I am currently one of the judges evaluating the film proposals that are submitted each year to the Fulbright Scholarship Committee. If a writer and/or filmmaker wins a scholarship, he or she is subsidized to travel to a foreign country for nine months to develop or make a narrative or documentary short or feature film.
My job as a judge is to review fifty plus written proposals for films that each include a one paragraph “abstract” in their jargon, or a one paragraph “pitch” in ours. While many of the proposals are for documentaries, the same rules of good storytelling apply – and having the idea reduced to such a small amount of words reveals the limitations and strengths of each and every project.
This single paragraph synopsis basically describes the first act set-up and then summarizes the balance of the story without giving away the end. In my coaching work, I have writers begin the the screenplay creation process by writing a short synopsis to ensure that from the moment the project is conceived it is commercially viable on its own terms. In the last fifteen years, I have observed two major mistakes that students frequently make when designing a script, which are often only discovered when the writer is preparing his or her marketing materials. So much heartache could be avoided if they’d written the one paragraph synopsis first!
These two mistakes were also present today in most of the thirty or so proposals we have reviewed so far! They are firstly, a complete lack of awareness of the audience for whom the project was intended, and secondly, many of the “abstracts” lacked an opening sentence that would have provided a context for the story which would have helped the intended audience respond to the idea. No surprise then, that we judges rejected many of the proposals for these two reasons.
How to avoid such rejection?
Write a one paragraph synopsis of your new story idea, and then determine whether or not you have answered these two questions before you begin a new story.
Here’s the exercise:
Step 1. Write a one-paragraph synopsis of your screenplay idea.
Step 2. Answer question #1: Who is going to see the film of your script? If you answered “everybody” you are in trouble because the way movies are marketed is to appeal to a specific audience. Even an obvious “Blockbuster” like Skyfall, the new James Bond film is not going to appeal to an audience that favors “Indie” or foreign films.
While we writers are charged with creating new and original material, more and more we are also forced to be responsible for our own marketing and sales. The key is to be able to see things from two perspectives: as a creator, and also as a producer or an agent. You can make the plot of a new project stronger and more commercially viable by conceiving it properly from the start: the goal is to be able to give the rich grapes of your imagination a vigorous creative workout, but then to get them to fit in a bottle so that your audience knows what it’s buying.
By always considering your intended audience, you will make fewer plot mistakes because you will know what kind of story your viewer expects – and can consciously decide how much will be familiar, and how much will be completely new.
For more in-depth information, check out my new book, How To Sell Your Screenplay in 30 Days: Using New Media (Volume1) which is available at Amazon.com as a paperback or in Kindle format.
Step 3. Answer question #2: What is the context of my story? Context refers to the interrelated conditions in which a story occurs. For example, the film, The Bridges Of Madison County, is about a woman who has an affair while her husband is away for four days. This describes the plot but the context is that the story is set back in the 1960s in a rural community. Without the context, we cannot understand why the story is important and worth seeing.
In one of the proposals, which was for a documentary that would interview professional storytellers in a foreign country, the writer/filmmaker neglected to mention that the culture was in danger, so what we read was that the writer/filmmaker wanted to go around collecting seemingly random stories. She left out a critical detail: Her intention was to help preserve a dying culture! This was the context of her story -- without our being able to understand that in order to preserve the culture, capturing these folktales was essential, we had no way of assessing the relevance of the project.
Please always answer this question before you begin a new project, but even if you are in the midst or at the end of a project, asking and answering these two questions can change a no to a yes from a producer or agent.
Step 4. Revise your synopsis, and use it to create an outline for your new screenplay.
To recap: by writing a synopsis and answering two questions, you can instantly improve the plot of your new script.
Good luck and happy writing.