Plot: It’s not the “what,” it’s the “how”

Proposal“The story is too predictable.” This is one of those big notes that plagues many writers. One of the biggest problems when telling a story is to decide how much information you are giving the audience, and when. Too little information is confusing, and will irritate your audience. Too much information up front makes the story boring and predictable.

Plot is a road map to characters making discoveries about each other and themselves. Plot is the road that we all take a ride down and gain empathy, excitement, and shock from all the twists and turns. But sometimes the road just has to get you to the next point, and we all know what that point is. The audience knows, you know.

I just finished a rewrite on a romantic comedy and I will tell you folks, it is virtually impossible to make a rom com “unpredictable.” Oh sure, you can come up with all kinds of surprising obstacles between the two lovers, but just try to make the audience believe, even for a second, that the two leads are not going to end up together. You can’t! It’s inherent to the genre! It’s why the audience bought tickets. They KNOW that girl on the poster is going to end up with that GUY on the poster. There are rare cases where they don’t (“My Best Friend’s Wedding”), but 99 percent of the time, if Kathryn Heigl doesn’t end up with Patrick Dempsey, those people are gonna riot!

Same with action movies. Do you REALLY think Dwayne Johnson is going to die? Do you really think Vin Diesel is not going to drive a Camaro straight into the face of the Eurotrash terrorist? Of course he is. The Transformers will ALWAYS defeat the Deceptions. So what do we do with this inevitability? My solution is to focus on something else. HOW we get there.

Plot is mostly the “what” of a story. “What” happens? “What,” then “what,” then “what” else? But if you’ve seen “Arrival,” a few minutes into that movie, you don’t care that you have seen alien ships arrive on Earth a thousand times before. You are transfixed by HOW they do it. If you knew that the Alliance was definitely going to blow up Starkiller Base, why didn’t you just walk out of “The Force Awakens?” Because you loved HOW they figured out how to do it. Or HOW the characters united to accomplish the task. A good director or a good writer becomes a valued commodity because they can take ANY “what”… that is, any plot… and tell it like no once else could. Some people complained that “Avatar” was just “Pocahontas” in space. So what? You got to see it told by a master with technology that was unprecedented. “La La Land” is not the first movie to show starving artists falling in and out of love as they try to make it in Hollywood. There are dozens of movies with a very similar plot.  But NONE of them executed that plot through the lens that Damien Chazelle did, as a musical.

Your talent as a storyteller depends on HOW you tell that story. Don’t get fixated on what story it is, or if that story has been told before. Because there are really only a handful of stories in the history of stories. If you get that awful note that your script is “too predictable,” maybe it’s not the story’s fault. Maybe it’s how you’ve told it. That’s where you can surprise… even if Kathryn Heigl gets married one more time.

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