I think the way to describe the “best” narrative – that is, the narrative that, regardless of its content, is the most structurally-sound, streamlined, well-put-together – is that it is both unexpected and inevitable. While watching it, you can’t predict the outcomes of the events you’re seeing onscreen, but once you’ve seen it and you look back on it, you realize that it couldn’t possibly have happened any other way.
What I think is interesting about this is that it seems to describe two different modes of appreciating a movie, so what I’m going to do is assume that this is (as it intuitively seems) a correct assertion, and proceed from that to elucidate what I think are the two fundamental elements of narrative. Some of this is going to seem pretty obvious, but just because a thing is obvious doesn’t mean it isn’t worth exploring a little bit.
Those two elements are Plot and Story.
What and Why
So. A lot of words have been spent on the subjects of Plot and Story, and so what I am going to try to do is to simplify them in a way that makes it easy to talk about and that serves as a useful tool for considering my thesis. Here we go:
Plot is What Happens in a narrative. Story is Why It Happens.
Easy. But! There’s some confusion that we sometimes run into here, so I want to clarify it. When I say, “Why” it happens, I don’t mean, “what are the causes within the context of the narrative that lead to the subsequent events.” Like, for example, “John McClain ties a firehose around his waist and leaps out a window” is very clearly a plot point: it is a THING that HAPPENS. When we ask “why does he do that”, there are two ways that we can answer it, right? One of them is, “because he knows the building is about to explode and he needs to escape the fire.” Right, that’s still plot, though. “The building is about to explode” is a plot point.
The real why that we’re talking about is why THIS thing, and not some other thing. Why is it that this plot point is the essential plot point that must happen here, and must happen in this way, so that when we look back at it later we can say, “Of course that’s what happened, what else was going to happen?” (In this particular case, we might say something like, “the firehose sequence is there to illustrate simultaneously how precarious McClain’s situation is, and how daring and reckless he is in pursuit of his survival”, or something like that.)
When narrative is done right, of course, this question just doesn’t make any sense, which I think is why we ask it so rarely (or, anyway, rarely ask it so clearly). In Captain America, if you said, “Why does Captain America fight the Red Skull on top of his flying death weapon and then crash it into the arctic?” you’ll most likely get the Plot Why answer: “Because he had to stop the Red Skull from blowing up New York.”
But the reason for that is because the Story Why is so integral that it’d never occur to anyone that the answer might be different.
What do you mean, “Why did Captain America fight the Red Skull?” The entire movie is about the clash between the two philosophies of human nature that they represent!
What do you mean, “Why was it on the Red Skull’s Death Ship?” The Death Ship was the tangible representation of the Red Skull’s genocidal mania! Its existence was both a representation of his character and a symbol of the power at his disposal!
What do you mean, “Why did Captain America steer it into the Arctic?” Of COURSE he steered it into the Arctic, the whole point of the movie is that Captain America’s symbolic character is better because it’s based on self-sacrifice, not megalomania!
But look, that isn’t always what happens. When you look at something like Star Trek Into Darkness, and you say, “Why does Spock have a fist-fight with Khan on a space-car?” The Plot Why is…(actually, straight up, I kind of don’t remember the Plot Why. “Because they need to get him!” I guess? Couldn’t they have just transported him into the transporter room or something? Sent an army of security guards with phasers after him?). Well, the Plot Why is something, anyway, I’m sure a Guy Said a Reason.
The Story Why is also a problem though, because why should it be a fist-fight and not a laser-fight? Why is it on a space-car instead of in a sewer, or on the wreckage of Khan’s ship? Why does SPOCK fight him, and not, I don’t know, Scotty?
Star Trek Into Darkness is a pretty good object lesson, because there are a lot of questions that come up where we can say, “why did it happen THIS way, and not some OTHER way,” and the answer is kind of a, “meh, I don’t know.”
It’s sometimes challenging to articulate this problem, see, because when narrative is done right this disjunction between plot and story doesn’t exist. There’s no difference, and so we don’t notice it. But that means that when there IS a disjunction, we’re so used to not articulating it that we often don’t have the machinery in place to talk about it.
Character and Essentiality
What’s interesting to me about this is how we use the word “essential” – like, “is this essential to the plot?” Only, we plainly don’t mean that something is essential to the PLOT, right?
The plot is the series of events that occur in the narrative. A narrative’s plot is all the things that happen in it, and so, by definition, everything that happens in it is essential to the plot. Scotty finding the warp-thingie that Khan used is essential to the plot of Star Trek Into Darkness, because if he hadn’t done that, then the plot would have been different.
