Character vs Plot

Plot is not Story.  Plot is a tool that can help you with your story.  It might help quite a bit.  But it might not.  It might even hurt.  Who remembers learning all the ‘versus’ categories in school?  The Most Dangerous Game…Man vs Man.  The Old Man and the Sea…Man vs Nature.  The Lady or the Tiger…Man vs Doors?  Whatever.  I’m still not sure what those categories were supposed to teach us about literature. What about The Call of the Wild? I might ask the main character’s a freakin dog.  Ummm…my teacher might reply…It’s still Man vs Nature, the dog really stands for man.  Yeah, I might have said back, but every step the dog makes takes him closer and closer to nature, not versus nature.  Then my teacher might ignore me because she might have to admit that the versus categories, even broader than plot categories, are pretty much meaningless and have no effect whatsoever in how good the story is.

Plot is neither good nor bad it’s just a tool.  Learn it quickly and move on to something better, more fun, and more interesting.  Your characters.  If you can write a good character, plot will become meaningless.  People remember the characters, not the plot.  Ask someone what Raiders of the Lost Ark is about.  They might say it’s an Adventure Plot.  They might say it’s an Underdog Plot, or a Quest plot, or even Man vs. Man.  But more likely it will be some version of this–“This dude, Indiana Jones, is a professor of archaeology.  He wears a fedora and leather jacket and carries a whip and he looks for lost artifacts and he’s trying to find the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazi’s do.  Oh yeah it takes place in the ’30’s.  So, you know, there’s Nazis.”  It’s about this guy, it’s about these two young girls, it’s about a freakin sled dog.  Always the character first and what happens to them or what they do second.  Something to think about.

Pacing and the Director’s Cut

Awhile back my wife (in an apparent bid to become my ex-wife) loaned one of my DVD’s out without asking me.  The movie was Troy, one I like and watch fairly often.  After a few months of it not finding its way home I just bought a new copy.  But this copy was the director’s cut. 

According to the box there was 30 minutes of added footage.  The footage was not, however, huge swaths of deleted scenes.  There were actually very few scenes that weren’t in the theatrical release.  Instead there were alternate/extended versions of scenes we already had.  Sometimes just a line or two added.  The mechanical change was small but the overall effect was signifigant.  The tense, almost frenzied pace of the original was more measured. 

So which is better?  It’s a surprisingly hard question and very subjective.  Most of the added stuff is character intro and character motivation.  It definitely fleshes out the characters, especially Hector and Agamemnon.  Odysseus and Ajax get proper intros instead of just getting plopped in there.  Those are good things but there’s no question that the longer pace changes the feel.  Instead of the headlong pace of a straight action movie it plays more as a meditation on what drives men to war. 

Personally, I like a longer movie myself but then, I like longer novels as well.  I tend to favor director’s cuts with one exception–comedies.  I saw “The 40 Year Old Virgin” in the theater and it was great.  I have the unrated/extended version on DVD and it’s not as good.  It’s not that the extra stuff isn’t funny, it’s hilarious, but comedy is so much about timing.  There seems to be an ideal length for a funny movie and you know instinctively when they should just get on with it. 

So it would seem that pace (and therefore the lengt of the actual written work) are actually tied in with your genre.  What effect are you going for?

Defining a relationship with that one special line

A woman in my screenwriting class has a script about a fairly famous historical romance, and has struggled a bit. There are several interesting scenes between the two main characters, but as we read through what seemed like the defining scene between the pair, something was missing.

I noodled on it a bit, and told her I thought what was missing was a Defining Line.

I’d never looked at it this way before now, but I think in the movies with really memorable romantic relationships have this. Not just a scene that defines the pair’s feelings for each other, but a specific, taut line withing that scene – like the point of the pin – where it is all laid bare.

Some examples.  In Jerry Maguire you have Jerry’s famous line of “You complete me.”  In As Good As It Gets, it is when Melvin says “You make me want to be a better man.”  In Casablanca it is Rick saying “We’ll always have Paris.” In The Empire Strikes Back, it’s when Leia says she loves Han, and he replies “I know.”

In each case the line perfectly defines their relationship, and the line becomes memorable exactly because it is so perfect. It’s an incredibly difficult thing to do, but if you have a romantic climax in your movie, search out that line. Polish the scene until it comes out.

It’s too powerful to pass up, and may just make your good scene unforgettable.

Zombies: a series – Surviving An Uprising (Ignite Phoenix presentation)

I recently had the awesome experience of giving a presentation entitled “Surviving The Next Zombie Uprising” at Ignite Phoenix II. The format revolves around a 20 page presentation, with the slides automatically clicking over every 15 seconds. The five minutes feels like it goes by in a blur as you hit the main points on each slide.

After my topic was selected to be included, I had about a week and a half to put together the slides. I approached it like a screen writing project at that point, breaking down each section into “scenes”, each of which was to move the “story” along. I also tried to keep one of Jeff’s favorite mantras in mind at all times: “Enter late and leave early”. So, for instance, I did not open with “Hi, I’m here to talk to you about zombies”; instead, I chose to lead off with “Why have we had no global zombie uprising to date?” I felt that this imparted a hit-the-ground-running feeling right from the start.

After roughing out the first draft, I made two editing passes through the material and added in some “breather” slides, where I could pause. These were done as large graphics with a catchy title which I hoped would elicit a laugh from the audience allowing me to regroup my thoughts for the next sequence. Although I talked it out several times to myself, something I also do when working through dialogue in a screenplay, there was no substitute for the live experience. Reviewing the video, I definitely see several “scenes” that could have been tightened up.

Since it is a bit hard to see in the video at times, I have included the slide deck.

View the video on Blip TV.

Visualizing your plot in full color

I’ve started using a visual way to develop my screenplay, which is working out rather well. I’ve been working on a rather intriticate story that covers multiple timelines (past and present) that converge midway through the story.  It was driving me bonkers trying to remember what happened ” before” something else in the narrative.

Scenes and Timeline

Scenes and Timeline

I went to Lowe’s and bought a section of white board paneling, that is basically a section from a dry ease board.  I mounted it on my wall and divided it up by Acts.  In the picture, you can see Act I on the top. Act II covers the end of the top section, the middle, and part of the bottom.  Act III picks up the end of the third row.  The space on the bottom I left for notes and scratch work.

I then picked up a bunch of colored post-its and began noting down my major scenes.  The blue are the Past timeline, and the Pink are the current timeline. Orange indicates a major plot point that has to be revealed at some point along the way. The lone white post-it in the upper left is a plot issue I have to come back and work out.  I’m now able to see my pacing, juggle scenes easily, and use the colors to really highlight any problems. (Yes, that’s still a work in progress)

In a more traditional narrative, I use one color for Theme scenes, another for Character scenes, and a third for Plot scenes.  Under the idea that every scene should advance at least one of those three aspects of the story, I can see if I am spending too much time “talking”, or maybe not enough time since something really dynamic was happening on screen.

It’s a variation on using index cards to juggle scenes, but I prefer this for the color and the ability to see the whole picture at once.  This is in my writing area, so I can look up at any time from my writing and see what’s next, or get up and move things around.  I’m still refining the technique, but so far it is working out really well.

If you have any ideas what I could use to improve it, or if you use a technique similar to this for your own plot planning, I’d love to hear it!