Perhaps one of the things that makes me a bad filmmaker is my contempt for plot. Now, I don’t claim that plots are bad. They drive every good story. But what I will say is that plot drives the unoriginal. It creates a formula from the start and throws the unexpected out the window. Once you involve a plot, then the story is a slave to the step by step, paint by numbers devices that we’ve been seeing since we first gazed in awe at the flickering lights being emitted from the magic box or projected onto the silver screen.
Now, right off the bat, before you pooh-pooh this whole concept and say I don’t know what I’m talking about, realize that you fall into the category of screenwriting professors, professional critics, and general know-it -alls who have created this standard and imposed it on film students for decades.
“Plot is what happens in your story. Every story needs structure, just as every body needs a skeleton. It is how you ‘flesh out and clothe’ your structure that makes each story unique.”
You hear quotes like this all the time. But now, I ask you to keep in mind that some of YOUR favorite movies, some of the classics of film, HAVE NO PLOT! So when you laugh at my notion, and you get all cocky about knowing all about movies and films and stories, and say I’m full of it, or I don’t know what I’m talking about and that “of course all good movies have plots. You can’t have a good movie without a plot!” Well, then I invite you to see these posts by EMGN and Nerve.
What was the plot of Breakfast Club? What happened? Nothing. You spent detention with some kids. That’s it. Where was the goal of the characters in Dazed and Confused or Slacker?
Some of the films I am most proud of, VOSOT, Serial Rabbit 3, and Bass Reeves don’t have any real plot. They are a collection of scenes, a series of events from a character’s life, strung together not by the magical story telling device of plot, but held together by linear, or sometimes non-linear, time.
What is the plot of your life? Is it a series of goals that you pursue with nothing happening in between, or is it a series of events strung together by hopes and dreams that may or may not happen. When we involve plot we limit the possibilities of a story. When there is a plot, then our audience is relying on the filmmaker to deliver a beginning, a middle and an end, and if we don’t get that satisfaction then we throw popcorn at the screen, or worse yet, leave a bad Amazon.com review with only one star.
But where is the fun in being led down a path we’ve gone down a hundred times already. How do we relate to it? We’ve all had goals and dreams in our lives, but on our way to those dreams we get sidetracked by something as devastating as a car crash, or as benign as a knock on the door. Movies will have us believe that these are obstacles to our goals, or in the case of storytelling, B-plots that we must resolve before obtaining our goal.
But in real life, those B-plots sometimes derail us and set us down a path to new goals and new dreams. We sometimes forget about the old ones and move on, seeing those old hopes as childish desires. Films like VOSOT show us a picture in a single or multiple character’s lives. On average, a day in our life sees no more than one plot point resolved, if that. It sees no major events happening. Did anything life changing happen to you at work today? Probably not. But there were a series of funny moments, there are still things to tell your spouse about when you get home. Sometimes you laugh about them, sometimes you get angry and swear to get vengeance on Bob in accounting. Simple things happen in our lives that don’t have anything really much to do with the overall shape of it, but we still find them emotional.
On the other hand, there are films like Bass Reeves that take those days in one person’s life, the important and memorable ones, and strings them together. It’s not following a single solitary plot, but following a character and highlights those great moments that echo through history and become part of our myths and legends. An average day in Reeves’ life would be 12 hours on a horse, riding across the Oklahoma plains, then another 12 making camp, sleeping and breaking camp.
Plots are great. They help pull us into stories. But characters are more important to me. Surprise is more important to me. And 99% of films take you by the hand and lead you from point A to point B, sometimes sidetracking you for about ten minutes with a B-plot. But in general, we all know what character is going to die, which is going to live, which is going to achieve their goals and which aren’t. Plot removes surprise. At least on a subconscious level.
“In a way crime stories are boring. A crime’s been committed and at the end you know it will be solved. So you’ve got to make the story interesting besides it just being a plot. And that’s why character matters, why you’ve got to make the characters interesting.”
I am more interested in calling interesting people my friends. I’m more interested in having people in my life who make me laugh, bring joy to my life and give me happiness. Maybe even surprise me from time to time. The people I know who are goal oriented and just go from goal to goal without any fun side stops along the way, well, they’re boring. And those are the stories that, when made into movies, have to be embellished and have to have “creative license” taken with them.
Do I expect, or am I fighting for, plots to disappear from movies? Of course not. And I don’t want them to go away. But I do hope that people will respect or at the very least understand a movie that might be short on plot, but heavy on characters. I don’t think a criticism of a film should be that it had no plot. When someone rips on a movie for mot having a plot, I’d ask them, “So? Was it supposed to have one?”
Of course, I’ll stand behind anyone insulting a movie that has neither plot nor good characters. Remember, we enjoy our friends and a good night out just talking or playing pool, not because we accomplish anything, but because they are fun and entertaining. If there is one thing that my films have, it is good, funny, interesting-to-watch characters. Because as I’m filling these actors bring these characters to life, moment to moment, scene to scene, I’m enjoying them and being entertained.
Even if my films are short on plot from time to time, I guarantee you’ll walk away from each of my films talking about at least one fun, entertaining and very very memorable character.