Plot: Step One

Lately I’ve been talking to a lot of writers who say they’re good at writing atmosphere, but don’t know how to write plot. They say they don’t even know where to start.

The basis of most plots is

1) Somebody wants something

2) They have obstacles

Jackie will keep the vases safe!

Oh no! People are trying to break the vases!

There are a lot of ways to make that more complicated (and more fun) but most of the writers I see struggling to make plot are struggling with step one.

In a lot of literary fiction, characters feel lost. They drift without having clear goals. This is intentional. It’s aiming to mirror the way people often feel in life. Most of the time, people don’t really know what they want.

But they at least have an idea. Lost in Translation is often held up as the artsy-feeling movie with no plot, but look at the tag on the poster. It still uses the word “want”: “Everyone wants to be found”.

Even without a clearly stated goal, characters can still have a desire for something. They might not be able to articulate it, and there might be more than one thing, but it’s there. Often it’s helpful to give them symbols.

Paradise Falls, from Up.

This is kind of like a MacGuffin, except according to Hitchcock’s definition a MacGuffin is supposed to have no meaning. I find it a waste to have anything in the book that has no meaning. So I think the MacGuffin should always DO something or at least make people THINK ABOUT something.

The Pulp Fiction suitcase doesn’t exert influence on the plot. Nothing happens because of the suitcase. We don’t even really know what it is. It’s the characters who cause action.

In contrast, the Green Destiny (the sword from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) does change the course of the story.

To reiterate: your character should have something that they’re trying to move towards. Now, to complicate, to mirror life’s uncertainties, maybe they should have another thing they want to move towards that takes them in the opposite direction.

Because, you know, choices.

Carl from Up, choosing between obligations to Russell and Ellie, symbolized by the sash and the chair.

Now that they want something, it’s time to put obstacles in their way! Next post continues onto plot, step two.

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“I Want” Songs

Anti-Theme Songs are the ones that interest me most, but the most important song in a musical is usually the “I Want” Song. Described by Howard Ashman:

“In almost every musical ever written, there’s a place, it’s usually about the third song of the evening–sometimes it’s the second, sometimes it’s the fourth–but it’s quite early, and the leading lady usually sits down on something, sometimes it’s a tree stump in Brigadoon, sometimes it’s under the pillars of a garden in My Fair Lady, or it’s a trash can in Little Shop of Horrors, but the leading lady sits down on something and sings about what she wants in life. And the audience falls in love with her, and then roots for her to get it for the rest of the night.” (Waking Sleeping Beauty).

Ashman famously had to fight Jeffrey Katzenberg for the inclusion of “Part of Your World” in The Little Mermaid. That song became one of the most memorable parts of the movie. It shows us who Ariel is and makes her instantly likeable.

From that point, almost all Disney musicals have had “I Want” Songs in the first act.

 

 

In fact, the step became a cliché. When Pixar set out to make their first movie, “I Want” Songs were one of the things they vowed to avoid. And then the studio told them to add one!

From Andrew Stanton’s TED Talk. Left side, what Pixar wanted. Right side, what the studio wanted.


In the end, Toy Story did not end up with an “I Want” Song. The clarification of Woody’s drive comes when he’s knocked off the bed, replaced by Buzz. It’s instantly clear how he feels and what he wants, without a song and dance.

But sometimes, a song and dance with a clear desire can be the best part of the story.

In the next post, I’ll discuss why a character’s desire is so important in driving plot.

The Anti-Theme Song

Hey folks! Novel manuscript completed, I’m back 🙂

Twenty years after The Lion King‘s release, many people still say “Hakuna Matata” as genuine advice. They usually don’t realize that was the OPPOSITE of the film’s message.

Consider the scene where Nala confronts Simba in the forest:

Nala: What wouldn’t I understand?

Simba: (Hastily) No, no, no. It doesn’t matter. Hakuna Matata.

Nala: (Confused) What?

Simba: Hakuna Matata. It’s something I learned out here. Look, sometimes bad things happen…

Nala: Simba!

Simba: (Continuing, irritated)–and there’s nothing you can do about it so why worry?

(Simba starts away from Nala, walking on a fallen tree. Nala trots back up to him)

Nala: Because it’s your responsibility.

Simba is similarly chastised by the film’s other mentor characters.

Mufasa: Oh, there’s more to being king than getting your way all the time.

Rafiki: Oh yes. The past can hurt. But the way I see it, you can either run from it… or… learn from it.

Ignoring the past with “no worries” causes pain for others when Scar takes over. “Hakuna Matata” is the anti-theme of The Lion King, while the actual theme is about facing the past and taking responsibility.

Anti-theme songs are a useful too. A lot of musicals use this anti-theme of relaxing and inaction. They’re often the most popular songs in the story.

The most popular anti-theme song out now is “Let it Go” from Frozen. Elsa revelling in power alone, singing “turn away and slam the door” is in direct opposition to film’s real message of love’s importance, even using the opposite metaphor of “love is an open door.”

If these songs are the opposite of the stories’ messages, why are they so much fun? Two reasons.

1) Freedom. Is it really surprising that “no worries for the rest of your days” produces a more fun song than “face responsibility for the past?” Escapism has a strong allure. Other anti-theme songs are displays of power, since the characters don’t have to worry about the consequences of their actions.

2) They have to be. Stories are about choices. Eventually, the protagonist has to choose between the theme and the anti-theme. Unless the anti-theme seems attractive, it’s going to be an incredibly easy choice and the audience won’t care.

As I close, let me address a couple foreseen areas of confusion. How do you know the story’s real theme?

You need to determine the story’s value system. When do good things happen? When do bad things happen? What is shown as the path to victory?

The most obvious stories have the hero smack the villain on the head with an item that symbolizes one of their friends (Ex. Wreck-It Ralph). Other times, the hero is given a note or shouts a quote from a previous scene. One bizarre example is Jackie Chan’s last fight in Gorgeous, where he wins by smiling.

Another anticipated question: Well then, where are the real theme songs? You think “Love Is An Open Door” is a theme song? Fritz is a bad guy, sillyhead!

Sounds like a question for next time!