SPOILER ALERT: Children of Men and Harsh Times
Plot construction is something a lot of “official” script reports look at it in detail. If you send your script to an initiative in order to apply for a course or for funding for example, there is a very good chance the reader will be asked to look at this and comment on how the writer has built up his/her narrative. There are two main problems that I usually flag up in this section of official script reports; there are of course many more, but it’s surprising just how many scripts have similar issues with plot construction and these usually boil down to either a plot having “too much” in it – or it meanders from event to event with little “keeping it together”. Now we’ve spoken a lot about the former, the “less is more” idea on the course of this blog, but we haven’t discussed the notion of meandering structure as much, so here goes.
It’s said that protagonists or groups of characters need some sort of goal, mission or arc to achieve dramatic satisfaction. Audiences want to see something put “out there” and drawn to some sort of conclusion. It’s how we work as human beings, we strive for order, we pigeon hole everything. Of course, “real life” doesn’t work out like this. You can go for days, weeks, even years before something is resolved; sometimes it never is. But movies are not real life. They are a ninety minute or so chunk of a representation of real life. And therein lies the key difference.
You can roll out all the usual “sayings” – drama is conflict, characters aren’t what they say but what they do, show it don’t tell it, push the story forward, blah blah blah – but knowing all these off by heart does not mean it actually happens in your draft, since how we interpret conflict, characters’ actions (or not), what pushing the story forward actually is, etc etc makes all the difference here. So if your screenplay comes back with feedback saying “structure meanders”, rather than justifying the action in your draft, I find thinking about this question is more useful:
What is action?
Putting your characters in different places, having them walk about, go and visit people etc is a great start and a vast improvement on having them sitting in the same room for pages at a time, but it isn’t neccessarily action. Action does not have to be explosions or running about, but action does mean you have to keep the story – that main goal, in essence the plot – “ticking over” the whole time. The moment your story takes a backseat is the moment your structure starts to meander. Okay, so your character has gone to a cafe, then the newsagent, then he saw the bomb being planted… But if this is a story about terrorism, why does your character need to go to the cafe and newsagent first? Think of Clive Owen’s character in Children of Men… The first we know of that bomb towards the beginning is when it goes off, but it adds to the plot construction, it gets Clive Owen’s character’s attention (and feeds into the moment where Julian has him abducted), plus adds to the arena’s notion that this is a dystopian future, one where terrorism is the norm and suicide packs are given out by the government in case it all becomes too much for despairing citizens.
When I first started writing I put a lot of faith in my characters to push my story forward. I think it’s the way screenwriting is taught in this country: start with the characters first, find them a story. It’ll all fall into place.
Yet it doesn’t. Instead often we have an aimless character, who wanders from one thing to another in the course of a feature script. Yes we get the gist of what they’re doing. Yes we may even understand what is going on. But the real heart of the matter here – do we care about this character? – does not figure as much. Why? Because part of why we’re watching that character is because of their mission, goal or arc – we want to see them win, lose, have to do something else, fall in love, get killed, turn into a vampire, shoot their best friend in the head or walk into the sunset.
In short – it’s plot that drives the movie character.
Books are generally character-driven. There could be a successful argument made that TV follows this rule too: you’ve got a place, job or whatever and characters dip in and out of it, which is why it’s so easy to replace them when certain actors move on. Cops n’ Docs is the obvious choice, since it brings in politics, scandal, relationships, issues and so on. Same goes for soap opera: one street is all you need as an “umbrella” over the heads of many different types of people, personalities, careers and aspirations and all the storyline threads that appear and disappear because of them.
But films are not the same. We’re watching a particular chunk of a character’s life for a particular reason. It’s ninety to a hundred minutes or so that make all the difference to those characters, thus plot figures more prominently. I often ask Bang2writers, why are we watching THIS BIT of this character’s life? Why is it important to THEM and therefore us, as an audience? Why is this the movie and not say, their lives last week? A year ago? A decade from now? In movies, we are essentially voyeurs and watching characters make decisions but crucially, we are watching them follow a designated path as particular events unfold.
Let’s consider Harsh Times. I didn’t like everything about this movie, but what I liked about it was as a classic “rise and fall” story, Christian Bale’s character Jim had a clear path whilst still keeping us guessing about what this psychopath was going to do next, much to the surprise of his best friend who was riding with him. We know, right from the outset, that Jim is headed for self destruction. We know that by the end, he will wind up dead. However, the path in which he gets from A (he is a respectable member of society) to B (it’s becoming much more questionable to the point of criminality – though he could still turn back!) to C (he is a full blown murderer and is murdered himself) is so convoluted as to keep us engaged as an audience. What’s more, all of what ensues is as a direct result of Jim’s expulsion from the LAPD training course. He would never have stolen the drugs if he hadn’t been chucked out; if he hadn’t been smoking the drugs, he’d never have faked his piss test for Homelands Security; if he hadn’t faked that, he wouldn’t have been found out and told he would be sent to some godforsaken place as a “soldier of the Apocalypse”, meaning he couldn’t marry his girlfriend after all, in turn meaning he would never have rejected news of her pregnancy… And so it goes on.
Plot should be about cause and effect in movies – one thing feeds into the next thing. This does not mean it needs to be entirely plot-driven at the expense of character of course, but character should never obfuscate what we’re really watching this for, which is plot. We would never say, “I’m going to watch a film about a bloke”, we say, “I’m going to watch a film about a bloke who is: transported back in time/is destroyed by the government/is falsely accused of killing his wife/attacked by psychopathic burglars etc.” A plot’s structure then needn’t always be obvious, like in Harsh Times, but there should be a thread that follows throughout your action so as to ensure your structure does not meander. Start as you mean to go on, without major detours on the way.