Wikipedia:How to write a plot summary
An encyclopedia article about a work of fiction frequently includes a concise summary of the plot. The description should be thorough enough for the reader to get a sense of what happens and to fully understand the impact of the work and the context of the commentary about it. On the other hand, the summary must be concise because Wikipedia's coverage of works of fiction should be about more than just the plot. Plot summaries that are too long and too detailed can be hard to read and are as unhelpful as those that are too short. Finding the right balance requires careful editorial discretion and discussion.
What summaries are not
A plot summary is not a recap. It should not cover every scene and every moment of a story. A website like Television Without Pity is a great resource, but we're not doing the same thing they are, and we shouldn't follow their lead on summaries.
Not only should a summary avoid a recap, there's also no reason why a plot summary has to cover the events of the story in the order they appear (though it is often useful). The point of a summary is not to reproduce the experience—it's to explain the story. If the original is non-linear or experimental in its structure, the article should state that fact in prose, not through regurgitation of the plot. For a confusing story, assume that some readers will look the story up because they didn't understand it. Just repeating what they saw isn't going to help.
Do not attempt to recreate the emotional impact of the work through the plot summary. Wikipedia is not a substitute for the original.
Ways of organizing a plot summary
The most common organization of a plot section is generally a self-contained section (designated by == Plot == or sometimes == Synopsis ==). By convention, story plots are written in the narrative present—that is, in the present tense as the story unfolds. Provide a comprehensive plot summary. If it makes the plot easier to explain, events can be reordered; for instance, a backstory revealed later in a novel can be put first, or an in medias res opening scene of a film can be described where it would occur later. A non-chronological narrative structure can be made chronological; for some works of this nature, the original non-chronological structure of the plot is of commentators' interest, such as for Memento. In these cases, it can be useful to include a brief out-of-universe summary to explain how the non-chronological narrative is presented in the work prior to presenting the chronological summary.
This section may contain commentary on the work, as in Candide, though this is not required and great care must be taken to avoid original research. For example, to describe an alleged deficiency in a plot as a "gaping plot hole" expresses an opinion that cannot be included in Wikipedia as if it were an established fact; it requires attribution to a source. In general, commentary is better suited to a Themes or Reception section.
What to cut
Michelangelo is said to have created David by "taking a block of marble and cutting away everything that was not David." Writing a plot summary is a similar process—you take a long work, and you cut out as much as possible. The question is, what do you cut?
The basic structure of many narrative plots includes a lengthy middle section during which characters repeatedly get in and out of trouble on their way to the climactic encounter. Although such events are exciting to watch, cutting less important ones can make the plot summary tighter and easier to understand.
Necessary detail, however, must be maintained. A summary of 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.
However, the Odyssey contains various scenes where people recount myths to each other, and other such scenes of little importance to the main plot. If most of these get left out, or mainly consist of a sentence or two, that is not a problem, and helps keep the focus on the main story. In works less vital to the foundations of academia and the founding of the Western literary tradition, even more detail could safely be left out as unimportant, including entire lengthy subplots.
The three basic elements of a story are plot, character and theme. Anything that is not necessary for a reader's understanding of these three elements, or is not widely recognized as an integral or iconic part of the work's notability, should not be included.
There is no universal set length for a plot summary, though it should not be excessively long. Well-written plot summaries describe the major events in the work, linking them together with fairly brief descriptions of less important scenes.
It is difficult to quantify a strict word limit since no two articles are equal, however the Wikipedia Manual of style offers some general recommendations to editors. The Film style guideline suggests that "plot summaries for feature films should be between 400 and 700 words". The TV style guideline recommends "no more than 200 words" for television episodes in episode lists, or "no more than 400 words" in standalone episode articles. The Novels style guideline says that plot summaries "should aim to be no more than three or four paragraphs". The Video game style guideline states "no more than approximately 700 words to retain focus". However, particularly complex plots may need a more lengthy summary than the general guidance.
While longer descriptions may appear to provide more data to the reader, a more concise summary may in fact be more informative as it highlights the most important elements. By focusing the reader's attention on the larger structures of a plot, without drowning it in trivial detail, a shorter summary can often help the reader to understand a work much better than an overlong one. Excessively detailed plot summaries may also infringe on copyright and fair-use concerns. See Wikipedia:Plot-only description of fictional works#Copyright for more.
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.)
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 issue or episode should be included 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." This short summary would generally go in the lead of the article. 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, called Little Red Riding Hood because of 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. Since, 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. 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, 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?
Little Red Riding Hood is the story of ayoung girl's encounter with a dangerous wolf in the woods. The girl, named Little Red Riding Hood for the clothes she wears, 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. She is noticed by a wolf in the forest, 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.
Not half bad. 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, some aspects, such as picking what is 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.
- For some stories—Memento, for instance, or If on a Winter's Night a Traveler—presenting events in the order of the original will simply add to the confusion. The events in these stories are presented non-linearly, and much of the experience is based on untangling the plot. For the purpose of an encyclopedia, we do not want to add to mystery—we want to explain.
For something like Memento, where the original order is there for a dramatic reason, we might note that the story is structured in a particular way, and we'll surely want to explain what parts of the story are treated as big revelations.
- As emotionally moving as the end of Hamlet is, the final fight does not need to be described in exquisite detail that attempts to recreate every emotional beat of the scene. Our article should not try to be a replacement for actually reading the play.