The Point of Plot

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My first script-reading job in New York, a producer taught me the term “story point.”

“What’s the story point of the scene?” he’d ask about a particularly cool action set piece or four pages of rom-com banter. It was a rude awakening that dialogue and character can only camouflage so much. It sometimes seems ruthless but at the end of every scene you should ask: How does this drive my story forward? What is the essential information conveyed that the audience needs to retain in order to appreciate the story as it unfolds? How can I deliver that in a succinct, uncluttered way?

Plot is the mechanism by which you engage an audience in what happens to your character by creating a situation where stakes gradually rise to put your character in an unbearable decision, forcing him or her to make a decision that ultimately reveals who he or she is. A lot of times as writers we get caught up in character, and that’s good. You want a rich, fully dimensional character but sometimes your very intimate knowledge of a character can slow you down, can make you bring every single detail about this character you’ve built into a scene, and that’s a mistake…because not every single detail about your character is important unless it affects the storyline.

And here’s a dirty truth…if you’re a really talented writer and the character you set up is exceptional, specific, hasn’t been seen before and we fall in love, the mechanics of plot aren’t that important. But you’re stacking the deck against yourself and you’re counting on being lucky, on snagging the right cast, the right performance, or on tapping into the zeitgeist at the right time.

Take “Lost in Translation” for example, Sofia Coppola’s 2003 breakout hit.

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Here’s a review from About.com.

Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is a fading, middle-aged movie star who comes to Tokyo to make whiskey commercials for a ridiculously high fee. Temporarily running away from his life and the constant demands of his wife (who remains a nagging voice on the telephone), Harris is a lonely man. He is disconcerted by the absolute foreignness of Japan. Lost in a strange country, he is unable to sleep. His disappointment in himself is palpable. Coppola wrote the role especially for Bill Murray and courted him, knowing that she would not make the film without him. Given Murray’s warm and nuanced performance, it is impossible to imagine any other actor who could have pulled off such an unaffected combination of humor and tenderness. Bob Harris is reminiscent of Murray’s Herman Blume in “Rushmore”–funny and wry and wanting.

“Lost In Translation” works because there’s such an interesting specific character that we’ve never seen before caught up in a modern situation (fading actors making money from their fame in remote places) and because the filmmaker is able to so accurately translate the mood of sleepwalking through Tokyo as a metaphor for how we sleepwalk through life. There’s a character and a “want” and two terrific performances and it works.

But it’s not easy…even if it looks like it is.  As a result, Lost in Translation makes a whole lot of lesser writers write a whole lot of talky scenes that go nowhere, in the same way Pulp Fiction did before it.

What is it about us as writers that makes us look at a four legged chair and say, no, I’m bored with that…I’m going to make mine with three?

My theory is that we shy away from plot because it can feel mechanical. I also think it’s harder to make a movie that’s all plot resonate compared to a movie that’s all character. But plot matters in so much as it’s a way to shed light on character. Without it a story wanders, lacks tension and that character we were so interested in at the outset, struggles to keep us engaged.

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