Writing - The Synopsis
( Originally Published 1922 )
Why the Synopsis is of Paramount Importance.--The photoplay synopsis tells the story of your plot in de-tailed narrative form, generally without the use of- dialogue or useless description; consequently, it is a general view of your story, an abstract or summary of the action.
Not including plot, the synopsis is the most important part of a photoplay. The truth of this statement becomes evident when you remember that, in submitting a photoplay for sale, you send to the editor only a detailed synopsis of your plot and a cast of characters. The continuity, or scenario, is not submitted unless the company to whom you are sending your work specifically gives notice of the fact that they want it included. Fully ninety per cent. of all producing companies have publicly announced that they do NOT want to consider anything but the synopsis. Therefore, when submitting your work for sale, send only the first and second parts of the complete photoplay script. This is all an editor cares to see. If your work is accepted, the continuity will be written in the studio by the producing company's own staff of writers. Rarely, indeed, is work handled in any other manner. And, since your work is either accepted or refused practically on the merit of the synopsis alone, the latter's importance is readily apparent.
Some writers will conclude from the above that an extensive knowledge of continuity writing is not necessary. And they are right. The free-lance writer can sell scripts as fast as he can write them without being an expert in the writing of continuity. But—and this is important—you must have a general knowledge of continuity writing; otherwise, you will be apt to develop many of your plots in such a manner that they will not be salable.
How to Write the Synopsis. Writing a good synopsis, while of paramount importance, is not a difficult matter. You merely present, in regular prose, a crisp, clear, complete outline of your plot—an outline of all the action of your play. Omit all conversation and useless word-pictures. Tell your plot in just as few words as possible. Tell everything, but do not waste words or time in the telling. Leave out all jokes or witty sayings. Don't try to be funny, brilliant, or clever. Be businesslike, for all the editor wants is a comprehensive knowledge of your ;plot. Remember, too, that editors are busy men. Be brief. To know how to condense judiciously, to extract all the juice, without any of the rind or pulp, is just as important to the photoplaywright as is a knowledge of anatomy to the painter.
Do Not Be Too Brief.—But, in cultivating brevity, do not omit parts of your story. Don't say, "While in France, Frank goes through many exciting experiences." You must tell more than that; you must relate briefly the action involved in these "exciting experiences." You are not writing a synopsis when you say, "Frank triumphs over his enemy in a clever manner." Tell how and in what manner he triumphed. In other words, you must describe all the action in your plot—all of the main events—but you must do it in a brief way. So be careful to strike out all repetition and superfluous adjectives and knit long sentences into brief ones.
Write Your Synopsis in a Plain Manner.—A fine literary style is not required to write a synopsis. Simple, common, everyday words are all you need. Many photoplay editors are ordinary people and might not appreciate a fine style anyway. Even more, well-turned phrases are not required. This does not mean that incorrect sentences or misspelled words will be tolerated. Not for a minute. Crude manuscripts receive slight consideration, for most editors take it for granted that they are the work of an illiterate, in-capable of producing worth while ideas. Many excellent photoplays have never found the light, simply because the synopsis was carelessly written.
Use the Present Tense.—Write your entire synopsis in the present tense. Don't say, "Helen made her debut at the Society Ball, and instantly became the center of attraction." Say, "Helen makes her debut at the Society Hall, and instantly becomes the center of attraction." Keep to the present tense all the way through. This is one of the most important things to remember.
A Model Photoplay Synopsis.—Below we reproduce a model photoplay synopsis from the story, "Tol'able David," by one of America's foremost writers, Mr. Joseph Hergesheimer, author of "The Lay Anthony," "Mountain Blood," "Cytherea," and numerous other stories. The following de-tailed synopsis of Mr. Hergesheimer's story, which was published in The Saturday Evening Post, is reproduced with the kind permission of Inspiration Pictures, Inc., who own the film rights to this story, and under whose management Mr. Richard Barthelmess, hero of "Tol'able David," is being starred. This model synopsis is the exact form in which all of your photoplays should be written and submitted for sale.
Lying in the peaceful valley behind three ranges of mountains, is the little hamlet of 'Coldstream. In this place lives the family of Hunter Kinemon, consisting of his wife and their two sons, Allen and David, as well as Allen's wife. It is a family that lives in peace with all mankind. Night finds the father wearied from caring for the farm of Senator Gault, politician, postmaster, and storekeeper; and Allen from driving the mail coach twenty miles each way from the little village to the railroad terminus. David still in the adolescent age of seventeen, but ambitious to appear grown up and fulfill his one desire of succeeding his brother as the driver of the mail coach, is still the baby of the mountaineer mother. To her he is just "tol'able."
