Writing for Television: Nailing the Synopsis by Caren Kennedy

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Caren Kennedy

First published back in 2012, this article is consistently one of the most popular resource pieces from the extensive Writing.ie archive.

Synopsis.  Summary.  Two words capable of striking fear into the hearts of even the most hardened and experienced of screenwriters.  Now why is that?  Because more often than not a writer has less than five minutes flat, sometimes less, to sell an idea complete with storyline, setting and characters.

What happens when you visit a book store?  You cruise shelves and if a cover, title or author’s name catches your eye, you grab the book and scan the blurb on the back.  One of three things happens next.  Either the book gets returned and you move on or, if it seems interesting, if it poses a question you want answered, then you’ll thumb pages and read excerpts. It might even end up coming home with you.

The purpose of the synopsis in television is exactly the same.  It’s what writers use to try and sell their ideas.  For although you may have a clear picture in their head about what your story is all about, unless you can communicate this idea, complete with the storyline, characters and situation, using circa less than 500 sparkling words, then that is exactly where your idea remain … dead and buried in your head.

At the initial pitch, whether in writing or in person, a writer has one minute – two at the outside – to sell an idea.  It doesn’t matter how amazing this idea is, if the writer can’t capture a script editor’s attention, he will never be seduced into reading or listening further.  However, if the synopsis seems interesting, suggests depth, and seems like a practical yet exciting proposition, then a script editor might be enticed into taking the idea further.

To do this, the synopsis should answer some of the possible questions going through a script editor’s mind, such as:

  • What is this story about?  Meaning where is the comedy or drama?
  • What sort of characters are involved?
  • Where does the action take place?
  • How much will it cost to make?
  • Who’d want to watch it?
  • Do I want to hear more?

Distilling an idea into a few short sentences involves re-writing and yet more re-writing.  The language used must be concise, vibrant and evocative.  Every single word must perform a function or be cut.  Ruthlessly.  Newspaper legend Joseph Pulitzer summed up the essence of succinct powerful writing in one 34-word quote:

Put it to them briefly, so they will read it;

clearly, so they will appreciate it;

picturesquely, so they will remember it;

and, above all, accurately, so they will be guided by its light.

Some writers say condensing a complex plot down to few short paragraphs is impossible.  But it can be done. It must be done.  There’s no way round it if you want to make a career out of writing for television.   And the only way to learn is to practise and to keep on practising.

A good exercise to try is after watching a show, be it comedy or drama, write a summary of what happened.  Keep going over it until the summary has that essential ingredient … it tempts the reader to keep on reading.  Read it aloud and if you stumble over a word or a phrase go back and edit.

If doubts begin to creep in as you do this, always remember writing for television is rewriting.  Four Weddings and a Funeral, a Channel 4 co-funded project, went through 17 re-writes before hitting the screen.  It takes numerous edits to achieve clarity in a synopsis without losing the sizzle factor … the thing that spurred you into plonking your bottom down and writing up your idea in the first place.

However, when you get to a point where you can close your eyes and see your story playing out in your head without feeling the need to grab a pen, make changes or explain anything, you’ll have it nailed.

(c) Caren Kennedy

For more about Caren visit her website.

About the author

Caren Kennedy is the co-creator of a TV drama series optioned by JJ Abrams and Warner Bros TV (2007 – 2014) and co-author of ‘Fake Alibis’ (BenBella Books, 2009). She is currently studying for an MA in Screenwriting at the IADT’s National Film School.

In 2015, she won a place on the Red Rock Writers’ Academy where she underwent intensive training in writing for television drama with John Yorke, founder of the BBC Writers Academy. Following this, Caren was commissioned to write for Red Rock (TV3 / BBC / Amazon) in Season 3 / 2016.

She is currently completing ‘Tough Love’, her first screenplay, an extract of which came second in the Linen Press 2015 ‘New Beginnings’ Competition for its “multiple layers, depth, political backdrop, vibrant and rich dialogue”.

Caren is a full member of Writers Guild of Ireland and is represented in the U.S. by Vamnation Entertainment.

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