Columns > Published on October 7th, 2015

Do It Right, Write Plotless Reviews

Nobody needs a book summary from you. Sorry. 

You can find a book summary anywhere. There's a whole flap on the cover that summarizes the plot. There's the Amazon description. There's the Goodreads reviews. There's a white bar at the top of every electronic screen where you can type in the title of a book and then see what happens.

There are plenty of summary options. We don't need your book summary.

What we need, what we really, really need, is your book review, and the less summary there is in your review, the better.

How does that work?

If You're Not Convinced That Summary Is Worthless, Even Damaging

Fine, you obstinate jerk. Let's run through the problems with using summary as a review.

I have a friend who really loves the movie The Usual Suspects, and one of his great wishes is to be able to wipe his memory of the movie and then see it again without knowing anything. If you've seen The Usual Suspects, you know it's really hard to explain why it's good without blowing the ending. And at the same time, if you blow the ending, you blow the story. Same thing with The Sixth Sense.

Summary reviews rob readers of that first-time experience. And it's a mistake to sacrifice surprises, big or small, on the altar of review.

Here's the other problem. Review is subjective, and therefore the summary used in reviews is also subjective. To quote someone a lot smarter than me, Elliott Kalan, you can summarize Star Wars like this:

Star Wars is a movie about an old man taking a young man to a bar. 

While every part of me likes the idea of a weird, possibly-inappropriate romance taking place in the Star Wars universe, that summary doesn't do the movie justice. 

It's an extreme example, but it's designed to show you that what you choose to summarize and how you look at the whole story will change your review, and it'll change your review's effect.

How Do You Review Without Plot, You Self-Righteous Buttface?

I deserve that. I called you an obstinate jerk. Fair's fair. 

First, decide why you're reviewing.

There are only a few reasons to review anything.

  1. You want to encourage people to read the book you've just enjoyed.
  2. You want to discourage people from wasting their time on something that sucked.
  3. You want/need to write a thing.

In the first instance, the idea is to entice someone to experience the book for themselves. The idea is not to do the lifting for them. It's the difference between a travel guide and armchair travel. Armchair travel is about telling you what happens somewhere in such detail that you maybe, just maybe don't feel like you need to go. It's a substitute for being there. Travel guides entice you to go somewhere for yourself. You want to be a travel guide. Travel guides are always in sorry, battered shape because people actually read them. Meanwhile, every person over the age of 68 has a huge collection of unread National Geographic magazines in the basement.

In the second instance, okay, the plot might be very stupid, and the stupidity of the plot might be crucial to the review. I've read about a quarter of Tyra Banks' Modelland. Believe me, I know a book with a stupid plot. The characters travel to a faraway land in a giant ball sack. That happens.

However, even with bad plot, you have to give us more. Because frankly, it's very hard to describe a plot that's just plain bad differently from a plot that's bad but enjoyable. Think of a movie like Tango & Cash. They construct a battle van. And it's awesome. Bad and enjoyable. Think about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot. That movie proved that a battle van and a bad plot don't always equal cinematic magic.

In the third instance, if you're writing a review to write a piece or because it's a job, that's legit. And remember that in that case, you're writing for other people. Make it something other people want to read. Treat it like a real piece of writing. No fair just summing up a book. Someone already got paid to do that.

Alright. Methods. Let's talk methods.

The Decapitation Method

A lot of book reviewers will write reviews like this:

Raw Delia is the story of a spunky girl detective who finds herself embroiled in a world of mystery when her uncle wills her a million dollars, but only if she can survive a night in a haunted mansion. As she snarks her way through projected ghosts, cardboard wolf-men, and maybe even a creature or two from a gray-ish lagoon, Delia learns a bit about herself, the value of money, and just what a prankster an uncle can be when he uses hallucinogenic mushrooms every day for the last 30 years of his life.

Raw Delia has a style that...

STOP! Stop right there.

The book happened in the first paragraph. The REVIEW happened at the beginning of the second.

Look through your old reviews. It might be as easy as cutting off the head. Put on your executioner's hood, get that standard executioner "fat-ripped" bod, and chop off the head of your reviews.

The Emotional Rollercoaster Method

This one is easy, and I recommend it if you're trying this out for the first time.

Finish these sentences.

When I picked up this book, I felt:

When I was about 25 pages in, I felt:

When I was half way through, I felt:

When I finished, I felt:

Now that it's two weeks later, I feel:

Congratulations. You just wrote a book review that tells me a lot about the reading experience without telling me everything that's IN the book.

The Appeals Connective Tissue Method

Hey, you loved Demolition Man, right? Well, I've got a book for you.

God, what I would pay to hear someone say that sentence. 

When you connect a book to other media someone enjoys, you can relate what's great about a book without explaining every plot point. You can draw on the feelings and experiences from another thing that's already been explored to talk about what makes this new thing great.

The Carnie

One of my favorite reviewers of all time is Dave Carnie. He's a pro when it comes to reviews that actively avoid the topic at hand.

If you want to go all-out, no summary, one method is to write about something only tangentially related to what you're reviewing. Or to use the book review as a launch pad to write something else entirely.

And yes, I'm also putting a crapped-your-pants story on a higher pedestal than a summary of a book.

"I was reading this book, and it had a sentence about lasagna. And that reminded me of the last time I crapped my pants."

Yes, I understand that when you write a book review, it might be disappointing for some to read about a time you crapped your pants.

And yes, I'm also putting a crapped-your-pants story on a higher pedestal than a summary of a book. This is certainly not everyone's opinion.

But I will say this. When I scroll through reviews, when I see one that has a funny line or does something different, I'm in. That's a review I want to read. When you tell the story of a time you crapped your pants, hell, you're telling the story no one else can tell.

To Summarize Finalize

Yes, you'll probably find that you need a bit of summary in your reviews. I understand that. My suggestion, my gentle suggestion, which is gentle only because I don't have the battle van that allows me to back up opinions with force, is that you avoid summary as much as you can. Think of summary the way you do adverbs, or maybe recreational drugs. It's cool to use them sometimes, but you should be aware of how often it's going down, and minimize where you can.

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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