On Plotting, and Movies

So I've been plotting out my new novel -- working title The Last Man On Earth. I've had a general idea what it's going to be about for months, and I've finally begun to hammer those general notions into a specific, step-by-step progression of scenes. And I've been watching a few movies. I streamed a couple of Isabelle Huppert movies, because my goal for the new heroine is to craft a character that Isabelle Huppert could play. She might be my favorite actress ever, partly because she plays such complicated, often savage roles -- she's played Medea, the child killer, and Madame Bovary. She played the titular protagonist of The Piano Teacher, whose uptight, cultivated facade hides a core of unhinged savagery, a nymphomaniac nun in Amateur, a matriarch and murderess in Merci pour le chocolat.

So I watched two movies last weekend:

White Material, about a white family driven off of their coffee plantation in the midst of a civil war in an unnamed African state. Huppert runs the plantation with her ex-husband, his father, and their son. The ex-husband has an exit plan; the son is very much the product of his upbringing, which is to say he's a nightmare; the father is too old to change; Huppert's character digs in and refuses to flee. She is unashamed and unafraid, when she ought to be both.

I really liked White Material. I think it's worth a watch. Not a fun movie, but a good one. It's a very tightly focused film, very controlled. While the pacing felt leisurely, in retrospect the movie doesn't contain a single wasted moment. The militia converges on the plantation, the family self-destructs, and it all leads to a final climactic scene.

And then Special Practice/Ni Tete Ni Queue, in which Huppert plays a prostitute who hires herself out to a psychoanalyst. The movie parallels their two professions, suggesting a host of similarities. The role is ideal for Huppert, who has the opportunity to dress up in various costumes, to wield a knife, to indulge in hysterics, and to smoke pensively on her balcony.

My verdict? Eh. Whatever. Huppert is always worth watching, but the movie meanders. While it has a point, the story is tissue-thin, the resolution is weak, and the ending abrupt.

I watched those two more or less 'for research' - to help wrap my mind around this new character that I'm creating. But I also watched a couple of movies for fun. Namely:

Beasts of the Southern Wild, about a young girl, Hushpuppy, growing up in the Louisiana bayou. I guess I'd call it a coming of age story, though Hushpuppy is much too young for it. But she has no choice in the matter -- the arrival of a massive storm in the bayou forces change on her community, while personal devastation leaves Hushpuppy with only one way forward: to rise up on her own two feet.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is part fantasy. Hushpuppy is young enough that she doesn't differentiate entirely between the life of her imagination and the real world. Events are reinterpreted in her mind as fantastical happenings or take on mythic overtones. But the touch of pure fantasy doesn't keep this movie from feeling grounded, authentic, and real.

The last movie I'll mention is Pitch Perfect, about a pair of rival college a capella groups. This sucker is, in contrast to the other three, very tightly plotted and immensely entertaining. There's the rival-groups plot, with a structure familiar to anyone who's watched a season of Glee -- the underdog must clear the hurdles of two successive competitions to reach the final round where they face off against the more polished, more successful rival in the ultimate sing-off. The protagonist, played by Anna Kendrick, must overcome a series of personal obstacles before she can successfully helm the group and lead them to victory.

This is the movie that got me thinking. Because although Pitch Perfect's plot is by far the most plausible -- these competitions really exist, and college freshmen often do spend that first year on campus struggling to belong and achieve -- it felt the most artificial.

So I got to thinking: tight plotting reads as artificial.

Artificial does not mean bad. The finale of Pitch Perfect is the most satisfying of the lot, because it resolves so many plot threads at once -- it marks the protagonist's social, romantic, familial and artistic victory. It is both deeply nostalgic and fresh. It ends on a musical number and makes you feel great.

But in order to achieve so much in a short period of time, the scenes are compressed. There's no time for chitchat, no tangents. At least half the characters are familiar types that we can understand without much exposition, tweaked a bit for interest, with the glossy appearance of depth rather than real three-dimensionality.

Both White Material and Beasts of the Southern Wild disguise their artificiality. The scenes are longer and less obviously purposeful. They only appear functional in retrospect, when you sit down to dissect the plot. The viewer isn't constantly cued about how far they've come along a familiar story arc, or reminded what conclusion they should be rooting for. The stories feel, as a result, less directed and more surprising. Less artificial, more lifelike.

The dud of the lot, Special Practice/Ni Tete Ni Queue, feels highly artificial and goes nowhere.

Since I am staring down at the bones of my story, unfleshed and undisguised, this struck me as a useful metric. I think part of what readers want from a genre story is, in fact, the artificial feel. The reassurance of being directed, the familiarity of a story arc, the promise of a resolution. Things need to move quickly enough that the reader feels on track.

I think plenty of genre readers appreciate a lean, well-told story that hits its marks and takes its bow. I do, even though that's not not what I write. The take-home point for me is that even if the added elements, the layers, don't feel purposeful, they must be purposeful. There's no room for real excess.

On the other hand, a story that feels real and offers surprises is doing good work, even at the expense of ultra-tight plotting.