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The Art of the One-Sheet
How to Condense Your Complex Idea Into a Single Page
So you have a great story idea and you want to tell your writer friend to see if they can turn it into a script. Or maybe you’re a writer who is friends with a filmmaker and you want to tell them about your idea before you throw a 90-plus-page script in their face. Or perhaps you’re very fortunate and have to pitch your idea to a big studio.
Whether you’re a filmmaker, a writer, or both and whether you’re at the top of the food chain or the bottom of the barrel, if you’re trying to create a story big or small, then you have to tell someone at some point because in this business everyone needs help.
But how do you convince someone that your idea is worth pursuing? Well, obviously having a lot of experience along with a polished script and a personality that people can work with is crucial, but even with all of that, it’s still a huge uphill battle because people are busy and they know that a great story is hard to execute well.
So before you rush that big script over to someone, take the time to condense it down into a clear, organized one-page document and send that to people you’re trying to convince. This is called a One-Sheet and it’s insanely helpful when engaging with someone who’s busy because literally, all they have to do is read one page that, if crafted well, can tell them whether or not it’s worth reading your script.
Here’s my take on writing one-sheets. I think it’s important to note that this may not be the industry way of doing it because truthfully, there isn’t any real standard way. As long as you're conveying your idea to show how this could be a movie and you’re condensing all of it into a page, then you’re good. And, yes you can go over a page. This isn’t school. Just don’t make it crazy like 10 pages.
Title, Genre, Run-time Length
First, start with the basics: Title, genre, and run-time length. This is pretty straightforward and you may not have the answers just yet, but for the sake of the person, you’re trying to paint a picture for, put something down. Now, genre and run-time length, you don’t have to think too deeply about, but with the title, you may want to put considerable thought into this, just don’t stress over it too much because the title is far less important than the story itself. Having said that, if you do have a great title that speaks to the story, then it can go a long way since, you know. The title is kind of a first impression. Just do your best with it.
Logline, Premise, Synopsis
After you get the basics, go a little deeper with a logline, premise, and synopsis. A logline is something most are familiar with. But for those who aren’t, it’s just a one-sentence description of your story, which accurately paints the dramatic narrative in a way that hooks people into wanting to read your story. Simple enough, right? Well, how the hell do you write your entire story in one sentence in a way that hooks the readers?
It’s actually pretty easy. Just break the sentence down into its anatomical structure. Most loglines, though arranged differently, have the same elements:
The main character
The world they live in (setting and setup of your story)
The inciting incident (the moment that sets them on a journey drawn out in Act II and concluded in III)
The major conflict or goal they must face or achieve.
A bank loan officer [the main character] who is withdrawn from his life [the World] attends a motivational seminar [inciting incident], which convinces him that saying "Yes" to everything will lead to a better life [major conflict].
Now, one thing I also like to do is to break the logline down even further into specific questions that I ask myself:
Who is my story about? (Main character & The World They Live In)
What do they have to do? (Inciting Incident and goal)
Who are they up against? (Major conflict)
What is at stake? (Major conflict)
If you can answer these questions, then all you have to do is combine them into a single sentence. That’s it. Another way of looking at it is that you’re writing your first act and beginning of the second act in one sentence and leaving the rest out so the reader will want to learn how it gets resolved. That’s how you write a logline.
Now, what’s a premise? In this previous post, I go deeper into what it is, but essentially it's a one-sentence statement that expresses an arguable truth about your story. Doesn’t sound all that important, but your premise is literally the heart of your entire story. Every creative choice you make goes back to the premise, so expressing this in your one-sheet is a great way to get a trained reader to grasp the essence of what this story will explore. Take your time with this and make it simple, but strong.
Then, there’s the old synopsis, which most of us are well aware of. It’s basically an extended version of your logline where you can add in a little more of the finer details while still keeping it pretty short.
David, the cherished son of a locally famous conservative family, desires to follow in his father’s footsteps and make him proud. But when he meets Joseph, a new kid from a big city, they fall in love, forcing David to lead a double life. Joseph, who is much more idealistic and comfortable with his sexuality, tries to get David to come out. This challenges David’s obsession to maintain his family image, which ultimately leads him to impulsively push Joseph off a cliff during a heated fight on an afternoon hike. However, Joseph survives the fall and loses all memory of the incident, giving David a free pass on attempted murder. Now, twenty years later, after running away and hitting rock bottom, he seeks to reconnect with his old lover and finally confess his crime.
The tagline, Movies That are Similar, and Themes:
Tagline. This is the one thing in your one-sheet that just isn’t all that important. But wow, does it help paint that picture. A tagline is like this catchy/clever line that encapsulates the tone and overall feeling of your story. So, the famous one from Alien is, “In Space, no one can hear you scream.” Doesn’t really explain anything about the movie, other than it taking place in space and implying some kind of danger for the characters. But it’s catchy, can be slapped onto a movie cover, and evokes this sense of horror and doom while not actually revealing anything specific, leaving one’s own imagination to fill in the gaps. That’s really, what a good tagline is and if you can come up with one, definitely add it in the one-sheet.
Another way to paint a picture for your story is to write out a list of movies that are similar to yours. I know. There aren’t any stories out there like yours. Well, sorry, but it’s probably not as unique as you think. Yes, your story ideally has its own unique way of expression, but the expression has probably been expressed somewhere else. So list out some movies that carry a similar tone, genre, or story.
Maybe your story is about a vigilante, but you want to convey the fact that it’s a serious dark indie psychological thriller, not a dorky comedy like, “Kick-ass”. So, you might list, “Joker”, “Iceman”, or “You Were Never Really Here” to convey a sense of intimacy with the main character and a kind of grittiness and moral confusion in the tone. That’s really why listing out movies that are similar can be helpful. Just know that it’s not so much about matching plots as much as it is about matching key elements that you want your reader to pick up on.
