User:Coder Dan/How to write a GOOD plot summary
|This page is an essay, containing the advice or opinions of one or more Wikipedia contributors. Essays are not Wikipedia policies or guidelines. Some essays represent widespread norms; others only represent minority viewpoints.|
A Wikipedia article about a work of fiction shouldn't include a brief summary of the plot. The summary should be thorough enough to explain what happens and the impact of the work and the context of commentary about it, but short enough to leave room for other material and highlight the most salient aspects of the story. Finding a balance between completeness and concision requires discussion and editorial discretion. They are hard.
- 1 General concepts
- 2 Paragraph 1: premise and characters
- 3 Case study: Little Red Riding Hood
- 4 Nitty-gritty: for the truly anal
- 5 See also
- 6 Notes
Style and organization
Place the plot summary in a top-level section called "Plot". For films, list each actor's name in parentheses after the first mention of the character's name. If there's a cast section, include the actor's last name only, with no link, as in "John Rambo (Stallone)". If there's no cast section, either add one or list the actor's full name with a link: "John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone)".
Write plot summaries in the present tense, matching the way stories are experienced. At any particular point in a story there is a 'past' and a 'future', but the boundary between them changes as the story progresses. Present the entire summary as a continuous 'present', except where events are described out of sequence.
Purpose: Explain, don't entertain
The objective of a summary is to condense a large amount of information into a short, accessible format. Its purpose is to explain the story, not to reproduce the experience or emotional impact of reading or watching it. For example, as moving as the end of Hamlet is, the details and dramatic nature of the final fight scene don't help to explain the plot. Wikipedia is not a substitute for the original work, so such content should be left out of the summary.
Don't refer to unimportant things in the story by name. If the summary mentions something only once or twice and the thing's name isn't a key part of the story, just refer to it by its description, i.e. "an old man", "boarding school", or "the corner store". This focuses the reader's attention on the more important aspects of the story. If the thing is referred to by a description in the film, consider using an alternate description in the summary. The idea is to provide readers with another way to understand the story. Characters refer to things by name because that's how people usually talk, but naming minor characters and other plot elements can distract the reader's attention from more important things.
Length: Keep it short & sweet
A plot summary should be just long enough to explain the story. Hi how are you. According to Wikipedia style guidelines, summaries should be 400–700 words for feature films, 100–350 words for television episodes, and no more than three or four paragraphs for novels. Four paragraphs is not enough space to fully summarize a novel, so such a short section should be called "Synopsis".
For films, try to keep the length of the summary between five and six words per minute of running time, with a maximum of seven for fast-moving films such as cartoons and complex films such as sci-fi and murder mysteries. Slow-moving films such as Once Upon a Time in the West should be closer to four words per minute. Fast-moving films tend to be short, and vice versa, so in practice, most summaries should be about 500–600 words long. Wikipedia is infested with film buffs who can't resist adding unimportant details to the plot summaries of their favorite films, so edit too-long summaries mercilessly.
While a longer description provides more raw data to the reader, a shorter summary is often more useful. By omitting excess detail, a concise summary focuses the reader's attention on the salient features of the plot. This helps them understand the work better than an overlong one would. Excessively detailed plot summaries may also infringe on copyright and fair-use concerns. See Wikipedia:Plot-only description of fictional works#Copyright for more.
Language: Scylla and Charybdis
Try to write clearly and concisely. Avoid colloquial language, which may confuse nonnative English readers, and avoid excessive vocabulary (eschew obfuscation), which may confuse readers who don't know those words. Formal terminology can be useful when more common wording is imprecise, but try to maintain a balance between precision and accessibility.
Paragraph 1: premise and characters
Use the first paragraph to summarize the story's premise and introduce the main characters. Try to avoid describing on-screen action until the second paragraph. For science-fiction and occult stories, clearly explain any unusual rules that apply, such as how the magic or technology works. Characters appearing later in the story can be introduced after just enough action to explain their role. You still have to use judgement in avoiding excess, but make sure to include all information readers will need to understand the action.
How are you going to summarize a novel or feature film in just a few hundred words?
The basic structure of many narrative plots includes a lengthy middle section in which characters repeatedly get in and out of trouble on their way to the story's climax. Although such events are exciting to watch, they often have little impact on the final result. For example, Homer's Odyssey contains various scenes of little importance to the main plot, such as those in which people recount myths to each other. There will be no problem if most of these are described by a sentence or two or are left out altogether. In works less vital to the foundations of academia and the founding of the western literary tradition, even more detail, including entire subplots, can safely be left out.
