I’ve just started reading Peter Dunne’s “Emotional Structure: Creating the Story Beneath the Plot” and it’s giving me a lot to think about.
Dunne writes in Know Your Story, Know Your Plot, Know the Difference:
When we think about great stories, about great movies, we remember first and foremost about whom the story is told.
The answer to the question, ‘What is your film about?’ is nothing if it’s not about Who.
And that is the difference between story and plot. The plot is what happens in the film. The story is what it does to the who it happens to. And, of the who and what of it, the who is far more important than the what. The what would be worthless without the who. But, to be fair, the who wouldn’t be much without the what, either.
We can also look at it this way. The plot provides the action: the film’s motion. And the story provides the reaction: the film’s emotion.
The story is the journey for truth. The plot is the road it takes to get there.
I’m of the persuasion that there are two basic camps of writers – people who write from character (with little plot) and people who write from concept/plot (and have to find the character within the story).
The more scripts I’ve read over the years, the more this attitude has been reinforced. Most scripts I get either have a decent to fantastic concept and are just not written well enough, or there is a lot of detailed character work and dialogue but (literally) nothing happening.
I myself am definitely a concept writer. Story generally gets me sparked when there is a strong concept, big dramatic stakes, twists and a lot of intelligent plotting. If there is a paranormal element involved, all the better!
I don’t generally gravitate toward tiny little movies with no plotting and people sitting around talking about their mundane life problems the whole time.
For example, with Crazy Heart, I knew from the minute that movie opened that nothing was going to happen, that once tiny little things did start happening (“Please don’t drink around my kid!”), I knew exactly what other developments would arise (let’s take the kid to a bar, get drunk and lose him), and I was bored shitless and ended up fast-forwarding through most of the film. However, it was a coherent little story that was very well produced and filmed in a beautiful place with good acting, which elevates it above many projects that get produced these days. So, good for it.
It is the unusual script that successfully marries the two camps: outstanding characters who discover universal truths about our human experience in a way that is intelligently plotted in a fresh way.
I’ve been on a journey with my own writing in the last months to try to teach myself how to bridge this gap – to write my high concept, universal, blockbuster-type story but to root down into characters that are complete, fully fleshed-out and on a universal journey.
What Dunne writes about is what I’ve been missing. This has been my disconnect. I’d lost the forest for the trees. I love plotting a story. I am a dog with a bone when it comes to a fantastic concept. BUT – it’s been very hard for me to grow an amazing emotional transformation within the plotting. I think I lose some readers within my plotting because the emotional journey isn’t rooted deeply enough within the characters. What are the truths being revealed? How does the plotting force the characters to look at themselves to see these truths?
I was so attached to my story elements and the way in which I’d plotted them that I had forgotten that at the heart of every story is one’s emotional journey, and that life’s core emotional truths are played out through our intimate relationships. We don’t learn in life just through the plot developments. It is the plot developments that change us as people and then we act out/embrace/resist these changes in our intimate relationships with other humans.
I was so busy trying to make my thriller complicated and create all these confusing twists that I completely lost the heart, soul and truth of my story.
And my basic story is about family and love.
So, continue to push yourself in either direction – if you’re a character writer who writes small stories, reach for the outer limits when plotting. If you’re a concept writer who has trouble with character, really root into the heart of your story to see what can unfold there. Your reader will appreciate it.