Listing out themes can also be very helpful because it can give your reader a sense of the kind of conflicts they might end up reading in your story. So, let's say you have a story about two people surviving in the woods. The obvious theme is humans versus nature, but you can delve deeper and list other themes, such as Fate and Free Will, Female Roles, and Heartbreak of Betrayal, which implies that this isn’t just about two people surviving out in the woods but also about two people with a deep conflict that unravels.
Finally, there’s the most important element for your story after your premise and logline. The moral dialectic. This gives your reader a stronger sense of the deeper meaning behind your story. Your premise is the meaning, but the moral dialectic is the blueprint design for how the story can unpack that meaning.
This is also better known as the Hegelian Dialectic, a philosophical exercise created in ancient Greece whereby two opposite ends of an argument are laid out, examined, and discussed impartially so that eventually a synthesis between the two arguments can form, creating a “higher truth” or a more refined and nuanced view of the entire argument.
How does any of this relate to story-telling? Well, when you write a story, you’re not just writing about things that happen, but rather expressing things that happen in a way that lets an audience sense a deeper meaning behind those things. That’s why a lot of writers will write out a premise and moral dialectic that can be woven into the story before they start writing their script because they want to ensure that the choices they make relate to all of that.
So to give a reader an understanding of the meaning behind the story and how it’s unpacked, this is what I do.
First, I write my thesis. Your thesis is the deep belief about the world your main character expresses at the beginning of your story, though, typically they’re not aware of this belief because throughout the story they lie to themselves to justify their acts and thus hide from that deeper belief that if understood, would allow them to grow and become a better person. That’s at least the general formula, but you could always create a fanatic who understands what they believe and remain consistent throughout the entire film. Anything goes, really.
Then, I write my antithesis. This is basically the opposite of your thesis in that it is the deep belief about the world that your antagonist expresses either at the beginning of the story or throughout the whole story. And just like your main character (the thesis) they may not be aware of this deep belief because they could be lying to themselves to justify their actions, only to have this deeper understanding reveal itself to them later on. Again, anything goes when it comes to writing principles so do whatever works best for the story.
Finally, I wrap it up with a synthesis. If the thesis is a belief system your main character embodies at the beginning of the story and if your antithesis is a belief system your antagonist embodies at the beginning of the story, then the synthesis is a merging between these two belief systems, which is often embodied by the main character at the end of the piece.
That’s exactly how you create character change and how to work your premise into the story. In fact, the synthesis itself is the premise of your story. That is the key takeaway you want your audience to walk away with. Basically, your characters and the things they do/that happen to them are all allegorical in that they represent various parts of the moral dialectic, which takes two opposite ideas and synthesizes them into a more refined idea, which becomes your premise.
To further illustrate the moral dialectic, here’s an example of one I wrote for a story:
Thesis: Public scrutiny and defending against it matters over everything else.
Antithesis: Public scrutiny doesn’t matter. Only achieving what you set out to accomplish matters.
Synthesis of Thesis and Antithesis (the premise): Public scrutiny matters as long as you use it to better your beliefs and not let it blind you from achieving what you set out to accomplish.
So that’s the brass tax on one-sheets. They’re very simple to draw up assuming you’ve already written your story. But, personally, I like to write them to better understand my story before diving in because compared to tasking myself with 120 pages, writing a one-sheet is far less pressure and easier to accomplish. Plus, it’s a good way to force you to answer the primary questions every writer needs to consider before making any choice about their story. So for those who need a template, below is an example of how I write my one-sheets. Again, feel free to take it and adapt it in any way you wish. Happy writing!
Title: Down and Out in Bethlehem (Working Title)
Genre: Dark Rom-Com
Run-time length: 90-120 minutes
Logline: The jaded niece of a tyrannical King reluctantly teams up with a reckless con-artist in order to escape her uncle’s attempt to kill her baby; The King of Jews.
Premise: Progress can only happen through action and sacrifice.
Synopsis: Mary is the intellectually talented, but jaded and unappreciated niece of King Herod, the tyrannical ruler of Judea in 4 B.C, a rotting kingdom full of decadence and corruption. A long time ago, King Herod learned about a prophecy from his mushroom dealer that the King of Jews would be born from a virgin and overthrow him. One day Mary becomes pregnant from a secret affair and in order to avoid punishment, she tells her uncle that it’s an immaculate conception. Believing that this is the prophecy, he jails her with the plans to end her life.
Joseph, a traveling loud-mouth con artist who is the last remaining descendant of a once-great lineage, gets a job as a carpenter in order to steal the King’s prized purple dye. But upon discovery, Joseph is jailed where he meets Mary who gets him to help her escape by promising him a fortune. Now with the rumors about the immaculate conception spreading, a rebellion sparks as the two desperately travel to a safe house in Bethlehem in the hopes of giving birth to sweet baby Jesus.
Tagline: The unholy story behind the holiest mission in history.
Movies That are Similar:
Pirates of the Caribbean
History of the World Part I
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Good versus evil
Faith in the face of mystery
Heroism – real and perceived
Individual versus society
Overcoming – fear, weakness, vice
Rebellion against norms
Finding a purpose and meaning
Moving on from one's past
Value of friendship
Freedom vs imprisonment
Thesis: Progress can never happen, so there’s no point in doing anything at all.
Antithesis: Progress can only happen by maintaining what has worked before.
Synthesis (premise): Progress can only happen through action and sacrifice.
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