Putting Variety in Stories
Easier than it seems

Copyright © 2015 Dorian Scott Cole

   About this series.



Today I noticed two very different articles about screenwriting and novel writing. Both very misleading.

In one, Why Story Structure Formulas Don't Work, there is an opposing current theory that almost all TV and movie stories follow the basic plot structures laid out in the Save the Cat series on screenwriting... which is hardly any different than what Syd Field wrote in his books on screenwriting. This format insisted on by higher ups... because it works. See Save the Movie. Like everything in writing, it isn't without detractors, and life or death controversy.

You can find all kinds of advice on the Internet and in books about story structure, such as, Five Plot Point Breakdowns. And there is a lot of good advice in them. While I do tend to write in sequences of 3 or more scenes, nice dramatic units, I prefer my own advice, Five power-points in stories.

People do like certain types of story architecture in their stories, and are disappointed when it isn't there. This spells death for those who are determined to go their own way, and for those maniacal writers jumping off mountains to prove that 3 act structure is dead. I can tell you for sure that when I read or watch a story that fails in the pleasing structure department, I quit watching/reading, or if the ending is disappointing, go away disappointed.

This happened recently in a movie and a novel. The movie was Terminator Genisys. I liked the series and this movie, but the long beginning where the writers explained why the Terminator was old, and how they got to a new future, took waaaaaaaaaaaaaaay too long, and sapped a lot of power from the movie. With a little rewriting, it could have been much better.

The other failure was a novel by a writer I like, John Connolly, in a series I like, but after 70 pages of the short witty book, I had no idea where the plot was going, so I stopped reading it. This also happened to a couple of other books that I picked up after around 30 pages. My advice is, get the story going within 1 to 30 pages. After that, I'm out. There are better ways of doing characterization and backstory than making the audience wade through it to find out what the story is about.

Another movie, whose name and plot are forgettable, was a decent story until the end, which made me want to vomit. I wished I hadn't seen it. So since I've forgotten, I guess I didn't see it, except for this lasting bad taste in my mouth for a couple of months. The taste of bad seems to linger much longer than the taste of OK or good.

The lesson is that wit and drawing compelling characters will only get you so far. Very few movies go 10 minutes or 30 pages without a plot being revealed in some fashion. Purposeless reading is boring. What successful writers often do in their creative process is get a plot structure in mind as they toy with characters and scenes, and then write the opening and within a few pages, get to the point. Something has to move the story forward, and not just more words on paper. The main character, and antagonist or life event or situation, have to collide, so that the protagonist has something to overcome and get the audience engaged.

The other article was There Are Only Six Basic Book Plots, According to Computers. This is down from the previous 36 types already identified. The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations, on Wikipedia.

I have worked in Artificial Intelligence on narrative and I don't really understand the idea behind identifying plots by negative and positive passages. I've worked with ontologies (basic nature of things), and I find it mystifying that human nature and events might be boiled down to seven things. I can think of many (10 or more) adjectives that might define human motivation. Each one is a plot. I can think of hundreds of different situations that might occur at the start of a story. Each one can also be a point in a plot. So I think both 7 and 36 are an overreach.

This is what I wrote in How to Write a Screenplay: While there may be some limit on the number of basic plots, "...The variations are in the full storyline: subplots, characters, and situation. A writer's skill is not so much in forming the basic plot, but in creating characters, a situation, and fleshing out the story."

Sometimes I recognize stories that have been reset in a different locale or time period. That's a very easy change to make. And I easily recognize reused plots like, It's A Wonderful Life," which are classic. But most stories offer so much variety that the plot is not recognizable. It's like I jest about the movie Titanic. Every movie is like Titanic, the ship goes down at the end. Bit of an overstatement, but many movies can be characterized in this way. Some major catastrophic event happens that forces a resolution.

The lesson is, don't worry much about that your plot maybe is like some other plot, unless it is obvious. In fact, people who might be interested in buying your work might want to knwo that it is X crossed with Y, because those stories sold. Human character, situations, reactions, and subplots are extremely varied. Unwinding character stories and devising different situations, creates novel plots and stories. It is uniqueness that sells.

- Dorian Scott Cole

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