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7 On Structure # 2: Plot Construction – Meandering

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.

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23 thoughts on “7 On Structure # 2: Plot Construction – Meandering”

  1. “Why is this the movie and not say, their lives last week?”

    Well, the zombies didn’t attack last week.

    That started off as a joke comment, but that’s the reason behind timing in all movies, isn’t it? A movie about Marty McFly hanging out would probably be fine, but if we hang around till he gets transported back in time, that’s a movie.

  2. Thanks Dave!

    Oli – no hanging around of any kind please, I think of screenplay structure as the equivalent of the NO LOITERING signs you used to see in places in the 80s. Move along now. Or go straight to screenplay jail ; )

    Mike – I thought the same thing! Just ‘cos it had a few guns in it and Bale gets his head blown off at the end does not a thriller make. Think that was a sly genre misdirection to put up rentals there…

  3. “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.”

    Do you realise that all of those are positive/negative, romantic/violent? Shows what you think about most! You sound like my perfect woman…lol

  4. (…emerging from lurker-dom again)

    lucy, as i tried to load up your website i was instead redirected to some site that told my computer was monitoring all the adult websites i visit and did i want to get rid of that? is that a new sideline for you?

    back to the point: reading your post made me fleetingly think of ‘elephant’, which kind of… well, meanders. and if you think about it, most (without sounding like a twat) commercial writers would have started the film where elephant ends. what are your thoughts on this film? (by the by i’m a total gus van sant fan and love it. although my own private idaho was better)

  5. Ah well, yes.

    In his book (oh no, he’s going to mention it again!) “Writing a Great Movie” (he he he he) Jeff Kitchen quotes someone else who said something like:

    What typifies the amateur is the “unnecessary”: unnecessary dialogue, unnecessary scenes, unnecessary acts … completely unnecessary scripts.

    And the techniques described in the book help the writer avoid the unnecessary.

    One of the main points is plotting backwards: Start with where you want to end up and work backwards, working out the cause and effect that gets you there. (That’s the brief version, there’s a lot more to it than that.)

    It works.

    I don’t think TV is that different really. Just because you have as much time as you want, doesn’t mean the audience doesn’t want storylines to reach a conclusion. There can just be lots of them.

    Hill Street Blues started it, the story of the week to satisfy but long running character story arcs as well.

    Babylon 5 went almost too far (pity JMS coldn’t finish it the way he planned) sometimes there were only character arc episodes. Which meant once it started you couldn’t get into it.

    Heroes does this even more dramatically but always makes a point of resolving things properly as it goes along.

    Personally I have no faith in the “characters make story” just as I don’t believe in the reverse. But then you’ve already done that one 🙂

    But I’m probably getting off the point. I agree that structure is vital and more importantly avoid the unnecessary.

  6. Thanks Elinor. Gracious me, leave your blog alone for 5 seconds…

    Anon – I AM your perfect woman, or you DIE. (For those of you who may miss the joke, that’s my other half commenting).

    H – Welcome back…and you got me. I’ve been making a significant amount a week from that, but don’t tell anyone! As for elephant, couldn’t tell you as I haven’t watched it! I looked at it, but it looked boring — dunno if that answers your Q?! : )

    Steve – you’re on commission for this book, aren’t you? And now now English Dave, some people like screenwriting books! I’ve seen them be a big help to some writers – tho I’ve also seen them confuse others even more. But as I always say: all things in moderation, be it alcohol, chocolate or screenwriting books.

  7. Oops, forgot Oli: you *could* start the film “just before” but what if you started the film “just after” that “something” had happened or AS it happened? That’s the notion of “hitting the ground running” for me.

  8. Great post. Much of what you say applies to tv too, I think. Structure and action are what propel you through the story. It doesn’t mean you are sacrificing character. Character is action. Who cares what they say — what they do is what speaks loudest.

  9. I tend to think that the meandering plot is due to too small a premise i.e. it not driving the plot right through 90 minutes.

    A good outline should in theory address the problem before it arises. However I know that my more naive outlines haven’t equated with actual screen time too well. As a result one beat in an outline can last ten minutes while another is only a brief visual.

    All in all it leads me to thinking that a first draft is where you discover these problems. There’s nothing quite like ramming a rod of red hot narrative up the arse of a meandering first draft. Especially if it’s a fluffy rom-com.

  10. Hi Jill. I agree – though I say in the post that an argument *could* be made for character-driven TV, really I’m of the view that it is plot-driven (and should be) too. Even in the case of soap opera, we watch because of what those characters are up to, not just ‘cos we like those characters. Everything is “larger than life” in effect, hinting that it’s the situation, not the character, that we are most interested in.