The morning breaks beautiful and finds the Kinemon family up early, Allen, assisted by David, doing the chores about the barn. Allen is serious this day because Rose, his young wife, is ill and an important event is expected. David, left alone in the barn, can not resist the temptation to take a plunge in the swimming hole and sport about in the water, while his ever constant dog, Rocket, watches over him. Rocket, though, is mischievously inclined, and makes way with David's trousers. Clad only in his shirt, David pursues his companion, who refuses to stop when commanded.
David is obliged to stop abruptly and seek refuge in a shed, because tripping across the fields towards his house comes Esther Hatburn, his youthful sweetheart, who lives with her grandfather, another peacefully inclined and God-fearing man. Esther is on her way to David's home to borrow some sugar. She wonders what is keeping David hiding in the barn shed door. The sight of David trying to rescue his trousers from his dog makes her surmise what the trouble is.
Allen, counted the strongest man in the county, does not want to leave his wife this day, but duty calls him and he, as well as David, has been impressed with the fact that the United States mail is sacred and must be guarded, if necessary, with his life. David's offer to take Allen's place is treated as a huge joke by the big brother whom David worships. Ever being reminded that he is still a boy, David smarts under this taunting.
But the day that began so beautifully has its cloud which sweeps down upon this peaceful place like the wrath of an avenging storm. It comes in the person of Iscah Hatburn and his two sons, Luke and Saul. No trio was ever so base, so cruel, so lacking in everything that goes to make up men. Escaping from jail, they have been driven from a neighboring state. Luke, vicious and cruel, would have added murder to his other crimes but for the intervention of his father, who prevents him from killing one of the pursuing posse. Saul, the object of the brutality of his father and older brother, is more concerned with being fed.
Iscah Hatburn recalls that he had a relative in those parts, so the worthless trio force themselves upon Esther's grandfather, who is too much afraid of them to deny them hospitality. Esther trembles when she sees this precocious trio of relatives, and the malignant Luke at once covets the sweet and pretty Esther. They take possession of the house.
David's introduction to the vicious trio is due to Rocket chasing Esther's cat. The noise attracts the outlaws, and, going to the door, they appear before the surprised David. Grabbing his dog, David stands dumbfounded while they order him off the place. The pride of a Kinemon asserts itself and the youthful David is ready to do battle with another Goliath. He is prevailed upon to leave by Esther. Later he and Esther meet while they are driving their cows to pasture. Tearfully, Esther tells David of their unwelcome guests. With the courage of a man, and especially desiring to appear as a man before Esther, David volunteers to face these desperados single-handed. But Esther will not be deceived by David's valor and reminds him that he is only a boy and that they would crush him as they would a piece of cotton.
The expected event arrives in the Kinemon home and Allen, seized by love but also still loyal to his duty, drives the coach as it never was driven before, much to the discomfort of the passengers, who forgive him when informed of the reason. All go into the Kinemon home and true Virginia hospitality is shown them in honor of the event. Here also David's youth prevents him from being considered a part of the toasting party.
Mother Kinemon takes advantage of the presence of the physician to tell him of her fears for her apparently gigantic husband's health. She wants him to see the Doctor concerning his heart. The father laughs at his wife's fears.
Days go by and all is serene in the Kinemon home, David worshipping with all the intensity of his heart the baby who has supplanted him with all except his mother as the baby of the household. Allen continues to drive the stage coach and spends with his young wife and baby as much time as he can spare from his duties.
The shadows that have been slowly gathering are gaining momentum and sorrow is at hand. Father Kinemon, enraged by seeing a cow in the garden, calls upon David to send his dog after the animal. 'David tells his father that Allen has taken the dog with him that day. The anger of the father brings on an attack of the heart and Kinemon is forced to go into the house.
Meanwhile Allen with Rocket on the seat by him, is driving the mail coach. As they pass the Hatburn home, Rocket again espies his feline enemy. Regardless of the fact that the three outlaw Hatburns are in the yard, Saul cracking nuts which his brutal brother is helping himself to, Rocket dashes for his enemy. Leaping to his feet, Luke Hatburn kicks the dog to death. Allen jumps from his mail coach and enters the yard. He sees what has happened. Enraged at the thought of his brother's faithful companion suffering such an end, he wants to at once avenge this brutal killing. Still he remembers he must deliver the United States mail. He warns Luke that he will be back to settle this score after his duty is performed.
