February 17, 2008

Plot, Story and Love

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Plot is what is done to the characters—the external events that could occur to any individual. Story is what characters do—the internal events that happen only with one particular character: dialogue, behavior, reactions to other characters, etc. And what is love? (Baby don’t hurt me…Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

After a disastrous cinematic experience reviewing Fool’s Gold, I thought for a bit about the films that audiences generally love:, the movies that open wide and gross large sums of money at the box office on their opening week.

Here is my personal observation: General audiences love plot, not story.

Plot-driven movies are often about external events strung together like dominos, where one external event triggers another. The characters tend to be fairly standard so that the movie can spend more time adding and knocking over more event “dominos”.

Take, for instance, the extremely popular Harry Potter movie franchise. With the possible exception of Hermione Granger, the characters are all familiar, from the noble hero of Harry down to the protective father-like figure of Dumbledore. But the plot is undeniably complex, woven throughout all seven parts very effectively. Indeed, most of the discussion I overheard was whether certain in events in previous parts would be important in the following parts.

Story-driven movies are the ones general audiences complain are too slow or lack plot content. They’re also the movies that tend to be critically praised. Consider There Will Be Blood, which is up for eight Academy Awards. It’s a very good movie, but it takes such a methodical pace to establish the main character that I could summarize the entire plot in a few sentences.

Permit me another observation: I think this trend says something about society and how we love people.

Do we behave in a plot-driven way? Do we merely do what is easy? Do we quickly mentally label the people we interact with so we can move on with our life? Are we more interested in our own affairs than in the affairs of others?

Or do we behave in a story-driven way? Do we linger in the moments, no matter how mundane, to understand why people behave the way they do? Do we pause in seemingly useless information that gives us insight into their mind? Do we generalize people into simple categories like “crazy” or “happy”, or do we take time to understand and appreciate the subtleties of their personalities?

Thankfully, there appears to be a backlash against the plot-driven trend. I point to Juno as an example—a movie that is story-driven down to the very last shot. Yet it has been at the top ten at the box office for the past month, and has grossed over $100 million since its debut. Perhaps, with time, we’ll have more Junos and less Fool’s Golds. And perhaps we’ll consequently learn to care more deeply.