What this means is that when someone talks about how essential a character or an element or a feature of the plot is to the narrative, we’re actually always asking how is this character essential to the STORY – that is, not “what are the in-context or in-story reasons why such-and-such a character did such-and-such a thing,” but “why did it have to be THIS character, in THIS way that did it.”
Why does Scotty have to find the transwarp thing in Star Trek Into Darkness? Well, because if he didn’t, they wouldn’t have found out where Khan was. Right? That’s a plot answer to a plot question, but the plot question is basically never important. As long as your plot doesn’t violate the essential sense of cause and effect (and sometimes even then, I’ll get to that), then this question isn’t really very interesting. Oh, sure, they wouldn’t have found out where Khan was.
Except, obviously, there’s a million other ways that this exact same information could have been conveyed or received, this same effect could have been established – Spock could have found the transwarp thing. Uhura could have found it. A security guard could have found it. Some other method could have been used – Chekhov could have tracked the warp signal across space, or Uhura could have eavesdropped on a Klingon conversation about Starfleet incursions into their space, or Admiral Peter Weller could have just turned up with some intelligence and said, “Our spies have figured out that he’s here.”
(In this case, I suppose when we ask, “Why did Scotty find the transwarp thing,” the answer might be, “Because it’s part of the movie’s throughline about his sense of betrayal that the science of Starfleet is being used for war.” Sure. Sure, okay, I’ll give you that one.)
(We can see further that, framed like this, science fiction and fantasy really have a much HIGHER standard for Story than regular old realism. The excuse of “well, it’s a fantasy world, anything can happen” doesn’t really cut it when we ask question like this, because it’s exactly correct: Yes, ANYTHING can happen, so why did THIS thing happen, and not [literally] ANY OTHER THING. Iron Man has to stop the atomic bomb from landing on New York, why does he grab it and throw it at the aliens? “What choice did he have?” Well, this is Science Fiction, motherfuckers – he could have reprogrammed the bomb using his robot suit, or wired himself into the New York power grid and deflected it with a giant electromagnetic wave, he could have shot the portal with his beams and caused it to point somewhere else when he threw the bomb into it [would it do that if you shot it with beams? Son, it’s MADE UP, it does whatever we say it does]. In a movie with strict rules about realism, those choices might not be available to him, and so we might conceivably trap a character in a plot conundrum, but here it’s not an issue – if your story has Iron Man eradicating an alien species with a nuclear device, the only possible reason for it is because that is the very specific thing that you wanted to happen.)
One of Pixar’s rules of storytelling is asking about a character whether or not their role in the plot could be fulfilled by some other person, and on the surface this seems a little misleading – ANY role, in ANY plot can be fulfilled by another person. You can just rewrite the plot. Plots can be anything you want, there are, for all intents and purposes, an infinite number of plots.
It’s actually a really good question though, because the point of it is not to say, “Why does this character do this within the context of the plot,” but to say, “Why does it have to be THIS character, doing it in THIS way?” It forces the writers to think not just about the exigencies of the plot, but of the actual story that those exigencies convey.
Watching Fast and Thinking Slow
What I find especially fascinating about this particular description of Plot and Story is HOW there can be a disjunction between the two. How is it that we, as a species, can produce narrative that makes sense on one level (i.e, the Plot level, in which all the elements proceed directly from one to the other in a way that does not violate our sense of cause and effect) but also does or doesn’t make sense at another level (i.e., the Story level, in which we consider all the plot and character elements in concert, and consider whether or not they could have happened some other way). We all know about Alfred Hitchcock’s “Icebox Moment,” when you don’t notice a plot hole or an inconsistency or a question about the story until that night when you’re looking your fridge for something to eat.
How can this be?
Well, I think there are a couple reasons for it. One is that Plot is apprehended on a moment-to-moment basis. You can correct me if I’m wrong about this, maybe you perceive plot differently than I do, but my experience with watching movies is rarely one in which all elements of the plot are in my head simultaneously: i.e., when John McClain is about to jump off the roof, I’m not watching it and thinking to myself, “Oh, dang, he’s got to jump off the roof so that he can avoid the fire, so that he can figure out what those terrorists are planning, which I happen to know is a complex robbery, &c. &c.” When I see John McClain on the roof, I’m mostly thinking about what happened immediately beforehand.
And the thing about Story is, it’s hard to make sense of all those different Whys until you’ve got the entire narrative to compare it to – sure, this particular action seems out of place or inconsistent now, in the second act–
(Why, exactly, does Hjalmar Ekdal so significantly allude to the gun on his mantelpiece? That seems like a weird thing to drop into conversation…ohhhhhh! His daughter is going to kill herself with it by using it as a metaphor for the secrets of his own past that he’d tried to bury, and also as a metaphor for syphilis[?] [I kind of don’t remember what happens in The Wild Duck])
…but once we’ve got a more complete context, we get a better understanding of it. Sort of a reverse-form of the Icebox Moment, where we don’t realize quite how important something is the moment that we see it, but start to realize it as we chew on it later on. (I’m sure there’s a TV Tropes name for that, but I don’t care, I kind of hate TV Tropes.)