He starts to return to the coach. From behind he is felled by a stone hurled by Luke. Prostrated and unable to defend himself, he is trampled upon by the brute, who only stops when he thinks his victim is dead.
Bleeding and unconscious, Allen is brought home. The family suffers its first pain of sorrow. But Father Kinemon tells the passengers they need not tell the Sheriff, that he will attend to the Hatburns. David says to him-self that now he has the chance to show that the Kinemon's can take care of her own. Seizing his father's old muzzle-loading rifle, he drives home the charge. His father, engaged in loading his modern rifle, sees David and tells him he must stay home with his mother.
For once David forgets his filial obligations, and insists that he shall also avenge the brother, who is in the adjoining room being ministered to by the doctor, while Rose, his young wife with her baby in her arms, listens for the word as to whether her husband is to be saved. Stoically she learns that Allen will be maimed for life.
The paroxyms the father undergoes in asserting his parental authority over David results in his dying of heart failure, and David is now the man of the house. He is deaf to his Mother's entreaties and struggles to get to the Hatburns. Only her plea that he now is all that they have to support the house influences him.
The hand of misfortune descends heavily upon the Kinemons. Forced to leave their home because Senator Gault says it requires a man to run the farm, the occasion is made more sorrowful because Esther, out of sympathy, comes to see them off. She is met with hatred on the part of David, who tells her as fiercely as he can that he hates every Hat-burn. Esther, grieving, goes to seek consolation from her grandfather.
In the village David is unhappy. He is denied the job of driving the mail coach on account of his youth. He goes to the Gault store on an errand for his mother and his cup of bitter sorrow is added to when he hears hangers-on about the store intimate that they believe he is a coward because he did not avenge his brother, who, from his couch in the home, bemoans the fact that he is an encumbrance to the family.
Matters are no better in the Hatburn home. Esther's grandfather realizes what Luke's intentions towards Esther mean. The kindly little man will defend his grand-daughter, who, according to the custom of that country, does not eat at the table with the men, but serves them first. Calling his enraged manhood into play at the break-fast table, the grandfather tells Luke that such actions must stop. Luke is only prevented from plunging a butcher knife into his older relative by his father.
The country dance is held that night and Esther insists on her grandfather taking her to the schoolhouse. While she dances with her country swain, David stands outside all dressed up, but not daring to go in. Through the window he longingly watches the girl who has claimed his affections. To escape her partner, who dances on her feet instead of on the floor, Esther goes outside. She encounters David. A reconciliation follows. Their happy rendezvous is discovered by the man who succeeded Allen as driver. He thinks it a great joke. He wants to go into the dance, but is ejected.
David is given a job as clerk in the store. The morning after the dance the driver is late. The passengers, impatient to get away and storming over the delay, appeal to Gault. Gault excitedly looks about for a driver. His own shows up, but too drunk to be trusted.. So David gets the opportunity he has longed for. With his mother proudly watching him, he drives off. He is seen by Esther, whose joy is supreme. The Hatburns also see him. Returning without passengers, David passes Luke on the road. Unknown to David, a mail bag drops out of the coach and Luke sees it and takes it to the Hatburn shack, where he gleefully tells his father and brother that David will have a hard time of it when he shows up with the bag missing.
But David misses the bag. He knows he passed only one person on the road—Luke Hatburn. To prove true to his mission, and suspecting Hatburn of having the bag, he turns back. A sense of his inequality in stature to the three men seizes him. But, gritting his teeth and gripping his revolver, he cautiously approaches the house. Nervously he knocks and then pushes the door open. Esther is in the room, having been prevented from leaving when she discovers the mail bag. David attempts to take the mail. He is shot in the arm by Saul. Esther sees him wounded. She runs from the house, pursued by Luke. She falls in a faint and Luke is over her, his lustful desires being uppermost in his mind.
