On Wikipedia Plot Summaries
I don’t like things that are long. Ok, make all your jokes now, but I’m serious. And I think most things are too long. I think that most TV shows don’t need to be that long. I don’t think golf, track meets, or baseball games need to be that long. I don’t think most of the stories that comedians tell need to be that long. I think that most guitar solos run out of ideas about halfway through and then spend the rest of it killing time until its over. I think that almost any piece of classical music could be stopped halfway through and no one in the audience would notice or say anything. I think that most people don’t need to be so tall. I like haiku. I like a good 30-minute TV show (with commercials). I like a one-liner. I don’t think all these movies need to be 2+ hours long.
I’ve come to love and depend on the Wikipedia plot summaries for movies that I can’t watch because they’ll scare me, or because I don’t wanna pay for them and don’t know how to pirate stuff. It all began when I was in 5th grade and had nightmares about the Jigsaw character from the Saw movies. At the time I knew nothing about the movies, only that the puppet was terrifying, and my morbid curiosity drew me to learning more about the series. After reading the Wikipedia pages for all of the movies and the video games in the franchise, learning about the traps, and figuring out the timeline, I found myself able to sleep much better at night. I had realized that those movies were stupid, and I shouldn’t be scared of them because they didn’t make any sense.
Since that time in 5th grade I, like many others, have gone down hours and days worth of Wikipedia rabbit holes. I use Wikipedia to read about movies that I will likely never see, or to read about movies that I may one day see but am impatient to know about. Last year, when my friends wanted to go to a nighttime showing of Hereditary hosted by my school, I spent the day leading up to the event searching the movie’s Wikipedia page for warnings about whatever scary moments I’d encounter. I then used the page’s plot summary to find the specific scariest points in the movie on YouTube, which I watched in order to desensitize myself to the gore and tension.
The Wikipedia plot summary for the movie Prisoners is an impressive one. The plot summary captures the tension and confusion present throughout the movie as detective Loki and the Birch and Dover families all try to find out what happened to two missing children, Joy and Anna. At least I think it does. I’ve never actually seen Prisoners. Anyway, the second paragraph of the summary is very well done:
“Loki discovers Taylor was abducted as a child. As Taylor meticulously scribbles maze drawings, Loki assaults him and demands the location of the missing girls. Taylor grabs an officer’s gun and kills himself without revealing their location. The Birches and Dovers view photos of Taylor’s apartment and identify several bloody clothes as Joy’s and Anna’s and conclude the girls are dead. At Taylor’s apartment, Loki realizes many of the clothes are store-bought and are soaked with pig’s blood.”
This summary economically uses imagery of the mazes and the bloody clothes in the apartment. The summary also zooms in on key scenes, like when Taylor is drawing during the interrogation or the split-second when he shoots himself. And the final two sentences about the discovery of the bloody clothes and the reveal that it was all a decoy serve to create a tension and release in the reader; the horror and resolution of discovering the murderer’s identity is presented and then ripped away as Loki and the Dovers work with their pieces of the puzzle.
But this Wikipedia plot summary does leave something to be desired. When adapting a story like Prisoners with lots of characters and similar names onto Wikipedia, a reader will have to scroll up and down the page to remember character names and their relationships. This will obviously cause a subpar experience, and can lead to readers misunderstanding key plot points or twists. So let’s look at another example of a movie that avoids this problem, but runs into an even stranger one:
OH YEAH, SPOILERS FOR THE MOVIE FUNNY GAMES IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN IT, BUT I HAVEN’T ACTUALLY SEEN IT EITHER
The 1997 movie Funny Games, a German-language movie directed by Michael Haneke, revolves around a family — husband and wife Georg and Ann, son Georgie, and dog Rolfi — that arrives on their Austrian vacation and meet two polite young men dressed in white named Peter and Paul (easy to remember as they’re both biblical names and both begin with P). That night, Peter and Paul take the family hostage, and over the course of twelve hours the two men toy with and kill the entire family one by one. The movie didn’t do well. I think it lost money, but I can’t be sure because I don’t have ImdbPro so I can’t look that up. So in 2007 Haneke made a shot-for-shot remake in English set in America. The two movies had different cinematographers and editors, but the translated script was the same and the movies are otherwise identical (there were some minor cultural changes, such as Georg becoming George and Rolfi being renamed Lucky). These movies are, for all purposes, the same, except one is in German and one is in English. Each of these movies has their own Wikipedia page. The strange thing is that the plot summaries for these two movies are different. Here’s the first paragraph of the 1997 version’s plot summary:
“A wealthy family — Georg, his wife Anna, their son Georgie, and their dog Rolfi — arrive at their holiday home beside a lake in Austria. They spot their next-door neighbor Fred accompanied by two young Viennese men whom they do not recognize. Fred introduces the men as Peter and Paul, one of whom Fred claims is the son of a friend.”
And here’s the first paragraph for the 2007 American version:
“George and Ann Farber, their son Georgie, and their dog Lucky arrive at their lake house. Their next-door neighbour, Fred, is seen with two young men, Peter and Paul. They find Fred reacting somewhat awkwardly. Fred and Paul come over to help put the boat into the lake. After they leave, George and Georgie stay outside by the lake, tending to their boat. Georgie asks his father why Fred was behaving so strangely.”
