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Monday, December 1, 2008

Mythbusters, Soap Style - Part Four

So this one is for all the fans out there... and before you jump down my throat, hear me out on this one.

The Plot-Driven Myth

Plot seems to have become a four-letter word around Internet Message Boards these days, and it doesn't have to be. Plot is actually a very good thing. And if a plot drives your story, it's not always the worst thing in the world.

Wait! Wait! Before you all start furiously typing and call me a hack, work with me for a second.

It's very easy for us to divide head writers into camps like "plot-driven writers" (pretty much everybody after 1990) and "character-driven writers" (most of the writers who have long since left the business), and never the twain shall meet. And that's kind of a myth. You need plot. In fact, a great story should be the perfect marriage of plot and character. If stories were all character-driven, chances are, not a whole lot would happen. If it weren't for plot, that accident that killed BJ would never have transpired at exactly the right time to save Maxie's life on General Hospital, and if it weren't for plot, a few frat guys wouldn't have been introduced out of nowhere into Marty Saybrooke's life on One Life to Live. If it weren't for plot, Natalie would have never had a twin sister and Cindy never would have been infected with the AIDS virus on All My Children. If it weren't for plot, a plane crash wouldn't have killed Craig and sent a distraught Lily through the burr-riden woods, ripping her clothes in the process, into Josh Snyder's arms... and Iva wouldn't have thought he was raping their own daughter on As the World Turns.

Plot is NEEDED in a daytime serial. And sometimes, it drives the story. That's not always a bad thing. '

Don't misunderstand - When you get too plot heavy, and the characters get lost under the blanket of the plot, then that's a problem. (I fell victim to that trap a few times at Days of Our Lives - and it WASN'T pretty. I learned my lesson after that year, I'll tell you that much.) A good story should involve both the Fates (i.e. the soaps' writers) throwing in curveballs, much like life... as long as the characters react within the established boundaries of their personalities. If a character is going to do something that the audience doesn't think is within character for them, it's our responsibility to get the character to that life-changing decision in an organic and natural way. The greatest soap writers understood that - the secret is to take the time for the character to become something he or she previously wasn't. (Annie Dutton's slow descent into madness on Guiding Light is a good example of this, or Victor feeding the chickens on Hope's farm for months on Young and the Restless) If you can get get them to that plot point in a way that doesn't turn the audience against the show, then it's okay. Plot and character have to merge in order to drive the whole story.

Don't get me wrong - I still think there are writers out there who rely way too much on plot and end up sacrificing character in order to make their plot work. And when you start shoe-horning characters into storylines to fit a need they shouldn't fulfill, then I definitely think it's a bad thing. But sometimes the plot NEEDS to drive the storyline for a week or two... and then, ideally, the characters need to drive it for another month or two. But if reading drama going all the way back to Shakespeare tells us anything, it's that outside forces raining down on our couple when they least expect it is how great story unfolds.

Plot doesn't have to be a four-letter word on the Internet... believe me, I post on message boards too, and my immediate reaction when I hate something is to say "Enough with the plot-driven crap! Where's my old school character-driven soap opera?!" But then I remind myself about the basic aspects of storytelling, and that sometimes, a storyline needs to be plot-driven. Not for very long... but long enough for our characters to react to what's happening around them... and then they can take the wheel and drive for awhile.


Scott Berg said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Scott Berg said...

I think this is an excellent myth to bust. Plot is important to any story because it IS the story and I'm glad you made the distinction between a properly written plot driven story (one that allows the characters to grow organically) and one that isn't the best (forcing characters to act unlike themselves with little to no explanation). I think a lot of times people see "the event" happening on their shows, and not just soaps, and immediately write it off as a plot driven story that will not actually change anything and won't be good in the long run.

Norrth said...

