Sunday, November 04, 2007

Plot Rot

I often think that beginning film makers (including animators) have been crippled by high school English teachers. We've all been forced to do book reports and one of the elements we report on is plot. Plot is a series of events that make up the story. It's an easy thing to grasp and English teachers like it because it proves that we read the material, but the reliance on plot is death to creating stories. Instead of thinking about characters, their motivations and their objectives, creators often think about events: first this will happen and then this happens.

The on-screen result is stories that don't ring true. The characters feel as if they're being pulled along by the plot rather than causing it. Events, isolated from emotions, aren't very interesting.

I've recently become aware of Post Secret, an art project by Frank Warren. He asks people to anonymously create and mail him postcards (many include art) that contain a secret that they've never told anyone. He's got a blog that will show you some examples. He's also created four books with the postcards.

These secrets all come from an emotional place. They represent desires, fears, embarrassments and other emotions so powerful that people feel the need to hide them. Only the guarantee of anonymity allows people to expose these secrets. Reading the first of the books, I couldn't help but imagine films and characters. See if you agree:

"I married someone I don't love because I wanted to wear the dress."

"I waste office supplies because I hate my boss."

"I used to fertilize a ring in our lawn every time I mowed it. It grew. My parents still think it was aliens."

"When I was a young teenager I used to babysit my next door neighbour's son. When he was asleep I would go into their bedroom and go through their bedside drawers. I found a packet of condoms. I put a pin through the middle of each of them and thus ensured myself another 5 years of babysitting."

"I paid an 'F' student $50 to write my valedictorian speech. And it was way better than mine could ever have been."

"He wasn't cheating on you. But since you chose to blame me anyway...he will be."

"Once I was asked by a doctor if I was hearing voices. The voice inside my head shouted: TELL HIM NO!"

A film made from any of the above (comedy or drama; the quotes work well for either) would be more interesting to me than the majority of animated films I've seen lately. Don't start with plot. Start with a human need and grow your plot from it. And if you're stuck for an idea, you could do worse than reading these secrets.


Pete Emslie said...

Though this may not be exactly what you're talking about, Mark, I'd like to mention something on a similar note. One of my frustrations with many of the animated films today is how every one of the characters introduced near the beinning of the film is dragged through the entire plot of the story, as if the filmmakers feel that they have to account for the whereabouts of every character at all times.

For example, every character in "The Lion King" is featured throughout the whole story, from the point they are first introduced, to the very end of the film. In contrast, most of the Walt era films featured plots that would have the main character, or small group of characters, encounter various other characters for single episodes only. They would be there to further a plot point, then be gone, never to be seen again in the film. Some examples of which would be Stromboli in "Pinocchio", the indians in "Peter Pan", the pound dogs in "Lady and the Tramp" and King Louie in "the Jungle Book", to name just a few.

These types of film plots seemed more real to me, in the sense that they more closely resembled a slice of real life. After all, in a typical day of my own life I might interact with my fellow workers, the servers at my favourite restaurant at midday, and then socialize with my friends in the evening, without any of these sets of people ever meeting each other. These various groups of people may only make up single episodes in my life told over several days, which is often the typical duration of a movie's plot. Not all of them will make recurring appearances in that time frame.

So I think what I'm getting at here sort of relates to what you've brought up. I think part of the problem of today's features is that they spend too much screen time accounting for all of the characters throughout the plot, that they seem to lose their focus on the story and emotional development of the main character or characters. I think Pixar was onto the right idea with "Finding Nemo" in having Marlin and Dory encounter different characters along their journey, such as the sharks and the Crush the sea turtle, without feeling the need to have them re-appear throughout the rest of the story. They provided episodes of entertainment while also furthering the story, but they were not required again after that.

I know there's a danger in becoming too episodic too, as in the case of "Alice in Wonderland", which has very entertaining sequences with colourful characters, but the continuity of the plot seems lacking. That's a film where the parts are far greater than the whole. The trick is to hit the right balance between the two extremes.

Thad K said...

That site is hilarious! Thanks for sharing it. You're right, it's a great way to get ideas for new films, though really not anything animated.

Mark Mayerson said...

Why not animated, Thad? The trick isn't finding a story that works for animation, the trick is finding an animated approach to a story.

Jenny said...

Great post.

Thad K said...

You're right, Mark, the trick is getting an animated approach to the situation. But a lot of the ideas I'm getting from that site would be more suitable to live-action (in my warped mind anyway). What you've written is some great advice for any kind of filmmaker though.

Mitch K said...

My favorite films are always those about the characters -- good indie films are like that. I saw a movie recently with only two characters, and all they did was talk to each other. It was a very good movie.

Plot can be cool, but it's engaging unless the characters connect with me. I think that's why it's important to create characters out of people you know, or yourself. Those will be the most truthful.

Will Finn said...

i agree with this post and have even been guilty of falling into the plot trap myself on many occasons. i posted recently at Mark Kennedy's about this exact problem.

while plot is no walk in the park, it is "easier" in the sense it is more mechanical and can be broken down into flow-charts (the studio executives love this). as a result most films wind up as what i call "plot trapeezes" that invariably "stock" characters have to race through with barely enough time to catch their breath before moving on to the next all important plot point.

i believe plot is important, but it is secondary to Character. unfortunately character is a much more subjective and elusive thing. unless someone at the top has a grasp of it and/or can trust their filmmakers to see it through, character usually becomes secondary, (or worse: is simply reduced to a "stunt casting" crutch).

ultimately character is the primary merit of my favorite works of fiction and i think that is generally true for most audiences. great characters are their own best stories and plots. even if the plot is weak, great characters in weak plots are better than weak characters in masterful plots.

like i said to Mark Kennedy tho, easier said than done...

Mitch K said...

(PS: I love Post Secret. I read it every Sunday.)

Steve Schnier said...

Hi Mark,
It's very "Eddie Fitzgerald" to think in terms of "plot OR character". Why either/or? Why not have a compelling plot WITH interesting characters?

It happens all the time. 24, Mad Men, The Sopranos, Firefly/Serenity, ...

Floyd Norman said...

This explains why I often felt so uncomfortable in Disney's story department when I returned to animation in the early nineties. Having worked story with the "Old Guys," I never really got the over reliance on plotting in feature animated films.

Moving up to Pixar in the late nineties was the best decision I ever made. This was a studio that doing all the things that the present day Disney studio had forgotten.

After all, it was Walt Disney himself who told us to focus on the characters, and the heck with the plot.