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September 15, 2003

Plot Summaries

Friedrich --

Are you as amazed as I am at the amount of space movie and book reviewers these days devote to plot summaries? It's common for more than half a review to be spent telling the movie or fiction-book's story. Who wants this amount of plot synopsis? I may be an extreme case, but I hate it when a work's story is given away; I want a work's surprises to be allowed to surprise me. So I just skip over the plot-summary part of reviews. Lately, this means that that when I read a review, I've been skipping 2/3 to 3/4 of its paragraphs.

I read reviews when I do for a variety of reasons -- to enjoy the reviewer's mind and writing, for tips about what I might see or read, and in the hope of encountering an observation or idea or two. But certainly not for plot summary. I find that a one-sentence characterization of what a movie or a fiction book is suffices. Examples: It's a "lyrical, writing-school-ish collection of stories about upper-class family dysfunction in Connecticut." It's a "straight-faced teen horror movie with supernatural touches set in the cornfields." That's all I need -- then it's on, or so I hope, to the observations, insights and jokes. You'll notice that -- role model that I am -- I avoid summarizing plots almost completely in my own postings about movies and books. Here's a virtuoso example: many thousands of (apparently unread, sigh) words about a French gangster movie with nary a plot-point giveaway to be seen. Do I mind a description of a story's set-up? No, though I want it done discreetly -- set-ups have their own surprises, and I don't want them spoiled. And I do always appreciate an effort at taxonomy -- a shot at nailing down a work's general category and subcategory.

But giving away the actual plot? ... I wonder if any studies have been done that chart how much space reviewers are spending on plot summaries. In any case, assuming that my impression is correct, how to explain the phenom? Do most reviewers have nothing of their own to say, and so fall back on recounting the plot in order to fill their space?

Fair warning: old-fart moment coming on. Do you find, as I do, that young viewers and readers often seem to have nothing of their own to say these days? I find talking to most of them about what they've read and seen like talking to children about favorite TV shows: "Well, first there was this schoolbus. And then, this outerspace ship arrived! And the ugly neighbor? Well, he was really, I mean really, mean ..." But I'll stop now, as this is part of another posting, one I'll probably never get around to finishing about how the collapse of traditional education leaves kids defenseless, and with no background or perspective -- nothing to call on but childlike energy and a childlike sense of what's-happening-now. New-style education sometimes seems designed to collaborate with pop culture in keeping kids eternally kids, doesn't it? Thereby sentencing them to a culturelife of being enthusiastic consumers and reaction-machines, and nothing but.

But I rant. Anyway, and speaking simply as a grumpy, if curious, consumer: Who is it who actually likes reading plot summaries? The answer I come up with quickest is "idiots," but maybe I'm being unfair. And maybe the answer is "no one" -- who knows? Perhaps it's something reviewers are doing for no good reason whatsoever.

Feeling duty-bound to do a little research, I asked a reviewer friend recently -- one I know well, and who I'm certain has no shortage of observations to make as well as jokes to crack -- why he spends so much time on synopsizing the works he writes about. He told me that he'd rather not, but that his editors insist on it. So (sound of awe-inspiring Blowhardish mind at work here) perhaps the editors are idiots?

Questions for discussion: is there really a market for plot-synposis? And are editors simply doing their best to serve it? Or is something else -- and perhaps something more nefarious -- going on?



posted by Michael at September 15, 2003


It's just laziness, and it's rampant. It's become second nature for me to start skimming when the summary starts and head to the last two paragraphs of a review.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on September 15, 2003 11:02 AM

I faithfully read the book sections of several papers each week, although I have no intention (nor do I remotely begin to have the time) to read the books reviewed. As a result, the reviewers can plot-summarize away to beat the band; I don't care, not being cheated out of anything.

Perhaps it's possible that the editors are insisting on the plot summaries either because they think most people reading the review are like me, i.e., they don't intend to actually go see the movie or read the book. Or else, the editors, in a fit of power-crazed ambition, are attempting to substitute reading the review for seeing the movie.

The late Pauline Kael is probably responsible for tendencies in this latter direction. I know that in many cases I found her reviews of bad movies to be far more entertaining and interesting than the movies themselves. If you have to endure having your mind beseiged by silly ideas, it is much better done while accompanied by a highly intelligent interlocutor. Regrettably, few movie- or book-reviewers today are in her league, but that's not going to stop ambitious reviewers (or editors) from trying to imitate her. (I suspect many editors have realized that a very large number of New Yorker subscriptions were sold to people whose only interest in the rag were her reviews. They want a piece of that action.)

