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?
Tomorrow: 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.