(Spoilers: True Grit, The Town, The Maltese Falcon)
KISS – as in Keep It Simple, Stupid.
Many studio execs and producers are fond of saying that they are looking for scripts with simple plots and complex characters. Are they right, or is this a symptom of the dumbing down process of Hollywood?
Plot can be the enemy of involving storytelling. If we’re too busy trying to figure out what’s going on, we don’t get caught up in the emotion of the journey. I’ve seen many scripts where the story gets lost in tediously intricate plot mechanics.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, simple, straightforward plotting can make for sophisticated storytelling. It allows you to explore character depth and delve more deeply into the nuance of theme. Many great movies have straightforward plotting.
Take the Cohen’s True Grit (screenplay by Joel & Ethan Cohen), now in theaters. The plot is pretty basic: hardheaded girl hires alcoholic tough guy to hunt down her father’s killer. They go off into the wilds looking for the trail, sometimes cooperating with and sometimes in competition with a Texas Ranger. They encounter bad guys, lose the trail, and finally catch up to the villain for the final showdown.
And that’s about as complicated as it gets from a plot standpoint. The number of major characters is limited. Subplots are kept to a minimum. And there’s not a lot of extra exposition or backstory for the audience to process. The story stays constantly focused on Mattie’s pursuit of her father’s killer.
And because of that the tension is always clear and strong. There are several major twists to the plot, but all are related to this central tension. For example, when Mattie and Rooster locate some of their quarry’s gang at a cabin, their plans at an ambush are undone by La Boeuf’s poorly timed arrival. At the end of Act Two, both La Boeuf and Rooster give up the quest and then Mattie Ross is captured by her enemy. Tense, but not difficult to follow.
What gives the movie depth are the characters. They are rich and nuanced and full of surprises. We have room for wonderful scenes of characters sparring to get what they want.
Same thing with another excellent film, The Town (screenplay by Peter Craig and Ben Affleck & Aaron Stockard). It’s the story of a robber who falls for a girl and wants to get out of the business…but is forced to do One Last Job. Not only is it simple, but we’ve seen a hundred similar plots.
Yet the characters feel fresh and real. We care about them and therefore we care about the outcome of the story. Moreover, we feel like we don't know what's going to happen. We know what Hollywood would do, but these characters don't feel stock... maybe they'll do something unexpected. Once again character complexity trumps plot simplicity.
“But wait,” some of you are probably saying, “what about a movie like Inception (written by Christopher Nolan) – which you put on your list of top ten movies of 2010? That has a complex plot, doesn’t it?”
Yes it does. So do such great films as The Maltese Falcon (screenplay by John Huston) and The Sting (written by David S. Ward). So it’s obviously not a requirement that you keep your plot simple. Caper movies and mysteries, in fact, benefit from complicated twisty, turny plots.
But a complex plot requires that you give your audience a strong through-line. Many people didn’t really follow what was going on in Inception. I still can’t figure out exactly what all the bad guys were up to in The Maltese Falcon. But both plots can be summed up with a simple sentence:
Inception: A crook needs to plant an idea in another man’s dream before time runs out.
The Maltese Falcon: A detective must find out who is behind his partner’s murder to stay out of jail.
A more technical way to look at it is that these kinds of films have strong Dramatic Questions. “Can Cobb implant the idea in time?” “Can Spade figure out who killed Archer?”
In The Sting, the Dramatic Question is, “Can Johnny Hooker con the gangster who killed his friend?” Even if we get lost in the plot, we understand that this is a revenge story between a small time con man and a deadly gangster. This allows us to stay involved in the story even when we aren’t exactly sure what’s going on.
Most importantly, all these movies have strong central characters, and time is given to develop what’s at stake for them. We may lose track of the plot details, but if the main character stays front and center and we grasp the Dramatic Question, we’ll keep watching to see how it all comes out.
So whether your plot is simple or complex, make sure you give the audience a clear Dramatic Question to pull them through the movie. And make sure your characters are complex and dimensional. When it comes to character, don’t KISS.