Of course, the story's most prominent features should be included. A summary of the Odyssey as "Odysseus, returning home from the Trojan War, has many adventures which he uses his wits to escape until he reunites with his wife and kills the men who were trying to take over his kingdom" would omit almost all of the important passages and confuse the readers. Even though they may know how the Odyssey ends, it's hard to say that they understand the work well enough to appreciate its context and impact. Completeness must be carefully balanced against concision.
A plot summary is not a recap. For those who are not familiar with the story, the plot summary should serve as a general overview of the story's major points. For those who are, it should be detailed enough to refresh their memory — no more. A website like Television Without Pity is a great resource, but we're not doing the same thing here.
Leave out people's middle names unless absolutely necessary. You can include the middle initial if it's prominent in the film, but full middle names are almost never important. Mention minor characters by first name only or last name only, as appropriate.
Order of events
A plot summary doesn't have to cover the events of the story in the order they appear in, although scenes should be rearranged only when doing so helps to explain the plot. For instance, a non-chronological structure, including backstory where applicable, can be made chronological. If the structure of the original work is non-linear or experimental, the summary should state that fact in prose. We should assume that some of our readers will look the story up because they didn't understand it. Simply repeating what they saw won't help them.
For example, the events in Memento, Pulp Fiction, and If on a Winter's Night a Traveler are presented nonlinearly, and much of the audience's experience is based on untangling the plot. Presenting the events of these stories in the order of the original would not help to clear up the confusion.
As of February 2010, there has been little discussion about describing scenes out of chronological order in order to highlight distinct threads or subplots. However, many novels and feature-length films contain parallel storylines that should be explained in the summary. For example:
- romantic stories are included in most Hollywood films, notably People Will Talk
- the branching good-deed tree in Pay It Forward
- Once Upon a Time in the West contains a land battle and a mission of vengeance.
Try to maintain a linear flow of the "present" even if you describe events out of chronological order. You can do that by using the past tense for events that have already occurred and the future tense for events that haven't occurred yet. Generally speaking, it's usually better to follow a plot line to its conclusion and then describe whatever action you left out in the past tense, especially if you use the perfect tense ("Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the townsmen have formed a posse.") Many wikipedians seem to dislike discussions of events in the future. Don't use the past perfect tense ("The sheriff had arrived first and taken charge.") when all you're saying is that something happened in the past. Just use the past tense ("Dudley was late.") unless you're specifically saying that something happened before some time in the past. ("Dudley had .")
Characters, locations, etc.
For especially large or complex fictional works, certain elements may be split off into sub-articles per WP:SS. Such related articles should be clearly cross-linked so readers can maintain their understanding of the full context and impact of the work.
In the cases where we have articles on characters, locations, and other parts of a fictional work, we often have a section that amounts to a fictional biography. These sections are, essentially, just a different kind of plot summary. For instance, an article on Hamlet the character as opposed to Hamlet the play would just summarize Prince Hamlet's individual plot arc through the play. This works just like any other summary. Perhaps you might begin, "The play charts Hamlet's tragic downfall as he pursues revenge against his uncle Claudius", then summarize the events that contribute to that tragic downfall, using all the same guidelines you would in general.
By the nature of being an encyclopedia covering works of fiction, Wikipedia contains spoilers. It is traditional for Wikipedia articles on fiction (including featured articles) to summarize the work's plot in the section fairly early on (often immediately following the lead, though in other cases after a background section or list of characters and the actors who play them). Information should not be intentionally omitted from summaries in an effort to avoid "spoilers" within the encyclopedia article. (Spoiler warnings were used early in the project but the consensus of editors was that this practice was unencyclopedic so their use has been discontinued.)
However, when summarizing a plot and choosing what details to include, editors should use discretion. The advantages of exhaustive coverage of the work are in dynamic tension with the desire to preserve the artistic qualities of the work for readers. Add potentially "spoiling" detail where it substantially enhances the reader's understanding of the work and its impact but not when it merely ruins the experience of the work of fiction for our readers. Put spoilers as late as possible in the summary to minimize their impact.
Citations about the work of fiction generally (that is, cites addressing the commentary, impact or other real-world relevance of the work) are secondary sources no different from citations of non-fictional topics. All interpretation, synthesis or analysis of the plot must be based upon some secondary source.
Citations about the plot summary itself, however, may refer to the primary source - the work of fiction itself. For example, primary source citations are appropriate when including notable quotes from the work, citing the act/chapter/page/verse/etc of the quote within the work. For consolidated articles discussing a work published or broadcast in a serial form, a citation to the individual episode is appropriate to help readers to verify the summary. Plot summaries written purely from other summaries risk excessive loss of context and detail. While consulting other summaries may be helpful in narrowing down on what the major plot elements are, be sure to consult the primary source material to make sure you get it right.