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 15, 2003 11:06 AM

I think a lot of it can be explained by the fact that most reviews are relatively short. In the case of film reviews, all reviewers are pretty much forced to talk a little bit about who the lead actors are, who directed, what kind of film it is, what the basic plot is. That's basic information for people who want to know what's on at the movies this weekend: an Arnie flick where he saves the world from Satan, a James Ivory flick where Helena Bonham Carter falls in love with Jeremy Northam. That tells people 90% of what they want to know about a film. Many people like making their own decisions, and most don't decide whether or not to see a film based on a reviewer's value judgements, so those are actually less important. But in fact the rest of the space available is actually usually given over to such things. If it's a short review, then often there's little or no such space available; if it's a long front-page-of-the-NYT-arts-section review, then that's not the case. I'd be interested if you can find some examples of LONG reviews which go on and on about plot.

Posted by: Felix on September 15, 2003 11:11 AM

When I review a book (which I've been doing on-line since the beginning of 1997), I want to make it clear to my readers whether I liked the book or not, and why (if I know), and enough additional information so that they can decide for themselves whether it's the kind of book they might enjoy. For genre fiction, that generally requires discussing at least a bit of the plot, particularly the set-up. I try never to give away major plot points--which makes reviewing the later books in a series a bit trying.

That's not to say that I don't get lazy sometimes.

(Whispered aside to Michael--if you think my reviews frequently suffer in this way, please let me know; I always like to do better.)

Posted by: Will Duquette on September 15, 2003 11:43 AM

Claiming not to be a writer but just a Reader of Books with An Opinion, I write occasional reviews for Will's webdsite. And I nearly always put some sort of plot summary in them for a very simple reason.

When I decide what book I want to read next before walking into a huge store filled with all sorts of glitzy covers and marketing ploys, I want to know what it's about. I don't want a long exegesis of the text, just a nice short synopsis without any hint of the ending. Then I want to know why this particular reviewer either liked or didnt like it. That's it. Dont tell me more.

I do the same thing with movies, although I have to admit the movies I like best cant be summarized easily. "Northfork" comes to mind as a recent example. It's been a week and I and my husband are still arguing over what the movie was really about.

Posted by: Deb on September 15, 2003 03:24 PM

A more serious issue is the placing of an book's entire plot in the dust jacket description of the book, so there's no way to avoid knowing what happens before you read the book. In particular, check out the recent Oprah Edition of "East of Eden", which I took home from the book factory intending to read, but after inadvertently reading the dust jacket it lost all suspense. Good thing I didn't pay for it.

Posted by: Xhenxhefil on September 15, 2003 04:36 PM

I've been complaining about this for years. One of the first things I learned in my senior English class is that when reviewing a book one shouldn't summarize the plot.

I've gotten into the habit of reading only the first and last paragraphs of Roger Ebert's reviews because he is go guilty of this. I like reading his reviews but it drives me crazy. Another pet peeve of Mr. Ebert and many others is tendency to give away funny lines or jokes, thereby ruining them for the rest of us.

Summarizing the plot and telling of favorite jokes or scenes all serves to rob the rest of us from seeing the film with fresh eyes. Nowadays, I think the less one knows going in to a film the greater the chances one will enjoy it. Avoid the press, avoid the specials on TV, avoid all the hype as much as possible. Low expectations and little advance knowledge are key.

Posted by: Bryan on September 15, 2003 06:47 PM

Yahmdallah -- We've developed the same style of reading reviews. A matter of self-defence, isn't it?

FvB -- You're every novel-writer and moviemaker's nightmare! A man happy to read the reviews only. Curious, though: do you really read fiction (book or movie) reviews thoroughly? I find I just don't care enough about made-up stories to bother, even if I know I'll never see or read the work. Nonfiction, though ... Chances are 99 out of 100 that I'll never read the book; chances are good I'm interested in the subject matter. So I'll read the whole review. The more of the story the reviewer gives away, the better, as far as me and nonfiction are concerned.

