Quick template for a film synopsis – and why 90 minutes for action films

Since I’m juggling ten different concepts and have to choose two for our next project lineup, I have to find quick ways to organize them and present them to interested parties. I’ve developed a rough template that I’ve started using when formulating a synopsis, which is a combination of Save The Cat styling and my own ideas. You’ll find a similar modelling in any Blockbuster action film. I’ve added page numbers just so you get a sense of pacing, which are also taken from Save The Cat.

  1. Opening Image (1)  – The world is a bad place or the hero’s in a bad spot, and the final image will be the opposite of this. This can be reversed for “downfall” stories. It’s Act 1.
  2. Theme (1-5) – Describe the hero’s predicament but give us a reason to like him
  3. Daily Life (1-9) – Go into detail what needs help, particularly:
    1. Work life
    2. Home life
    3. Fun life
  4. Disruption (10-11) – Something happens that will cause the hero to act
  5. Debate (12-22) – Should he act? Give him reasons
    1. Yes because of work life
    2. Yes because of personal life
    3. (Yes because it’d be fun – optional)
  6. Decision (22-23) – Hero makes the decision. Do not let anyone else make the decision.
  7. New World (24-25) – Introduce what the hero is up against now that he’s decided to take the hard way out. This is Act 2, but I like to split Act 2 into two sections to keep it organized, so let’s say “Act 2A”.
  8. Trailer Meat (25-50) – This is “trailer material” where you show the fun stuff the hero has to do to accomplish his new goal. It’s where people will begin to fall asleep, so keep it interesting, throw lots of difficult things at the hero, hard decisions, etc.
    1. Turn the story once
    2. Turn the story again
    3. Turn the story once more
  9. Tent Pole (50) – You’ve reached the peak of Act 2, do something big now, either a false positive or false negative, and reverse it later.
  10. Tension (50-70) – Bad guys are on to him. I call this Act 2B.
    1. Beat 1, get away
    2. Beat 2, get away
    3. Beat 3, reverse the Tent Pole
  11. Something Bad (70) – Take something from the hero.
  12. Devil’s Advocate (70-80) – Make him doubt the goal, convince audience that the hero was better off at the beginning of the film. This is the climax of Act 2.
  13. Realization (80) – Hero has a new lease on life, give him a reason to continue, something he learned or a realization that the job can still be done. Begin Act 3.
  14. Finale (80-100) – The easy stuff, take us to the finish line
    1. Gather the team – Get people together, formulate a plan.
    2. Storm the castle
    3. High tower surprise – Harder than it seemed. A double-cross, maybe the villain has been on to him the whole time
    4. Dig deep within – Revisit Devil’s Advocate, the “Realization” fell through, but there’s something deeper that can drive the hero, formulate the “new plan” in total opposition to the enemy
    5. New plan – Use the new plan and win
  15. Final Image (100) – Opposite of beginning, hero has what he set out to get.

Some feel this outline is too stringent, and I’m always curious to see what other kind of structure could drive a film. There are plenty of films that deviate from this conventional structure, but I get the feeling that deviations tend to be either a matter of ignorance, or rebellion. This structure isn’t the word of god, but it tends to emerge because it’s an evolution of storytelling that maximizes drama in a 90-120 minute film. Conventional action films can (and did) cut out the Daily Life (Fun) section and jump into the Catalyst more quickly, and shortened the Devil’s Advocate since there was less inner conflict to deal with, which got the action film script down to 90 pages. But if you’re going for political thrillers, Daily Life and Devil’s Advocate require more explanation and are more likely to drive the film into 120+ page territory. If you’re going for historical drama, where 50% of the fun is in the exposition of the daily life and mental workings of 1850 Victorian England or pre-revolutionary France, we’re talking 150+ pages.

I personally have no idea how to write 150 pages. Maybe I’ll never have to. We’re talking Acts 4 and 5 at that point, or at least a VERY interesting Act 2 that keeps people on the edges of their seats. This may not be tolerable for an action crowd, since that audience demands the hero get shit done, and if he fumbles about for over an hour before saving the princess then he’s losing our hearts with every minute.

A fight scene has the same structure, just simplified. I’ll do one of those next, with lots of spots for variables, that will be useful for scripting a dramatic fight scene that keeps people interested for minutes.