How to Write a Synopsis

By Liternauts posted June 10, 2015

One important step in the script writing process is the synopsis. But before you start writing it, keep in mind that a synopsis can be one of two types – commercial or technical. A commercial synopsis usually appears on the back cover of DVDs as a way to attract the potential viewer’s attention. Unless you want to spoil the story, the commercial synopsis must not include revealing details.

The kind of synopsis I want to analyze in this part of the tutorial is not the commercial one. It’s the technical one. A technical synopsis has two main goals. First, it helps you add clarity to your story because you need to be able to read it summarized in just few words in order to check that the plot makes sense and to identify its weak spots. Secondly, the technical synopsis can also be used if you want to send your work to a script writing contest, a film production company, or someone you want to involve in the project.

You can send the synopsis attached to the script so they can read it first and see if they are interested in the story. It’s a way of making their work easier, and if they like the synopsis, they’ll most probably start reading your script. 

 Now to come to the point – how do you write a technical synopsis?

At the bottom of this article you will find the synopsis of the movie Casablanca

1. Length

Although it can be one and a half pages long in exceptional cases, the ideal length of a technical synopsis is one page (4-6 paragraphs at most).

2. Style

Remember that as a technical document, your synopsis must be well written and interesting to those who read it. In the technical synopsis, the major points of the story must be summarized in such a way that after reading it, one can get a clear idea about it and the effects it’ll cause on the spectator.

3. Structure

The synopsis is the summary of a story, and as such, it must be structured in the same way with an introduction, development, and conclusion.

4. Time

A good rule of thumb is to write the synopsis with respect to the chronological order of the story – even if this order is modified in the script. It is meant to give readers a good overview of the plot and better insight into the story. If the order in which the story is presented is an important aspect of your story (as in the film Memento), you can add a note before the synopsis explaining how you’ll use the resource of story order.

5. Content

The technical synopsis must tell the story from beginning to end (even when the end is a great surprise that will leave everyone speechless). However, you don’t have to explain every detail: remember it’s just a summary.

Nevertheless, you’ll always have to include the setting, the characters and the main plots (and also a subplot if it’s essential to the development of the story).

6. Action

A synopsis is mostly action. Explain what happens, but don’t dwell on unnecessary descriptions or value judgments. Summarize.

7. Characters

Don’t describe the characters. In the event that a character’s traits were very important to understand the story, you can mention them briefly. For example, in Alice in Wonderland, you could write that the protagonist is very imaginative or prone to daydreaming. In this way, anyone who reads your synopsis will understand that what happens in the story is the result of her dreamy personality. Optionally, when you first mention the name of a character, you can write his/her age in brackets: ‘Alicia [7]’.

8. Dialogue

Avoid them unless strictly necessary and, if you have to include them, enclose them in quotes.

Example of commercial synopsis of Casablanca:

In the early years of World War II, the Moroccan coastal city of Casablanca attracts people from all over the world, particularly Nazi-occupied Europe. Many are transients trying to get out of Europe; a few are just trying to make a buck. In this film, the target of the secret police is Laszlo, a renowned Czech Resistance leader who has escaped from a Nazi concentration camp. Laszlo is also Ilsa’s husband. Ilsa is the woman who left Rick and the reason for his bitterness. When Ilsa offers to stay with Rick in exchange for a visa to get Laszlo out of the country, he must choose between his own happiness or the idealism that ruled his life in the past.

Example of technical synopsis of Casablanca:

In the early years of World War II, the Moroccan coastal city of Casablanca attracts people from all over the world, particularly Nazi-occupied Europe. Many are transients trying to get out of Europe; a few are just trying to make a buck. Most of them — gamblers and refugees, Nazis, resistance fighters, and plain old crooks — find their way to Rick’s Café Américain, a swank nightclub owned by American expatriate Rick Blaine.

Ugarte comes to Rick’s with letters of transit he obtained by killing two German couriers. The papers allow the bearer to travel freely around German-controlled Europe, including to neutral Lisbon, Portugal; from Lisbon, it’s relatively easy to get to the United States. However, before the exchange can take place, Ugarte is arrested by the police under the command of Captain Louis Renault, a corrupt Vichy official. Unknown to Renault and the Nazis, Ugarte had left the letters with Rick for safekeeping.

Then the reason for Rick’s bitterness re-enters his life. Ilsa Lund arrives with her husband Victor Laszlo to purchase the letters. Laszlo is a renowned Czech Resistance leader who has escaped from a Nazi concentration camp. They must have the letters to escape to America to continue his work. At the time Ilsa first met and fell in love with Rick in Paris, she believed her husband had been killed. When she discovered that he was still alive, she left Rick abruptly without explanation and returned to Laszlo, leaving Rick feeling betrayed. After the club closes, Ilsa returns to try to explain, but Rick is drunk and bitterly refuses to listen.

The next night, Laszlo, suspecting that Rick has the letters, speaks with him privately about obtaining them. They’re interrupted when a group of Nazi officers that begin to sing a German patriotic song. Infuriated, Laszlo orders the house band to play “La Marseillaise” in honor of Occupied France. In retaliation, nazis orders Renault to close the club.

Later that night, Ilsa confronts Rick in the deserted cafe. He refuses to give her the documents, even when threatened with a gun. She is unable to shoot, confessing that she still loves him. Rick leads her to believe that she will stay behind when Laszlo leaves. But Laszlo is jailed on a minor charge and Rick convinces Renault to release Laszlo, promising to set him up for a much more serious crime: possession of the letters of transit. However, Rick double crosses Renault, forcing him at gunpoint to assist in the escape. At the last moment, Rick makes Ilsa get on the plane to Lisbon with her husband, telling her that she would regret it if she stayed: “Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.”

Major Strasser drives up, tipped off by Renault, but Rick shoots him when he tries to intervene. When his men arrive, Renault informs them that Strasser is dead and covers for Rick by sharply ordering them to “round up the usual suspects.” He then recommends that they both leave Casablanca. Renault, suggesting they join the Resistance, walks into the fog with Rick who says “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship”.


Subscribe to our Newsletter