Felix -- It's a good point: the two phenom (plot-synopses growing more dominant; reviews shrinking in size) seem to be happening at the same time and reinforcing each other. Both signs of a general dumbing-down, do you suppose, or something else? Between you and me, though, I'd say that the NYTimes is one of the biggest offenders -- it seems to me that routinely 2/3 of a typical movie or book review is devoted to telling the work's story. That's just an impression, though. Do you not have the feeling that the Times is getting worse in that respect?

Will, Deb -- FWIW, I think you and your co-conspirators show how it ought to be done. You guys have a lot of respect for what a reader wants and needs to know, and you show a lot of care not to give away more than's needed. But it's also a fair point -- that readers do need to know something. What rules of thumb do you use when you're deciding how much to tell?

Xhenxhefil -- How true, I'd forgotten about book jacket copy. Writing it used to be a bit of an art form in its own right -- how to tantalize and hint without spoiling the experience of the book. These days, some drone somewhere wants to spill everything. You're reminding me of something else I've noticed -- pictures in magazines. Hard though it is to believe, once upon a time if a magazine had a good set of pictures (news, or beauty, whatever), they didn't put the absolute best one on the cover. They wanted to lure you in, so saved the real goodies for the reader who opened the magazine. These days, magazines put their very sexiest pic on the cover. They give it all away right there -- kind of like the book jacket copy, no?

Bryan -- Seems a matter of simple respect and politeness, doesn't it? I mean, not to spoil the funny lines or give away too much of the story. I find myself, well-brought-up polite ex-kid that I am, thinking "how rude!" when someone abuses basic politeness. Strange that Ebert's such a violator. He's a very smart guy who generally has a lot of respect for what gives people pleasure. So I wind up wondering this: maybe there really are review-readers who like reading plot synopses -- maybe that's the reason people like Ebert give a lot away. Maybe they really are serving an audience. Maybe on the other hand someone like Ebert, who's been doing his job for a zillion years, has run out of things of his own to say, and so finds it easier to let the movie do the work for him.

My own hunch about this is that it's a partly a function of editors, partly a function of a general dumbing down. Editors push a lot these days to move the goodies up to the top -- the best pic on the cover, the best anecdote at the top of the story. They're often more into facts and news than into writing or thinking -- so it would make sense if one thing they demanded was more plots and funny lines and such, and less thinking and writing. Also, the younger people coming along and writing reviews often have very little background and thus very little to say besides "yeah, I liked it" and then on into the story and jokes.

But these are just hunches...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 15, 2003 10:45 PM

Thanks for the vote of confidence!

I don't really have any rules of thumb for deciding how much to tell, other than trying to avoid spoilers. My reviews tend to be written rather stream-of-consciousness: I just write whatever I happen to feel like saying about that particular book. Apparently it works OK.

I dunno...practice makes perfect, I guess.

Posted by: Will Duquette on September 15, 2003 11:28 PM

Michael: You ask if there is a market for plot synopsis. Don't you think that a book of plots/situations from all sorts of literature, analyzed to show how they support the thematic concerns of the work, would be a priceless reference for writers? I mean, how many people really express themselves well in terms of plot; it's routinely the weakest part of most writing. And as the old saying goes, "A good lift is better than a bad original."

Now, all we need is somebody to crank through a few thousand books, extracting their plots and showing how they illuminate character and theme. Anybody out there got a few decades to spare?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 15, 2003 11:49 PM

Here's a virtuoso example: many thousands of (apparently unread, sigh) words about a French gangster movie with nary a plot-point giveaway to be seen.

I read it.

Posted by: Aaron Armitage on September 16, 2003 12:24 AM

Will -- I think your doing-it-for-the-pleasure-of-it approach has a lot going for it. Hey, that's kind of how FvB and I blog.

FvB -- I'd love to see such a book, and I'd love to see more fiction writers get better at plot. How have you responded to the various how-to-write books you've looked at over the years? This may be matter for a fresh posting ...

Aaron -- Thanks for taking a look at it. Too much plot-giveaway? Too little?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 16, 2003 12:32 AM

In my own reviews, instead of actually summarizing the plot, which bores me as a writer, I try to communicate the content of a movie by describing what's going on with each of the characters. I find that I can cover a lot more ground this way (especially when I've only got a few hundred words), that I can enter more immediately into considerations of performance and tone, and that I end up producing a much clearer sketch of what the movie is about than if I'd directly summarized the plot. Also, I find this approach to be a good way of leading into discussion of a movie's "plastic" elements (direction, photography, editing, etc.), because once I've sketched the inner lives of the characters I'm free to refer to these elements as parts of a framework for the dramatic core of the movie.

