Stories are hard, so movies are hard (to do well)

Something that’s been bugging me lately…

I watch very little television, though I think what I’m about to say applies to TV as well. And novels and any medium for storytelling. For the time being, however, I am thinking in terms of the standard 90+ minute motion picture.

And I am speaking specifically about plot, interesting situations, and the development and transformation of characters.

As an example, I just watched the movie Heat from 1995. Some nice acting, some nice dialog, a few mini situations that were interesting, but a pretty weak plot and story arc in my view. This movie is also in the IMDb top 250 movies of all time (by user ratings). Now I’m not going to say the movie sucks; I think it had going for it what a lot of movies do that have weak stories. They are propped up by:

• Good acting
• Interesting, quirky characters
• Well-written dialog
• Interesting character interactions

Ah, I just thought of a perfect example I think most people would agree on: Office Space (1999). The movie starts out with a really interesting premise (so far, so good in terms of story), there are many interesting characters, there are some great character interactions, but then the story of movie morphs into something awful that even the characters themselves admit is ripped off from another movie. In fact, I think a lot of people forget the main plot it’s so bad (still, it’s a great movie).

Now, I’m picky. I’m not easily entertained. That said, most movie plots are just bad. The clever, original story is just not there. Marvel movies, for example: a lot of McGuffin bullshit.

As a positive example, I’ve never seen a single episode of Breaking Bad, but I’m going to binge-watch the whole thing one of these days because the story sounds completely engaging (and sounds complete and solid from beginning to end).

So, to go beyond mere bitching, here’s what I think is the real problem. As primates, we are extremely interested in people and their relationships to each other. Shifts in the pecking order and whatnot. We easily get interested and invested in characters as social units. A large percentage of the stories we tell each other are about how people behaved: the trouble they got into, the crazy things that happened to them, etc.

The issue is that life rarely rolls out in the form of interesting plots–the kind of “big” plots that sustain a novel, movie, miniseries, etc. Thus, a lot of stories end up being the cliched “Oh there’s this thing we need to get or make happen or stop and… bad guys! Obstacles!”

We’ve seen it all so much that the story part barely registers. I saw all the Harry Potter movies. I remember the environments and characters (the more interesting of them, at least), but the plots themselves I can barely recall. I think Rowling sold so many books based on the characters and environments and not on what actually happened. She was very good a creating a world people would like to visit, but the whole story of Voldemort is just cliched shyte (McGuffin-based to boot, with the horcruxes).

OTOH, I haven’t even seen Breaking Bad, but the premise and implied story arc is so interesting that I already know it.

Thus, I think there are two ways to successfully plot a movie:

  1. Create a plot that is truly original and interesting (very hard to do).

  2. Make the story smaller in scale and make it about those character interactions (not hard to do but seemingly not a favorite method of Hollywood). Movies like My Man Godfrey and Ghost World have modest but highly satisfying stories because they are about people relating to each other and how those relationships transform. Yet I guess this is not the stuff of which blockbusters are made these days.

TL;DR: Interesting characters are relatively easy to do; interesting and original plots are very hard to do. The result is that it’s hard to create a truly satisfying movie.

I didn’t state the above very skillfully, but thanks for reading, and I welcome your thoughts!

Sure, they’re hard to do, but people do them. There are always a handful of fully successful movies each year (as there are a handful of fully successful anything in the arts). This year, I’d mention Birdman, Interstellar, and The Book of Life. (Of course, opinions vary as to what is “good”).

Essentially, you’re just restating Sturgeon’s Law. However, you can make a great movie with weak characters and a simple plot (e.g., Star Wars). And you can make a great movie with both. Greatness depends on many factors.

I have been critiquing a lot of novel openers and scenes written by learning/amateur/unpublished writers on another message board. Something that I see over and over again are people who think they are writing a movie instead of a novel. Instead of focusing on complex plot and/or engaging characters, which are the lifeblood of a novel, they rely either on action sequences–which have to be choreographed into a yawn-fest on the page–or on describing how cool their world is, which is also largely a yawn-fest for the reader.

Maybe this observation obliquely hits what you are trying to say?

Sounds like Sturgeon’s Law to me (’s_law )

From Wikipedia

***Sturgeon’s revelation, commonly referred to as Sturgeon’s law, is an adage commonly cited as “ninety percent of everything is crap.” It is derived from quotations by Theodore Sturgeon, an American science fiction author and critic.

