Think about Family Guy, and the character of Buzz Killington. Dude walks into a rockin’ party, opens his mouth, and the air goes out of the room. That’s what I’m about to do when I bring up today’s subject of –hit it, Buzz!—Writing The Killer Synopsis!
Let’s define our terms. Synopsis is not a treatment.
• 3rd person
• Present tense
• Observable behavior (nothing in the head “he thinks—decides—considers)
• Prose Paragraph format
• Limited Dialogue
Approximately 1 page of treatment per 10 pages of screenplay (this, a loose rule as evidenced by James Cameron’s 97 page Titanic treatment)
Think of a treatment as a prose paragraph beat sheet. Broad strokes, multiple pages.
• ONE page (the reason it’s often called a “one-sheet”)
• A pitch to read/sell the story
• Zero dialogue
• Zero secondary characters or subplots
• Zero backstory
• Hold to A-Story elements of protagonist and antagonist
Think of the synopsis as a build-out of the logline. You summed up your movie in a logline in 2 lines. Now do it in four paragraphs, a single page. And not just sum up the movie—sell it. Make no mistake, the synopsis is a sales tool.
Often lost in the necessity of economy is that a synopsis should adopt the tone of the movie itself. If it’s a comedy, you had better make them laugh with this single page.
This is why—back before the days I discovered the Church of Micro-Budget, when I needed O.P.M.(other people’s money) it would take me weeks to write a logline and synopsis. I knew I had one shot to sell the money people, from agents on up, and that I had to nail this single page.
But, damn! Boiling down a 100 page script in a single line?! How the hell you gonna do that? It’s actually a revealing workshop, to boil your script down the essence. A-Story, the Mississippi River, Hero’s Journey. Who-Goal-Obstacle: Who is the story about, what do they need/want, what’s stopping them. Do that well, in the tone of the movie, with an eye toward exciting the jaded development guy’s assistant—agency reader—production company toast scrapper—and the rest of the underpaid L.A. set that reads queries for the folks with actual (money) power.
Rather than blather on about the obvious need to keep your synopsis tight as humanly possible, let me show you a couple examples from my own scripts. The first example, Crossroaders, I’ve written about previously. This got Semifinals at Nicholl Fellowship and was a greenlit 5 million dollar movie that ended up never seeing the light of day.
A gifted young con man joins his famous grifter uncle to reform a band of “crossroaders,” attempting the greatest Atlantic City casino theft in history.
Las Vegas, 1965. A group of crossroaders (casino thieves) work a dice switch to perfection. They beat the Cleveland mob’s Desert Inn out of thousands in 15 minutes. Celebrating later, the brothers who lead the gang, Wes and Jack Reed, get drunk and separate, Wes heads to a whorehouse, Jack leaves with Pat Farrell, another crossroader, back to scam the same mob-owned casino. This time they’re caught and beaten. Jack dies. It is a night that changes lives.
Atlantic City, 1978. Entering a casino is Christy Reed, Jack’s son, working the same dice con as his father. Christy is effortless, feeling a “high” in the con, a natural. He seeks his uncle out, the famous grifter now working for the casinos. Wes is shocked to see Christy—having kept him at a distance all these years—the kid is the very likeness of his dead father.
Wes is coming out of retirement, reforming the crossroaders. The target: Arthur “Lucky Nick” Nicorelli, newly hired Head of Security at the Plaza Hotel, formerly of the Desert Inn, Las Vegas—the man who killed his brother. Christy will lead the crew of Vegas con men in taking down the Plaza Hotel and Lucky Nick. They prepare, working the dice switch. Christy may be the best dice mechanic that ever was, impossible to catch. He’s also young, wild, and utterly unpredictable. During a practice run his arm is bumped. Getting into an argument, the dice are revealed and the crossroaders discovered. They flee before arrests but Wes is furious with Christy. Christy isn’t having the father-figure bullshit and splits. The crossroaders’ con looks to be over.
When Christy returns home Lucky Nick is waiting. Taken into a security back room, Lucky Nick dismisses the guards and, as he did with Christy’s father, proceeds to savagely beat him. About to leave him in a puddle of blood, he turns back, taking a blade, and slashing Christy’s hands.