Some of these changes are cultural. In the 1997 version the family is identified as wealthy and locations are named; in the 2007 version the family is given a last name. But both versions make different choices on what plot information to give the reader. For example, 1997’s plot summary is shorter, but it also leaves out the fact that the two families have boats, which will become important later in the movie. The 1997 version also takes a longer time on the scene where the family meets the neighbor with Peter and Paul, recounting that whole conversation. That conversation will become important later because Peter and Paul will force Ann to tell a different neighbor the same thing once she’s been taken hostage. The 2007 version, however, skims over this interaction in favor of telling how Georgie is already suspicious of the young men. This piece of information will also be important later on as Ann, who has no reason to be suspicious of Peter and Paul, lets them both into the family’s house, which is when they take the family hostage.
There’s something else important to know about Funny Games: Peter and Paul aren’t just killing for killing’s sake. They know they’re in a movie, and throughout the movie they break the fourth wall to address the audience and include them in pivotal moments. The weirdest thing about these movies’ Wikipedia pages is that plot summary for the 2007 version of the movie explains this, but the 1997 version leaves all that out. Here’s the last paragraph of the 2007 version:
“Peter and Paul kill George and take Ann, bound and gagged, out onto the family’s boat. Ann tries to free herself, but is caught by Paul and Peter. Around eight o’clock in the morning, they nonchalantly throw her into the water to drown, thus winning their bet. They knock on the door of the Thompsons’ house and request some eggs. The film ends with Paul glancing at the camera with a smirk.”
And here’s the last paragraph of the 1997 version:
“Georg and Anna weep for their loss, but eventually resolve to survive. Anna flees the house while Georg, with a broken leg, tries to repair the malfunctioning phone. Anna struggles to find help, but eventually Peter and Paul reappear, capture her, and return to the house. They kill Georg and take Anna out on the family’s boat early the next morning. Around 8:00, Paul casually throws the bound Anna into the water to drown, thus winning their bet. Shortly after, the men arrive at Eva’s house and knock on the door, asking for some eggs.”
If you were to only read the plot summary for the 1997 version of this movie (and keep in mind that’s often all that I read) then you would miss out on the most interesting part of — and arguably the whole point of — the movie. This not only fundamentally changes someone’s relationship with the movie, but it can cause problems if you happen to be someone who’s reading these so you can A) not be scared when watching or B) act like you’ve seen it in conversation.
There’s one Wikipedia plot summary that’s perfect, and this will be the last one and then I’ll be done talking about this. It’s Moonlight’s (full disclosure: I have actually seen this movie before). It’s divided into three acts like the movie, and the final paragraphs of act three take the reader somewhere transcendent:
“Chiron travels to Miami and visits Kevin at his workplace, a diner. When his attempts to probe Chiron about his life result in silence, Kevin tells him he’s had a child with an ex-girlfriend and, although the relationship ended, he is fulfilled by his role as a father. Chiron reciprocates by talking about his unexpected drug dealing, and asks Kevin why he called. Kevin plays a song on the jukebox that made him think of Chiron.
After Kevin serves Chiron dinner, the two of them go to his apartment. Kevin tells Chiron that he is happy despite the fact that his life didn’t turn out as he had hoped, resulting in Chiron breaking down and admitting that he has not been intimate with anybody since their encounter years ago. As Kevin comforts him, Black remembers himself as Little, standing on a beach in the moonlight.”
This plot summary manages to mirror the silence and tension in Moonlight. There’s a part where the summary literally says that a question, “[results] in silence,” but it’s only later in that paragraph when the summary leaves space for that silence in the way it recounts, “[Chiron] asks Kevin why he called. Kevin plays a song on the jukebox that made him think of Chiron.” You can feel the tension in that unanswered question, the silence as Kevin walks up to the jukebox, and the emotion as the two men listen to it. When we get to the last paragraph and the end of the story we’re in the same mood that the movie has created by this point. The two men finally address the elephant in the room, and the summary ends on the same note the movie does: retreating to a dreamlike memory of innocence in a brutal world. The summary is immersed in the language of the movie it’s summarizing. It’s in service of the movie and its messages.
Much of the work in pages 1 to 100 of Infinite Jest comes from figuring out what the hell is actually going on with this book structurally and narratively. I will give Wallace credit for getting around the problem of name confusion by supplying the reader with a series of truly unforgettable names: a wealthy tennis prodigy named Hal Incandenza, a veiled actress and cocaine addict named Joelle Van Dyne, a Quebecois separatist and wheelchair assassin named Rémy Marathe, and a former burglar and dedicated AA member named Don Gately, to name a few. But for most of these first 100 pages you’ll encounter several tricks by Wallace before the book settles into pace. For example: the first chapter is written in the first person POV of Hal Incandenza, but the rest of the book is written in a omniscient third person that latches onto and abandons dozens of characters. This chapter also occurs towards the chronological end of the story Wallace is telling, but you’d be forgiven for not noticing that. This is because while he does say the year each chapter takes place, the different years in this world are “sponsored,” meaning that they’re called things like Year of the Whopper, Year of the Whisper-Quiet Maytag Dishwasher, and Year of the Depends Adult Undergarment (Y.D.A.U. is when most of the novel takes place, and likely corresponds to 2009). And because the book is so dense and filled with esoteric information, the Wikipedia page for Infinite Jest isn’t that much help.
