How to reverse engineer story structure by studying the blurbs and short summaries of stories you already know
Maybe it’s true that reverse engineering is my favorite kind of engineering. If that is true, I wonder what that says about me?
One thing I have been doing lately is digging to read the synopsis of different movies or books that I am familiar with.
Why on earth am I doing this?
It’s an interesting view into the craft of synopsis-writing. It’s also a way of looking at story structure.
What is a synopsis?
A synopsis is a condensed version of the entire story. Think of a knowitall friend who wants to tell you the entire story rather than let you experience it. In the showing versus telling arena, a synopsis is 100% telling.
Some synopses are detailed and others are more abbreviated. If you happen to be writing one for an agent or publisher, aim for one to two single-spaced pages.
Here is a really detailed synopsis for Star Wars.
What is a story blurb?
Its short summary. I use the terms interchangeably. It is that bit of text that you see when you click the title to get more info about it. Generally the short summary appears below the title.
A short summary differs from a synopsis in purpose. A synopsis generally gives the entire story whereas a blurb or short summary has the purpose of selling the story to the potential audience. It’s trying to convince you to watch it, so it won’t give away all the details.
How we normally experience the summary
Often we only see the summary as a part of the story’s facade — we stand outside the movie theatre and stare at the movie posters and read the little taglines to see if any of them seem appealing.
Or sitting on the loveseat, we flip through Netflix. You could watch the trailer, sure. But how do you know if you’re willing to even invest the time it takes to watch the trailer? Read that little blurby-blurb some call the summary.
The role of the short summary is to give us a sense for the movie’s main points without giving away anything that happens. It’s also supposed to sell the movie, so there is a focus on tensions and really bringing to the forefront any specifics that shape the film.
For example, here’s the blurb for Alien
After a space merchant vessel perceives an unknown transmission as a distress call, its landing on the source moon finds one of the crew attacked by a mysterious lifeform, and they soon realize that its life cycle has merely begun.
During a preview tour, a theme park suffers a major power breakdown that allows its cloned dinosaur exhibits to run amok.
A terminally ill woman has to settle on her former husband’s new lover, who will be their children’s stepmother.
A working-class Italian-American bouncer becomes the driver of an African-American classical pianist on a tour of venues through the 1960s American South.
It’s interesting the way that a summary does give away some of the story. Reading it, we know more about where things will head than when we actually begin the story. We know that Frodo will begin the quest to Mount Doom, even though the first half hour or more of the movie is probably spent giving backstory and deliberating on other things. Someone correct me if you have the exact minute marker and I’ll add that here.
Or there are movies like Enter the Void where the summary gives a much more brisk and cinched-up version of events than the actual movie, which is remarkably spacey and expansive:
A French drug dealer living in Tokyo is betrayed by his best friend and killed in a drug deal. His soul, observing the repercussions of his death, seeks resurrection.
This example highlights what I’m looking for when I study the synopses of movies I have seen and books I have already read. Sometimes there is no synopsis available, and all I have to go by is the short summary.
It’s enlightening to get a snappy portrayal of what happened in a story. Since I definitely prioritize my experience of it, I am not always closely tracking the plot arc when I watch a movie.
Reading the synopsis or summary reminds me of what I was actually watching. The lived experience can feel somewhat more amorphous at times.
Another key example would be something like Harry Potter. It’s a story that can become so much about itself that it’s hart to see the forest for the trees. If someone asks us what Harry Potter is about, we might think that they’ve missed the point. What it’s about is not important. What really makes the story live is all the little details and dynamics, the muggles and horcruxes and wandlore.
An orphaned boy enrolls in a school of wizardry, where he learns the truth about himself, his family and the terrible evil that haunts the magical world.
or for the Fellowship of the Ring
A meek Hobbit from the Shire and eight companions set out on a journey to destroy the powerful One Ring and save Middle-earth from the Dark Lord Sauron.
Oh, so it’s a story about a journey, we might say. This Dark Lord Sauron sounds like a bad dude, we might say.
And yet in terms of the actual story, Sauron is far less active than the ring itself (or, if you please, is active by way of the ring).
So many details which are vital to the story are not really there in a good synopsis. And that’s part of what makes this an intriguing aspect of story to reverse-engineer. To trace backwards from your familiarity with the story and notice what the synopsis includes.