Shane Black came to national attention as Hawkins, the bespectacled, dirty-joke-spewing soldier in Predator who comes to a quick and messy end. What most people probably don’t know is that his role in the iconic movie was an off-the-table part of his deal (so the story goes) for Lethal Weapon, the screenplay he wrote that made him one of the darlings of the late ‘80s spec script boom. Since then he’s also written The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (which he also directed). More to the point, I got to chat with him back at Christmas and we talked for a while about writing and storytelling. And Santa Claus fighting Satan. Anyway, he brought up a very interesting angle on storytelling that I’d like to expand on and share with you all.
As fair warning, some of these terms may not be used exactly as you’re used to them. Try not to think of it in terms of “this means this” but rather the ideas and concepts behind this little sub-rant. For example, to avoid confusion, I’m going to be using the word tale a lot in these next few paragraphs.
Any tale can be thought of in terms of plot, story, and theme. These three elements are really what make up every tale you’ve ever heard. Every now and then you may stumble across one that doesn’t have one of these elements, and nine times out of ten that tale is flawed because of it.
The first of these, the plot, is what’s going on within your particular tale. It’s the elements you’ll usually see on the back of a book or the DVD case. If you’re a screenwriter, it’s usually the idea you pitch. If you’re a novelist, it’s that quick summary in your query letter.
--The plot of Star Wars (no subtitle, never was) is Luke and Han trying to rescue Princess Leia and destroy the Empire’s super weapon, the Death Star.
--The plot of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is Scott trying to defeat seven super-powered exes so he can be with his dream girl, Ramona.
--The plot of The Count of Monte Cristo is a man trying to take revenge on the people who destroyed his life decades ago.
--The plot of The Long Kiss Goodnight is a presumed-dead agent trying to stop a murderous conspiracy concocted by her former employers.
--The plot of IT is six friends coming together again after years to try to defeat a monster that lives under their home town.
--The plot of Raiders of the Lost Ark is Indy is trying to find the Ark before the Nazis do and get it safely back to America.
You may have caught something there. For most good stories, the plot is the attempt to do something. Pull off a heist, get a date, beat the bad guys. This is the action (of one type or another) that makes the reader need to turn to the next page.
Some indie films don’t have a plot. They’ve taken the idea of a character-driven tale to the extreme and tend to just meander. They’re slice-of life tales where beautifully-rendered people don’t really do anything. There is a certain appeal to this, on some levels, but in the end it’s a very niche audience.
The flipside of plot is the story. Story is what’s going on within your characters. It’s the personal stuff that explains why they’re interested in the plot and really why the reader is interested in the plot. Story is why Never Let Me Go is different than The Island, because they’re taking what’s essentially the same plot and approaching it with two very different stories.
--The story of Scott Pilgrim is about becoming more mature in order to shape a lasting relationship.
--The story of Rick Blaine (Casablanca) is about the resurgence of the man he used to be a long time ago and the causes he used to fight for.
--The story of Samantha Kaine (The Long Kiss Goodnight) is figuring out who she is; an amnesiac, single-mom schoolteacher or a ruthless assassin who created the identity of Samantha as a hiding place she could sink into and “retire”
--The story of Edmund Dantes (The Count of Monte Cristo) is about letting go of the past and accepting what he has in the present.
--The story of Indiana Jones is about reconnecting with a past love and learning to believe in something bigger than himself.
You may notice here that while the story and plot are often complementary, they don’t always tie directly to each other. Story is the character arc and the reasons behind that arc. Plot makes us need to turn the page, but story makes us want to turn the page.
A lot of stuff in the action genre is light on story. If there are enough explosions, karate chops, and gunshots the audience may not notice that the characters never really change or develop in any way. Which is fine for your supporting folks, but not so good for your protagonists.
Last but not least is the theme. Theme covers everything, and it applies to both the plot and the story. A tale’s theme can be something broad and simple. The theme of Raiders, for example, is just “good ultimately triumphs over evil (even if good gets the crap kicked out of it first).” That’s a common theme that covers a lot of tales. “You can’t beat the system,” is another common theme that shows up in a lot of dystopian tales like 1984, as does its close cousin “might makes right.” A theme can also be much more specific, like “unrestricted greed caused the financial crisis” or “the Bush Doctrine endangered more American lives than it ever saved.” As a theme gets more specific, though, a writer has to be careful it doesn’t just become an overriding message.
When a tale is lacking one of the previous elements, it’s usually doesn’t have much of a theme, either. Tales without a theme, even one of the simple ones above, tend to wander or be inconsistent. It’s kind of like going out for a drive--you may get somewhere, but it wasn’t in your mind when you set out... and it probably wasn’t the most efficient way to get there...
Next time around, I’d like to talk about triplines, deadfalls, punji pits, and other dangerous assumptions people make about writing.
Until then, go write.