On plots and stories and other sundry items

Any standard discussion of any work of story-based art will inevitably turn to the plot. Sentiments like “good action but bad plot!” are a common reaction to major blockbusters.

That’s silly. Plots cannot be good or bad. Plots are. They exist. Whether or not they work is dependent on how they’re incorporated into the story.

Plots are an ingredient. They’re… flour, I guess? Flour is a good one. Movies are cakes and plots are the flour. They are there and part of the cake, essential to its construction, but pretty much never the element that makes or breaks the cake. Sometimes, if you’re bold enough, you can make a very avant-garde, gluten-free cake without flour! But for the most part, your cake will have flour and that’s not just fine, it’s pretty much standard storytelling.

But flour is just… flour. Assuming you’ve kept the moths out, it’s hard to have “bad flour”. And movies pretty much don’t have bad plots, just bad storytelling. I didn’t like “Man of Steel”. I didn’t dislike “Man of Steel” because its plot was bad, I disliked “Man of Steel” because it took an element of the plot (action climax!) and botched it with wretched excess that made the whole ordeal mind-numbing. It took a basic plot element that can be done well (romance) and failed to do it well at all. I disliked it because seriously, the Jesus allegory was embarrassingly overwrought.

“Man of Steel” wasn’t bad because of its plot, but because the ingredients that make a full-blooded story didn’t work.

The same goes for any film you dislike. Let’s say you didn’t care for “Pacific Rim”. I’m telling you now: your dislike was not because of the plot. If you disliked it, it was because of storytelling elements aside from the plot didn’t work for you. “Pacific Rim” is not a movie whose quality is determined by its plot; its plot is an excuse to incorporate the elements that determine how good it is (huge-scale action and characters who partake in it).

But let’s say you liked Pacific Rim.  Again, not because of the plot. The plot could have been given to 10 directors with orders not to change a thing and you’d probably end up with 10 wildly different movies. If you liked Del Toro’s, it was probably for the reasons I did: the movie had an irresistible sense of fun, exciting action scenes, and likeable characters. Note, none of these things are plot. No one praises the flour, all on its own, in a good cake. They praise the sweetness and the texture and the frosting.

The same goes for any film, but for now we’ll stick with action. “Fast and Furious 6” was a silly, gleeful romp of a movie. Its plot could have been made into a terrible movie without changing a thing, if the action scenes were done poorly, if the performances weren’t enjoyable, if the general tone of the movie wasn’t so self-aware and playful. “Man of Steel” didn’t need a plot overhaul to be a good movie, any more than a bad cake can be rescued by changing the brand of flour if it’s being made by an incompetent baker.

Even classically plot-oriented stories, like murder mysteries, aren’t made good or bad by their plots. They are made good or bad by what the storytellers do with those plots. Agatha Christie books follow a template that she had down pat: she made them enjoyable through her skill in creating new environments and supporting characters to make these plots feel fresh and, most of all, through the charm of her primary characters, Miss Marple and Inspector Poirot.

I quote Roger Ebert a lot, but he was a quotable man. And he had one philosophy that affected my view on films more than anything else he wrote: “It’s not what it’s about, but how it’s about it.”

Plots are what the movie is about. Everything else we see is how the movie is about it.

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About johnmichaelmaximilian

Freelance writer from New Bedford, Massachusetts. Movies are my favorite thing.

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