fate of the universe at stake. When the battle comes to Earth, all that stands between the evil Decepticons and ultimate power is a clue held by young Sam Witwicky. An average teenager, Sam is consumed with everyday worries about school, friends, cars and girls. Unaware that he alone is mankind’s last chance for survival, Sam and his friend Mikaela find themselves in a tug of war between the Autobots and Decepticons. With the world hanging in the balance, Sam comes to realize the true meaning behind the Witwicky family motto – “No sacrifice, no victory!”
It can be shorter. Here’s the summary from Beowulf:
In a legendary time of heroes, the mighty warrior Beowulf battles the demon Grendel and incurs the hellish wrath of the beast’s ruthlessly seductive mother. Their epic clash forges the timeless legend of Beowulf.
Even shorter? A one-sentence summary is a logline. Here’s one from Chicken Run:
In this escape movie parody, the hens of Tweedy Farm form an elaborate plan to breakout of their chicken coop prison.
Note the logline set expectations by naming the genre first.
Putting it all Together
We now understand the difference between a logline, summary, synopsis, treatment, coverage, scene cards and outline. How does one actually write a good synopsis?
Every screenplay can be thought of as having three acts: a beginning, middle and end. A divide-and-conquer approach to writing a synopsis is to write one paragraph for each act of your screenplay. In an American feature film, the story is typically a reluctant hero’s journey. Say who your hero is, why he’s reluctant, his goal, the obstacles and where his journey will take him. Describe his sidekick (someone for the hero to explain his goal to), love interest, mentor and adversary or nemesis.
Here’s a synopsis I’ve annotated to reveal its structure. This is from Balls of Fury:
[HERO] Down-and-out former professional Ping-Pong phenom Randy Daytona is sucked into this maelstrom when [SIDEKICK] FBI Agent Rodriguez [INCITING INCIDENT] recruits him [MISSION] for a secret mission. Randy is [PERSONAL GOAL] determined to bounce back and [REDEMPTION] recapture his former glory, and to [JUSTICE] smoke out his father’s killer, one of the [AUTHORITY] FBI’s Most Wanted, [VILLIAN] arch-fiend Feng.
[OBSTACLE] But, after two decades out of the game, Randy can’t turn his life around and avenge his father’s murder without a team of his own. [TEAM] He calls upon the spiritual guidance of [MENTOR] blind Ping-Pong sage and restaurateur Wong, and the training expertise of Master Wong’s [LOVE INTEREST] wildly sexy niece [FAMILY] Maggie, both of whom also have a [SECRET] dark history with Feng.
[LOCATION] All roads lead to Feng’s mysterious jungle compound and [BATTLE] the most unique Ping-Pong tournaments ever staged. There, Randy faces [ADVERSARIES] such formidable players as his long-ago Olympics opponent, the still-vicious [NEMESIS] Karl Wolfschtagg. [QUESTION] Can Randy keep his eye on the balls? [QUESTION] Will he achieve the redemption he craves while wielding a paddle? [QUESTION] Is his backhand strong enough to triumph over rampant wickedness?
This complete Balls of Fury synopsis is only three paragraphs long. And, it’s a teaser. It ends on a question rather than explicitly stating the ending.
A synopsis need not take long to write and can save you time when writing your screenplay. It helps you be clear about your story. It can help you decide if you even want to write a particular screenplay. Scene cards or a step outline can also be written quickly, and may help most in the second or third act where writers without a firm idea of their story often get lost. At 40 pages, creating a treatment is a much bigger investment. You need to consider whether you really need it, or whether your synopsis or scene cards are enough to guide you.
One more thing: During a pitch meeting, don’t read from your synopsis or scene cards. Having them with you to refer to can help, but they’re really for you to get your story clear in your own mind first. You should maintain eye contact.