You may hear this word a lot, but don't let it scare you. A plot point is basically a major challenge, success or reversal, an incident that moves the story in a new direction. Ideally there should be a major plot point midway through the first act (the inciting incident, i.e., that moment that starts the ball rolling, when the main character takes a lifealtering turn), at the end of each act, midway through the film, and at the climax of your story. These will correspond roughly to pages 10-15 (the inciting incident), 30 (first Act turning point), 60 (mid-point), and 90 (second Act turning point).
I say roughly because each screenplay is different, and a major reversal may occur five to ten pages earlier or later than indicated above. Suffice to say, however, that if you haven't established what this screenplay is about, who the main character is, and what direction the story might be moving in, by page 10, most agents and executives will read no further. Many will stop reading by page 2. Fortunately for you script readers, who usually read the script before it gets to the agents and executives, have no choice but to read on, since part of their job is to write a synopsis of your script. But even here, if the reader is turned off by page 10, your script is not going to get a "consider," much less a "recommend."
Now back to your working synopsis. Any working synopsis should include all of the major plot points of the story - without these, you won't have enough information to
begin imagining, much less writing, the scenes to your movie. And while plot points can change during the writing process, and you may eventually decide to take a different road leading to your goal, you've got to start with what you think is the right route to begin your journey.
Before we get started on the exercises that will help you write the synopsis to your screenplay, let's take a look at a synopsis of A ROYAL PAIN below, with plot points and act breaks highlighted. Viewing this on screen, pointing your cursor at the highlighted sections, will bring up the commentary (there is no commentary in the printout).
Since I never save my initial, sketchy, one and a half page handwritten synopses, this is the "after screenplay" synopsis. Please note that it is far more detailed than the "before screenplay" working synopsis needs to be; but it should give you some idea of the level of detail you'll need as you work out your story. I've included the pitch (a combination of the premise and the synopsis) just so you can see how many different ways there are to tell this story. Please note that this "pitch" is suitable to a query letter, or online submission. The "premise" is what I would pitch in person, leaving out all additional detail unless asked for more, so that the executive asks for the screenplay.
This particular screenplay, by the way, got me meetings at major companies at Paramount and Twentieth Century Fox, including Lynda Obst Productions (Sleepless in Seattle, What Women Want) and Deep River Productions (Dr. Doolittle, Big Momma's House). So, you see, your story doesn't need to be brilliant or profound; it does need to be a good example of your writing, consistent with the genre, with great characters, plausible but unpredictable plot points, and, above all, well told.
Also note that this particular story is based on someone else's novel. In this case, I optioned the novel; if you are using someone else's material, whether a personal story, a news article or a published work, you must get that person's permission, in writing. More films are based on already published material than on original screenplays, so don't shy away from this approach - as long as you've cleared the legal hurdles first.
A ROYAL PAIN
By Sandy Eiges
Based on the novel by Ellen Conford
A ROYAL PAIN is a "Clueless In A Castle" - type comedy about an American teenager, chafing under her mother's rules, who learns she was switched at birth - and that she's really the princess of Arcania, a tiny European country.
ABBY, 16, chafes at the restrictions of teenage life, and thinks she's old enough to be a free agent. So when she learns that she was switched at birth, and is actually the princess of a tiny European country called Arcania, her wish seems granted. POTTER, a State Department underling, wants her to sign a deal before she goes, but royal advisor MADAME DANTON nips that in the bud. And Danton prevents her mother from coming to Arcania with her - outsiders are allowed into the country once a year, during the Glockenspiel Festival. Abby is officially on her own...
...and a princess to boot. With a fabulous castle, and the gorgeous COUNT VAYIZMIR, 20, dying to meet her, she can ignore how quaint and backward Arcania seems, with its goats and glockenspiels. She wants nothing to do with GEOFFREY, 18, the mild-mannered reporter cum rebel leader trying to warn her all is not what it seems. Instead she plunges into a royal life, including her dotty royal parents, and the loopy dethroned PRINCESS DOLORES, 16. Danton is a pain, she can't seem to find a phone, but then it's the night of the ball, and she finally gets to meet Vayizmir. But the minute he opens his mouth she knows she's in trouble - it's not just the cubic zirconium in his tooth, or that he's so creepy he makes her skin crawl. It's that he thinks they're engaged to be married -on her 16th birthday, in two weeks, at the Glockenspiel Festival.
Now she needs her parents, fast, but there are no phones anywhere in Arcania. Her new parents are no help - Arcania is bankrupt, and needs Vayizmir's money. She turns to Geoffrey, and they incite the lederhosen-clad teenagers in rebellion. But instead of getting Abby thrown out of the kingdom, the king and queen enjoy it. Nothing left but escape, with the intrepid Geoffrey leading the way, Danton and her guards on their tail. They make it as far as the forbidden Black Sludge Forest; but Danton captures them, throwing Geoffrey in the dungeon and keeping Abby prisoner until the wedding.
