Screenwriting

Character Driven vs. Plot Driven

Character Driven vs. Plot Driven

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You will often hear films described as either character–driven or plot–driven. I think this is a false dichotomy. All films are character driven. All films have plot. These labels tell something, it’s true, about emphasis. And, for the most part, it’s become something of a commonplace that smaller, independent films are more character–driven, and larger “tent pole” films are more plot–driven.

But it seems to me that these terms are best seen as describing a spectrum. At the far end of the character–driven end you might find personal dramas or portraits, films like Sideways or Woman Under the Influence. At the far end of the plot–driven you might place most horror films, Kung–Fu movies, disaster movies and plot heavy thrillers like Inception. In the former we are drawn into the story by character agency, by how what the character chooses generates story; in the latter character is primarily seen in reaction to events beyond their personal control.

What interests me about this distinction is 1) how the vast majority of movies, at least the vast majority of good movies, fall into the middle and 2) how we can turn it to task in the making of new characters and new plots.

From the point of view of the writer confronting a blank page, plotting sometimes feels like an exercise in mechanics: how to get the pieces to fit together, how to concoct action and event that rivets and interests and is logically probable and consistent. But if you accept that all but the most extreme spectacle films are also character–driven, you have a tool with which to create and challenge event toward plot. Imagined events, when viewed through character behavior and motivation and ambition, become necessary; not simply interesting, but compelling. The reader is drawn, via empathy and understanding, into the plot.

It would be easy to make this point about character’s relation to plot in the quieter, more personal, movies of the independent film universe. More interesting is to demonstrate that this idea of character impacting and refining plot can be found in relatively plot–heavy pop–corn movies. Many of the examples I will use in what follows are taken from such movies. The intent is not to suggest that Die Hard and Lethal Weapon are the kind of films you should be writing; or that they are paradigms of film art. Rather it is to make the point that what makes these movies transcend their plot–driven genre, what has made them memorable and successful, is an astute entwining of plot and character. Take the Bourne Identity franchise. There you have popular, heavily plotted thrillers driven by the main character’s search for identity. Deftly drawn and consistent characters are what separates successful films from their B–Movie siblings.

The concepts examined here are equally applicable to Hollywood blockbusters, to independent film, to micro–budget, and to television.

Realize that this distinction between character–driven and plot–driven is usually applied to completed films, to characters and plots that have already been created and composed. We are concerned with making a plot, not with appreciating one. We are concerned, not with plot, but with plotting:

…that which makes a plot “move forward,” and makes us read forward, seeking in the unfolding of the narrative a line of intention and a portent of design that hold the promise of progress toward meaning. [1]

What a great definition of our goal as dramatists: to seduce a reader toward meaning with a combination of intention and design. That’s an idea of plotting one can sink one’s teeth into.


[1] Peter Brooks, Reading for Plot, p. xiii

Excerpted from Screenwriter’s Compass by Guy Gallo ©2012 Elsevier Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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1 Comment
   Angela Crossley said on March 20, 2012 at 8:12 pm

Great article. Thank you for sharing your amazing knowledge and advice. Love ‘deftly drawn and consistent characters’.
kind regards
Aspiring screenwriter. :)

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