I think that’s actually a key element for good art, by the way – this facet of producing anti-refrigerator moments. Good narrative isn’t complete just because it’s over, it’s not complete until you’ve thought about it for a few days and sucked the marrow from its bones, it’s not complete maybe until you’ve talked about it with someone else. Good narrative is good grist for thought, precisely because the more closely it’s examined, the more depth it reveals.
The other thing that I think is pretty important is maybe this: Plot is actually experienced, and Story is thought about. That’s a simpler way of saying what I was getting at before, but I think that’s about the size of it. We feel plot, we don’t think about it; the touchstone quality for Plot is that it’s immersive, right? That it makes you forget everything except what’s happening. Well, and so it does, and so while you’re experiencing plot you’re pretty much not paying attention to anything else, and that’s why you don’t always notice that the Story of the narrative isn’t lining up quite right until you’re standing at the icebox and looking for those sweet and sour pork dumplings you’re SURE your wife didn’t finish last night. I think this is one of the cases where actually your plot kind of can violate laws of cause and effect, as long as it doesn’t, in the exact moment that a person is watching it, seem to violate those laws, the audience will forgive it.
This is true, when people say, “You’re thinking about it too much,” what they really mean is “you’re thinking about it at all.” You’re muddying up the basic experience of Plot by trying to make it concomitant with consideration of Story.
The Grand Illusion
What I think is fascinating about this, of course, is that directors and writers and producers all understand that there ought to be a Story. A Story ought to exist. If you asked Michael Bay what Transformers was about, he’d probably give you some guff about “the triumph of the human spirit” or “the power of hope/faith” or “man’s relationship with his technology” or something (maybe he even believes this is true), because on a certain level he doesn’t want to believe that he’s making a giant theme park ride, but the fact of the matter is that Transformers is about a robot punching another robot. It is about, in other words, only the things that actually happen. You can’t think about it – I mean, you CAN, but why bother? There’s nothing there to be thought about.
(“Just sit back,” they say, “and turn off your brain,” as though 1) there’s some particular merit in NOT thinking about things, and 2) what? How the fuck do you turn off your brain?)
And the thing is, movies like that are almost always garbage movies, because plots are basically interchangeable. That’s the crazy thing to me. The whole industry ACTS like it’s Story elements that are interchangeable – that you stick in something about the Triumph of the Human Spirit with a smattering of the Power of Faith to Conquer Fear, and then you work on figuring out which elaborate robot-fight you’re going to generate first.
But it’s actually the other way around, which is why so many of the modern blockbuster actioners feel so empty. Sure, the Enterprise crashed into the San Francisco Bay, it was very exciting! Spock had to leap on some stuff. Optimus Prime punched another robot, John Carter (of Mars) killed a bunch of those green guys. But these things don’t mean anything, they don’t signify anything, they’re only as interesting as they are literally phenomenally interesting in the moment that you observe them, and then a month later do you even remember? I don’t know.
(Similar to this, I think, is the confusion between Backstory and Character. Backstory is a feature of Plot – it is the literal, concrete cause for actions taken in a film. Character is a feature of Story – it’s illumination is the purpose for which those actions were included in the film.)
(This is not to say that plot-only movies are implicitly bad. Ocean’s 11 is pretty much just plot – most heist movies / movies about people being competent are just plot. When you get to the end of Ocean’s 11 and you think, “well, is there any other way it could’ve happened?” you don’t feel like there is because it’s so tightly and intricately plotted that it seems like one missing piece would make the whole thing apart. But if you changed the details of the heist, could you build basically the same movie and just shuffle plot points around? Sure. [see: Ocean’s 12, Ocean’s 13])
What I guess I mean by this is that almost all of the modern action-heavy blockbusters I’ve seen lately – the ones that have inspired me to do Dramaturgery posts in the first place (which is, very specifically, making changes to the mechanical structure of a Plot so that it creates a better Story, now I think on it) – it’s just exhausting, honestly, to watch all this effort and money expended to no actual purpose. You make a movie like the Avengers, that movie is a time-waster. Sure, it’s a billion-dollar time-waster, but all that proves is that there’s a billion dollars’ worth of time to be wasted. And I don’t know if we really live in a world in which people straight up just don’t care, or if there’s actually some kind of deep, psychological mechanism that privileges Plot over Story and is going to leave me eternally frustrated with the garbage nonsense of popular culture.
Probably the second thing, I guess.