Quote of the Day: Secret Reviewer Trick

“If a review contains more than one paragraph of plot synopsis, then the reviewer is most likely trying to pad the word count because he/she doesn’t have much to say about anything else.”
Jim Emerson, in a piece about Shutter Island spoilers.

I try to keep plot/premise description to one sentence, myself, although that’s per story — so an anthology will have several, and a manga with distinct story chapters will as well.

Sometimes you do want to discuss the ending, but that should be a separate, clearly labeled piece from a review, I think. Emerson goes on to say that you can write about such things in a way that those who know the secret can get the point without ruining the experience for those who haven’t read/seen it yet. I agree, although it takes some skill and practice.

But remember the secret: if you’re reading a review that sounds like a book report — “and then this happened” — the reviewer needs to be challenged to engage the material in more depth, or they should have passed it by for something else they did have something to say about.

14 Responses to “Quote of the Day: Secret Reviewer Trick”

  1. Melinda Beasi Says:

    My view is that plot synopsis in a review exists solely for the purpose of putting the review in context. That’s how you measure how much of it you need. Include whatever is necessary for your discussion to make sense, no more, no less. Some extremely plotty series may require more synopsis than others in order to give the review sufficient context (in my opinion, and I’ll argue this vigorously) but as long as that remains the purpose, it won’t feel like a book report.

  2. moritheil Says:

    Fascinating. I almost never include more than a sentence or two of plot synopsis, because my reviews tend to focus on contextualizing the work rather than literally describing it. It can leave readers who have no idea what the work is somewhat in the dust, but I suppose this is a question of intended purpose. Sometimes your audience consists primarily of people who already know of the work, at least in general terms.

  3. Johanna Says:

    Melinda, I agree. A lot depends on how it’s presented, and plot elements can be discussed in ways that reveal the author’s skill or other evaluative ways, not just lists of events.

    Moritheil, that’s an interesting approach. I don’t think I’d be comfortable writing that way, assuming my readers already know the book.

  4. Katherine Dacey Says:

    I generally balk at formulas such as “one paragraph for summary,” especially when dealing with books as complex as, say, MW, but I think the author’s advice is well-taken: too much summary can ruin the reader experience. Conversely, I’ve read a lot of film and comics criticism that is utterly incomprehensible without a working knowledge of the movie or book, which seems as problematic as a review that simply describes what happens.

  5. Johanna Says:

    There’s a difference between formulas and rules. The former is a pattern writers may find helpful to follow. The latter is to protect them; you can always break rules, but it’s better if you understand why and how. Like learning anatomy before cubism. It works better if you know why the rules exist in the first place.

    And yes, going too far the other direction is a problem, too.

  6. Katherine Dacey Says:

    Johanna, I understand the difference between formulas and rules — I’ve studied counterpoint in considerable depth, and if there was ever a rule-driven field, it’s musical composition. My main point was simply that I find those kind of proscriptive statements limiting and a little self-serving, as they usually reflect the author’s own bias.

  7. Johanna Says:

    I didn’t mean for you to infer that I was correcting you — I’m also working through my own thoughts and setting out my opinions for the wider readership (who are welcome to join the conversation whenever they want or just read), not just us two.

    I guess we’ll have to disagree on the usefulness of such guidelines, then. I’ve talked to and seen a lot of young reviewers who I think benefit from such.

  8. Katherine Dacey Says:

    Thanks for the clarification, Johanna — tone is always very hard to read online.

    I’m a little surprised by your comments because your own reviewing guidelines — which I think are excellent, by the way — are much less proscriptive than the essay you quote. What I like best about your essay is that you don’t just give reviewers a recipe to follow (e.g. “five sentences on plot, two sentences on characters, one paragraph about the art”), you outline the thought-process behind a good review. The author of the Shutter Island piece engages with some of the same issues as you do, but the tone is different; he wags his finger at other writers, which I think is off-putting for reviewers who are just getting started.

  9. Johanna Says:

    Yeah, I’m sorry me trying to elaborate on my thoughts sounded like lecturing. :)

    I didn’t get quite that strength of tone from the linked piece, but I admit, since I hadn’t seen the movie, I skimmed part of it. I picked up the particular quote that started this thread because I’m guilty of doing that myself, talking more about plot when I have nothing else to say about the book, so it resonated with me.

    And I do follow something of a recipe myself, although it usually ends up boiling down to “darn, I haven’t said anything about the art yet, must cover that!”

  10. Leigh Walton Says:

    It depends on your intended audience, doesn’t it?

    For librarians, it’s helpful to have a summary of everything that happens (so they can make appropriate buying decisions) – this is especially necessary in a long-running manga series that may have varying levels of “adult content” in different volumes, and it’s helpful to be warned about the bait-and-switch.

    But for the end user / reader? Anyone who’s read the book already knows what happened, anyone who’s not planning to read the book wouldn’t be very interested in a lengthy plot summary, and anyone who is planning to read the book doesn’t want to have the experience spoiled! So none of these readers are looking for a long summary. Whereas a consumer-guide review that evaluates the book’s appeal, or a critical reading that draws out useful insights, would still have value to all of those types.

    What confuses me here, Johanna, is that this blog post follows soon after a lengthy Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service review made up of something like 80% plot summary! Which is fine if your primary audience is librarians, I just don’t see how it fits with the policy you lay out here.

  11. Johanna Says:

    That’s one reason I rarely do series reviews any more — they do end up unbalanced, as I say what I like about the series and then find myself not sure how to elaborate on specific volumes beyond noting the stories in each one. Note, though, that I also covered that case in the original post, where I mentioned manga that contain several stories per volume. :)

  12. Chris Says:

    Also, sometimes the author is just a shitty writer.

  13. Jim Kosmicki Says:

    I just wanted to say thanks for this post and the synchronicity of it. I was teaching critical analysis and writing critiques in my ENGL 102 class just this week and pulled this posting up on the screen to reinforce that it wasn’t just me saying that you had to do more than just write a plot summary to write an effective critique.

  14. Johanna Says:

    Glad it helped, Jim! Wow, real world effect.




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