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How not to write a Wikipedia article

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By theleekycauldron
This Wikipedia essay was first posted in April 2022. You may edit the essay, but please do so at Wikipedia:Source your plot summaries, not here. Essays express the opinions of individual contributors, rather than those of the Signpost team, and do not constitute official Wikipedia policies and guidelines.

Wikipedia articles concerning fiction frequently feature overly long or excessively detailed plot summaries. While any plot section can be trimmed, it can be hard to know what to cut if one hasn't consumed the relevant media, while those who have might be tempted to explain any intricacy that arises to give the reader the full experience of the show. This essay offers a solution: sourced plot summaries.

Reasons to source plot summaries

While editors are encouraged by MOS:PLOTSOURCE to rely on secondary sources, the guideline does not require that they do so; the reasoning goes that it is generally assumed that the work itself is the primary source for the plot summary. However, relying on this can lead to original research and overly long summaries. Sourcing plot summaries provides clear benefits in terms of overall encyclopedic value to the reader.


Articles on fictional works often cover something a future article editor would never read; novels in genres they have no interest in, TV shows on streaming platforms or channels they don't have, movies in languages they can't speak or translate. Given this, while any editor can in theory verify a plot summary by gaining a detailed understanding of a work in order to find out what's important to the plot, this isn't a widely-utilized solution in practice. Basing plot summaries on reliable sourcing allows the next reader to reassess and re-evaluate the length and content of the plot summary with the same agreed-upon and widely accessible yardstick, thus minimizing the risk of original research slipping in.

Minimalism and due weight

It seems not unreasonable to speculate that articles about fictional works have a tendency to be written by fans of the work, and that the in-depth knowledge of a work's plot possessed by a fan tends to lead to plot summaries stretching too long and giving too much detail. Pieces of trivia and other cruft can frequently work their way in, and without having read or watched the original, it can be difficult to know whether the relevant piece of cruft is actually important. By referencing sources for a plot summary, editors can check whether a given fact discussed in enough detail to be relevant, or if it's even mentioned at all. Relying on organizations that have more rigorous editorial processes helps keep the information presented by Wikipedia minimal, relevant, and encyclopedic. This essayist, however, regrets not being able to talk about Bob Murray's kidney stones in their first featured article.

Other media

Fictional characters

Articles on fictional characters arguably suffer from long and irrelevant plot summaries more than their parent works. Characters can build up long, complicated backstories over years in their movie franchise or book series or television serial; and in an absence of abundant coverage, editors may be tempted to revert to writing long "character biography" sections as a substitute for real-world encyclopedic content. There is a better way; character articles are prime targets for mixing real-world, reliably sourced interpretation with canon. Instead of giving a complete history of the character's appearances and little details found in flashbacks, consider using reliable sourcing to talk about the character's personality, their strengths and weaknesses, how and if they evolve, and if there are weak points in the character's writing or portrayal.[a] Utilizing reliable sourcing in a character's article can provide a clearer, broader set of topics that appeal to all readers, and not just fans.

For non-fiction, too!

This problem isn't limited to works of fiction, either; political books, documentaries, scholarly articles, and history books all have lots of content that might need to be summarized if the work qualifies for a Wikipedia article. However, for political books especially, the main idea should not be to summarize every point and argument made, or even the ones that stand out. By referencing reliable sources, critical review especially,[b] editors can get an idea of what parts of the argument are most important, and allows for a minimalist argument summary that is still a valid and comprehensive reference for the reception section.


  1. ^ This, of course, could no longer go in a section labelled "character biography", but perhaps "character role" would substitute well.
  2. ^ Critical review is ideal because some works are the subject of long-yet-trivial coverage. You can find, for example, lots of articles from respectable news outlets about episodes of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver—but many turn out to be sensationalist recapping that just focuses on the eye-catching parts. Articles that contain real, critical review are more likely to be focused on the most important aspects of a work, instead of the parts that make the most clickbaity headlines.

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Nice when you can do so, but try to find, for example, a plot summary of an obscure Victorian play, or, for that matter, in many cases a plot summary that includes details of the ending. Also, there's numerous cases where I've seen inaccuracies (or, at best, descriptions that reflect changes made in a particular performance) in summaries of a play; if we're not using the original work, and don't have sources to contradict it, are we forced to include inaccuracies?

If what's suggested here can be done, it should be done, but it really, really isn't that big of a deal if we do use the original source.

And, of course, sometimes complaints about a plot summary being too long can be counterproductive: If I'm considering putting on a play or opera or something, I need enough information to get a good idea of whether the plot sounds interesting. A paragraph-long explanation that strips it down too much inevitably makes it sound generic and trite.

There's good reasons for holding back a bit when it comes to copyrighted works. But with ones out of copyright? For rarely-performed plays, hard-to-find books, and so on? The detail is valuable. I remember when the movement to trim down plot summaries began. For years afterwards, half the plot summaries on Wikipedia were downright unusable without going to the page history, because they did things like cut the sentences introducing a character, and then suddenly names began appearing later with no context, or failed to establish a conflict until discussing the resolution of it. We don't need Round Two of that. Adam Cuerden (talk)Has about 7.9% of all FPs 21:47, 29 May 2022 (UTC)[reply]

Also, using second-hand plot summaries [because that's what "sourcing" plot summaries is] means a higher chance that an error slips in. Jo-Jo Eumerus (talk) 08:09, 30 May 2022 (UTC)[reply]

If you can't find any sources describing the ending of the work, then I would personally consider it undue weight to describe the ending in the plot summary/synopsis. Poorly-considered trimming can be an issue, sure, but I like seeing this essay, as this has been part of my own Wikipedia writing philosophy for a long time :) ~Maplestrip/Mable (chat) 14:05, 30 May 2022 (UTC)[reply]
I'm not sure I buy that. I really don't want to have to track down a French-language play and translate the 18th century French to learn how it ends, because the people reviewing it when one could easily see a performance of it wanted to avoid spoilers.
If you're describing a performance, weight is very different than in an encyclopedic article. Adam Cuerden (talk)Has about 7.9% of all FPs 19:39, 30 May 2022 (UTC)[reply]
Nevertheless, using secondary sources exclusively is, and always has been, how this encyclopedia is built. If there are insufficient secondary sources, that says to me that the topic is not notable.--~TPW 13:34, 1 June 2022 (UTC)[reply]
That's... not an accurate description of Wikipedia:No_original_research#Primary. Which even says "an article about a novel may cite passages to describe the plot". Adam Cuerden (talk)Has about 7.9% of all FPs 17:20, 1 June 2022 (UTC)[reply]
Good advice. Reminds me of that time when I wrote an article about a book without ever having read it. Avoids the famed WP:PLOTBLOAT issues. RandomCanadian (talk / contribs) 16:25, 2 June 2022 (UTC)[reply]
With a plot summary that focuses very heavily on the setup and then descends into vagueness before describing anything after that. Which, y'know, is probably okay for a recent novel, but utterly useless for a historic novel. Adam Cuerden (talk)Has about 7.9% of all FPs 22:48, 8 June 2022 (UTC)[reply]


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