Screenwriting Advice From The Past: Story Synopsis

May 27th, 2012 by

If you are a screenwriter, you should know about Anita Loos. Loos was one of the most influential writers in the early stages of American cinema, associated with 136 film projects per IMDB.

Married to writer John Emerson, the pair wrote one of the first books on screenwriting in 1920: “How to Write Photoplays”. In Chapter VIII: The Synopsis [P. 30-32]:

The first step in preparing a photoplay is to put it into plain English telling the entire plot in from 500 to 1,500 words. This is called a synopsis.

Put down your title. Follow this up by a description of the type of play comedy farce or tragedy. Put down a cast of characters. And then tell the story as briefly and clearly as possible. If there is a theme it is well to state it before starting the plot.

When you have finished putting your story in synopsis form rewrite it. And then rewrite it again in more detail. You will find that your plot has a tendency to expand each time you rewrite it. New ideas will constantly occur to you.

While there are differences between a ‘synopsis’ of yesteryear and a ‘treatment’ of today, notice all the similarities: Title, Genre, Characters, Theme. Those elements are pretty much innate to selling and writing a story.

But of special note, two items worthy of takeaway:

* “Tell the story as briefly and clearly as possible”: Whether it’s a logline [“Concise, concise, concise”], a treatment or a pitch, stripping down a story to its core essence is essential in the selling process. Buyers do not have time to listen to a pitch or read a story summary that is the equivalent length of your actual story. Moreover there is enormous value for a writer in zeroing in on central narrative elements of a story because that forces you to engage the story at an existential level: What are you really about? You can carry this understanding with you as you develop and write your story.

* “Rewrite it. And then rewrite it again”: Evidently the idea that ‘writing is rewriting’ goes back at least 90 years. The fact this perspective has survived for that long suggests its inherent truth.

By the way, I teach a 1-week course through Screenwriting Master Class called Story Summaries that covers logline, synopsis, breakdown, treatment, scriptment and beat sheet. I will be teaching it again in the fall.

Next week, more advice from Anita Loos and John Emerson.

If you live in the U.S., you can read “How to Write Photoplays” via Google books online here.

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