Abby hatches a plan to get Dolores back on the throne. But she needs Geoffrey, in his reporter guise. Dolores helps Geoffrey escape. But it's already the day of the festival, and Danton's guards are patrolling the borders. Potter, and Abby's parents, manage to sneak in. When Geoffrey, battling Danton's guards, doesn't show, Abby creates a diversion -and reunites with her parents, fleeing for the border. Just then Geoffrey arrives with his newspaper article claiming that Abby is a fake. Danton is furious - how did they find out? Now it's the royals who are furious; Danton confesses her plan to get rid of Dolores, reveal Abby as a fake and take over the kingdom.
But Abby doesn't feel right leaving Dolores to marry Vayizmir. She corners Potter, uncovering the real reason for his interest in Arcania - the black sludge is oil. Danton's been keeping them in the Middle Ages, but they have what they need to enter the modern world, and Dolores doesn't need to marry for money. Impressed, the royal family offers her Danton's job. One look at Geoffrey, and, despite her parents' protests, Abby knows she's really ready to be on her own, and decides to stay in Arcania, after all.
Something you may have noticed is that, in writing the synopsis, I -
TELL THE STORY, INSTEAD OF TELLING ABOUT THE STORY.
I can't emphasize this enough - one of the dead giveaways of a new writer is that they don't tell the story, they tell you about the story. This is a variation on the tried-and-true rule of all fiction writing: show, don't tell.
The synopsis should read like a short, short story, told in the present tense. It should not read as an explanatory statement of your intentions, or why the reader should read/love/buy your screenplay. While no one is going to see your initial synopsis but you, your writing group, teacher or script consultant, it's still a good idea to get in the habit of writing the synopsis as if you're already telling the story; and, as I mentioned earlier, you will need to have a more polished version of the synopsis once you've finished your screenplay, to use as a marketing tool. In any case you should get use to writing in the present tense - there is no room for the past tense in a screenplay. Get used to writing what we can see on screen, which must be described in the present tense, even if it's about an event that occurred in the past.
Before you start writing your synopsis, let's make sure that you understand what the shape of a screen story looks like.
Rent your favorite film, in whatever genre, and identify, in writing, what the plot points are, and when they occur (10 minutes, 30 minutes, etc.). Now go out to see a film in current release, and try to identify the plot points, without having the luxury of stopping and rewinding the tape.
Once you are comfortable with the way plot points work within the context of a story, you can move on to writing your own synopsis.
There are many different ways to approach this, but here's one that works for me. This is going to take some time, so be prepared to set aside at least an hour or two. And while this may feel like way too much work to do, just to prepare for writing a synopsis, it will pay off in giving you a much broader and deeper knowledge of your characters. Think of this as a way to write a character bio.
First, answer the following questions, in writing, for your hero. Later on, with less detail, you should answer the same questions for all of the other main characters, including your chief antagonist (the villain). Every character in your story should have a story of his or her own, although the hero's story will be dominant, and his or her point of view will shape the direction of the synopsis.
1. What exactly does your hero want? What does he think he needs (his outer need)? What is his inner need? In TOOTSIE, for example, Dustin Hoffman thought he needed a job (his outer need), and his acting on that starts the story off in a particular direction. But what he really needs (his inner need) is appreciation and love.
How does the hero get a chance to go where his goal can be won? If he's a "reluctant hero", what makes him finally try to get what he wants? This stage is the "call to adventure," and critical in setting up the hero's motivation and his limitations.
3. Does the hero move toward his goal? How? At this point he may also meet potential allies or a mentor - forces that help him overcome fear. There may be a surface appearance here of the hero achieving his goal.
So, for example, Luke Skywalker wants to leave his uncle's farm, but is unwilling to defy his uncle and go off with Obi-Wan Kenobi to save Princess Leia - until he finds his uncle's farm destroyed, his relatives toast. Now he is as free as he said he wanted to be -or so it appears, until it's clear that a larger goal looms.
4. What happens to change the hero's goal, from his own to another, larger goal? The intrusion of a new goal, i.e. love, or saving humanity, is the first threshold that the hero crosses on his way to his goal.
5. What, or who, prevents him from getting what he wants? What tests and enemies will he have to battle? Why those particular tests and enemies - how do they relate to the hero's goal?
6. What choice does the hero make under pressure?
At this point there should be a profound conflict between the original goal and the new goal, the original loyalty and the displaced loyalty. We want to see the hero be a hero, and make the seemingly selfless choice. (Of course in the end the hero will get what he wants—he just doesn't know that at this point).
