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Last week, my Gunner totally pirated my blog’s theme with her awesome flippin’ blog about character—but I’m not going to punish her or anything for readin’ my mind and one-uppin’ me at every turn. I’m merely going to hold a grudge. The wench. But I’m not going to re-write my blog after I spent all this time being brilliant about it. You’re just going to have to suffer through a second dose of “why character is important”—which is ironic that we pirates spend so much time talking about just that topic. You know, because pirates don’t have char…never mind.
So I’ve been reading this writing book called “Emotional Structure” (by Peter Dunne), which is a screenwriting book, but I’ve found it quite handy already for my novel-writing. One of the first things he points out is that all books (movies) have both a Plot and a Story. The Plot is WHAT happens; and the Story is WHO it happens to.
Now here’s the kicker. Your Plot can be rather bad. It can be unrealistic, unbelievable, maybe even a bit boring—but your Story, if it’s good enough, will make your audience not care. The Story is the piece of magic the illusionist performs to wrap you so far into the scheme, you don’t even care that the coin was in his shirt sleeve the entire time.
Your Story must be kick-ass. People care about people, not plot. Readers usually won’t remember WHAT happened exactly in a book, but they’ll remember WHO it happened to. For example, Captain Jack Sparrow. They killed him off in the second--and had to locate him for the third! People (especially Jack) matter.
I’d say the other key to making your book work is Make Bad Things Happen To Your People All The Time. All the time. Don’t cut them any slack; don’t pull your punches; throw them a bomb and make them react. This works in conjunction to “Write People We Care About.” How people react to adversity is why we care about the people to begin with. We want to root for the underdog and watch him succeed. Plus, making bad things happen to your people all the time also insures your plot is not boring. So long as the bad things are BAD for your hero, it can be something as simply devastating as the girl he finally has the guts to woo is now dating someone else and she turns down his offer, after he’s made a fool of himself to impress her. We will be riveted.
Here’s the example.
Now one would think that any movie with Bruce Willis is going to be good regardless of the Plot or the Story, but I have two words for you: Twelve Monkeys. (No one gave a rat’s ass about that movie, Bruce or no Bruce.) PLUS, Bruce also had to work with Ben Affleck, Mr. Gigli himself, who although I adore, I understand his idea of stretching as an actor is not sleeping with all the women he meets. It also features Billy Bob Thornton, who is an incredible actor, if you can get around the fact he carried around a vial of blood on a necklace in the name of love. (He’s a little creepy in real life. I’m sorry.)
Now think a moment about this movie. It’s about an asteroid that’s going to hit the earth and decimate all of mankind. That’s the urgency-plot factor every last writing article will tell you to have. Where’s the emergency? But how are our people going to react is actually the more important factor for the long haul.
So we have Bruce, our underdog OIL DRILLER, who’s been asked by the US Government to save the world by drilling a hole in the asteroid (once they LAND on it) and dropping a nuclear warhead into the bottom of it.
Yeah, that’s believable.
So he and his oil drilling buddies are given a crash course in NASA and launched into space. Two ships go up; but one immediately crashes (and is presumably lost). Bruce presses on with his team (since he was in the ship that didn’t crash and burn) and starts drilling. They burn through all their drill bits AND a transmission, but they’re still about 200 feet from their goal. Time is ticking. The President gives the order to start the bomb without putting it in the hole…or even caring if the guys remaining make it off the asteroid before the bomb explodes. More drama, more goofy-unbelievable-weirdo bad things occur, and still you’re on the edge of your seat.
Will the underdog get his chance to save the world? Will he make it back home to his daughter, Liv Tyler, who loves him? Will we all die?
Dark moment #1: 200 feet from goal and we’re all going to die! It’s been announced—and then lo and behold, a miracle happens, Ben the young swashbuckler (or the young Bruce), who was on the lost ship, shows up with another transmission and bit. They drill and voila!—they’ve made goal—with a couple of character growths where Ben is begging Bruce to trust him, even though it is a chance that may cost Ben’s life and a drill bit. Oh, and the end of the world obviously.
Dark moment #2: the nuclear warhead won’t go off unless someone stays behind to detonate it. Nice. Ben draws the short straw—and you could just die for him, since he was dating Bruce's daughter and all and you were hoping they'd work out.
Dark moment #3: Bruce being Bruce, he escorts Ben to the place below, rips the oxygen, and forces himself to be the sacrifice. (By now I’m already crying. After all, if you have to kill somebody, why can’t it be that stupid “genius” jerkoff who was humping the nuke warhead 20 minutes prior in the film?) Bruce does a bittersweet goodbye to his daughter, Liv, and she says one back, her hand touching the screen where his face was—but disappears.
Then Bruce, as he’s done countless times before, saves the world. Ben is reunited with Liv; Billy is given a NASA patch from Bruce—and we all cry into our Kleenex as the credits roll, relieved the world has managed not to be decimated by a piece of rock but very sad that a great man like Bruce had to die to do it.
The power of Story, crew. That has to be what it is—at one point during the flick, they say the asteroid is now spinning on all three axis, and even I went: OH, COME ON!—but I didn’t care because I wanted to know if Bruce won. And I cried like a Daddy’s girl when he said goodbye to his baby…and when he closed his eyes (after pushing the button) and when he saw Liv playing on a swing, growing up, walking down the aisle. *sob*
With characters like that, I’ll believe any plot you give me.
What movies/books have you seen that the plot was way out there but the story (people) was so incredible, it didn’t matter?