Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Know More Than You Show, Part 2: Plot

I don’t use the word “plot” very often, because I prefer to talk about structure, but there is a difference.  “Plot” refers to everything that happens, from start to finish, including everything that happens off screen, whereas structure refers to the story as experienced by the audience.  Obviously, since I’m audience-focused, I tend to focus on the latter, but it’s important not to blur that distinction.

I’ve said before that explaining the plot is not your characters’ job: the obstacles and conflicts, external and internal, should be visibly apparent, without forcing your characters to explain them to the audience.  But now I’ll go further and point out that your audience should never really know the full plot.  As with character backstories, you need to know more than you show.

You’ve created this big, beautiful story, and now you want to show it off …but you can’t.  Your audience doesn’t want to be told your story, they want to figure it out.  The second that they understand everything that’s going on, they’ll lose interest.

I’ve mentioned before that I always ask people who don’t finish what I sent them where they stopped reading.  Likewise, whenever I start writing something and don’t finish it, I go back to check where I stopped writing.  As I mentioned here, it’s often about the halfway point.  Why?  Because that’s the point where I’ve finally laid everything on the table.

This seems counterintuitive: I’ve spend the first half assembling my characters and plot elements, and now that everything is in place, we’re off and running, right?   Wrong.  It means the story just died.

Not only do you need to have an overarching dramatic question that is posed at the very beginning and answered at the very end, but you need to have lots of additional mysteries propelling each scene forward into the next.  The reader is always looking for excuses to quit reading, just as you the writer are looking for excuses to quit writing.  The perfect set-it-down place for both of you is the moment when everything finally makes sense.

Don’t get me wrong, you need to have a logical and cohesive plot, but also you have to hide some of that cohesiveness from your readers.  They do not want things to fully cohere until the very end.

Sketch out your whole plot, then figure out which facts it would be most compelling to withhold from your audience.  First cut it down to just what they need to know, then cut it down even more.  Give them just enough to fall in love with the story, but withhold the crucial plot elements that they’ll crave.
  • Show them that the villain is up to something, but don’t show them enough to guess what it is.
  • Show then that hero has a plan, but withhold the linchpin of that plan until it goes into effect.
  • Imply that the hero and villain know each other, but don’t tell them how.
  • Show them the arrival of an interloper but make them guess why he’s there.
In short, make your audience participate in putting your story together, rather than passively receive the information you’re ladling out.

Obviously, this can go very, very wrong: “Lost” and “Battlestar Galactica” never cohered and their audiences were infuriated (even through they’d been thoroughly entertained for most of the journey...)

J. K. Rowling, on the other hand, did a much better job with the Harry Potter saga: A big part of the thrill of that series came from the fact that she had obviously figured out the entire, massive history of her world, but she wasn’t going to reveal each aspect of it until we desperately wanted to know it.  Unlike with “Lost” and “BSG”, most Potter fans felt tremendously gratified by the final picture that had emerged by the end of the last book.  (And it’s worth pointing out that, even at the end, she still knew more than she ever showed, as one shocked Q and A participant found out.)

Next, we finish up with theme…


Jill Rasmussen said...

Matt, have you been watching the Netflix production "House of Cards"? Think it exemplifies exactly what you're suggesting here.

j.s. said...

Well HOUSE OF CARDS at least tries to exemplify it. There are plenty of withheld plot details. But just how plausible, thrilling and inevitable they seem once revealed is another story. And I'd argue that the withholding isn't always at the service of having us at the edge of our seats so much as it is padding out the run-time difference between the British series on which it's based (4 hours) and the expectations of a high brow cable-ish American TV drama (10-13 hours).

Matt Bird said...

I've seen the original mini-series, but so far I've only seen the first episode of the remake (I'll be watching more this Saturday) So far I like it a lot.

I think the bigger problem they have in the remake, beyond needing to stretch it out, is that we're far more used to the idea of wicked protagonist now, so it can't get away with the shock of the original. I'm interested to see how they walk that line.

It's amazing that no one else copied the "onscreen voiceover" technique in all these years. It works brilliantly in the original and I think they've nicely re-captured the appeal of it in the remake.

When I was watching it, I thought to myself, "Hmm, I wonder why they decided to finally remake this now after all these years." I then had a very depressing realization: I'll bet the re-make was in constant start-stop pre-production for the last 23 years, since that's how long it tends to take things to get off the ground these days.

Jill Rasmussen said...

My husband and I have watched 11 episodes and at first, even though Frank (Kevin Spacey) plays the "wicked protagonist", he isn't so despicable. We actually found him clever and funny. But as the show progressed, we found ourselves really disliking him and now (what I believe to be the driving forced behind the story) we want him to fall and be exposed. We're wondering how that will happen, if that will happen.

Contrast it with "Boss" (Kelsey Graemer). We couldn't find one character on that show we liked and tuned out halfway through and didn't care how and/or when Graemer's character would fall.

j.s. said...

I'm certainly with Jill. Although, I'd say that the show telegraphs Spacey's potential for stone cold ruthlessness from its very first moments.

I actually think Spacey's character has more problems vis-a-vis the audience than just walking the antihero tightrope of believable badness vs. relatability. Unlike other antiheroes of this recent TV renaissance, Frank Underwood doesn't really see himself as serving any good beyond himself. He's not a struggling put-upon family man doing the best he can to lead two ungrateful and irresponsible families (Tony Soprano). He doesn't believe himself to be doing his best to deliver some brand of justice and order with or without the law (Vic Mackey, Al Swearengen, many cops on THE WIRE). He isn't faking it to make it at the service of a real creative talent, flair for leadership and self-invention (Don Draper). Underwood doesn't even see himself as somebody who would actually govern better or bring meaningful change, a visionary figure -- the way JFK, Obama or to an extent, the post 9/11 Bush thought of themselves. It's not really clear what Underwood wants beyond power for its own sake and for the sake of revenging himself upon those who have denied it to him previously.

I'd say that I also have trouble buying Underwood's supposedly deft political skills. In many matters large and small it seems like all he has to do is show up at the right moment with a suggestion and everybody instantly does what he wants. This dynamic is hardest to take when it comes to the president. But it bothers me with his solution to things like the union protest of his wife's charity event too.

I guess I'm finding the show's mixture of Fincher-esque governmental procedural by way of ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN and the original British series' Shakespeare-inspired Machiavellian politicking to be an odd fit. I get that characters were able to scheme and kill and whisper in the king's ear in plays like MACBETH and RICHARD III, but it's a stretch to apply that kind of emotion to a more realistic modern-day Washington D.C.

We have to jump through so many hoops and accept that Underwood anticipates and orchestrates so many contingent events. Which is another way of asking one of my favorite Cockeyed Caravan questions: Does the villain's plan actually make sense for the villain?

I suppose you could say that for both the protagonist and the overall show, I can't quite see what the metaphor is.

Jill Rasmussen said...

JS - I agree, there are a few too many moments of convenience for Frank and many supposedly sharp people (the President and his Chief of Staff) come across as simpletons. I think what I find more compelling than his political manoeuvring (because we're all too cynical of politicians these days and have such low expectations of their behavior) is the relationship between him and Claire. That is the real house of cards.

And I think their marriage serves as a typical D.C. marriage, or any marriage that involves at least one person obsessed with power/wealth/fame etc.