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Story Vs Plot

So Phill Barron has this post about character vs story, with a hilarious (not to mention foul-mouthed) paraphrasing of Tony Jordan’s assertion that it’s character, not story, you should start with when coming up with your ideas for scripts.

Yet should you start with character? This is an interesting point. Certainly when I was at university I had a lecturer who was absolutely positive it was character. He would bang on about the fact we had to know EVERYTHING about our characters, even what they “had for breakfast”. We would get character sheets where we would have to write character profiles and in seminars tell our peers just what made our character “tick”. This was often fun – usually ‘cos there was a ruck about sexism or stereotypical notions of gender, race and whatnot – but was it useful? Undoubtedly. But did it mean those students, including me, wrote coherent drafts?

One thing I see again and again as a script reader are great characters, floating around in a sea of structure-less story. Sometimes these characters have no story at all – just a series of events that seem disjointed or even innconnected altogether. It’s so common amongst those writers who’ve completed their first few scripts that it’s practically normal. You probably did it; I know I certainly did. Why? Because we didn’t understand just how important story is in constructing a screenplay, and if Story is important, so its wife Plot, their son Structure and its little sister, Pace.

Yet what is the difference between Story and Plot? How does Structure differ to Pace?

I ask my Bang2writers sometimes what their story is about. They might say something like, “It’s about this girl and she gets abused by her husband, so she cuts off his nads and puts them in a jar and travels across America being chased by Police but as a symbol of oppressed women everywhere, chucks the jar of nads into the Grand Canyon where they smash and get eaten by vultures.” Niiiice.

I think the problem here is that particular client has mistaken plot for story; we have so many interchangeable terms, it’s easy to get confused. When I say story, I’m looking for something like this when taking the above example into account: “This is a story of David versus Goliath; a woman fights back against her abusive husband.” This is why “they” say there’s only about five or six stories in the world. You can boil all “stories” – no matter how convoluted they are – down into a few pigeonholes. David and Goliath? What about all creature movies, ALIEN the most obvious. Good Versus Evil? Try STAR WARS et al and most kids’ movies. Fish Out of Water? How about a lot of comedies (CITY SLICKERS), some thrillers (WITNESS) and definitely a lot of dramas (YOU CAN COUNT ON ME).

So if story is the seed, then plot is the tree it grows into: the blow-by-blow account, if you like. My own script mentor always says to me, “You get caught up in your characters; you’re the one always saying that characters are not what they say but what they do, SO ARE WHAT THEY BLOODY DOING??” (He’s a hard task master… He beats me, too. Really.) Novels can get by for pages and pages with nothing but character; can a film? No. An audience would soon get bored. When the movie AMERICAN PSYCHO came out, a lot of people were outraged about the portrayal of Patrick Bateman: it was suggested, certainly among my circle of pseudo-intellectuals, that the combo of female screenwriter and director had “misunderstood” the androcentric point of Patrick Bateman’s homicidal tendencies – that he didn’t have one. He was privileged, bored and psychopathic in the book, so killed people (mainly women, though also a child). In the film, it was suggested – blink and you’ll miss it* – that perhaps Patrick Bateman was living within his own mind movie, that he never killed anyone at all: he just wanted to. Perhaps he was this other guy people kept mistaking him for, that Patrick Bateman was his alter-ego whom allowed him to explore his frustration.

The reason for the disparate interpretations may have also been one of irony against a book that proved scarily misogynistic to me that it made me feel quite ill, but also because film demands a POINT for a protagonist’s actions for the plot to work. We have access to a character’s thought patterns in a book, thus their motivations are more clear – or not, if they don’t have any; we are given a reason for that. However, in a film, the character needs a leg-up from plot: what you see is what you get, ergo motivations must become clear from what they do. If the point is there is no point, why are we watching?

More on the twins Structure and Pace.
* Patrick in the restaurant with Evelyn, drawing the scene on a napkin in which he killed the girl with the chainsaw; in addition, the girl being unable to raise any of his neighbours whilst he was killing her with the chainsaw; the killing of the cops and doorman in the style of a 70s-style thriller with no comeback; the answering machine message which his colleague “mistakes” as joke – whilst also mistaking Patrick for someone else.

