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InkTip Advice: More on Writing the Synopsis

Some of you may not know this, but Jerrol LeBaron, the guy who founded InkTip, once set out on a long road trip with a writer/director buddy of his to try and get a bill passed in the North Dakota state legislature. And then he turned that whole trip into a documentary, “Fools on the Hill,” which has since gone on to win the Silver Award at the Lake Arrowhead Film Festival and the Jury Prize at the Las Vegas International Film Festival (among others). But this award-winning documentary, and a couple name actors, has still not been picked up for distribution. Because getting distributors to watch a completed film is a lot like getting producers to read a completed script, they want to know what’s in the story first, which means you need a synopsis.

So Jerrol recently asked me to write a synopsis for him, and instead of boring you with the actual conversation, I’ll entertain you with how I imagine it might have gone:

JERROL: Hey buddy, how do you feel about writing a synopsis for me?

JARED: I'm really busy.

JERROL: Doing what...updating your resume?

JARED: *Sigh.* OK, what are the major plot points?

JERROL: What are "plot points," and why are they so major?

JARED: You do realize I'm going to write an article about this and post it on your website, right?

JERROL: What is this "web" of mine, and how did it gain signt?

JARED: I don't even know how to answer that.

JERROL: That's because you painted me as a shallow, two-dimensional character who owns a business, signs your paychecks, produced and starred in a feature-length documentary that managed to be funny despite being about the legislative process, and yet still somehow doesn't know what a plot point is. Maybe instead of attempting something to complex as character development you should stick to simpler tasks, like writing this synopsis.

Of course, imaginary Jerrol was right. Writing a synopsis is indeed a simple task.

So I got the real Jerrol to email me an outline of his story, which I then compared to the list of plot points in my previous article on this subject:

  1. A description of the main character's mundane world.
  2. A main character with a driving need and some personal shortcoming which keeps him or her from fulfilling that need.
  3. An inciting incident.
  4. Some sort of revelation or event which causes your main character to come up with and set a plan in motion.
  5. An awesome antagonist who's going to do everything in his power to stop your hero from succeeding, and an ally or mentor who'll help him or her succeed.
  6. A point where your hero fails, yet learns something about him or herself in the process, and is able to rebound with a new plan.
  7. A much more intense struggle or series of confrontations.
  8. A final confrontation or battle where it appears your hero is losing.
  9. A good explanation as to how your hero wins, against all odds (perhaps some foreshadowing to set this up early in the story?)
  10. Finally, your hero returns to the ordinary world, but he/she was changed by the journey and no longer suffers from the driving need he/she had at the onset.

And then I squeezed Jerrol’s outline into that list:

  1. A world where laws are written by corporations and lobby groups and passed by legislators who don’t read them, i.e. the world in which we all live.
  2. An average Joe-turned businessman who’s still naïve enough to think he can make reality conform to the fantasy political world portrayed in high school civics classes.
  3. He sees a video on youtube of legislators voting for each other, learns of a CA bill that was passed after 65 seconds of deliberation which nearly bankrupted the state, finds that tribal leaders weren’t allowed to sell cigarettes because of “terrorism”, etc., and he gets bothered.
  4. People with household names like Ed Begley Jr. and Dean Cain are also bothered.
  5. The antagonist is the system, the ally is the network of fireworks merchants.
  6. He tries to get some signatures, but realizes he can’t get enough on his own.
  7. He teams up with fireworks sellers, and after a lot of hard work and fast food…
  8. The signatures are invalid.
  9. He doesn’t win, and so we’re still mired in this system.
  10. Back in the real world, messages from the first segment’s interviewees, it’s going to take a lot more than just one man with a clipboard.

And from that, I came up with the following rough draft for a synopsis:

Jerrol LeBaron grew up like the rest of us do, in this high school civics fantasy world where legislators know what’s in the bills they’re passing. But while building the American dream for himself, the truth really began to dawn on him. Bills are being written by corporations, businesses are being crushed under the pretense of national security, legislators are trading votes, and the great state of California in which Jerrol resides is nearly bankrupt because of a law that was passed after a mere sixty-five seconds of deliberation.

Outraged, Jerrol sets out on a road trip to North Dakota. His plan: to get the necessary number of signatures to pass a bill requiring state legislators to actually read the bills before voting on them, and to post the final bills online so constituents can also read them before the vote. He naively thinks he can start in a state with a smaller population, get the signatures himself, and then use the momentum to start getting similar bills passed in other states. But he quickly realizes he won’t be able to get enough votes on his own.

So he teams up with local fireworks merchants to get the signatures. Because people buy fireworks to celebrate American Independence, so where better to find patriotic people than in the checkout aisle of a tent filled with recreational explosives?

He gathers x-number of signatures, but the employees selling fireworks fail to log the signatures properly. And so all that effort that went into getting votes falls apart, and Jerrol returns home broke, grossly out of shape, and wiser than he was when he set out.

We cut to interviews where radio hosts and national personalities summarize the lesson that Jerrol had to learn the hard way: one man can’t change this broken system, it’s going to take a whole movement. But if enough people get this message, it can happen, and therein lies our hope.

If you want to put this into practice, here’s a little assignment for you:

  1. Go to the first synopsis article, copy the list of plot points, and paste them into a new document on your computer.
  2. Copy and paste the phony sample synopsis from that article into the new document as well.
  3. Save it on your computer with a name like “Synopsis Template.”
  4. Next, save it as a new document with a name like “Title of my Script Synopsis.”
  5. Go through the list of plot points and replace them with a sentence or two describing the actual plot points in your script, as I did in the example above.
  6. Next, write a rough draft of your synopsis using those plot points. Try to make it:
    1. Visually similar to the phony sample synopsis, and
    2. As short as possible.

Now do this for all your scripts!

Jared Wynn
Questions? Comments? Connect with me on Linkedin!

Jared Wynn has interviewed thousands of producers, agents and managers about what they're looking for in a script or writer, and he knows a lot about how to successfully market a screenplay.

Written by: Jared Wynn
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