7. In the second half of the second act, the hero descends into the unknown, dealing with his fears, facing his "shadow", or "monsters," literal or metaphorical. In this part of the script, usually somewhere between pages 50-80, the hero experiences a "dark night of the soul," where everything comes into question and he's consumed by self-doubt, leading to -
8. The hero hits bottom by the end of the second act, when his conflicting loyalties, to the old and new goals, drives the hero far from either. In other words, he appears to have lost. Or, if it looks like he's vanquished his demons and gotten what he wants, something else happens to pull the rug out from under him.
9. Is he willing to risk death to get what he wants? The events that occur force him to make choices that are the only choices he can make, but by which he'll appear to lose everything. This is the climax of your film—with no certainty of success, in fact with certainty of failure, the hero risks everything. This is where the hero tells the truth (literal, emotional or spiritual), and takes the consequences.
10. What does the hero win? He has to somehow win both the inner goal and outer goal. There needs to be a visible change in our hero from the beginning of the film, in appearance, actions, behaviors.
A great example of this is ROMANCING THE STONE, where we meet Joan Wilder in the beginning as a shy, disheveled writer of romantic fiction, who, by the end of her journey, turns into the kind of heroine she writes about - with a life full of lust and love and adventure.
11. The hero brings healing to the ordinary world he lives in. Think about your theme, this is where it becomes clear what all the storm and fury is really about.
In short, we need to see our hero fighting all odds to achieve his goal. We need to see him in almost every scene, if this is truly going to be his story. We need to see that, although he may have started out with a self-serving goal, by the end he may have a larger goal for the good of the group (or community, or loved one, or world), and by acting on this will achieve both a personal and a new, larger goal. Yes, even in AMERICAN PIE, our intrepid hero has an inner and outer goal, and achieves his outer goal of getting laid for the first time, the night of the prom; and an inner goal, of going from boy to man.
Now, write your synopsis, using your hero's story as you outlined it in your answers to the above questions. It should be simple, and not more than one or two pages.
Simple, right? If not, and you are still having trouble writing a synopsis, here's another, more playful, approach.
Turn your movie idea into a fairy tale, by:
1. Beginning with "Once upon a time..."
2. Give each major character a name, in capitals, even if it's only "The Villain," or "The Handsome Prince."
3. Exaggerate the events that occur in the story.
4. Make up what people look like.
5. Make up some dialogue.
6. Use as many descriptive words as possible to describe the characters and their behavior.
7. Now get rid of the "once upon a time," put the story in the present tense, and try to edit the story down to 1-2 pages, at most.
By now you should have some kind of a synopsis to work with, so let's take this one step further. Take a close look at your synopsis, and see if it has a premise, whether the story is told visually, whether there are sufficient possibilities for action to keep the story going forward, whether there is a main character who drives the action forward, whether there is a person or a situation that keeps presenting obstacles to the hero, and so on. Does your character have at least three clearly identifiable character traits (brave, honest, innocent, for example), of which one is his fatal flaw? The clearer you define your character to begin with, the more compelling that character will be.
Now see if you can write what is called a log line for the script - a one-sentence summary also known as the premise, something that, until now, you may have thought of as "the idea." Is this the same movie you thought you were writing? Does it still have the same premise? It might not, but that's okay. Screenplays always do seem to take on a life of their own.
Now what do you do? You've got a synopsis, you may even have a log line, but you're still a long way from having a finished screenplay. There are those who will tell you that you can just start writing from here - in fact, there are those who will tell you not to even bother with a synopsis, and to just start writing, stream of consciousness style, just to get something on paper. This is not an effective or efficient way to write a screenplay, and will practically insure that, without knowing where you're going and how you're getting there, you will have to write draft after draft, wandering in the wilderness.
But once you have a synopsis, why not start writing? Isn't the synopsis a map? Yes, it definitely is, in the sense that it tells you where you are going to begin and end, with perhaps a major landmark or two along the way. But the synopsis is more like a topographic map, and what we need here is a road map. So, in order to get that road map, I recommend using one of two approaches, as I mentioned earlier:
• the synopsis/outline/index card/screenplay approach; or
• the synopsis/treatment/screenplay approach.
There are pros and cons to each approach, and some writers will use them all before actually starting on the script - synopsis, outline, treatment, index cards, or synopsis, outline, index cards, treatment. (I never said this was going to be easy). Although having so much information already on paper makes writing the actual screenplay a much less daunting task, using a synopsis, outline, index cards and a treatment is overkill, in my opinion.
The outline/index card approach is tried and true; I've never met a screenwriter who didn't use index cards at some point in their career. This approach also has the advantage of allowing you to try out different places for the same scene; and ultimately giving you a working outline. In doing work for hire, in either writing an original script or a rewrite or book adaptation, many producers will want to see an outline (also called a "step outline") before giving you the go ahead on starting the script. Fortunately, I've never had a producer who insisted on seeing an outline, since my own outlines are completely handwritten and indecipherable to anyone but myself, written in what I can only describe as "the writer's trance."
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