I just taught a webinar on synopsis writing and one good question I got from an attendee was, "How do I write a synopsis if I have a lot of characters?" Obviously, this is not easy. I mean, how do you write a summary for a story like Love Actually? That would take six pages, right? Not if you do it right. What makes this more difficult is I have always been a proponent of having no more than five character names listed in a synopsis—six at the most. By that, I mean the proper names—the ones you capitalize and focus on.
So after the synopsis webinar, I decided to try my hand at such a synopsis. I decided on Traffic, which is a film I love that has multiple storylines and tons of characters. I got the synopsis down to about 540 words, which I thought was a success. Below read the synopsis and see my analysis in italics as you read.
Traffic involves three stories featuring characters involved in the War on Drugs. The stories sometimes interconnect.
A synopsis can or cannot use an opening establishing paragraph. I rarely write one, but did here to explain that this is a complicated story that jumps between storylines, but everything focuses on one central theme: The War on Drugs.
In Mexico: Tijuana police officer JAVIER RODRIGUEZ stops a drug transport and arrests the couriers. The arrest is interrupted by a high-ranking Mexican GENERAL, who decides to hire the resourceful Javier in a quest to wipe out the deadly Tijuana Drug Cartel.
I called the general "General" because I did want readers to get confused later between the names Javier and Salazar. This simplifies things. Also, you can see here that I immediately decided to cut out mentions of Javier's partner as well as the hitman Francisco Flores. When dealing with stuff like this, just ask yourself: "Does it really matter?" For example: The General hires Javier to take down the Tijuana cartel. That's what matters the most. The fact that Javier's first duty is tracking down a hitman, so the hitman can give up information, and he only does this through torture, and the torture upsets Javier—that stuff does not matter. Stick to big-picture happenings.
In Ohio: ROBERT WAKEFIELD, a conservative state judge, is appointed to head the President's Office of National Drug Control, taking the title of Drug Czar. In DC, Robert is warned by his predecessor that the War on Drugs is unwinnable. Unbeknownst to Robert, his teenage daughter, CAROLINE, an honors student, has been using narcotics and develops a drug addiction.
You see that I am telling the story prefaced by the location: "In Ohio." This will cut down confusion. I took out the character of Seth (Topher Grace), because, like Javier's partner, you can explain the main plot without them.
In San Diego: An undercover DEA investigation led by federal agent MONTEL GORDON leads to the arrest of a powerful drug lord. The drug lord's wife, HELENA, only now learns of her husband's true occupation. Her days go from fundraisers and fine wine to talking to her husband through phones at prison.
There were actually two agents part of the DEA investigation, but since they're a team, just mentioning one (Montel) is as good as both. Also, to avoid another proper name to simplify things, I call Carlos Ayala simply the "drug lord." Helena's story, which has an arc, is much more important to focus on than his.
In Mexico: With Javier's help, numerous members of the Tijuana Drug Cartel are arrested, and the criminal outfit is quickly crippled. But Javier soon discovers the entire anti-drug campaign is a fraud, as the General is wiping out one cartel because he has aligned with another for profit. This deeply disturbs Javier, who, as a rare honest cop in Mexico, has virtually no one to trust.
In Ohio: Robert realizes his daughter is a drug addict and is caught between his demanding new position and difficult family life. He tries to have Caroline rehabilitated, but his attempts fail and she runs away. In the inner city, Caroline steals for money and prostitutes herself to procure drugs.
A lot gets left on the cutting room floor in a synopsis. In this section of the film, Robert heads to Mexico and meets with General Salazar. It's one of the cool points where the storylines cross and Robert's job gets fleshed out, but there's just not enough time to talk about it here. The objective of a synopsis is not to show the cool writing or nifty story ideas; it's simply to lay out your structure.
In San Diego: Helena quickly comes to the grips with her new situation and what it demands. She hires a hitman to kill the key witness against her husband, but the attempt fails, and Montel's partner is killed instead.
In Mexico: Javier, who can no longer stomach working for the corrupt General, makes a deal with the American DEA. Javier's information leads to the General's arrest. Javier enjoys a kids' baseball game in a park at night. The electricity necessary to run the field lights was his desired payment for his testimony, as a way to keep kids out of trouble with gangs.
Javier and the baseball game is actually the final event of the film where the credits roll, but to stick to the flow I've set up, I have to put it here. Ultimately, where an agent reads a novel, they will not be upset or anything if a few events are out of order in the synopsis.
In Ohio: Robert's search for his missing daughter takes him to the ghetto, and he is nearly killed by a drug dealer. His resolve strengthens, and he finds his semi-conscious daughter in a seedy hotel. Robert returns to D.C. to give his prepared speech on a "10-Point Plan" to combat the War on Drugs. During the speech, he falters, then tells the press that the War on Drugs is a war on our own family members, which he cannot endorse. Robert quits his position. He and his wife go to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting with their daughter to support her and others.
In San Diego: Thanks to Helena, a second attempt to kill the key witness succeeds, and the charges against her husband are dropped. Montel visits Helena's home and starts a fight with people as a ruse to plant a surveillance bug in her house. Montel is now optimistic about a future to put the drug lord behind bars for good.
Notice how there were nine paragraphs—three for each storyline, representing the three acts of each story. Each final paragraph shows the climax and the resolution. You'll see that when you cut the number of main characters down to six, telling a complicated synopsis becomes a lot easier.