Spoiler alert: Some things suck. Objectively suck.
Wait! You shout. That’s just like, your opinion, man.
Well a smidgeon of yes, and a lot of no.
In any piece of fiction, there are some murky, ephemeral rules that define whether something is actually worth applause. I’m not going to get dragged into a slanging match about whether I’m right or wrong here, so please don’t take this personally. Creating good fiction is hard. It stumps otherwise excellent writers of anything else, be it journalism, blog content or recipes. Just as with food, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a bit of junk food, but once you know how it’s made the meal can become either more appetizing or a little disgusting.
Ask somebody why they enjoy Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, whatever her names’ 50 Shades of Grey or something as dumb as Guardians of the Galaxy and they’ll often tell you that they are good stories. To other people, that is sacrilege. Nobody pisses on the altar of greatness! You can’t have that shit up there with Star Wars, Blade Runner, the Count of Monte Cristo or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
I’m gonna translate the theory behind this weird phenomenon, which I am going to dub ‘Why people like stuff that sucks’.
STORIES ARE NOT PLOT
Point numero uno is that a story is not a plot. Why do you like Da Vinci Code, Grandma bumkins?
‘Well I like the story, he goes to france and unravels a plot, and there’s a painting and a big albino willy and-‘
Shut up Grandma, you don’t know what you’re talking about. That’s not the story, that’s the plot.
See, the plot is a skeleton. It’s a series of events, moments in a piece of fiction that tie back from end to front like a little breadcrumb trail of ridiculous moments. It’s the set pieces. Luke meets Obi Wan, leaves Tatooine, finds Leia. People can often fool themselves into thinking it’s this sequence that draws their attention, that it’s this that makes them continue.
As is often the case with people, they’re wrong. That’s not what it is even if they don’t realise it. No, the thing that keeps people pulling forward through fiction is the story. If the plot is a skeleton, the story is the weird ghosty that animates it. It’s the virus inside the zombie, the blood in the vampire, the booze in the hobo’s paper bag.
STORIES ARE THE CONSEQUENCE OF CHARACTERS DOING THINGS
To put it bluntly, a story is the accumulated consequences of Characters saying things, doing things and thinking things. Then another character has something to say about those things, and he then does something in response. Before you know it, some big shit goes down and BOOM, people change. You ever had a friend who was cool, then he got a girlfriend, and you never see him anymore, and now he doesn’t play videogames anymore and just posts pictures of his cats on facebook and listens to ABBA and…Whatever, that guy is a dick.
Point being that your bumhole of a friend has undergone a change. He started out at A, and for reasons he doesn’t fully understand the things he wants in life have led him to B, and that’s just who he is now. In fiction, a story is that happening, several times with a half dozen or more characters.
50 Shades of Grey is not just about thumbs up the bum. That’s a big part of the popularity, sure. Twilight isn’t just about Vampires. In fact it’s barely about Vampires, and that isn’t the reason people like it. In both of these examples, you have an accessible and immediate window into how someone like you undergoes a change. They start out as prissy poppet pants nobodies. Because of events external to them, they start to do stuff. They talk about it some. Then they think about it. And more stuff happens. Then they change. They change in such a way that it makes the reader feel something, even if that character is a total ballbag. This emotional investment/payoff is called Catharsis, and it’s something that fiction has been built around invoking since we were clubbing each other with rocks and thighbones.
Oh! An important point which should never be neglected. Characters have WANTS and NEEDS.
These wants and needs tie deeply into what the story will end up becoming, because they are the driving forces behind what they say and do. This is true of villains and antagonists, too. A good hero/villain story only works if the wants and needs of a hero and villain mirror each other, like ying and yang. They have to complement each other’s flaws and virtues, their wants and needs tugging at the opposite spectrum.
Iron Man: WANTS to save the world. NEEDS to be seen as an all-round genius and savior.
Vader: WANTS to destroy the rebellion. NEEDS to bring Luke to the Dark Side.
Hamlet: WANTS to avenge his father’s death. NEEDS to avoid spiritual damnation.
Woody: WANTS Andy’s affection. NEEDS to keep his animated nature a secret.
MULTIPLE, BALANCED STORIES CREATE A PLOT THAT WORKS
Ever seen a film where for seemingly no reason there’s a love story tacked on?
Do you think that’s because some studio exec said ‘The audience demands titillation!’
In some cases yes, in a lot of cases no. The most incomprehensible, baffling love stories in otherwise decent films or books exist because characters need not one story, but multiple stories. The assumption that people sit down and work forwards in a straight line is bogus. Anybody who has ever attempted to write a story will tell you that the hardest part is hitting a point where you think ‘Man, I have no idea what the fuck to do next’. They started with a cool idea- Vampires fisting personal assistants to start a race war, for example- then they hit the brakes, because that in and of itself doesn’t make things happen. It can’t move people from A to B, from place to place, without it looking artificial. So what do writers do? They give characters multiple stories. Because stories emerge from the interactions between characters, making two of them fall in love unexpectedly can create new scenarios for the writer to move the plot forwards. I’m not excusing this bullshit, I’m telling you how it works.
THE DOING AND THE SAYING SHOULD EMERGE FROM DECISIONS
So we’ve got the doing and the saying and the thinking covered. This is where we converge Plot and story somewhat. The big turning points-the ‘Pivots’-should emerge from a character making a big fucking decision. Does Luke go to Cloud City to save his chums? Does Clarice Starling take Lecter’s advice? Does Simba take the easy road and stay the fuck out of Scar’s way?
Congratulations. You’ve just made a STORY and a PLOT move forwards in one fell fucking swoop.
CAUTION: PLOTS ARE NOT ALWAYS STRONGER WHEN EMERGING FROM STORY
The final caveat? People who know how to tell stories well can fuck all of this off from the get go. James Joyce? His books were about people realizing they’re heroic geniuses in a mythic, eternal kind of way. The plot? Man goes for walk around town. Man goes to University and realizes he hates his family.
Shakespeare was another. His plays were taken from older sources, nearly beat for beat. What made them different? That’s right, the fucking story! THE ACCUMULATED EFFECT OF CHARACTERS DOING, THINKING AND SAYING, AND OTHER CHARACTERS RESPONDING IN KIND. It’s just how we are wired. Blame the lizard brain.
Now go. Watch and read your bullshit, and analyze why you like it, then come back and tell me I’m wrong if you very fucking dare.
One thought on “The Story and the Plot: Why people like stuff that sucks”
I think the biggest leap for a writer is grasping the concept of agency. Once that’s achieved – and honestly adhered to – the rest can more naturally fall in to place.