I don't mind plot driven storylines, and agree plot is needed, but it makes more sense when writers add characters to the plot who serve to enhance it instead of detract from it. If they're going to add characters to the plot who are seemingly out of place, at least give fans some way of understanding how the characters got there. Case in point? The BnB and the back and forth relationships between Brooke Logan and Ridge Forrester, no Nick Marone, no Ridge, wait Nick, ah yes, it's Ridge! Brooke was never a 'waffler' before and never pledged love to multiple men, before. The show lost ratings, the character lost fans, and the BRidge pairing - which was EPIC for the BnB, lost credibility. What a pity.

Anonymous said...

As you stated Tom, plot driven means characters are shoe-horned in to fit a story. That should never happen. If you are writing for a character -- you will tell stories that develop and show other sides of that character. Sadly, that is what ATWT has become over the last few years. Righ now, Y&R is the only show consistently doing character driven story.

Anonymous said...

Do you mean to conflate plot and plot-driven? Because I don't think anyone is saying get rid of plot, if the definition of plot is a superstructure which moves story forward and facilitates character development. Obviously, plot is necessary. And its absence can be painful, ITA.

But plot-driven means the exact opoosite of that, IMO--not a superstructure at all, but something more like a tumor. Something that is not grounded in fundamentals or previous examples or historical referents; but something which takes over, ignores character, rewrites history, and builds without reference to any existing foundation.

With all due respect, saying I don't want a plot-driven show is not the same thing as saying I don't want a plot--it is the same thing as saying I want a show built on that existing foundation, not in spite of it. And it seems to me that's not a failing on the part of fans or their understanding. But it might be one on the part of writers (and an officious network executive or two).

As for Myths 1 & 2? Couldn't agree more. That quickcut thing drives me nucking futs.

Becca Thomas said...

Not having any formal training in writing, I confess I've never really understood the "plot-driven" criticism of modern soap writing. The big adventure stories on Days in the 80s are what got me hooked on soaps. (Well, that and the hot men...) I guess that's because the characters were well-developed and, as you point out, their actions made sense within the larger stories.

I don't spend much time on message boards, but even in comments on our site I'm amazed when people are able to hone in on what they don't like about a soap to something like "the writing is too plot-driven." I'm usually just reduced to "OMG, this sucks!" or "this makes no effing sense, you jackasses!" I'm going to have to study up on my technical terms.

lynn liccardo said...

in total agreement with the second anonymous comment delineating between plot and plot-driven character.

my taste has always gravitated toward plots where the conflicts between and among characters begin with the emotional conflicts within each character, which used to be the norm for daytime soaps, which i understand is not the taste of all soap viewers.

but doug marland's observation: " when the audience says, ‘he would never do that,' then you have failed," still holds. even worse, is having no idea why a character is behaving a they are.

why did paul attack dusty this week on "as the world turns?" beats the hell out of me, and i expect the actors as well. i suspect the answer is so paul could get shot -- the definition of plot-driven character -- which for me (and i suspect many others) is more ff material.

bl said...

The plot over characterization thing was one of the rants used by myself and others on the old AOL SOD boards back in the late 90s. I wish I had my exact phrasing and reasons behind the complaint saved.

On another forum (delphi) they used to have something called PNN which stood for plot necessitated nonsense, which stood for stupid things that happened for the sake of the plot.

There is a difference between having a story based around characters and something that occurs just for grins and giggles that doesn't fit what we already know about them. It is the shoehorning that would get me the most annoyed and there has been a time or two when this kind of information has become public to those of us in the viewing audience.

Having a stunt (like a flood, blizzard, or tornado) sometimes is fine, but there shouldn't be one each and every sweeps month. The reaction of the characters should be in character.

Also, stories shouldn't climax all within a short amount of time with plot, plot and more plot. Pacing is needed as is time for us to feel the emotional ramifications. OLTL fell into that trap after the writer's strike ended. There was a good five weeks where there was story explosions every couple of days (one week they had three different ABC promos), though after that ended things just went into this lull and then into the campy Mendorra and 1968 plots.