While I was jumping through all these hoops simply trying to read I had to ask myself: Does David Foster Wallace even want anyone to read his book? Is he actively trying to get me to give up on it? Is this some kind of weird way to weed out certain readers? And I don’t know. Wallace obviously never answered either of those questions. What I do know is that there are other writers, critics, and academics who say that David Foster Wallace is a great writer because he demands a lot more from his readers than most writers do, which is true. But this also sounds like a nice way of calling Wallace difficult and annoying, and that’s also true.
In Mary Karr’s essay “Against Decoration” (which I discovered via her Wikipedia page) she criticizes Neo-formalist poetry, a vague and unorganized poetic movement that rose to prominence in the 1980s and 90s. She calls it, “decorative poetry,” meaning poetry that’s ornamented with strict forms and complicated language that works to cover up its weak core. Karr writes that, “Like cats in jewelry or babies in makeup, the ornaments detract from rather than illuminate their subjects.” And she names names, dissecting several Neo-formalist poems by popular poets to prove how empty they are once you peak below the surface. At one point Karr writes,
“I always thought that poetry’s primary purpose was to stir emotion, and that one’s delight in dense idiom or syntax or allusion served a secondary one. I don’t mind, for instance, working hard to read Paradise Lost, because I return to Milton for the terror and hubris Satan embodies.”
I’ve never read Paradise Lost, so I have to take Karr’s word for it. After a lot of contextualizing and examples of the failures of Neo-formalist poetry, she states,
“So while I defend formal verse and approve Neo-formalist goals — a revival of rich language and a literary history all but ignored since the free-verse revolution — I abhor its current practice as the source of perhaps the most emotionally vacant work ever written.”
She later references theorist Rudolph Arnheim, explaining,
“Rudolph Arnheim once warned against an art that generates chaotic forms under the guise of reflecting a chaotic world. It’s that very chaos that I see in the ascendancy in much decorative poetry.”
Do those last two quotes remind you of anything? Maybe a piece of art obsessed with “rich language” and “chaotic forms?” I’m talking about Infinite Jest, of course. Infinite Jest is the work of both an overeducated academic (this isn’t a burn, this is what he often calls himself) and a writer tapped into contemporary trends. And so far the book seems to combine my least favorite aspects of academic writing and Neo-formalist poetry: it’s a tome of dense language filled with scientific and obscure words, it’s purposely chaotic, and its ornaments often obscure the emotional core of Wallace’s writing. I don’t think Wallace’s writing has been emotionally vacant so far, but I do think that the nature of his prose means that readers will often miss all his messages, ponderings, and “we live in a society” moments because they’re too busy sifting through the text itself.
It seems to me like Karr is making an argument about accessibility. Neo-formalist poetry is not written for a wide audience, but rather for a small inner circle of critics, overeducated middle-aged people, academics, and other poets. It was in part a response to the shrinking audience for poetry. It was a way for poets to say, “if you don’t wanna read this, then I’m gonna make sure you can’t read this.” But that’s no way to treat art. The artist has to meet the audience where they’re at, to an extent. If a writer has something to say, shouldn’t their first duty be to make that thing as clear as they can in their chosen medium? What good is your knowledge if you can’t pass it on to anyone else? I worry that the rest of Infinite Jest, in its fractured structure and its dense prose, will prove too difficult for any reader to sift through and pry emotion out of. In Infinite Jest, Wallace is reaching towards the limits of what the novel could do in the 1990s, but I simply am not following for much of it. I’m not asking for David Foster Wallace to edit Infinite Jest into a pamphlet explaining his thoughts about entertainment and addiction, but I am wishing that he’d guide the audience to where he is, if even just a little bit. Because currently Infinite Jest is in a position where it resists being read and begs to be celebrated. I don’t know if that’s the way a work of art should function.
For a long time I thought that poetry and prose should be measured by its complexity, and it should be the most accurate possible reflection of the writer’s mind and experiences. I don’t think I believe that anymore. But I don’t know if it should be measured by its simplicity, either. I think there has to be some amount of accessibility or some guidance by the artist through their art, though. If there isn’t then the artist might just be showing off.
A Wikipedia page is an anonymous contribution to society. I know nothing about the people who wrote the Wikipedia plot summary for Moonlight. I don’t know how many people worked on it, how long it took, or who they were. It’s an act of service without ego. There is a message that needs to be conveyed, so somebody conveys that message without barrier. If you don’t understand something then it’s filled with links. They’re for you to learn. It begs to be read and resists being celebrated. It’s free, and it’s for you. It might be the most accessible thing ever made. Many people have worked very hard to make something that not only contains the limits of human knowledge, but something that also designed to let everyone reach that limit. Being academic is easy. Even I can do it. Being accessible is hard.