Sunday, 5 May 2013

Liking books, TV shows and movies: Plot

This is the third part of a series in which I examine elements of the appeal of a book, movie, or TV show. I disclose and discuss my own personal preferences here, but I believe that the approach is more generally applicable: just substitute your own preferences for mine.

In previous installments, I covered character and setting. This time I focus on plot, another element that I have adopted from Nancy Pearl’s appeal characteristics.[1] By ‘plot’, I mean the events described in the story, as well as the way in which they are assembled.


The events of a story usually form the answer to the question ‘what do these characters do?’ or at least, ‘what do these characters witness?’ if they do not participate in the events described.

I find some areas of human activity—real or imagined—far more interesting than other areas, and I suspect that most other people do too. Let’s call this the subject of the plot. So, to return to the idea of a storyteller offering a story to me, the storyteller who says:
‘These people are searching for a lost grimoire.’
‘These people are hunting an enemy warship.’
‘These people interpret barcodes on ordinary household items to uncover evidence of a vast conspiracy.’
‘These people are building a spacecraft to put a crew on Mars.’

already has my attention. If the offer is:

‘These people solve homicides.’
‘These people are setting up a small business.’
‘These people are working hard to save their farm.’
‘These people are having mid-life crises.’
I’ll need something more to convince me that this is a tale I want to hear.

The degree to which the subject of the plot can profoundly affect my reception of a book was illustrated most vividly to me by Flashman’s Lady. This book is the sixth in a series by George Macdonald Fraser, depicting the various escapades of a Victorian-era cavalryman and anti-hero, Harry Flashman. Most of the books involve ‘Flashy’ participating (and seeking to avoid participating) in the various colonial wars of the era. As much as I adore the series, a lengthy first part of Flashman’s Lady relates to Flashman’s cricketing exploits: a game about which I know very little and care even less. Trudging through this was a truly miserable experience, even populated with characters in whom I was interested, located in a setting in which I was interested, and in the context of a series that I was already five books invested in. Fortunately for me, the novel progresses to Flashy fighting pirates in Borneo and becoming a pet slave to mad queen Ranavalona of Madagascar—and showed me just how large an effect subject matter can have on the appeal of a tale.

The subject matter of a tale is thrown into greater relief by contemplating what’s at stake in the story. Screenwriter Max Adams reduces the premise of any plot-driven film to:
‘(Title) is a (genre) about (protagonist) who must (objective) or else (dire thing that will happen if protagonist fails).

Apollo 13 is a drama about three astronauts who must repair their spacecraft or they will suffocate in space before reaching home.


 Raiders of the Lost Ark is an action/adventure about Indiana Jones, a procurer of lost artifacts who must travel to Egypt and find the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis unearth it and use it to take over the world.’[2]
If it happens that I don’t actually care about the thing that will happen if the protagonist fails, I’m unlikely to care whether the protagonist succeeds or not.


Most narrative does not simply recount events: it claims connections between these events. My favourite insight on narrative structure comes from screenwriter Lew Hunter:

‘In life, things happen one after the other. In structure one thing happens because of the other.’[3]

A story that neglects that sequencing is a very strange tale indeed: the effect is surreal and disorienting. Eschewed deliberately and thoughtfully, an absence or ambiguity of causality between events can produce a masterpiece like . When causality is ignored by a film-maker who shows no evidence of knowing what they’re doing, that same absence or ambiguity produces that hapless handbook on how not to make a movie, The Room.

Most stories relate events in a straightforward linear pattern and deviate from this only in their use of flashbacks, or perhaps a framing narrative. I enjoy complex structures, so any story that goes beyond these fundamentals already offers me something that I might enjoy. For example, I like the unreliable narrators of Rashōmon or The Usual Suspects or Iain Pears’s An Instance of the Fingerpost. I like the multi-linear storytelling of Amores perros, the reverse storytelling of Irréversible, and the ‘what if?’ storytelling of Casomai


Quite aside of any intrinsic interest I have in the subject matter of a story and of whether I think it’s told in an interesting way, I might still find a story engaging. I admit that I find it hard to define what characteristics might lead to this engagement, but I certainly know it when I experience it. I know that I’m engaged with a story when it passes the Scheherazade test—I feel that I have to know what happens next. Conversely, if after some time I realise that I have no interest in finding out what happens next in a story, I know I’m disengaged and will probably stop watching or reading at that point.

The Scheherazade effect can be a powerful one. I found the characters of The Da Vinci Code unlikeable and dull, the setting uninspiring, and the subject matter tired and ill-considered. Yet, for some reason that eludes me, I found it a compelling page-turner of a novel and I just had to finish it—I really needed to know what happened next. Having-to-know is also the factor that has me hooked on True Blood. Not caring about what happens next is ultimately why I abandoned such highly acclaimed series as The Wire and Breaking Bad.

The three characteristics that I’ve discussed so far—the characters, the setting, and the plot of a story—are all intrinsic to the world of the story itself (they are diegetic). Next week, I’ll begin to discuss three characteristics extrinsic to that world (extra-diegetic), the first of which will be craft. Before that, I might also write up a summary as an intermission.

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