    Anon – “There’s nothing quite like ramming a rod of red hot narrative up the arse of a meandering first draft” is going to my new motto! ; ) I take it you’re not my husband tho?! He wouldn’t know where to get a red got narrative… Or where the arse of a meandering first draft is either now you come to mention it! My money is on Dublin Dave… Am I right?

  11. Re when to start the film; variable.

    Back to the Future (to continue my example) wouldn’t work if Marty McFly was already in the 50s at the start of the movie. Too confusing, and we lose all of the set up for characters so there’s no irony when we see their younger selves.

    Memento, on the other hand, works perfectly well with an inciting incident that happens both off screen and years beforehand, but part of Memento’s charm is throwing you into the same situation as the lead character.

    Some films would work better starting later – 28 Days Later would have been vastly improved by cutting the opening scene; a) because then you’re thrown into the situation with the protagonist as above and b) because that scene’s bloody awful. Monkeys? Monkeys aren’t scary, and neither’s that bloke from Alan Partridge.

    Some would probably work either way. Jaws may well have worked without the opening shark attack, but there would have had to have been more exposition, so in balance I say keep it.

    To be fair, I can’t think of many films that would benefit from starting earlier though. The extended cut of the Wicker Man makes more sense, but loses atmosphere. It’s a trade off.

  12. “To be fair, I can’t think of many films that would benefit from starting earlier though.”

    That’ll be because you have to start LATE! ; )

    Can’t comment on BACK TO THE FUTURE because I’ve never seen it [SHOCK, HORROR! Kill me now] except for the one clip where Christopher Whatsisface gets shot by the guys in the van, but part of the notion of hitting the ground running relies on stating your intent in the first few minutes of the movie. Presumably in Back to the Future there is some notion, very early on, that time travel is part of the story and arena. In the same way then, we *should* know, from the start, what kind of story/genre etc we’re dealing with – else it meanders.

  13. Actually, BACK TO THE FUTURE spends one heck of a lot of time setting up characters and history. And it’s really blatant SETTING UP, too: we get somebody telling us the town clock was struck by lightning thirty years ago, and stuff like that. I’m amazed it works. It’s kind of prologue rather than first act. During the 50s section, the central problem is for Fox to sort out the mess he’s made of his parents’ lives and get, well, back to the future. But the opening establishes the problems of his parents in the 80s, and by the time he’s fixed things in the 50s, those problems are also taken care of, so there’s an epilogue revealing that.
    It’s all very smoothly interwoven so that the prologue sets up all these useful things that pay off in the 50s.
    Meanwhile, I wanted to say that Robert McKee is, for once, rather good in the whole plot/character thing. For him, the two are the same, or so closely related as to be inseparable. Plot is character in action. The only real way to learn about a character dramatically is to see them struggle with a dramatic situation, and certainly the most holistic approach to that is to organise your situations so that they interrelate and build and drive the character on, and subject him/her to a sort of destructive testing, as they say in car manufacture. That’s how we find out what they’re made of. Character without plot is not just undramatic, it’s not really there at all, and plot without SOME kind of character, however rudimentary, can’t really be either.
    My personal feeling is that theme can be drawn out by the writer only after the fact, once some sense of plot and character is already in place. What do others think?

  14. That’s interesting on BACK TO THE FUTURE David – but then I suppose it was a little different 20-odd years ago, just like ALIEN spends a long time setting up The Nostromo etc before they get the call from the beacon. Like all stuff, even filmwriting is subject to fashion of sorts I suppose. Guess I’ll have to watch it tho to form a definite opinion!

    As for theme though, I think you should start with it first in constructing your narrative, so whilst it should form part of plot and character, I don’t think you can draw it out afterwards as that’s when what you’re trying to say gets muddled.

  15. Whoo–writer war alert. Haha!

    Insightful read Lucy. Now of course it’s got me thinking again about the script i’ve written and given me that hideous feeling you get when you sense something needs chopping 🙁

    Thanks a lot mate.

  16. The theme thing interests me. I was thrilled to read Alexander Mackendrick saying that starting with theme didn’t seem to him to be a good approach, because it reinforced what I’d always felt. I think you need to shape plot and character first, though perhaps not in a full draft. When the piece starts to TELL YOU what it’s about thematically, that allows you to take a hand in shaping the plot and character to deal with that more effectively. I’m guessing this is probably different for a lot of people, but I can see a danger in putting theme first: the story becomes a trite illustration of a one-sentence truism. But it’s probably true that some themes are already bursting with story possibilities — “the duality of man” is one that kind of cries out for narrative development, and then you have Jekyll and Hyde. Except that that story came from a dream, and the author found out what it meant in the process of writing two drafts.

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