Writing An Effective One Sheet
Writing is as much about marketing as it is about the story. A great story full of great characters, great dialog, and great action is a given nowadays. It’s the bare minimum that a writer must produce to grab the attention of anyone. One of the supplemental articles that helps set that great script apart from the avalanche of others is the one sheet, also called the “one pager” or the “leave behind.”
At its heart, a one sheet tells people what your core story is about, laid out in a simple three act structure with only minimum flourish, with optional room at the end to say why it should be told.
It should fill one side of one 11 x 8.5 sheet of paper, with reasonable margins and normal-sized font.
A one pager is a marketing tool that helps boil down your meticulous, beautiful, world-changing story into something a producer or executive can digest and share with others. They’re relatively simple in design, but difficult to master, especially if you’re a passionate writer who loves to get carried away when telling others about your stories. They might even seem offensively simple, if you’re new to them, but I would encourage you to look at them as a tool for your own writing as much as they are a business and marketing supplemental.
The goal, ultimately, is to get producers and executives chomping at the bit to read more, and be willing to pay you to give it to them.
Traditionally, a one pager consists of:
-The script title
-The names of the writers
-The Three-act summary of your story
-Why it should be told (sometimes optional)
As you get more comfortable writing them, you’ll see that this rigid structure melts away into something a bit more organic, but for our purposes here, we’ll stick to the formal structure.
The first two pieces are simple. Script name. Writer name. The third piece, however, is when things get a little sticky.
A logline is a one or two-sentence teaser that tells others about your story, its most important characters, and its overall tone. Its goal is to entice potential readers to want to read the entire script.
Some writers, like me, start crafting their story only after they’ve written their tight, clear logline. Others write it after they’ve completed the script. Either way, it exists to establish understanding and expectations with your future reader about what they’ll get if they read the whole story.
You may be thinking, “I can’t squeeze all my story goodness into one sentence!” Well, you can and you must. Think of it like reading the blurb on the back of a novel before deciding to buy. Separate what needs to be said to understand what the story is about from what you want to say, and write a sentence that makes those core pieces sound enticing.
'Do not — I repeat, DO NOT — bury your hook. Ever!'
Writing stellar loglines takes practice and deserves its own article, but for our purposes here, think of your logline as the tip of the pyramid for the rest of your one sheet. The summary of your story is simply a more-detailed exploration of your concise, sharp logline.
This is also where you should hint at whether the story is based on real events, or adapted from pre-existing material.
Summarizing your story in three paragraphs – one for each act – sounds relatively simple at first glance. However, it’s the section in the one sheet where writers often run into the most trouble.
The summary is not a moment-by-moment breakdown of plot points in your story. It is also not a place to include small homages, references, or flourishes that you’ve woven into your script. Or a place where you have time to expound upon twists you think are clever.
Instead, it’s a micro-version of the story. A beginning, middle and end that encapsulates your character’s journeys in the script. Think sweeping strokes here, rather than bite-sized breadcrumbs.
Our instinct as creative people is to assume that if we share more of the story with someone, they’ll find the story just as interesting as we did when we decided to write it. This isn’t the case, and it can often backfire. Write your summary from the mindset that you’re telling someone what happens so that they can read the script and experience how those things happen.
And yes, you should spoil the ending. Never withhold it in the hopes that it will encourage a reader to read your script.
Why The Summary Can Be Your Best Friend As A Writer
A one sheet’s summary is essentially a synopsis; a concise outline. Whether you like to write organically or outline first, synopses can be super helpful in keeping you on track as you write, or to notice places where you’ve overcomplicated things when you’re planning a rewrite.
If you’re the type of writer who gets swept away into the great complexities and tangents of your story and before long you don’t know how to get back to the central spine, then writing an outline constrained to three paragraphs can ensure you never stray too far.
Plus, a one pager can help you test an idea with friends, family, and industry professionals to make sure it’s as strong and sound as you think it is, before you spend weeks or months fleshing the whole thing out.
Why Your Story Should Be Told
If you’ve kept everything concise, at the bottom of your one sheet, you should have enough space for a paragraph about why you want to tell this story and why it should be told.
“Why now?” is one of the most common questions you’ll be asked in general meetings and pitches. They’re essentially asking, “How is this relevant to today’s audiences?” and this is your opportunity to lay it out quickly for yourself and for others.
Let’s Look At An Example – Dune
Just to prove that even the most epic of stories can fit on a one sheet, let’s create one for Dune (2021).
Script Title: Dune (Part One)
Writers: Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve and Eric Roth (screenplay by), Frank Herbert (based on the novel by)
Logline: In this adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science fiction epic, the son of a noble family entrusted with protecting a critical resource planet must lead a resistance when his family is betrayed and his father is assassinated.
In the distant future, the galactic Emperor Shaddam Corrino IV sends Duke Leto of House Atreides to rule over a fiefdom on Arrakis, the source planet for the element “melange,” which makes interstellar travel possible. The harvest of this spice is dangerous, as the desert planet is plagued by thousand-foot-long sandworms attracted to the sound of their harvesting equipment. Duke Leto brings with him his concubine Lady Jessica, a disciple of the Bene Gesserit order, which has worked behind the scenes to influence and manipulate great houses for generations, and their son, Paul. With his mother’s training, Paul has begun to exhibit signs that he is the Kwisatz Haderach, a prophesied messiah-like figure for the Bene Gesserit order, who will eventually lead humanity into a brighter future. He’s plagued with future visions of a war fought in his name. He is given a potentially fatal impulse control test by a Reverend Mother of the Bene Gesserit and passes.
Unbeknownst to Duke Leto, Emperor Shaddam has arranged for a rival family — the brutal Harkonnens — to retake Arrakis and assassinate him after their arrival. When one of Duke Leto’s staff betrays him and he is assassinated, Jessica and Paul are forced to flee with the help of loyal aides. The Reverend Mother arranges for the Harkonnens to spare Paul and Jessica’s lives, however, the Harkonnens hunt them down anyway. They’re only able to escape by using a Bene Gesserit mind control technique called “The Voice.”
Now stranded in the desert, Paul and Jessica are forced to rely on their survival and Bene Gesserit training to find shelter and safety. Eventually, two of their loyal entourage discover them and take them to a research facility run by an ally of the Fremen, the native desert people of Arrakis. While there, the facility is ambushed by Sardaukar, soldiers trained since birth to fight to the death. Their loyal entourage sacrifice themselves to allow Paul and Jessica to escape, by luring a sandworm to devour the Sardaukar. Deeper in the desert, Paul and Jessica encounter Fremen. One demands a duel to the death before they’re allowed to join their community. Paul is forced to take a life for the first time, and against Jessica’s protests, agrees to become a Fremen to protect them and fulfill his father’s wishes of uniting with the people of Arrakis.
Dune is a sweeping epic about power, destiny, and community, as well as a story about indigenous communities fighting for the rights to their own land under the oppressive rule of outsiders. It’s a story for the ages, and deeply relevant to the power struggles we see in our own world today.
Jordan Trippeer is a produced writer whose eclectic mind, adventurous childhood and preference for The X-Files over Sesame Street while growing up set the course for her creative future. She has developed a daring writing style that contrasts and complements her demure persona and her work has been lauded for its “fascinating, flawed characters, immersive world building, and mischievous originality.” While genre agnostic, her film and tv writing primarily focuses on underdogs, outsiders, and everymen encountering the extraordinary and fantastical in their grounded...