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Plot + Easy = Myth

You don’t have to go far on this ol’ interweb to find claims that character and dialogue are the most important things in the *good* spec script. In fact, some places/people say, they are SO important a reader can forgive any other transgression including a non existent or problematic plot, because (apparently), stuff like plot can be “fixed later”.

But is this actually true, or a myth? Well, if you look at the blog title, then you know what I think already and I’ll explain why in glorious technicolour, next. But, like all things in this scriptwriting malarkey, it’s hard to say for certain – especially because everyone has different versions of how this thing works.

However, we’ve all heard of *this*:

[Insert very famous screenwriter here] who says s/he knew nothing about plot, but wrote [this really excellent character/dialogue in their spec] and [somebody, somewhere we’d recognise] read it, believed in the character/dialogue so believed in the [now-famous screenwriter] putting him/her forward for [this show or movie] and HEY PRESTO THE REST IS HISTORY! Woo and indeed, hoo.

So this is all very well and good and if someone is TALENT SPOTTING rather than looking for a specific piece to OPTION or PRODUCE then *maybe* I could buy this idea of the script being pants overall but said writer being *so amazing* at character and dialogue, they got through the door regardless. However it is worth pointing out the above is the type of story mostly television writers seem to spout at seminars and whatnot. Call me cynical, but it always seems to be with a fervent look on their faces as if they’re not too sure how they got there in the first place and this is a handy explanation even THEY can believe. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice tale and gives new writers something to believe in, but it just doesn’t wash with me. After all, as anyone who has ever done a trial for a soap opera will tell you (whoops, that’s continuing drama – sorry!), of COURSE it’s about the characters and dialogue, but it’s also about the HOUSE STYLE – of which a HUGE amount of that is STRUCTURE and thus PLOTTING. Therefore: if you don’t know **anything** about plotting? You’re out on your ear. Mate.

There’s also the very inconvenient issue of character arc and by this I mean: how GREAT is a “great character” if they don’t have an identifiable goal, want or need and meander their way through one event after another? We invest in characters not just because they’re THEM but because they DO STUFF for a REASON. What that reason is can depend and of course there’s ALWAYS exceptions to the rule, but generally-speaking: if there’s no narrative clarity to what said character is doing, this impacts on plot (again) and does affect the reader’s ability to invest in that character and their journey. That’s just the way it is.

But ah, *they* gotta be right about dialogue – right? Um, no… Not IMHO. There’s no doubt some writers are great at dialogue and some suck. It appears to be one of those things that varies wildly from one end of the scale to the other, though some of those that initially suck CAN work at it and get better, draft on draft, through sheer hard work. However, scripts often have pages and pages of dialogue at the expense of anything else as the writer works tirelessly to make their dialogue seem “realistic” or “clever”. If great characters are what they DO (and they are), then too much (even good) dialogue actually acts against them: they can’t SAY stuff for acres and acres like this and do stuff at the same time, how can they? Dialogue that “leads” scenes gets the plot nowhere and stops us caring – again – about the character’s journey.

And without plot, dialogue can feel flat and powerless anyway; the scenes themselves can feel static. It’s plot that brings fantastic dialogue alive: I don’t really care for many of Tarantino’s stories on the basis I find them too full of machismo with a side order of casual violence (particularly levvied against women and children), but there’s no denying how good a dialogue writer he is. If we look at something like Natural Born Killers, the plot is *really* a manic rehash of Badlands, but the dialogue is brought alive not JUST because it’s clever or good (“You from Texas… You don’t have an accent”/”I don’t want to talk about those assholes”/”My mother was from Texas!”) but because we buy into the WHOLE THING, including the actors’ performances in delivering the lines, not just that ONE element on its own, on the page. This is why I’m frequently left feeling dialogue is an over valued resource in the drafting process, preferring instead to really concentrate on it in the “final” first draft [the one that is actually sent out].

So for me, character and dialogue aren’t *it*: a script is the sum of ALL its parts and plot pays a bigger part than many will argue.

But hey: if you believe that character and dialogue are the most important things in the spec script and plot can be “ironed out” easily, then please go ahead and be my guest – as Goldie says, no one knows what the hell they’re doing anyway in this industry, so that must include the script reader as well.

But if you do think plot’s not that big a deal, I have two questions for you:

1) Why are there so many plotless specs in the pile?


2) Where IS all this “great” dialogue and those “great” characters, then?

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2 thoughts on “Plot + Easy = Myth”

  1. Well I got my first interest as a writer from writing things with great characters and scenarios and naff all in the way of what I would now call plot – however this was in theatre which is a lot more forgiving of poor plotting because – broad overstatement approaching – theatre actually IS about character and scenario and plot just is there to keep it all together. With films though the thing that struck me when I first started was just how much story you needed to have. Compared to a play you needed shed loads of it. So I became as obsessed with plot as all good screen writers need to be and in a way that no other kind of writer really needs to be… There is a special link between screen writing and plot which doesn't exist anywhere else and to a large degree has simply been left behind by lots of theatre and fiction now.

    So I agree that plot is primary in film but I also know that many good writers take time with it – it's easier to write a good character in a scenario that goes nowhere than to write a great plot with crap characters for the obvious reason that a great plot is all about character *in action* and that takes a long time to learn!

    So for selling scripts, of course, plot. But for selling your ability or competitions I do believe that you can forgive poor plotting to a large extent IF the characters, subtext, scenario et al have a unique or compelling voice.

  2. Well I'm sure you can guess what *I* think Allen – I've harped on enough in the post. But certainly I have read poor plots with great characters in comps etc, but that is SO infrequent I can count it the occasions on one hand. Also, it feels like a "get out of jail free" card to me – with so many people attempting to cash in on it they actually stop it happening.

    Agreed though theatre needs less plot – which is why I think it's madness to imagine theatre writers are so automatically *at home* on television. Certainly in the days of live TV you didn't want too many sets and whatnot to jump around and if you're Alan Bennett or similar you can have your characters doing monologues on telly just as well as you can on the stage. But times have moved on – television demands the three or four strands in soap; the main plot and serial element of returning drama series; the difficult interplot weaving of the serial – all of which are a zillion miles away from the stage nowadays.

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