A perfect film summary for this class is really more like a “blurb,” or a snapshot of the narrative. It should be short, and it should be sweet.
When you begin to review and evaluate films, your focus should not be bogged down on every single insignificant detail; you should not be retelling the entire story. You are honestly just trying to capture the essence of the narrative, the conflicts, the characters, the symbolism, and the message or theme … not every individual subplot. Readers of these reviews and evaluations don’t need to know each character who shows up in the credits, that’s why you aim to hit the highlights of the story. Much like when friends and families ask what we did over the weekend … we don’t offer 48 hours of commentary … sometimes we can recap in 48 seconds.
When we review and evaluate films, examining the storyline is just one part of the greater picture. As we move along in this course, you will also critique in detail acting, cinematography, production design, music, sound design and more. Story is just one part of it, but story is the very foundation where everything begins.
How to capture a film summary in writing?
- Introduce your main characters & setting and identify the story question. Ultimately, you should share briefly what the story is “about”. Think about this: What is the main goal of your character(s)s? What are the opportunities for ‘character change’? You may want to offer the genre of the story (drama, comedy, action, adventure, mystery), and identify any key actors as well here.
Example: “Growing up in the 1950s deep south, Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks) is a bit different than most kids. He has an IQ of 75, yet his brilliance shines in his honest and simple approach to circumstances life throws his way. His love of family (and friends first) offer him some challenges, yet his adventures are beyond measure. His relationships with his mama, his childhood pal Jenny, his friends Bubba, and Lt. Dan provide key insight into this amazing journey of life and discovering “where one’s place is in society.” This magical drama/comedy/fantasy offers a unique story about an equally unique individual. The stellar cast includes Sally Field, Gary Sinise, Robin Wright and Mykelti Williamson.”
2. Introduce the character conflicts (at least the main one). What are the key challenges that stand in their way of the character’s goal? Try to offer which main crisis point drives the story (sometimes there may be more than one)? Begin to explore the themes (or life lessons).
Example: “Although not as smart as most people, Gump has the genius ability to impact everyone and every situation. From influencing the course of rock and roll; to becoming a collegiate football star; to surviving Vietnam warzones; to experiencing the loss of love and loved ones – Gump’s simple approach of living by the lessons his ‘mama taught him’ – offer themes that can change the world. Although, his journey is not without pain, suffering, anger and uncertainty. As he searches to find his place in the world, we discover his own uncertainties and the prejudice he receives from others may provide some of the highest hurdles and hardships. Being different is never an easy path.”
3. Offer highlights to key themes or life lessons. You should not address the story’s resolution, the film-going audience doesn’t need these spoilers. Let them find out how the story ends by watching the film themselves.
Example: “Friendship, love, commitment, loyalty and an unmatched honesty of character make Forrest Gump the ultimate story of exploring (and impacting) our own history. Through front-line military service, crazy career choices, and interactions with family, friends and perfect strangers, we ultimately realize that Gump’s love for others is the one thing that can heal everyone he encounters (and even himself). In the process, the audience comes to understand that we are not simply defined by how smart we are.”
So… let’s summarize ….
How to Write the Perfect Summary for a Film …
Capture the essence of the story. Is it a drama, a tragedy, a psychological thriller? Tell your audience about the setting, time period and theme (or universal messages) of the story. The setting gives context to the story and offers an understanding of where the characters live and where the central conflict exists. You do not need to offer descriptions of every subplot, scene, character, or plot point. Think about this as you write your summary: You want readers to have a clear understanding about storyline, characters, what is at stake for the characters, what they stand to win or lose. What is essential for readers to understand the story?
Introduce the reader to your main characters. Don’t list every character in each scene, just those who drive the story. Explain what motivates them. What are their goals? According to writer Donald Miller, “The character has to want something” for the audience to care. What conflicts are in the way of the characters achieving goals? “Conflict fills the story with meaning and beauty. Conflict gives value” … and without it there is “no character development.” Do the characters have psychological traits, feelings, or emotions that are important to understanding the story? Detailed character descriptions should only be addressed if they provide importance to the story.
Highlight the main points of the story in a somewhat linear order. Remember, there is no need to offer every single detail of each scene. You should only address the characters, conflicts, and goals that are meaningful to the reader understanding the story.
Make sure you highlight the key crisis situation(s) of your story. Offer an overview of what can be changed in the end (characters, the world or the audience)?
Edit your summary until each word, each sentence in written concisely. You want to make sure that every word you write matters. Keep your summary tight; make it understandable; keep it to the point. Make sure your reader isn’t confused by anything within your summary. Write with focus. One sentence should flow seamlessly into the next one. When you switch between ideas, make sure that it feels fluid, natural, and that the transitions are bridges to the next sentence. As you proof your work, you may find that you see confusing events or characters within your summary, if so, find a way to simplify those sections.
N.T. Manning II – 1.3.21
Beck, V. (2005, December 26). 5 Steps to Writing A Synopsis. Retrieved from http://www.vivianbeck.com/writing/5_steps_to_writing_a_synopsis.htm
Friedman, J. (2011, October 25). Back to Basics: Writing a Novel Synopsis | Jane Friedman. Retrieved from http://janefriedman.com/2011/10/25/novel-synopsis/
Manning II, N. T. (2020, August 12). What is Story? [The Film Critic Lecture notes].
Miller, D. (2015, January 17). How to Tell a Good Story With Your Life – or – The Four Critical Elements of a Meaningful Life. Retrieved from http://storylineblog.com/2012/03/06/how-to-tell-a-good-story-with-your-life/
Shore, J. (2013, August 30). How to Write a Story Summary. Retrieved from http://classroom.synonym.com/write-short-story-summary-3223.html