Saul attempts to shoot David. The latter is too quick and Saul is dead. Iscah bars the door with his body. David demands to be let go, reminding Iscah that he is the mail agent and also a Kinemon. He shoots the father. But the latter in his dying moment hurls a chair which crashes upon David with such force that he is rendered unconscious and the revolver falls out of his grasp. Re-gaining his senses, he realizes that he must get the mail-He struggles to his feet and starts to stagger to the door, when Luke returns. The latter abandoned his intentions when he heard the shots. Follows a desperate struggle between the giant and the boy. Catlike and desperate, careless of his own safety, thinking only of his trust, unmindful of the terrible hurts he is enduring, David fights on and on. He manages to hurl his adversary with such force against the wall that Luke is stunned. David is also prostrate. But while on the floor he sees the revolver. Luke also sees it. It is now life against life.
The scene changes to the exterior of the shack. Weakly the door swings open and David, blood from head to foot, clothing torn and barely able to support himself, staggers forth clutching the mail bag. His trip to the village is one of suffering. The village has been aroused. Esther has reached it and has given the alarm before she faints. She had-interrupted the conversation of the proud mother of David to bring this news. A posse is formed. Men armed for battle start out, but are stopped as David drives up to the post-office with the mail. After he delivers it, he falls from his coach to the ground. He is grasped by his mother. When his eyes open he sees the proud light in Esther's eyes as she tells him that he is grand. Weakly, he says :
"Mother is right; I'm just tol'able."
How Long to Make the Synopsis.—The beginner usually is at a loss to know just how many words are used is a synopsis. Wishing to do full justice to his plot, he proceeds to tell it very voluminously, and since the acceptance or refusal of the script depends so largely on the synopsis, the writer really should not be restricted to any particular length. To be explained clearly, some plots require many more words than others.
In your zeal to be as brief as possible, do not be too concise. An incomplete synopsis is, in most particulars, even more objectionable than one too long, for the latter at least leaves no phase of the plot to be guessed at.
Though the synopsis must fully record the plot concisely and persuasively, there is no fixed limit to the number of words to be employed. The average five- or six-reel play is generally outlined in from one thousand to five thousand words. A synopsis should not be over five thousand words in length. D. W. Griffith says that "any story good enough to be made into a moving picture can be told in that length." Editors are trained in dramatic work and can quickly recognize good picture material. Furthermore, they are busy men and cannot bother to read extra long synopses.
Make your synopsis just as short as you can and still tell your story in a clear, comprehensive, entertaining manner. Do not omit anything having a direct bearing on your story, but tell it in as few words as possible. Do this: Imagine you are telling your synopsis to the photoplay editor himself. Write it, then, just as you would tell it to him—remembering constantly that he is a busy man.
In your effort to make your synopsis brief, do not write a wild scramble of words having little or no reference to your story. And, if you are in doubt whether you should use three thousand or five thousand words, use the greater number. Clarity is more important than brevity.
Do Not Write Continuity.—Too much emphasis can-not be placed upon the fact that, in writing a photoplay, you merely relate your plot in narrative form, just as you would tell it to some friends, and then submit it for sale. That is all you need do. Not under any circumstances do you write the continuity, or scenario ; you do not need to bother with that. In this connection, Mr. Samuel Goldwyn,
President of Goldwyn Film Corporation, has some interesting advice for you. He says:
By all means avoid writing technically. Close-up, long shot, fade-back, fade-out, panorama, iris! Many a script submitted to the Goldwyn studios is merely a painfully drawn up mass of terms such as the above, which the author calls a scenario and wherein his plot, which may be valuable, is effectually concealed.
Let us understand that the term "scenario," as used in the picture industry, means the plot-story on which the complete working script is based. The complete working script, with its numbered scenes and sub-titles and minute instructions, both for directors and cameramen, is termed "continuity."
Ideas and plots the producer is willing to buy; continuity he cannot possibly consider unless it is written to his order; and yet there are so-called schools still flourishing which represent this to be a profitable accomplishment to the writer outside of the studio.
Continuity is invariably prepared either by trained writers on the staff of the studio or by free-lance continuity writers of proven ability, who are engaged to come into the studio to put one or more stories into continuity form.
When you realize what a continuity is really responsible for, you will see why the producer cannot use even the most expert arrangement of scenes and sub-titles unless it is prepared to his order, and why it is useless to submit stories to him in such tedious and attenuated form.
The author of a continuity actually directs the director and the camera man, setting down in detail exactly what they shall do and how they shall do it. Consequently, the continuity writer must be experienced in observation of directorial and camera methods—a studio-trained man.
Also (to say nothing of his story-building and dramatic gifts) he must write scenes to bring out the special talents of the director and the cast. He can only do this if he knows what the director is trying to fit and what cast is. available.
