To convince an agent or publisher your manuscript is one they should pay attention to, you need to have a great synopsis.
Specific guidelines may vary, but as a rule of thumb, a synopsis is a one-page, double-spaced description of your entire story. It should be about 450 words. The goal is to give your reader the “big idea” of your story.
What Goes into a Synopsis
You should include the beginning, middle, and end of your story. You must give away the ending, otherwise, the synopsis is incomplete. This document is typically read by agents or editors, so you have to lay all your cards on the table.
That said, you should NOT include every plot twist and turn. Even if there are multiple subplots, you should focus on the main storyline and exclude B and C plots that aren’t as important.
Writing a good synopsis is challenging. You know your story inside and out; it’s tough to be objective about what to include and what to leave out.
Writing a Great Synopsis
Susan Dennard, a novelist and former marine biologist, penned one of the best articles I’ve ever encountered about writing a one-page synopsis. She describes the 11 key moments that should be plucked from your manuscript and included in a synopsis.
1. Opening image
Begin with an image, setting, or concept that sets the stage for the screenplay to come.
It can set the tone. It can set the place. It can give us a clue about whether we’re in the present, the past, or the distant future. The opening image should only be about a sentence long.
2. Protagonist introduction
Introduce your hero with one or two descriptive words and say what they want.
This answers the question of who we’re following in the story. What are they like? And more importantly, what do they want? What they want becomes their goal. Their goal shapes the rest of what’s to come.
3. Inciting incident
Include the event, decision, or change that spurs the protagonist to take their first meaningful action.
This jumpstarts the story. It’s a moment out of the ordinary, where the protagonist does something (or something happens to them) that kicks off the beginning of your tale.
4. Plot point 1
Describe the act or decision the protagonist makes at the end of Act 1 that changes the story’s direction.
This is the most important thing that happens in Act 1. It commits the protagonist to the path, and there’s no going back. It’s the point of no return.
5. Conflicts & character encounters
Describe the initial struggles your protagonist faces on their journey.
This is where you introduce the antagonist (if they’re not already onstage) and describe what’s happening around the protagonist.
Describe the change your protagonist undergoes in the middle of the story that alters the direction they’re heading.
This is the middle of your synopsis and the middle of your screenplay. The midpoint is pivotal in terms of the emotional state of your protagonist.
7. Winning seems imminent, but…
Include the moment where it seems your protagonist will triumph, only to be defeated by the antagonist, who it turns out is stronger and more powerful than ever before.
In this moment, the protagonist thinks they’re about to win, but then everything goes wrong. The antagonist is able to defeat the protagonist in this moment.
8. Black moment and epiphany
Describe the protagonist’s lowest moment and how they fight through their emotions, realize their flaw, and change.
The protagonist’s epiphany is the key to their emotional journey. With this new realization in hand, they are able to create a plan to defeat the antagonist.
Briefly describe the final showdown between your protagonist and antagonist.
Your protagonist takes action that causes the defeat of the antagonist. This is the moment of highest tension, but can probably be summed up in just a couple of sentences.
Describe how things wrap up.
This is where you’ll answer the question of whether or not everyone lives happily ever after. What happens to tie up all the loose ends?
11. Final image
Describe the final image you’ll leave readers with that shows how the protagonist feels after being changed along their journey.
This mirrors the opening image and describes the takeaway audiences will get from your movie.
Example: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)
(Opening image) A boy sleeps in the closet under the stairs at Number 4 Privet Drive, a quiet and, above all, ordinary neighborhood. (Protagonist introduction) Harry Potter, an orphan around whom extraordinary things often happen, dreams of escaping his draconian Aunt and Uncle.
(Inciting incident) A few days before his eleventh birthday he receives a letter. His Uncle steals it. Soon, hundreds of letters a day pour into the house, all delivered by owls. The family takes refuge in a leaky cabin on the coast and, the night before Harry’s birthday, he makes a wish.
(Plot point 1) An enormous bearded giant knocks on the cabin door. He tells Harry he’s a wizard and he’s been accepted at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, which he’ll attend like his parents before him. Harry can’t believe he’s really a wizard⏤ a famous wizard!
(Conflicts & character encounters) Harry goes to Hogwarts, making friends and enemies. He discovers new wonders: ghosts, moving staircases, and a mirror that shows his heart’s desire. Yet his celebrity makes things difficult until he discovers a talent for Quidditch, a sport played on broomsticks.
All that sullies Harry’s new life is Professor Snape, the brooding and spiteful potions master.
Harry and his two best friends discover the locked door in the forbidden corridor houses a monstrous three-headed dog guarding a trapdoor.
(Midpoint) Harry is nearly killed during a Quidditch match by a faulty broomstick. Did Snape curse it? His friends think so because they believe Snape is trying to steal the powerful Sorcerer’s Stone, which lies beyond the three-headed dog.
(Winning seems imminent, but…) Harry tries to tell the headmaster Snape is planning to steal the Stone and give it to Voldemort, the dark wizard who killed Harry’s parents. But no one will listen.
(Black moment and epiphany) Harry must stop Snape himself.
(Climax) He and his friends get past the dog and go through the trapdoor. They navigate a series of obstacles but Harry must enter the final chamber alone. Inside, he finds the stuttering Professor Quirrell, puzzling over the mirror. He can’t get the Stone out of it. He unwraps his turban and reveals Voldemort’s face. Harry looks in the mirror and the Stone falls into Harry’s pocket. Voldemort tries to take it, but Harry’s skin burns him. Harry holds on to Voldemort until Harry passes out.
(Resolution) He wakes in the hospital wing, the headmaster at his side. Voldemort escaped but didn’t get the Stone. The headmaster gives Harry some answers about his past but won’t reveal all. Harry suspects he’ll see Voldemort again.
(Final image) The school year ends and Harry must return to Number 4 Privet Drive, spending the summer holidays away from his new friends. But at least this time he has something up his sleeve: magic.
Word Count: 443