The phrase was derived from Sturgeon’s observation that while science fiction was often derided for its low quality by critics, it could be noted that the majority of examples of works in other fields could equally be seen to be of low quality and that science fiction was thus no different in that regard from other art forms.***


Anecdote - I read the Hitchhiker’s Guide series as a teenager, and I was utterly captivated by the story and it’s implications for human existence. After the 3rd (?) book, I started to get a twingy sense of dissatisfaction with the story, like it wasn’t wrapping up fast enough and providing useful answers for my life. The 4th book didn’t help. I re-read the first book when I was a few years older and came to the stunning realization that the story I found so truly engaging was just a flimsy framework upon which to hang British humor. I was crushed.

Ultimately you’re right, a good epic story is hard to do. Filling up a 3-hour Marvel movie with the amount of plot that most people expect is destined to result in something muddled and ultimately hollow. The problem is that writers can’t win. You either cram a whole bunch of pointless, nonsensical plot into a movie (I’m looking at you, Christopher Nolan), or you recycle a very worn simple plot and hang some interesting characters, set pieces, and action onto it. The Plinkett Star Wars reviews showed how effective this is; the prequel trilogies have a modern “plot,” and the original trilogy is a bunch of simple, short stereotypes that work. Tarantino movies, which I love, don’t have a plot so much as they have 5 or 6 extremely well-crafted scenes that sometimes feature the same characters.

I’ve grown completely tired of the epic blockbuster at this point. I like the Marvel movies but I get really bored when they’re destroying lots of things in order to save the universe. I did not understand the fuss about the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which had 30 hours of plot to shove into 10 hours of movie and sacrificed everything else that makes movies watchable. Any more, all I want is a simple story told well, with some interesting things to look at and maybe a few things to ponder afterwards. Recent action movies like Premium Rush and Chronicle come to mind. Neither had an original plot point in them, but they were fun.

I’ve wondered a lot about this myself, because there is no shortage of decent writers. There are hundreds of fans writing stories on the internet that are better than the stories that get made. Here’s my theory: the scripts start out as better stories.

You can find compelling evidence of this, if you dig around. There are some sites that post scripts, and they are often very different, usually have more dialog and go into character motivation more, etc. Also there are deleted scenes that you wish had made the movie, because they help it make more sense.
Unfortunately for people who care about stories, the writer seldom has any say once their script is sold, and directors, producers, actors and who knows how many others want to make changes. Sometimes they genuinely think it would improve the movie, but often I suspect it’s a power thing. I’ve been involved in creative projects and seen it over and over. The designer is the one who studied art and color theory and all the subjects to produce a good product, but the people who are paying want to be involved, or in control, and will make changes that often seem arbitrary.

There’s a certain formula for each genre of movie (and they can crossover a lot) that works best, and the most successful movies keep to that formula. They don’t do it because it serves the story best, necessarily (they often have to bend, fold, and mutilate the story they had in mind to fit the formula), they do it because it satisfies audiences, and therefore makes money. Therefore, sticking to formulaic plot structure will never cease.

What I’ve noticed is that most award winning movies, the ones that may not make the most money but garner the most praise, do not follow the formula. In fact most often they’re slow, weird, or seem to start and end halfway through a plot, with no satisfying prologue or conclusion. It’s weird how often a screenwriter that’s starting out gets their scripts rejected for failing to maintain the formula (it needs this at page 30, and that at page 60, and these at page 90, etc) yet the ones that get praised are not formulaic at all (and somehow bypassed the usual Hoolywood system to get made).

I think you overgeneralize the Marvel movies. The Winter Soldier, for example, wasn’t a MacGuffin heavy plot and had a great story. Same for Iron Man.

I think you (the OP—and other posters too) make some good points. I’ll just comment on a couple of things:

Have you read the books, or just seen the movies? If the latter, it’s not really fair to criticize Rowling. IMHO she’s a lot better plotter than you give her credit for. The broad main idea(s) may not be all that original, but she does a good job at keeping readers turning pages to find out what happens—answers to questions, solutions to mysteries, resolutions to tense situations, etc.

I think we need to distinguish between the plot, and the premise or concept. Not having seen it, I know the premise of Breaking Bad but not the plot.

I notice you didn’t specify interesting and original characters. If you held the characters to the same standard of originality as you do the plot, would they be equally hard to do well? Or is originality even relevant for characters?

Hollywood makes a fortune from crappy movies. It’s a business first, an art form second. Motivation to make better movies is lacking.

I wouldn’t say that the OP is talking about Sturgeon’s Law, except obliquely.

Simply put, people aren’t interested in what they say they’re interested in. The big names in music are glorified dancers, the big movies in Hollywood are special effects bonanzas, and most people don’t get the joke unless there’s a laugh track. It sounds cynical, but a majority of people can’t and don’t follow what’s going on in entertainment, fashion, etc. they just understand through their peer interactions what they are expected to enjoy, and proceed to do so without consciously thinking about it.