Posted by: Mark Dellelo on September 16, 2003 12:49 AM

I agree entirely with what Deb says in her second paragraph, which sums up my own practice in writing reviews for radio.

Posted by: James Russell on September 16, 2003 07:03 AM

Michael: I absolutely couldn't agree more, and I am a (relatively) young fart. It is immensely tedious to skip over the plot summaries to get to the 1/3 of a review that is there, and I think the NYT Book Review section is particularly bad. There is a sort of cocktail party chatter-ish upside to knowing the plot of every movie to come out, every talked-about book and so on. So I do sometimes read the summaries with that in mind...

Posted by: Belle Waring on September 16, 2003 07:06 AM

Friedrich: I think the Masterplots series is exactly what you had in mind.

Posted by: dentedelion on September 16, 2003 10:27 AM

Here is an invaluable use for them:

The Tender Mercies of Plot Summaries

Yesterday, one of the invaluable blowhards at noted a terrible truth about the current and deeply sad state of reviewing:

Are you as amazed as I am at the amount of space movie and book reviewers these days devote to plot summaries? It's common for more than half a review to be spent telling the movie or fiction-book's story. Who wants this amount of plot synopsis? I may be an extreme case, but I hate it when a work's story is given away; I want a work's surprises to be allowed to surprise me.

In general, we are in complete agreement with this. Plot summaries seem to us to be simply the hapless reviewer's way of saying, "I have nothing to say and I am saying it." Still there are times when a plot summary is a gentle mercy, as in this morning's WSJ review of Madonna's book for children when we are given:

Briefly put, "The English Roses" is about an eponymous clique of four girls who out of jealousy behave frostily to a radiantly beautiful fifth girl. The mother of one of the clique members remonstrates with the girls about this. At their slumber party that night, the girls are visited in their sleep by a plump, cookie-gobbling fairy godmother who offers them a glimpse into what they assume is the fabulous and spoiled life of the envied girl. They are chagrined to find that the girl they've shunned is motherless, loaded with chores and desperately lonely. This changes their attitude, and they all become friends and "grow up to be incredible women one day."

Here the summary is not only saving a lot of parents a lot of pain and a chunk of change, but, if it were properly employed it would save a lot of children from literary abuse. All a caring parent has to do is to clip this paragraph out of the Journal, whip it out at bedtime, rattle it off, and the child would be up-to-date on Madonna's literary pretensions. Nothing like keeping your kid on the cutting edge without exposing them to toxic prose.

Posted by: Vanderleun on September 16, 2003 12:31 PM

Wow...THAT's the plot of "The English Roses"? Boy, nothing trite there. See...that's an example of knowing the plot stopping you from making a bad purchasing choice. I guess I just sorta contradicted Michael's posting.

How many writers would get a 5-book deal from that story if they weren't Madonna, y'think?

Posted by: annette on September 16, 2003 02:27 PM

My peeve is reviewers who give their opinions on the performances of seven or eight members of the cast. That's even easier to write than a plot summary, which at least has to make some sort of sense.

I had 400 words to write about "Pirates of the Carribean" and split them this way:

Plot -- 2% (It's a pirate movie)

Quality -- 3% -- It's competently made

Product Marketing Strategy -- 20% -- What next? Krispy Kreme: The Artery Strikes Back?

Supporting cast -- 0%

Johnny Depp -- 75%

Posted by: Steve Sailer on September 16, 2003 05:22 PM

But wait! I want you to go back to the unfinished rant about how Education Today is Depriving Kids of the Ability to Think; it's a subject that's been bugging me for a long time.

Posted by: carla on September 17, 2003 12:50 PM

I love plot summaries. They save me a lot of time. I just look up a book or a movie, and I know if I want to read it or see it right away. Also, I like knowing whether I understood something right or not, when I have taken the time to read that book or watch that movie. Call me what you will, but just like a recipe, one doesn't go into the kitchen blind, nor does one want to spend hours reading a book or going to the movies, when common sence says information will save you wasted time.

Posted by: Roger on November 23, 2003 01:08 AM

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