old typewriter - The biggest synopsis mistake


I see hundreds of treatments and synopses and most have clearly been slaved over by their writers, but there are still half a dozen major mistakes that sabotage them, no matter how good they are in other ways.

For this tip I want to warn you about what is probably the biggest synopsis mistake of all. It’s one that most screenwriters are not even aware of, and solving it is crucial – though not necessarily easy. However, it certainly can be solved, with focus and commitment. And your treatments and synopses will look 100% more professional.

Finding your balance

The mistake is easily spotted once you know what to look for: it’s not ensuring that the treatment follows the same structure as the script. By this I don’t mean that you must include every scene, subplot or dramatic beat. In fact you absolutely must not.

However, what you absolutely must do is reflect the balance of the story – in other words, your three acts must take up roughly the same amount of space in the outline as they do in the final screenplay.

The first and last acts should take up roughly one quarter of the treatment each, with the second act taking up around half.

Try this at home

Now go and look at your own treatments. I thought so. The vast majority that I see spend at least half their length on the first act. That’s the better ones. Some are worse.

I’ve seen two page treatments, such as those sent to the annual Euroscript Screenwriting Competition, in which the first act takes a page and a half! Leaving a third of a page for the second act and (if you’re lucky) a whole three sentences for act three.

The problem with this is that you waste an enormous amount of time setting things up, and leave yourself almost no space to show how you are going to develop the main story and build a satisfying climax.

The reader is left frustrated and uninformed – and that’s not a good way to win over a producer or development executive.

If this is bad, there is one worse case: (the very biggest synopsis mistake) that’s when this kind of treatment actually does reflect the balance of the script – because the script too spends three quarters of its length setting things up and the last 25 pages frantically trying to squeeze in some kind of plot.

Simple but not easy

Either way, this needs urgently to be dealt with. Be ruthless. The problem is almost always a desire to “set things up.” Don’t. The great screenwriters don’t do setting up. They plunge you straight into the story and fill in the gaps later, when the audience is already involved.

All that information you are sure the reader needs to know? She doesn’t. Believe me.

Get straight to the point. Draw the reader in with story and character. Keep it readable and flowing. Make sure the first big turning point happens one quarter of the way in, to allow yourself time to show how strong your second act is going to be.

Then be disciplined again at the end. You need at least a quarter of the length to show how good your climax is.

The idea is simple – but not easy. It takes discipline and professionalism. But it can be done. And your treatments will look so much stronger.