Monday, January 9, 2012

How not to write a synopsis

As a guy who's done a lot of film writing in my day, I've also synopsized a lot of movies.

And by this I don't mean I've summarized the plot of a lot of movies -- that's not the point of a synopsis. If you want that -- and I sometimes do, if I've been falling to sleep during the second half of a movie -- wikipedia usually has excellently detailed outlines of movie plots from beginning to end (even if they are not always excellently written). The spoiler alert is assumed.

The synopsis is really to give readers a taste of what the movie is about -- to give them about what the trailer gives them, assuming it's a trailer with the standard level of exposition. Roughly approximated, it's about as much information as you would learn in the first ten or fifteen minutes of the movie -- who the characters are, and what their (overt) goals seem to be.

And so it's very important not to write a synopsis based on information you could have only gleaned by watching the whole movie. If you're going to synopsize a movie for public consumption after you've seen it, you have to be oh-so-careful to remember what information you learned, when.

This is why I'm pulling out an example from one of my own former colleagues for this post. It's not because he's a bad guy (in fact I don't know him personally), and I actually think he can be quite a strong writer. It's because he pretty much blew some of the key surprises about Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol by failing to adhere to this simple synopsizing protocol (if you will). (But because I don't want to throw him under the bus, I'm not going to name him or the site name in this post.)

And because this plot synopsis will constitute a spoiler for those of you who haven't seen the movie, I'm going to invite anyone in that category to stop reading right now.

Okay, we good?

Actually, there's really only one sentence in his synopsis that's relevant to today's discussion, so I'll include only that. (Which will also make it less likely that you'll track down who I'm talking about.) Here's what he wrote:

"As the movie opens, Ethan Hunt (played once again by Tom Cruise) is busted out of a Russian jail, where he was imprisoned for taking revenge for the apparent death of his wife (Michelle Monaghan)."

If you've seen the movie (and I'm assuming everyone who's still reading has, or doesn't care if they haven't), you know that there are actually three violations of synopsizing etiquette in this sentence. In possible order of their magnitude:

1) At the beginning of the movie, we know only that Hunt was in a Russian prison. We have no idea why he was there until much later, when it is part of a key reveal in the plot.

2) That key reveal is that his wife was killed, and he took revenge on those who killed her. However, this reveal probably does not come until an hour in, at which point, we are supposed to take it at face value. Plot synopses are all about the parts of the plot we are supposed to take at face value. So even if her death was revealed in the first 15 minutes, and therefore appropriate as part of a synopsis, you wouldn't want to call it an "apparent" death -- that only signals to the reader that things are not as they seem. (Imagine synopsizing The Sixth Sense and referring to Bruce Willis' character as "a psychiatrist who may or may not be alive.")

3) By giving Michelle Monaghan's name in parentheses, you are essentially telling the reader she appears in this movie -- something that doesn't occur until its final five minutes. Sure, you could just be reminding the reader of what he/she knows from Mission: Impossible III, but unless an actor or actress appears in the cast of the current movie, parenthetically mentioning them in connection with a character name is misleading at best. (Of course, she could have been killed in the opening of this movie, but once they start watching, viewers will quickly realize that's not the case -- and have the rest of the movie tarnished for them at that point.)

People who write about film for a public audience have such a sacred responsibility to respect the intentions of the filmmakers, not to mention create the best possible circumstances for a viewer to receive and benefit from those intentions, that I can't help but write about this. I know that my appreciation of this incredibly fun action movie would have been severely compromised if I'd read this synopsis before I saw the movie.

So I hate to single you out, So-and-So from Such-and-Such website. But my own intentions are only good ones. And if you do happen to read this, maybe it'll help make you a better synopsizer -- and help save some of your readers from having future movies casually spoiled through careless writing.


Travis McClain said...

The whole damn industry needs to be slapped about this, from the studio people who release trailers to the people who write reviews that go to print before movies even open.

One of the worst I've seen was the DVD release of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The "synopsis" on the back of the DVD package--released by Paramount, no less--lists the cast as including


"And as if all that weren't enough, the biggest star that ever aimed a six-shooter plays the man of the title: JOHN WAYNE."

Way to go, Paramount. Finding out that Tom Doniphan is the man who actually shot Liberty Valance IS THE BIG REVEAL AT THE END OF THE WHOLE DAMN MOVIE.

Vancetastic said...

Travis - Wow, it's quite the Valance-centric day for you, isn't it?

That's a great -- and by "great" I mean, of course, "terrible" -- example. An ounce of a clue could have prevented that error.

Sometimes, it's impossible to avoid it. Like when Jaye Davidson got nominated for best supporting actor for The Crying Game, the cat was pretty much out of the bag. But errors like this should be simply enough not to make.