This is probably largely caused by the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Basically, if you’re good at something, then you can recognize when it’s being done well and when it isn’t. When you’re not good at something, you can’t. Someone interested in music, who has talent at it, will be able to distinguish between good and bad music and he would (in a musicians only world) rise to the top of the heap. But everyone who isn’t good at music and has no idea what makes something good or bad, can’t distinguish between when he is hearing good or bad music. He must accept the wisdom of those around him. The problem is that, what most people are seeking isn’t “good music” or “good movies”, they’re seeking social interaction. Bands made up of crazy personalities, who do scandalous things, are great because they foster discussion. Movies that tie into brand names are great, because there’s a community of people around that brand to talk with. And so, the minority of people who are into the subject end up teaming together and sharing the quality stuff. The majority of people look for something that’s socializing-compatible and gets a grudging nod from the experts that the product is of professional quality.

Hollwood doesn’t interview for talent and hire them to accomplish certain things. They promote people who have been shown to create things that make money. Within the world of cinema, everyone’s a professional, interested in what makes a movie good or bad, etc. but just because someone has a critical eye for movies, that doesn’t mean that their talents lie in the story-telling side of it. Most directors who make it big are those who are visually-oriented. They are more concerned with the cinematography and visuals of the enterprise. Basically, they’re artists rather than storytellers. When it comes to the camera angles, CGI, and visual effects, they’re going to get a quality job done that no one can deny is anything less than skillfully implemented. But when it comes to the script, they’re going to approve chopping out all the bits that detract from the visual impact of the film. These directors make movies that are easy to comprehend - and so easy to talk about - they don’t mind working in the market space of “comic book movies” or “young adult book movies”, and they’re sufficiently skilled in the art of movie-making - able to occassionally add some symbolism and artistic nonense into a few side projects - that they get the nod from the people who understand what is or isn’t good. Subsequently, they sell more seats, and get bigger budgets. Arthouse directors do not.

So, the market ultimately results in it being that most movies have no plot. There isn’t any money in it.

Sage Rat, that was an excellent post, and you made some good points. I think the heart of it was the following sentence which, nevertheless, needs some qualification:

But I don’t think it’s as much of a strict dichotomy as this seems to imply, as though the average layman is completely oblivious to quality and the aficionado doesn’t care about social interaction.

I also think that people who watch movies, listen to music, etc. are seeking social interaction, not just with the other people that they can discuss and share experiences with, but with the people making the movies/music/whatever: they want to feel like they have a relationship of some sort with those people.

Major movies suffer from massive coordination challenges. Hundreds of people need to work together to make a big-budget movie, and a surprising number of them effectively have veto-power over many decisions. The resulting work is a creative compromise without coherent vision.

Did the original script have a slow-paced and tense cat-and-mouse encounter between the hero and the villain? Well, we’ve got Michael Bay attached as producer, so now it’s got car chases and explosions. (And what if the main character had a hot teenaged daughter? Think about it.)

Did the original script have a stoic everyman hero with a sardonic grin? Well, Tom Cruise is interested, so now it does.

Is the script based on a book with a rabid following that will resist any adaptation or elision? Time to fit in every minor character and scene, whether or not they make sense in a film.

Also, Chinese audiences are really growing, so the studio wants to make sure there’s a sequence set in China with small parts for Chinese stars that can be expanded into a major subplot for the release there.

This is a very odd statement, considering that Hollywood movies have always been primarily plot-driven and that’s even more so today.

European films tended to focus more on character than plot.

Obviously, there are counterexamples in Hollywood, but they’re rare. Audience always prefer a plot-driven structure (remember the line in “Wake Up, Little Suzy,” where they fall asleep because the film “didn’t have much of a plot.”)

The opposite of “summer popcorn blockbuster” isn’t “character driven”.

A two hour movie is basically a short story so there’s a limit to how complex a plot you can have, I will grant. But a movie like Die Hard 5 or something that’s just a series of adventures in pursuit of the McGuffin is plot-driven to the same extent that tofu is a flavor bonanza for your mouth. And there’s tons of character driven movies that are popular; Saving Private Ryan, Pulp Fiction, Forest Gump, etc. They aren’t the provenance of nor definition of complex film.

A movie with advanced plotting is going to be toying around with our expectations, pulling in motifs and constructing social commentary right into the structure of the film, and challenging the edge of what a viewer can still find enjoyable, despite departing from the tropes. The movie, The Matrix, for example was horribly plotted. As a plot-driven movie, the big sell would be the reveal of the Matrix and what that means for our character and society in general. Something well-crafted would slowly build up to the big reveal, and make us all slap our foreheads, because of all the foreshadowing that had been done to tell us that this is where it’s leading. Instead, the whole thing is quickly exposited, all ramifications to the real world left to the viewer, and we jump straight into asskicking and trench coats. Not only was it a wasted opportunity, but it left most of the content that they had to explore in the sequels already spent in the first 10 minutes of the first film.

