The Screenwriter's Toolbox Part II: Synopses and treatments
July 28, 2021
In part one of this series, we discussed loglines and pitches. A logline is a summary, in a few sentences, of your concept and a pitch is a verbal rendition of your script, given perhaps to a producer or film executive. I mentioned how both of these are in a set of marketing tools that every scriptwriter should have for every script.
Synopses (the plural of synopsis) are essential to that process and part of that toolkit. They are one to two-page summaries of a script that has been written or perhaps one you may write, either for yourself or another. They provide a producer or exec with an easy way to see if they want your work or not and, as such, are essential to get right.
Teaching students to write effective synopses is a great classroom exercise since it involves prose rather than traditional scriptwriting. Language, verb choice, and storytelling all play into a solid synopsis since prose rises and falls on these concepts. It’s good to teach all this tangential to scriptwriting. Our script narrative skills, also being prose, can always use improvement. Tight, effective narrative makes a good script even better.
Although it’s a creative endeavor, it’s also heavy on organization and narrative flow, which are less about creativity in story and more about how to stack the high points while still keeping it entertaining. This is good for students (or anyone) to get better at, since any story can use solid organization. If you read (or write) a good synopsis, you’ll know it; it will flow and fully engage you. What else is storytelling about, if not that?
Before we go too much further, let’s look at a feature of Final Draft that can really help any writer and has a direct impact on our discussions.
Templates have been included in Final Draft since Final Draft 8, built right into the program. Click File > New from Template to access the built-in ones.
If you go here you can download a whole lot more of them, including one by this author in the Educational folder. Most will run in any version of Final Draft (9, 10, 11, 12).
Once downloaded (and unzipped into a folder), you can click File > Open, navigate to the unzipped folder, and choose a template.
The one for Bones, for example, (which is no longer in production) shows the format the show used, which was TEASER, ACT 1-4, etc. It’s a simple way for you to figure out what any TV show might require and the geniuses at Final Draft update them frequently.
But besides production templates, in Educational is Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. There is also Pen Densham’s template, New York Film Academy’s Comic Book, etc. Under Standard, there are templates for treatments, bibles, outlines, query letters, the list goes on. Check them out. These are truly amazing resources included for free as part of Final Draft’s license.
These templates can be shown to students (or used yourself) to help create many of the concepts we’ll discuss here and in subsequent articles.
Entire books could be written on just these templates but for a solid overview, click here.
We’ll reference these templates as we go through this series so it helps to have at least a cursory understanding of them as we move on.
The elements of a good synopsis
Most synopses should be no more than one to two pages. Telling an entire script story in a few pages is a good challenge to have. How much do you put in to get the sense of both story and character? How much theme? An appropriate balance based on the work is necessary. Do you tell all or leave the reader hanging? (Not a good idea, by the way.)
Action films normally don’t have as much theme or character exploration as say, a drama. Pieces of a Woman has plot but not like Tenet or Black Widow has plot, so a synopsis on any of these movies would be approached and delivered a bit differently. Moonlight is episodic drama. Telling that story in synopsis requires a whole lot of the main character.
In the article on loglines, I set forth this logline formula:
_____ (title) is a _____ (genre) about a___________ (description of flawed hero) who after ____________ (event that changes everything), wants to/must/struggles to (circle one) __________ (outer goal) by ________ (plan of action) before ____________ (dire things will happen). This becomes increasingly difficult because _________________ (obstacles & complications).
If we took each individual element of that logline formula and used it to guide us on writing a synopsis, it would be a solid way to do it since we could be sure each element is covered and give us a framework to follow.
Let’s flesh out a synopsis based on the logline formula. This is just an example I created, not particularly original.
The Lazarus Revenge by Mark Sevi
The Lazarus Revenge is about (name of flawed hero), a cop, who, after the death of his wife (event that changes everything) by the hands of a criminal mercenary group, falls into a pattern of drinking and drugs.
His work suffers. He is fired from the SWAT team and becomes even more self-destructive, ending up as homeless, living on the streets, and himself a petty criminal as he struggles to survive and feed his habits.
One day, (name of flawed hero) sees someone he recognizes — a man he was sure had participated in his wife’s murder. He follows the man and is soundly beaten for his effort. Humiliated as the man he followed laughs at him and covers him in garbage and other things, (name of flawed hero) resolves to quit drinking and doing drugs and he will get back into shape to seek revenge on the men who murdered his wife (outer goal). He will track the men down using the man he recognized as a first step and vows to kill them all (plan of action).
Having no weapons, no resources, and few friends left, he also discovers that he has only months to live because of his drug abuse. After he kills one of them (in a fair fight), the men become intensely aware of him and his plan and decide to take him out first (obstacles and complications). Unknown to (name of flawed hero), his best friend on the police force was the one who was responsible for his wife’s death and is now feeding the criminal gang information on his whereabouts.
