I’ve been on a bit of a hiatus. I know there’s not a ton of you out there reading these, but for those of you that are, sorry! I’m sure you missed me.
Anywho–onto my writing rant. What the hell does everyone have against telling a story all the sudden?
I ask because, I’m seeing a rather disturbing trend in literary circles, movies, and TV shows. These are all shifting focus to the characters (which is actually good), but nothing seems to actually happen (which is bad).
Here’s what I mean. Let’s say I decide to really get to know my neighbors (they seem like very nice people). I can witness them arguing, smiling, hugging, etc. I can then learn that they’re complex people with a great range of emotion and fascinating interpersonal reactions.
But that’s not actually a story. It’s just a series of informational bits delivered to me over a span of time. Nothing actually happens. Why tell a story like that?
Oh, sure, you can tell me all about the personal journey of discovery that they took within themselves, but that’s an awfully hard thing to show. Most of the time writers fail to do this unless there is some sort of even that coincides with the sudden insight of the characters.
I just watched “This is 40,” which wasn’t really a bad movie. However, it wasn’t really great either. Why? Nothing really happened. Sure, problems were introduced, but the characters never actually dealt with them. It’s just a cyclical setup–one minute they’re angry and hate each other, the next they forgive and forget while eating some cookies. Then they do it again and again, except both the forgiving and forgetting bits are more extreme each time.
This keeps happening until the end of the movie–wait for it–where it happens again! They haven’t actually resolved any of the issues in their relationship. They haven’t fixed their money problems. They haven’t even really made any deep internal discoveries.
This is where naysayers point out, “Well, they figured out that, no matter what happens, they love each other!”
To which I respond, “No crap. We saw that the last two times they did it. Gimme something new.”
How, then, do you make the movie better? Simple–give me a little more story and some sort of resolution. Rather than repeating the same formula three times, try resolving something–or at least showing us how their problems can or will eventually be resolved.
Don’t just show me getting to know my neighbors. Show me getting to know them then founding some new branch of Christianity that has a major impact on modern theology. Or maybe they’re fugitives from Russia who have escaped from some sort of indentured servitude and I end up helping them to survive here in Ohio (which can be fierce).
Why the hell can’t we build good characters AND a good story? What is so wrong with that? Look at the Hobbit. It helped to create an entire genre, invented languages, and still has a massive following almost 76 years later. The characters were solid and SO WAS THE PLOT. I call that successful literature my friends.
So the moral of the story? Please, please, please quit thinking that “plot” is a bad word. It’s important. It gives us something to follow as we get to know your characters. It gives us resolution. It gives us something to talk about and remember. It gives your characters a motive, direction, or goal (which, incidentally, helps you build your characters). Don’t be afraid of the story–be afraid of a world without stories, because that sounds terrible.
Having just finished the last [published] [audio] book of the ‘Game of Thrones’ series (yes, I know, the TV series is ‘Game of Thrones’, but the book series is ‘A Song of Fire and Ice’ of which ‘Game of Thrones’ was just the first… sorry, didn’t want to give any trolls too much to go on), I feel like I experienced 5 months of exactly that. Lots of things were happening in that book, mind you, but there really doesn’t seem like there’s been much point to it. Just when it seemed like something was going somewhere and we finally had a protagonist we could root for, they get beheaded, shish-kebabbed with a crossbow-bolt or twenty, daggered to death, covered in molten gold, or some other horrible, medieval flavored form of not-being-alive-anymore. All I can think is that a “story” seems so simple to writers that it almost becomes perceived as childish. It would be like a great chef having to make a PB&J.
I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that authors focus on the ‘inner journey’ but can’t show it effectively. And I can understand why the do it – especially in ‘literature’ because, really, that character development is what matters most (imo) – but I do think there’s a risk of aiming for character arc, neglecting plot, and ending up with neither.
Also, to play devil’s advocate – I’ve seen plenty of books/movies that have decent plots and forgettable/flat characters. They’re just as bad. You really need both.
Here’s a question – if plot and character are both so essential to a good story, how does setting compare in priority?
I think the importance of setting is variable, personally. Sometimes it’s absolutely vital, and sometimes it’s not. It’s never unimportant though.
As far as Game of Thrones is concerned, I agree with certain points, Jason, but I gotta say–good story isn’t as simple as you’d think. I actually think the main problem with GoT is that it’s not moving the story forward in an effective manner. They bloody well need to accomplish something sometimes. 🙂
I also agree that both character AND story are important. With just one or the other (no matter which it is), the piece just ends up missing something.
Also, thank you guys for some good conversation! I’m a fan of cogent comments! 🙂