Why I Hate Writing Plot Summaries

There are lots of reasons to admire film critics. First, it can be a thankless job. You have to sit through unfathomable amounts of crappy movies, and the price for getting to see them in advance and for free, is that you can’t leave them unfinished or simply dispose of them once they’ve flickered before your eyes. Or at least not if you aspire to be a good critic. Instead, you have to do a writeup as if the movie hasn’t already left your mind, perhaps even give it more attention than you think it deserves. And then there is the problem of crossing expectations. You can never be quite sure what readers, listeners or viewers want from your review. Sure, there are some obvious signals. A critic writing for a magazine may have more time, more space and fewer movies to review than one who covers the weekly reviwers beat at a newspaper, but even the shortest flash-of-the-moment review ideally is supposed to offer something a little more lasting than a simple answer to the question of whether a particular movie is good or not.

So yeah, I have great respect for how film critics have to struggle with this balancing act every day. But there is one, particularly boring and thankless thing I really don’t envy professional film critics, and especially not those writing for a general newspaper audience; the need to write a plot summary. In the end, I guess it’s something of a philosophical question: What’s the point in writing film reviews? With regard to what makes a good literary critic, I read someone who said that the role of the critic first and foremost should be to render a verdict of whether the book is good or not, and, in extension, whether the reader should take the time to read it or not. But then came the criticism of that position; a qualitative verdict is all well and good, but it’s not enough. A real critic should be able to present a reading that enhances our understanding of it as a work of art, pratically regardless of whether it’s good or not. As I hope my reviews reflect (at least some of the time), I’m inclined to combine the two, but that doesn’t get me off the hook with the plot summary. In order for her to understand my verdict I have to give the reader a sense of the plot, and even if my aim is mostly to interpret and analyze the movie, it’s necessary to have some kind of setup. But that doesn’t make it any less boring.

It’s not that there isn’t a possible upside to outlining the plot in a review. It can keep the reviewer mindful that he is indeed writing for an audience, one who deserves a chance to assess the review even though they haven’t seen the movie yet. Heck, as someone who has a fairly short cinematic memory, I may even benefit personally from writing plot summaries, as they help me remember key plot points. And, perhaps more important, writing a plot summary has the potential to reveal something that we tend we to take for granted, but that doesn’t have to be the case: Not only how, but whether the critic understood the movie. I have read reviews, and probably even written some myself, in which the outlining of the plot was so sparse and/or sloppily written that I was left unsure whether the critic had actually understood what the movie was about.

What I dislike most about it, however, has to do with the potential imbalance in the relationship between the critic and her readers, particularly in cases where the readers haven’t seen the movie in question. No matter how crucial some plot twists could be to your analysis of a movie and its quality, the risk of spoiling the experience for the reader is always a tough balancing act. Let’s use a movie like Joe Wright’s Atonement as an example. I really, really disliked it (although almost everyone else I’ve read or talked to seemed to love it), but when I wrote my review I couldn’t argue why I hated it without basically spoiling everything about it. There is a twist in the final quarter of the movie that is supposed to make us reassess everything that has happened to that point, but I didn’t think it worked. It was frustrating not to be able to make that argument in any detail. Or take the final third of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. For me, the infamous final scene sheds new light on the entire movie, but I felt like I couldn’t discuss it in a review, out of respect for the reader’s chance to experience one of the most memorable moments in recent cinema through her own lens.

But apart from what is too much, there is another question: How little is too little? The sum of my fear of excessive spoilage and a general disinterest in writing plot summaries, may in some instances mean that what finally ends up in the review is so boiled down that it gives an insufficient impression of the complexities of the plot. To take a recent example from this blog, consider my post on Lukas Moodysson’s Show Me Love. While I’m pretty sure it was insufficient of me to say that it was a movie about “the lesbian high schooler Agnes love for Elin, and their attempts to be friends and accept themselves”, I’m even less comfortable with having given away the fact that Elin is gay too (“The first time I saw it (…) I don’t think I was really convinced that Elin (…) really could be a lesbian.”) Sure, this was one of my main points about how my perception of the movie had changed over the years, but it did take the central tension of the script (“Will they end up together?”) out of the equation. That said, I hate to be overly cautious as well, and a constant stream of “possible spoiler alert” warnings would only work to disrupt the flow of the piece. There simply isn’t any easy way around this dilemma.

Once we’ve acknowledged that this dilemma is pretty much unsolvable however, a fourt criterion for a good review could emerge, to at least make the dreariness of the plot setup manageable: Writing for the purpose of entertainment. This sounds like putting the reader above the writer, and commerce above art, but it’s not meant that way. If you succeed in being critical in an entertaining way, the critic could take as much pleasure in it as the reader, and there is no contradiction between writing to entertain and fulfilling the other obligations of a critic. But the point is that you have to write in a way that makes your argument accessible and understandable to your audience, and to be able to follow your argument, they have to know what you’re talking about. This is where the plot summary comes in. Incomprehensible writing and underdeveloped argument can be frustrating, but I doubt it can be entertaining. Therefore, my memo to myself is: “Keep your plot summaries short and simple, but try to keep them entertaining. If you don’t enjoy writing them, the readers won’t enjoy reading them.”

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5 Responses to Why I Hate Writing Plot Summaries

  1. My dear, I love that fact that you put so much thought into your writing! I mean that now…sorry I have not emailed you back. I have been- sort of busy with new work and a mini holiday from hell in the south, and a sick husband who shared…

    I think about you every time I see an old movie now!

    Once upon a time I wanted to be a screen writer, but having children to chase after, a business to look after, then it occurred to me why they lock themselves in a cabin in the middle of now where to write :) Only I see a movie and say “I could have written that”! LOL especially when I guess the plot with in the first thirty minutes. My dad and I used to play a game and he would give me fifteen minutes to guess who the killer was, or how it would end, and I got pretty good at it.

    • queerlefty says:

      E,

      how very generous of you to say “I love [the] fact that you put so much thought into your writing.” I try to examine my writing critically, but I always fear that it’ll come off as self-centered or pretentious. Guess I cleared that hurdle this time.

  2. Wow, it’s like you read my thoughts and wrote it such an insightful and elegant way. I love it.

    When I write reviews, the most annoying thing is the plot summary. I just don’t enjoy it because I wanna go straight to the point about whether or not I enjoyed the movie and why. So when you wrote, “Keep your plot summaries short and simple, but try to keep them entertaining. If you don’t enjoy writing them, the readers won’t enjoy reading them,” it really got to me. Maybe I need to learn to like writing plot summaries. I think writing plot summaries is like quicksand. The more I just want to get it over with, the more I end up writing and my review becomes 1/4 plot summary.

    Is it just me or are one-paragraph reviews more difficult to write? I always have to stop myself from elaborating too much and, like you said, spoiling it for other people. :\

    I wish there was a “like” button so I can “like” your post. lol

    • queerlefty says:

      Thanks, Franz.

      I think you’re right about how hard it is to strive for brevity. That is what I admire most about your reviews; how you manage to weave together the plot summary, analysis and verdict in a tightly well-written piece in about one third of the words I would’ve needed to do the same thing.

  3. jessiecarty says:

    I love this post! I’ve done a few movie reviews in my day and I have done quite a few book reviews and I really hate (yes I use the word hate) when time is spent on plot summary. For one you could be spoiling it for someone who is trying to decide whether to read/see the item in question but also I think it really shows your ability to be a good critic if you can discuss your reaction to a project without having to get into the finer plot points, especially surprise points. I think it is enough to say, like you did with Atonement, that there is a twist that didn’t work for you.

    Great stuff!

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