Case study: Little Red Riding Hood
Let's go through an example: Little Red Riding Hood.
How to begin
The first thing we should ask is "What is Little Red Riding Hood about?" If you had one sentence to describe what it's about—not summarize it, just describe it—what would you say? Probably something like "Little Red Riding Hood is the story of a young girl's encounter with a dangerous wolf in the woods." Now that we have that, the next step is to figure out what the parts of that claim are that we're going to have to explain. There are three major ones—there's a young girl, a dangerous wolf, and an encounter. We're going to have to explain what all of those are.
Establishing the premise
We should start, probably, with the young girl—she does, after all, come first in our description and in the story. What is there to know about the young girl? Well, we'll want to know her name, what she's like, and what she's doing. So perhaps we'd continue "The girl, Little Red Riding Hood, is described as 'a dear little girl who was loved by everyone who looked at her.' She begins the story by trying to take some food to her ailing grandmother in the woods." This is good for a couple of reasons—the brief quote from the text serves to provide good evidence that the summary is being honest, and gives a good sense of her character. The basic premise of the story is described.
The only problem is that the name of the girl might be a bit confusing—"Little Red Riding Hood" is an odd name. We don't want to have things in the summary that will make the reader feel that they don't know what's going on. So perhaps we should rephrase: "The girl, named Little Red Riding Hood for the clothes she wears, is described …" These few words quickly clear up a source of confusion.
Let's move on. We've already got the girl. Now we need the wolf. What can be said about him? Well, he's another main character, so we'll want to get the same basic information—what do we call him, what's he like, and what does he want? Again, this can be done quickly: "She is noticed by a wolf in the forest, who wishes to eat her." Again, everything is there—we've got a wolf, and we know what he wants—he wants to eat Little Red Riding Hood (which happens to be a pretty good description of what he's like, too).
Getting to the good stuff
Now all we need is a description of the encounter. Here we'll want to figure out what the major parts of the encounter are. Obviously the highlight is the "My, what big teeth you have" sequence in the grandmother's house. But as with Red Riding Hood's name, if we just drop the conflict in the house in without context it will just confuse people. So we're going to have to unpack it a bit. On the other hand, we don't need everything in the story—we just need to get enough that the big events make sense.
So what do we need to know? We'll need to know how the wolf gets into the house and in the grandmother's bed, mainly. But here we have a choice—do we want to relate the story chronologically, or not? In this case, since the story has such an iconic scene, it might be best to start with that and work backwards. So we might write, "The wolf's plans come to a head when he encounters Red Riding Hood in her grandmother's house, having tricked her into revealing her destination and into stopping to pick flowers, giving the wolf time to get there first and capture her grandmother." What we've done here is clearly flagged the encounter in the house as the climax of the story, then gone back and filled in how we got there.
Now all that remains is to play out the encounter. Here, since we're describing a pretty short portion of the story, we should probably just be chronological. "The wolf, dressed in the grandmother's clothing, lures Red Riding Hood closer. Red Riding Hood grows suspicious, noting that the wolf does not look like her grandmother, remarking "Oh, what big eyes you have" and "Oh, what large ears you have." The wolf explains all of these things tenderly, noting that the eyes are so she can see Red Riding Hood better, until Red Riding Hood remarks on the wolf's teeth, at which point the wolf springs forward to devour her." This is, of course, much more detail than we've gone into elsewhere, but in this case it's worth it—the "what big eyes you have" dialog is an iconic moment of the story, and this encounter is one of the major events of the story. Simply put, this scene is a vital piece of information about the overall work. All the same, we have attempted to be concise—we've given only two examples of Red Riding Hood's questions, and only one of the Wolf's answers before jumping to the big one, the teeth.
Are we done? Well, no; we've still got a major part of our short summary unfulfilled—we've got some of the encounter, but the encounter isn't over. Thankfully, the ending here is quick and, really, less important than the scene before it. All we need is "She is saved when a woodcutter happens by the cottage and hears the wolf, charges in, and kills the wolf to rescue her and her grandmother." The woodcutter is really a bit of a deus ex machina to clear up the ending, and all we really need him for is to make the reader understand that we've come to the end of the encounter.
And at that point we've got it—we have all of the elements we laid out in our first sentence explained. The reader knows who the girl and the wolf are, and knows how their encounter plays out.
Putting it all together
So what does that give us?