I can expand that as necessary and tell a compelling story with both plot and character. The genre itself is spoken of in the title — the revenge part — and in the storyline, which makes it obvious.
Starting with the basics of the logline formula, your students can easily fill in the meat of any story. The logline tentpoles (the stuff in parentheses) give them places to write to.
Other examples abound
Some solid examples of synopses exist online and as mentioned, there are several in the templates section in Final Draft itself and as downloads.
Many examples can also be found on Wikipedia. Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (the original 1977 movie) has a good one that is around 600 words, well within the one to two-page limit that is usual for a synopsis.
In fact, having students take a familiar movie like Star Wars and write a synopsis of it is a great exercise. Writing a “book report” about a movie is a fun and easy way to teach writing and it’s serving more than a few purposes. Limit the exercise in length (word or page count) and perhaps even have the students, using the synopsis, give a verbal presentation as a dynamic class exercise. Lots of simple, creative and engaging things to do here.
Treatments are longer versions of synopses. Famously, James Cameron wrote a 40-page treatment for Terminator. Forty pages of prose is a lot of writing, and at that point I would be writing the script instead — but you can’t argue with success and Terminator remains one of the most incredible films of all time, greenlit because of that amazing treatment.
The story of The Matrix is so complicated that what I heard is that the Wachowski sibs created a graphic novel for producers. That’s still a treatment, despite the format. In other words, a treatment is simply a long-form version of the script you’ve written, or one you’re about to write.
Mostly, treatments are actually about the script you intend to write, though. As mentioned, my first paid script project was for a company that hired me on assignment. As an unproven quantity and non-pro at that time as a writer, they took a huge chance with me. To hedge their bets, they asked for a treatment on the story I pitched verbally. It was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done as a writer. Well, that is until I had to write a series bible. We will cover that nightmare later in this article series.
See, I’m a "pantser" as a writer, not a planner. A pantser writes their stories "by the seat of their pants," rather than by sitting down and planning it all out. That’s held true from day one for me. So writing a treatment; getting into detail on a story, character, theme, etc. that I haven’t written yet instead of discovering those elements as I go along has always been a hard assignment for me.
The reason I mention this is because I would imagine many of your students would also find it difficult. You might want to break any assignment like a treatment down to several sections — plot, character, theme definitions come to mind — before they put it all together.
Use the logline formula. Flesh out to synopsis length. And then get into even more detail for the treatment.
Outlining, mind mapping, etc.
Another way to go to building a treatment, albeit longer, is to outline the story first using beats. We’ll get into beat sheets later, but basically they are high points in the story. The advantage of outlining or doing something like a mind map, both of which use beats, is that you can see holes easily without getting into all the confusion of language, style, etc. You’re putting down one or two-sentence story points. Once these are down, you can then use prose to knit them together.
Here is an example:
- Joe, a treasure hunter, discovers a legendary treasure exists.
- Puts together a team.
- Bad guys become aware of Joe.
- Send assassins.
- Joe’s father is killed by bad guys, which devastates him.
- He goes after treasure (and killers) to honor his father.
Looking at the list, I can see that there are many details I need to fill in, including an establishing beat where we understand how close Joe and his father are. Outlining, mind mapping, index carding (similar to outlining, but on index cards) can all be first steps to a solid treatment. Final Draft has beat sheets (see Beatboard), tips for outlining, and a story map.
I can’t say how long something like this might take, but I think I remember the film company at the time giving me two weeks. That doesn’t seem like anywhere close to what a student might need, so adjust accordingly.
FYI, the Writers Guild of America, West (WGAW) actually has a fee schedule for treatments from $35,000 to $50,000 or more. That doesn’t mean you won’t be asked to do it for free like I was, but it is a recognition that treatments are tough to do and require as much or more creativity as any script. In fact, I think ultra low-budget scripts run about $21,000 — far less than any treatment according to the WGAW fee schedule.
If you work in the book world, any proposal you send to a publisher involves a similar effort so it’s not just film or TV. Speaking of TV, these long-form story forms aren’t called treatments, but bibles. They are even more involved and organized. We’ll cover bibles a little down the road in this series.
Using synopses and treatments for your classes can teach dozens of valuable lessons and create excitement among your students. No one likes homework, but these exercises can be fun! Create teams to create interactivity and collaboration. Your students might not even catch on that they’re learning great storytelling techniques.
Written by: Mark SeviMark Sevi is a professional screenwriter, screenwriting teacher, and podcaster. He is the founder of the Orange County Screenwriters Association.