Monday, August 30, 2010

Plot vs. What It's About

What’s the difference between plot and what the story’s about? In some ways, it seems like we’re talking about two terms to describe the same thing, but in others it doesn’t. One of the frequently used plots in television shows is that of Twelve Angry Men. You will recall that this screen play is about twelve men in a jury room who are anxious to go home. All but one vote that the defendant is guilty and even the person who votes not guilty just doesn’t feel right about having a quick vote without examining the evidence. They begin to look at the evidence and one by one they change their votes until they leave the jury room satisfied that the defendant is truly innocent. I’m sure that most film students are required to study this script at some point in their college careers. That may explain why it appears in so many television series. But there is a difference in each case. Monk’s version of this skit is very different from The Dead Zone’s version of this skit and they are both different from the original.

In Monk’s version, Monk solves the case by some of what he sees, including a murder that took place outside the jury room window. By the end of the show, we find that one of the jurors is involved. In The Dead Zone’s version, the psychic protagonist has doubts because of something he saw in a psychic vision. So, what we see is that the plot is flavored by the nature of the characters in the show. Monk is about a former police detective who has special abilities and many flaws. The Dead Zone is about a guy who woke up from a coma with special psychic abilities. Even when we place these people in the same plot, we must stay true to their nature.

Along that line, even though we talk about stories being about the changes a character experiences, there are some things that we should never change about a character. For example, we would never make Superman an ordinary man. At least, if we do, he must get his power back. It is always a bad thing in television for two main characters to get married. When a show is “about” a single guy, people expect him to stay single. If the show is “about” a married couple, people expect them to stay married. We can think of these things as constants in the world of our story. Whatever ease may change, these things must remain true. These things tend to be the things that draw us to the story. If a superhero has the ability to heal very quickly, we may be drawn to the story because of that. We are not interested in seeing how she lives without her superpower. If a story is about a single mother with ten kids, we aren’t interested in a story in which the ten kids are dead or in which she is married.

These constants are so important that when we even threaten to mess with them the reader feels a since of fear that we will ruin the story. This can we a way to introduce the concept of death into a story without actually killing anyone, but our ending can never be happy if we do not reestablish these constants by the end of the story. If a character has to give up who he is to get the woman he loves, it is sad. The reader wants the story to go on, but that is impossible if we change these constants. Oh, we can place the character in another plot, but it won’t be “about” the same thing.