Plot vs. Character

plottooldI saw the article, partially quoted below, on a website called Brain Pickings.  The essay reminds me of much of what is wrong with movies today.  They are driven by plot.  These movies feature interesting, suspenseful, hilarious or adventurous circumstances in which a character moves from point A to point B with great action sequences, excellent special effects, stirring music and wonderful camera work– all of which adds up to no understanding of the basic human struggle that makes for compelling drama.  If you want to  replicate the plot driven approach then this information is for you–

You are about write a story. How shall it begin? Perhaps there is a single conflict that needs to be resolved. Will my story have a happy ending or a sad ending? Perhaps the conflict has one of several distinct oppositions: man vs nature, man vs. technology, man vs. god or man vs. self.
In 1894, French critic Georges Polti recognized thirty-six possible plots, which included conflicts such as Supplication, Pursuit, Self-sacrifice, Adultery, Revolt, the Enigma, Abduction, and Disaster. In 1928, dime novelist William Wallace Cook, author of Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots, did him one better, cataloging every narrative he could think of through a method that bordered on madness. His final plot count? 1,462.
While still a young director in England, Alfred Hitchcock requested the book from America, and the creator of the courtroom drama Perry Mason claimed he had learned a great deal from it. In 1931, screenwriter Wycliffe Hill declared that he had invented a “Plot Robot,” which turned out to be nothing more than cardboard wheel of options that would help you choose a plot in the same way you might choose a color for your living room.
Plotto was far more complex, and despite its careful categorization, still exceedingly hard to understand. It’s a narrative Dewey Decimal System of sorts, where each character-type is given a letter: the man is A, the woman is B, their relatives, such as a father or mother, would be F-A or M-B, and anything mysterious, be it a stranger or a strange object, is given the designation X, that ultimate letter of mystery. Conflicts have their own groupings, such as Love and Courtship, Married Life, Mystery, Misfortune, Idealism, Personal Limitations, Revelation, Helpfulness, Craftiness Stimulation, Mistaken Judgement, and Deliverance.
Each narrative in Plotto begins with “Masterplots” which are made up of several beginning, middle, and end clauses (e.g. “A person in love > Falling in love when certain obligations forbid love > Pays a grim penalty in an unfortunate undertaking.”) These permutations, which can number in the hundreds, are subdivided once again according to character and conflict into specific situations, the more than 1,462 individual plots that make up the bulk of Plotto.
You are about write a story. How shall it begin? Perhaps there is a single conflict that needs to be resolved. Will my story have a happy ending or a sad ending? Perhaps the conflict has one of several distinct oppositions: man vs nature, man vs. technology, man vs. god or man vs. self.
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In 1894, French critic Georges Polti recognized thirty-six possible plots, which included conflicts such as Supplication, Pursuit, Self-sacrifice, Adultery, Revolt, the Enigma, Abduction, and Disaster. In 1928, dime novelist William Wallace Cook, author of Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots, did him one better, cataloging every narrative he could think of through a method that bordered on madness. His final plot count? 1,462.
.
While still a young director in England, Alfred Hitchcock requested the book from America, and the creator of the courtroom drama Perry Mason claimed he had learned a great deal from it. In 1931, screenwriter Wycliffe Hill declared that he had invented a “Plot Robot,” which turned out to be nothing more than cardboard wheel of options that would help you choose a plot in the same way you might choose a color for your living room.
.
Plotto was far more complex, and despite its careful categorization, still exceedingly hard to understand. It’s a narrative Dewey Decimal System of sorts, where each character-type is given a letter: the man is A, the woman is B, their relatives, such as a father or mother, would be F-A or M-B, and anything mysterious, be it a stranger or a strange object, is given the designation X, that ultimate letter of mystery. Conflicts have their own groupings, such as Love and Courtship, Married Life, Mystery, Misfortune, Idealism, Personal Limitations, Revelation, Helpfulness, Craftiness Stimulation, Mistaken Judgement, and Deliverance.
.
Each narrative in Plotto begins with “Masterplots” which are made up of several beginning, middle, and end clauses (e.g. “A person in love > Falling in love when certain obligations forbid love > Pays a grim penalty in an unfortunate undertaking.”) These permutations, which can number in the hundreds, are subdivided once again according to character and conflict into specific situations, the more than 1,462 individual plots that make up the bulk of Plotto.
On the other hand– I believe that if you want your stories to endure, then plot must come from character and not the other way around.  Otherwise you are pushing characters around like chess piece on a chess board, with little regard for the authenticity of their emotional journey.  Characters that exist to advance a plot tell us nothing about the human condition.  They don’t speak to us profoundly about how our choices determine who we are.  They don’t move us to reflect on our own lives or on our relationships with others. They are amusements that last little longer than a thrill ride at a theme park.  Those rides can be fun and exciting but they never stick with us for long.  They make no  powerful contribution to our collective humanity.
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I believe the stories we tell ourselves and tell each other have the power to change who we are.  If you want to change your relationship with someone– then you have to change the story.  Stories change lives.  Before we can become something we have to imagine how to do that and construct a narrative that makes the change possible.
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I have often said that storytellers are the most powerful people on earth– because they have the power to move the human heart.  There is no greater power on earth.  You cannot move hearts by relying on plot mechanics.  You have to illuminate what exactly it is to be truly and fully human.  How we fall short and how we touch the stars.

2 Comments

  1. Reply Susan Kelly 22nd January 2012

    Thanks for this post. How interesting, the logical/analytical approach to plotting. Poor Mr. Polti in the end must have felt like the centipede who tried to figure out how he walked and fell over in utter confusion.

  2. Reply Julie Main 23rd January 2012

    Love your quote! Thanks! 😉

    “I have often said that storytellers are the most powerful people on earth– because they have the power to move the human heart. There is no greater power on earth. You cannot move hearts by relying on plot mechanics. You have to illuminate what exactly it is to be truly and fully human. How we fall short and how we touch the stars.”

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