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Characters Make the Plot

By Martha Alderson, M.A.

This year, reviewers have consistently complained about a lack of character emotional development in the movies. At the same time, Hollywood reports a slump in box office sales. Are the two related? Perhaps. Even the top five moneymaking movies for the summer of 2006 were without significant character emotional development.

"Although he slams into stationary objects with his customary zeal, Tom Cruise [in Mission: Impossible III] is off his game here, sabotaged by a misguided attempt to shade his character with gray." Manohla Dargis, NEW YORK TIMES

Storytelling involves more than lining up the action pieces, arranging them in a logical order and then drawing conclusions. Yes, dramatic action pulls moviegoers to the edge of their seats. And yes, conflict, tension, suspense and curiosity hook moviegoers. Yet, no matter how exciting the action, the character's emotional development provides the real fascination. Any presentation without a strong human element increases the chances of losing audience interest.

"The Da Vinci Code...a couple of crashing boors..." Amy Biancolli, HOUSTON CHRONICLE

In many cases, movies rely on star power alone without taking the time to develop the characters in the story itself. Moviegoers may feel an emotional attachment to the star. Ultimately, however, unless they emotionally identify with the main character as a character, moviegoers will detach from the film.

Plot Is More than Dramatic Action

Plot is made up of three intertwining threads:

1.) Character emotional development
2.) Dramatic action
3.) Thematic significance

In other words, the protagonist acts or reacts. In so doing, he or she is changed and something significant is learned.

When Stories Get Stuck

Stories get stuck because one or more of the three key elements has been ignored:

1.) Concentrating on action only, forgetting that character provides interest and is the primary reason people go to the movies and read books.

"Without the first film's textured relationships, [X-Men: The Last Stand] becomes just another episode..." Colin Covert, MINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE

2.) Organizing solely around the character and overlooking the fact that dramatic action provides the excitement every story needs.

3.) Forgetting to develop the overall meaning or the thematic significance of the story. When the dramatic action changes the character at depth over time, the story becomes thematically significant.

"This second film [Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest] is pretty much all thrills, special effects and nonstop action -- but with virtually no cohesive or compelling story line." Bill Zwecker, CHICAGO SUN-TIMES

The Power of Character

In a compelling story line, the characters grow and change step-by-step in reaction to the dramatic action. This growth is not meant to be merely on a physical level. Often, in their zeal of showing off high-tech special effects, moviemakers and screenwriters forget the power of character emotional development. The challenges the characters face must create emotional effects, the deeper the better. An effective way to keep track of these incremental steps is with the use of a Scene Tracker. A scene tracker asks you to fulfill seven essential elements in every single scene, with the biggest being on the character emotional development.

Take, for instance, The Crisis.

The crisis is an event written in scene that works like any crisis in real life. The crisis serves to shake things up in such a way that the protagonist has to act. The crisis takes on dramatic proportions when it serves as the highest point in the dramatic action plot line so far and, at the same time, forces the protagonist to rethink life as they have always thought it to be. This, in turns, changes their character emotional development at depth. When one scene has such a dramatic effect on both plotlines, the scene serves as a double whammy. This effect is best found toward the end of the Middle or nearly three quarters of the way through the project.

If, however, the crisis involves only a high point in the dramatic action without something equal or comparable happening within the character, the story loses its heart.

"Calling a summer movie 'action-packed' is supposed to be a compliment, but there's nothing so tedious as nonstop excitement." Stephanie Zacharek, SALON.COM

Sometimes, the crisis takes the form of two separate events written in two separate scenes. In this case, one scene hits the highest point so far in the story for the Dramatic Action plot line and another scene affects the character emotional development plot line separately. These two high points can either occur close together for maximum effect or further apart.

Viewers expect and deserve the dramatic action and the character emotional development to build to a fevered pitch toward the end of the Middle. By then, they have been sitting for over an hour. Without some sort of release caused by this sort of big moment within the character, the story becomes just another action drama with explosions and chases and fights.

The crisis can be written softly and quietly or as an all-out war. Either way, and whether it comes separately or together, the crisis involves the character on an emotional level in reaction to the dramatic action and ends the long haul of the Middle (a whopping 1/2 of the scene count of the entire project).

"[Poseidon's] intensity is strictly physical, the intended emotional impact submerged in a numbing onslaught of death, danger and derring-do as a bunch of mostly annoying, self-centered passengers fight their way to the surface." Sheri Linden, HOLLYWOOD REPORTER

Until this trend of ignoring the power of the character emotional development ceases, chances remain high that the movie box-office grosses will continue to dip even lower.

Meet the Author: Martha Alderson, M.A.

Martha Alderson, aka the Plot Whisperer, is the author of the Plot Whisperer series of plot books for writers: The Plot Whisperer Book of Prompts: Easy Exercises to Get You Writing, The Plot Whisperer Workbook: Step-by-Step Exercises to Help You Create Compelling Stories – a companion workbook to The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master. She has also written Blockbuster Plots Pure & Simple (Illusion Press) and several ebooks on plot. As an international plot consultant for writers, Martha’s clients include best-selling authors, New York editors, and Hollywood movie directors. She teaches plot workshops to novelists, mem...