He must know whether a five-reel, six-reel, or 'seven-reel script is wanted, for a continuity of different length would be written for each. He must specify sets which the studio has standing or is willing to build.
He must be able to estimate (approximately) the expense of production, and not write $100,000 worth of shots when the allotted amount for production is $85,000.
A continuity by an unknown author arriving in the reading department of any studio is greeted with a groan. Technical terms that are worse than useless will have to be waded through and the plot dragged to light. You can-not write a continuity that is easy to read—the best professional continuity is a tough reading proposition. For-get all complicated technique and create a story. Write your story as simply as you can. Write it as you would tell it to someone sitting opposite you, reciting the story, the important happenings, the characters of your people. Don't try to embellish your story to thrill the reader by your knowledge of gradiloquent phraseology. You only befog the issue, confuse the reader and cause us to strain in an attempt to peer through a cloudy mist at what is really important. Think in terms of action.
A Famous Director's Opinion.—Mr. Marshall Neilan, who has directed Mary Pickford in many of her greatest successes, gives such good advice regarding synopsis writing that we reproduce his message in full:
The trouble with many beginners who aspire to success in the creation of motion-picture stories is that they worry more about the technique or form in which the scenario is to be written than the construction of the plot itself.
The motion-picture producer is not so much interested in receiving a technically well-written scenario as he is in receiving good plot material with unusual situations, action, humor, romance, pathos and drama.
The producer is not particularly impressed with a story because it tells in detail how the heroine should enter the scene, which eye she should wink, how she should lift up the telephone receiver and with which hand she should wiggle the receiver. These are mechanics and details which he usually likes to work out in his own way and which he is more capable of doing than the inexperienced author.
If you were going to build a house you would not draw up the plans and work out the details yourself. You would go to the architect, give him your general ideas, together with all specific instructions on what you want, and let him work out the details.
As far as the producer is concerned, the creation of a motion-picture story should be considered in the same light. Every producer has a staff of experts who can write the continuity much better and much quicker than you can. This is their particular business. They take ideas and work out the details of how these ideas are to be presented on the screen.
If you can supply the ideas that is all that is required of you. I once paid a thousand dollars for a hundred words written on the back of an envelope and handed to me in Los Angeles by a person who had never written for the screen or even for publication.
In those hundred words there was a gold mine in the way of a climax that had never been attempted on the screen. Had this man attemped to place his ideas in continuity form it is quite certain he would have lost the real idea of his situation in the mass of technical de-tail.
Don't worry about entrances, exits, fade-outs, close-ups and all the other technical terms used in motion-picture stories. Don't worry about what shade of pink the heroine's dress should be. Just keep in mind the theme of your plot, develop it with as little padding as possible, keep to the point, do not worry about descriptive phases and try to keep your tale human, possible, real.
In short, tell your story on paper in the same manner you would tell it if you were sitting at home before your fireplace with some friends.
Before you write a single word be sure you have your idea of the plot well in mind. Once you have established this, write it down, even if it is only three hundred words. Then you can give your original further thought and work out other situations and twists in the story that might tend to make it unusual.
By having your original plot in black and white you will no doubt be surprised to see how quickly you are liable to get away from the point of your story and can check yourself from time to time in the creation of the theme.
After you have written your story, read it slowly. As you read, picture in your mind's eye each scene, each situation. Shut your eyes and fancy yourself at a motion picture theater with the screen before you. Imagine your story being unfolded upon that screen. In this way you will acquire the photographic version of your story and will be able to eliminate useless action and superlative phrases that mean nothing to the story itself.
Another thing to be avoided in the writing of your story is dialogue. Try to create situations that in themselves tell what the players are doing. Like the continuity writers at the studios, there are hundreds of capable title writers who will take care of the spoken titles better than you can hope to do. Remember that you are writing a pictorial story, not a vaudeville sketch, a book or a play.
A Few Things to Remember.—Take plenty of time. It is better to rewrite your synopsis a dozen times than to send it out unsatisfactory in any little detail.
While synopsis writing is not difficult, it nevertheless is vitally important, and the beginner cannot be too watchful. Synopses should be models of clearness and brevity.
You need three things to sell a script easily: a good plot, a well-written synopsis, a satisfactory title. Plot, synopsis, title—the "eternal three" of successful photoplay writing. Their importance cannot be overestimated.