- A young girl, named Little Red Riding Hood for the hooded cloak she wears, is described as 'a dear little girl who was loved by everyone who looked at her.' The story begins as the girl walks through the forest, carrying food to her ailing grandmother. She is noticed by a wolf who wishes to eat her. The wolf's plans come to a head when he encounters Red Riding Hood in her grandmother's house, having tricked her into revealing her destination and into stopping to pick flowers, giving the wolf time to get there first and capture her grandmother. The wolf, dressed in the grandmother's clothing, lures Red Riding Hood closer. Red Riding Hood grows suspicious, noting that the wolf does not look like her grandmother, remarking "Oh, what big eyes you have" and "Oh, what large ears you have." The wolf explains all of these things tenderly, noting that the eyes are so she can see Red Riding Hood better, until Red Riding Hood remarks on the wolf's teeth, at which point the wolf springs forward to devour her. She is saved when a woodcutter happens by the cottage and hears the wolf, charges in, and kills the wolf to rescue her and her grandmother.
Obviously when you're writing a plot summary you probably won't go into as much careful detail in thinking about every decision—for the most part, stuff like picking what's important and what's not is intuitive, and doesn't require a lot of analysis. However, this example gives a sense of the logic that underlies a good summary.
Some argument could be had here about what to include: Should we have mentioned "The better to eat you with"? Is everything clear? Does only including two of the wolf's responses to the questions confuse the reader? Multiple versions of this story exist, and we've only described one of the many endings. Some sourced discussion and expansion of this part would help generalize the plot summary. However, these sorts of things are where collaborative editing and discussion come into play.
Nitty-gritty: for the truly anal
- Don't say that something "tells the story" of a person unless it's a complete biography. A human being's story lasts at least from their birth to their death, possibly even longer with a backstory and/or epilogue. For any other story, specify more precisely what part of, or events in, the person's life the story describes.
- Don't use the progressive and past-perfect tenses ("he is doing" and "he had done") unless they're really appropriate. These tenses tend to be overused by many writers. Progressive should be used only when a process is interrupted. Past perfect should be used only when the thing being described occurred before something else, and only when that time relationship is important.
- Don't refer to characters by their relationships with other characters if you've already mentioned their names. Novelists do this for dramatic effect to evoke the emotion in the relationship, but it's not good exposition.
Try to avoid using big words. Use them only when they make the text clearer.
|Big word||Small word that's just as good|
These are verbs that concisely describe common events in stories: escape, trick, claim, insist, go (the form of transportation is often unimportant) persuade (to do something; "convince" applies only to ideas)
There are two problems with simple sentences: First, they're boring; and second, they omit useful information about how different actions and ideas are related. Compound sentences are a great way to show how or why various statements occur together. They typically use connecting words like "then", "when", "before", "after", "so", "since", "because", "and", "but", and "however".
But don't combine sentences gratuitously. Connectors should be used to indicate important relationships between the individual statements they connect.
Don't abuse introductory descriptors, as in "A tall man, Hank can touch the ceiling." The descriptor "A tall man" is an abbreviation for "Because he is a tall man". Many writers abuse this convention, as in "Directed by Federico Fellini, the film features an all-star cast." and "A tall man, Hank is an expert mathematician.".
Don't use adjectives to make statements. It can be tempting to write things like "A weary Walter falls into bed", but it's not good exposition. There's only one Walter, so don't write "a Walter", either with or without an adjective.
Communication should be mentioned only when the communication itself is important. Telling, asking, deciding, going, and other forms of transportation and communication are usually unimportant. There are definitely exceptions, but most of a summary should be about actions and the thoughts and feelings that motivate them. A rejected offer may be important, but if the offer is accepted and the acceptance isn't unusual or surprising, just describe the transaction. Likewise with questions and answers.
When communication is important, use the right verb:
- tell: describe something simple
- explain: describe something true and complex
- reveal: describe something that was hidden. This word tends to be somewhat overused. "tell" or "explain" is usually better unless the information was intentionally or physically hidden.
- claim: describe something that may or may not be true
- falsely claim: describe something untrue
- insist: describe a fact or recommend an action emphatically
- persuade: affect someone's actions. Persuading happens fairly often in stories.
- convince: affect someone's beliefs. Convincing does not happen very often in stories. Any effort to change someone's behavior is persuasion.
- order: command authoritatively
- suggest: make a claim or recommend an action politely or tentatively.
- This standard parallels the dynamic tension between the policy that Wikipedia is not censored, and the practice of not tolerating sensationalism or offensiveness for its own sake.