Short and Sometimes Sweet

by Courtney Coffman

In this, the latest post in our series of reflections on the nature of “good writing,” Courtney Coffman captures the poetry and fun that can be found in distilling a movie to its essence. Courtney is the Manager of Lectures and Publications at the School of Architecture. 

A few years ago, I began taking screen-shots of various Netflix program descriptions. My collecting began while re-watching spontaneous episodes of The Office. I first noticed the series description as a witty summary: “The boss is an idiot, the workers are clueless, elaborate pranks and feuds abound. Just another day at the office.” The short-yet-succinct blurb made me chuckle at how apt 20 words can be about a 201-episode show. I began browsing through the seemingly infinite content and read the description blurbs of various movies and shows. And as I read, I began to really hone in on certain categories of descriptions throughout the streaming platform, snapping ones that were humorous, ridiculous, or extra short—nailing the plot in as few words as possible.

Lady Bird, for example—an award-winning, record-breaking film, written and directed by Greta Gerwig, produced and distributed by indie powerhouse A24—is described as: “Catholic school. Mother-daughter friction. First love. Growing up is a mixed bag, and she’s spreading her wings fast.” It seems ridiculous to pare down a coming-of-age film to such shorthand, yet the effect is efficient, rhythmic, possibly even poetic.

Another example includes the social network—the film that sensationalized pulling back the curtain on Facebook and its contested inception, introducing the world to Mark Zuckerburg—which is streamlined to “A software nerd hacks into a college website. The word ‘friend’ and millions of lives will never be the same again.” By bracketing the word friend in quotes, we reflexively understand the story—it’s a sly wink that casually foreshadows the social breakdown of such relational terms and how humble beginnings have reoriented the world as we know it.

It turns out, I’m not the only one who has noticed the power of Netflix’s copywriters. In late-2018, Buzzfeed posted “16 Netflix Descriptions For TV Shows And Movies That Are Freaking Funny.” Their listicle includes descriptions like “Love, laughter and the best friends you could ask for. Just like real life. But with really nice apartments,” (FRIENDS), “Friendship—plus hot clothes and stiff cocktails—will get these ladies through anything. Even heartbreak,” (Sex and the City), and “An eccentric FBI agent investigates a murder in a small town full of secrets. Then things get weird. REALLY weird,” (Twin Peaks). Despite the clickbait headline, this minimalist technique has maximal impact, especially these days as film studios continue to release extended-length trailers that suffer from TMI (“too much information”). Instead, these descriptions demand the writers thoughtfully translate, synthesize, and edit for a quick-and-to-the-point description that communicates with the widest of audiences—teasing out some without giving away all.

I often find myself thinking about these descriptions when I’m trying to articulate an opening in an essay, or capture a closing statement at the end of a piece. To orchestrate a seemingly perfunctory line that grabs the reader’s attention and lures them in, ensnaring them into a narrative, or the swan song that stays ringing in their head before they move along to another selection.