Wes arrives at the hospital to déjà vu, seeing Christy in a hospital bed, beaten within an inch of his life, put there by Lucky Nick. Christy will recover but his hands will never be the same. His days as a crossroader are over. Wes weeps.
About to tell the crossroaders the con is over, one of the crew members shows Wes something new: A “juice deck”—numbers written on the back of blackjack cards where only the thief can see them. Wes is amazed, beginning to plan a con using the juice deck. As Christy recuperates he’s asked to lead the crew and he agrees.
The crossroaders hit the Plaza Hotel. The juice deck is inserted into play. Enter Christy, his once-beautiful hands maimed. Not long after emerges Lucky Nick, knowing Christy can’t any harm with slashed hands at the blackjack table. He searches him nonetheless, and finding nothing, allows Christy to play. Christy wins, and wins, and wins. 70 surveillance cameras, a dozen trained Security men watching his every move: They can’t see the con! A crowd gathers, cheering every huge win. Lucky Nick is losing it, the crossroaders joyous, but Christy is…emotionless. It’s too easy. He asks for new cards, the juice deck thrown out! Christy will play with no tricks. He will beat Lucky Nick straight up. The crowd grows enormous, a crazy intensity leading to a single hand of blackjack that will decide victory or defeat.
This is drama so the appropriate tone is serious, right down to business. You tease—but definitely do not give away the end of the movie—because, again, the whole purpose is to get the Powers That Be to read your movie, and ultimately, to sell it.
Here’s one more example, this one a comedy, my pot movie Nature Boys. This was written pre-medical marijuana and Colorado legalization. The only true life aspect was that yes, I was working in a porno bookstore when I wrote the thing. Too much information, Peditto!
LOGLINE: A master marijuana grower recruits an unlikely duo to guard the mother of all pot fields in the final days of a million-dollar harvest.
SYNOPSIS: Charley and Nick are buried. Working a South Jersey strip club/XXX bookstore they want—no, need—to get out. Hope for escape comes from an unlikely source. They are led, blindfolded, into the deepest, darkest depths of the New Jersey Pines Barons. Taking off the blindfolds they are amazed to find—weed! The Mother of all pot fields! They agree to work for the master grower, who calls himself Ostrich Man.
Ostrich Man has enemies: Cole Ford, a psycho State Trooper nicknamed the “Jersey Devil.” Tony 2-Tons, lower-rung South Philly mob boss with a thing for liposuction. Also in the mix, Ostrich Man’s ex-partner, Mohawk-wearing, nitrous-gas sucking Billy Buzzo. Billy knows the location of the fields. When Trooper Ford presses Tony 2-Tons, Tony presses Billy—betrayals abound.
Charley and Nick learn the ways of the Pine Barons. They become woodsmen, guarding the intricate fields 24/7. By night comes another ritual: Peace-pipe smoking copious amounts of 12th generation Purple Indica. They bond with Ostrich Man, all going according to plan until a mystery ailment fells the master grower. Nick is forced into town for medical supplies, where he is captured and “taken for a drag” by Trooper Ford. Billy Buzzo joins with Tony 2-Tons, the two of them planning to plunder the legendary green grass of Ostrich Man.
With time running out, Charley nurses Nick back to health and concocts a plan to save them. In the no-man’s land of the Jersey Pine Barons comes the showdown: The Jersey Devil, Billy Buzzo, Tony 2-Tons, the Ostrich Man and the Nature Boys…
A million bucks in kind buds ending up in the hands of….?
If you didn’t laugh once, I’m screwed. Why would someone who works in a production company, who has burning eyes from reading 68 synopsis’ before yours, ask to see your comedy if, in this one page, you couldn’t make them laugh? Never going to happen.
I’m on record 876 times here at Script Gods in saying that the best way to beat these readers is not to need their boss’ money in the first place. For those of you who can’t get your script to micro-budget levels, take your time with the logline and synopsis. It’s the first contact the 1% have with you from their lofty L.A. towers. If it’s not written right, it’ll be the last contact, too.