Whereas a movie like Memento is so cleverly plotted out that you end up at the end of the movie feeling sorry for the main character, that you neglect to consider that the main character actively decided to use his own condition to kill freely. The writer makes you end up rooting for the bad guy and you never notice it, because you’re too busy thinking about the time direction.

Many great comments by you and others, which I will get to in a bit here, but first:

This is in my Top 20 movies. A true example of a great story.

One Ebert quote I like: “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.”

I don’t place much value on originality. All the stories and characters have been done to death. At most people are combining cliches in different ways or changing surface details, not the underlying forms. People think something is original, but the ideas are hundreds, sometimes thousands of years old.

You’d think new stories would come about with technological advances, but not really. Space is the ocean and planets are exotic islands full of monsters and hostile natives. Cyberspace is like the dreamscape. AI and aliens are what demons and gods used to be. Guns are bow and arrows. Laser swords are still swords. Robots are golems. Futuristic technology is magic. Jedis are wizards. Your sci-fi hero has a jetpack, Perseus has his winged sandals. Hercules did it before Superman.

When was the last burst of original story telling? The sci-fi pulp days, maybe? Even that might be generous. Some people point to Tolkien, but that was a pastiche of Nordic myths. The Time Machine was published in 1895, and it wasn’t even the first story with an actual time machine. Stories about time travel via supernatural means are ancient.

I never got why people praised Breaking Bad for its original premise. It’s awesome, yeah, but original? Down on his luck guy is sucked into the criminal underworld to make ends meet? That’s like, every sad sack criminal story ever. Hell, Weeds had nearly the same premise a couple years earlier. I guess meth and cancer are edgier than weed and being a widow. The impossibilities of juggling your criminal career and your family was already done just on TV by The Shield and The Sopranos.

I see worse: video game design as literary composition.

I agree that greatness depends on many factors, and movies can make up for weak plots with other things.

Sturgeon’s Law comes into play here, of course, but my thesis is that good, original stories are harder to do that other forms of art or parts of a particular art.

For example, most music is crap, but it’s relatively easy to write a masterpiece pop tune. Many a person without incredible music talent has created an earworm, and there is an almost infinity of one-hit-wonder artists who created an iconic hit.

I think it’s much harder to come up with a great plot, relatively speaking.

By the way, in response to some other comments, I’m not insisting upon absolute originality. Just about any story can be critiqued as “done before” on some level or another. Sometimes, however, the divisions are so broad as to be meaningless. A hero’s journey-type plot can be either a mass of cliches or be quite original. Just because it can be labeled a “hero’s journey plot” doesn’t mean it won’t be interesting. Even so, it’s hard to write such a plot in an interesting way.

I’ll grant Forrest Gump, but Saving **Private Ryan **and especially Pulp Fiction are plot driven (pulp fiction – lower case – was always plot-driven). The Matrix was totally driven by the plot – it’s the story of how Neo learns of his powers and battles against the forces of evil. That’s a plot (maybe not a good one, but you can’t make a case that the movie is character-driven when Neo and the characters in it are paper thin).

Maybe the plot is a simple one, but it’s narrative that drives most Hollywood films. The characters are there in service to the story, but a plot-driven movie essential has a character having things happen to him that end up that he tries to resolve and eventually succeeds.

Even things that have the potential for being character driven have a plot to hang it all on. Take The Imitation Game. Sure, it’s about Turing, but Turing is interesting primarily because of the inherent tension and narrative of decoding Enigma.

A character-driven film is something like Alice’s Restaurant, which documents characters and events that don’t have anything to do with a narrative line (though it does settle down with a plot toward the end). Forrest Gump would fit (though, technically, it’s a picaresque: the hero has a bunch of unrelated events happen to him).

In Europe, you have films like most of Ingmar Bergman’s work, Fellini’s Amarcord, Jules and Jim, The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and Simon of the Desert.

Looking at the Oscar winners this century, every one of them was plot centered. The only nominees I see that are clearly not are Gosford Park, Chocolat (European), Sideways, Up In the Air, The Kids are Alright, The Descendents, and ** Beasts of the Southern Wild** (there are, of course, some films I missed, but most of those are plot based). A wider net might grab another three or four, but that’s a pretty low number for 100 or so films.

In a plot-driven film, the plot is what is used to reveal the character; in a character-driven one, the character is revealed with only the barest of stories to illuminate it.