Monday Motivation: An eternal question: plot or characters?
Whatever creative narrative you’re writing, the challenge is to establish a balance between character and story. Readers are happy if the writer uses story simply as the washing line on which to hang his characters, as long as that line is taut and compellling. They’re happy if, on the other hand, the characters serve the story, stepping in where necessary to help illuminate it – as long as those characters are infused with life.
But if you go too far, in either direction, then disaster looms.
We indulged in a bit of old-timey nostalgia for a simpler, more innocent time, by calling up Ocean’s Thirteen. Well, not so, old-timey – the movie was made in 2007. But for some reason, it reads like a film made in a previous era. Perhaps we’ve grown too serious in this post-Covid age.
Steven Soderbergh, director of such gems as Sex, Lies and Videotape, Erin Brockovich and the electrifying Traffic, for which he won an Oscar, decided he’d experiment with a story that pushed the boundary as far as it could possibly go with this fourth instalment of the Ocean’s franchise.
It’s an object lesson for all story tellers. A narrative so dominated by plot that the characters are, perforce, simply cardboard cut-outs that jitterbug across the screen. A plot so intricate that any scrutiny at all causes it to collapse in upon itself, like some Hollywood black hole. Motivations so shallow and on the nose that they don’t convince for an instant.
Critics at the time, like Manohla Dargis of the New York Times, found the hectic pace and gorgeous production values enough – although even she acknowledged that “… the elaborate plot often makes no seeming sense.” But then she went on to argue that “sense can be awfully overrated at times, particularly with an enterprise like this, which pushes at the limits of conventional narrative filmmaking, forcing your attention away from the story’s logical bricks and mortar toward its fields of dancing colors and a style that is its content.”
Perhaps the “dancing colors” and “style” are less entrancing when they’re reduced to a television screen.
But aesthetics aside, if your story becomes so intricate that you need to make notes to keep track of it, and if, as in the movie, there’s an army of characters who you also struggle to follow, then you have a problem.
Go back to the drawing board. Ask yourself how you might communicate the essence of your story in a sentence no longer than twenty five words. It’s a trick movie writers use: reduce your story to what they call a logline. If, abbreviated in this way, it remains compelling, then proceed. But if you find yourself struggling to condense it to less than a page, then call a temporary halt.
And the solution, as so often, is to go back to your characters and ask them what they believe the story is.
Story, remember, proceeds from character. It’s not the events that matter so much (Ocean’s Thirteen is full of events) – as the way in which your characters respond to them.