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14 thoughts on “Story Vs Plot”

  1. Well Riboflavin, some people DO think it’s a faithful adaptation and in some ways, even I do: the interweaving of those monologue chapters about Whitney Houston and Phil Collins were masterly I thought.

    However, I got the distinct impression there was an undertone of irony in the film like I suggested; after all, Bateman kills that prostitute in the hallway of the apartment building, yet she bangs on all the doors yet no one comes – like in a bad dream. Cuts to next scene: he’s drawing it on the napkin while attempting to break up with Evelyn and failing dismally. That’s how I interpreted it, anyway.

  2. I haven’t seen the film for a while, but I remember thinking that Bateman’s failure to convince people that he’s a killer was more a comment on the banal, shallow world in which he operates. People either see him as a stand-up guy who likes to kid he’s a killer, or they just don’t want to believe it. As for no-one coming to a screaming woman’s aid, isn’t that sadly more realistic than dream-like? A good movie, though, considering how difficult the source material was, and one I’m due to watch again.

  3. All good points Jason – what convinced me though was the stereotypical way in which Bateman was able to foil the police coming after him, even causing their car to blow up – with him as the hero. Even he looked surprised. It was so stereotypical it screamed more to me of ego within his own head, than the notion of the “reality” in the film – especially considering he was actually so inept: Bateman practically fell over his own feet coming through the revolving doors when shooting the doorman. And later, I was never sure, but it *looks* like that same doorman later (when he’s supposed to be dead) when Bateman comes in to meet that guy about the answer machine message.

  4. To be honest, I think I was determined to see Bateman’s dastardly deeds as real because I generally detest ‘it’s all in their head’ stories/revelations. 🙂

    Was this kind of reality-doubt present in the book? Been so long since I read it. I wonder if the script was imbued with this doubt to slightly soften any potential controversy?

  5. Well, when I watched AP for the first time I was so confused by this ambiguity that I went back and read the book again… I ended up writing part of my dissertation about it (which was on adaptation and horror, books to screen). I was left in no doubt that what Bateman does is real, but was left with the distinct impression that it’s not real in the film.

    However, I think what the writer and director of the film did here was really clever, because it was ambiguous; it lacked that “Aha! None of it was real!” crap that can let some films of that ilk down – plenty of people viewed it as they did the book (like Riboflavin) and certain people saw it as ironic. Who knows who’s right? Who cares? It was a cracking watch, I think.

  6. Anya – so it’s not just me! Phew.

    Danny – LOVE that script too, one of my faves. SHOUT-OUT: Last time I looked I couldn’t find it online; if anyone has a PDF kicking about of the script that got shot (with or without the deleted scenes in the discotheque), I’d love you forever if you can send me a copy! I’ve got some cool scripts on PDF of various films if anyone wants to swap…

    ESM – well done for being the first one to spot my ahem, deliberate mistake. It should read, “disconnected” ; )

  7. When I read the book I came away with the impression it might all be in his head. It’s been a long time now, but I remember something about him getting chased by a park bench and people telling him the guy he said he’d murdered was in London and bits where he seemed to be trying to get caught and no one was interested and …

    Um, no, that’s all I remember – oh, except there’s a tense change somewhere or maybe a first to third person change?

    I would read the book again, but I still have nightmares.

  8. so your saying American Psycho is a a good or a bad example of character over plot, or plot over character?

    one of the ingenious aspects of this film (as well as other films with crazy people in them) is that you can’t be totally sure of anything… maybe this is his character, maybe he’s a product of the system…?

    thx for the helpful posts in general, i was drawn to this one for the cinematic content

  9. I would actually assert most films start with concept – and from the concept choose either characters that fit the concept and then the plot comes from the character motivations OR the outline a plot that serves the concept and create characters that serve that plot.

    Certainly I think this is true for "high concept" pics, and nearly always for genre pics.

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