You may well have heard people say things like “There are no original stories anymore” or there are “…only seven basic plots” or something like that indicating that most literature (and I am sure there are academics out there that will challenge my use of the word in this context since I am using movies as an example – challenge away, and expect to lose) is limited as a result of what has gone before. I write this in response to that, with a bit of theory and then apply it to a couple of mainstream movies.
The Theory Bit
To understand where I am coming from you will need to understand some terminology. Some of it is what was taught to me by academics, and some is what I have appropriated to help with this example. The terms are
Audience – The individual or individuals who are consuming/reading/viewing/whatevering the literature
Literature – Any form of storytelling that is recorded in some fashion, be it in a book, orally or visually
Narrative – All events in a specified sequence, in chronological order
Plot – How a storyteller chooses to assemble the events in the narrative, and present them to the audience
Story – The result of an assembled plot intersecting with any given audience.
So, Audience is fairly straightforward. The readers, the viewers anyone that is going to experience the story at the end of the process. Literature is also straightforward, however, I should note that I am hijacking the word and re-purposing it as its definition generally refers to written works, and considered of “Value”. Value is completely subjective, so I have no problem appropriating that, and in the sense that written language is merely arbitrary symbolism given value by readers, I have no problem including any form of media. (I will write a blog about language and symbolism, particularly referring to graphic narrative in future weeks).
Everyone has an idea about what a narrative is, and I am simply applying it to a specific viewpoint. It is every event in a story in order, regardless of plot. Which brings me to plot. Plot is a construction of the producer of literature, and the producer/writer decides whether or not to keep things chronological or not, whether to omit things or not and what viewpoint they are seen from. And finally, story happens when the audience intersects with the produced plot. A story is a living breathing thing, it is the offspring of two parents: Either a one night stand or a lasting romance between the reader and the writer via the plot. The Writer’s ideas feed the plot, and the audience’s experience shapes that plot into their child, their story.
In this respect you could have two identical plots, but entirely different stories.
One Plot, Two Movies, some spoilers
I cannot do the rest of this blog without spoilers. If you don’t want to know anything about Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon or Avengers: Assemble, don’t read on.
I have seen both movies. I like both movies. They are both entertaining, though they are also not cinematic greats. They both also have the same plot structure.
The setup for the main story happens here. In TF, it is an exciting space pursuit as an Autobot Starcruiser, the Ark, attempts to flee Cybertron and crashes on Earth’s Moon, only to be discovered by Neil Armstrong + Buzz Aldrin. In Avengers, Loki invades a top security SHIELD base, mind controls several people (Including Hawkeye – effectively cutting his role in the film in half and more, which is why he is cut in half in the banner. In tribute to the naff treatment of a cool character otherwise handled well), steals an item of incredible power and disappears.
Establish the activities of the protagonists. In TF, the Autobots have been working with the US to deal with human problems, whilst hunting down Decepticons. And Spike is going through the horrors of job application. In Avengers Assemble, we see what the various members of the Avengers have been doing since we saw them last, all of whom get the summons.
But in essence, act 1 is about what people have been doing since we saw them last.
Establish the Antagonist’s plot, and make the audience think, “What’s going on?”
In TF the Autobots have found the Ark and Sentinel Prime, found a few components of Sentinel Prime’s space bridge invention and realise there is some conspiracy regarding the Dark Side of the Moon. Act 2 concludes with a dramatic highway chase, a standoff between Sideswipe/Ironhide and some unnamed Decepticon Troopers, culminating with the death of Ironhide and the revelation that Sentinel Prime had made an alliance with Megatron and had betrayed the Autobots (albeit to save Cybertron).
In Avengers, The team has assembled and Loki is in custody but we realise that his mindslaves have already vanished and are “Off the Grid” as it were. There is a bit of a mystery as to why Loki would allow himself to be captured so easily, and more surrounding what his overall endgame is. Act 2 ends with an assault on the SHIELD Helicarrier, Loki’s escape and the Death of Agent Coulson.
In Essence, Act 2 is the part of the plot that makes the audience think that there is more going on than is obvious, and it climaxes with an intense action scene and a fatality.
In TF, the Autobots are banished from Earth as a result of an ultimatum made by Sentinel Prime. They are apparently killed when their starship is destroyed attempting to leave Earth. The Decepticons attack Chicago with an army of disposable bots, their HQ being (I kid you not) Trump Tower (where Human collaborators are Headquartered. Make of that what you will). Naturally, the Autobots didn’t die, and they invade Chicago and fight their way to the end of the movie.
In Avengers, the team is torn apart, literally and figuratively. The Hulk is MIA, it is implied Thor cannot lift Mjolnir, Hawkeye has regained his memory but is sulking over the deaths caused by him whilst under Loki’s spell, and Iron Man butts heads with Captain America over their different coping mechanisms regarding the death of Coulson. But they come together when an alien army invades New York with Loki leading.
Act 3 – weaken the protagonists, set up the antagonist in a location with seemingly unbeatable but completely unremarkable unnamed forces (I make this point to show that we aren’t suppose to care if the antagonist soldiers die or not), and then at the end destroy a big maguffin that has the knock on effect of neutralising most of the disposable baddies so that a named character can pound the villain.
Good question. The answer is, everything. The point is both films have the same plot but different stories. And I said one of them failed at a crucial point. That was Transformers and it was when Ironhide was killed. In the scene he is shot by Sentinel Prime, and his body melts from the inside out. The literary critic in me sees that as the destruction of his heart, symbolic of betrayal. This should be a scene loaded with Pathos.
It isn’t. It is barely referenced again in the film. It is on par with the death of Jazz in the first movie, which is commented on in one line.
“We have lost old friends, but gained new ones.”
I heard, “Jazz is dead. Meh.”
Ironhide, a classic Autobot dies as a result of betrayal and it isn’t worth mentioning again. It has zero impact on the remainder of the film. It also doesn’t help that Ironhide (and Ratchet, and Jazz, and Sideswipe) are largely ignored in the movies in favour of Prime, Bumblebee and the slackjawed-yokelbots of TF 2. We have no opportunity to invest in the character, and when he dies it is barely a footnote in the film.
Whereas, in Avengers Assemble, when Phil Coulson dies it has a major impact on the remainder of the film. The team can’t function until prodded by Nick Fury, using Phil Coulson’s Captain America trading cards. We get the sorrow. We get the pathos, and we get the resolve. And when Iron Man challenges Loki, he intimates that he is doing it for Phil. This is a major deal given his social inadequacy! And lets not forget that Coulson has appeared in 3 movies by this point and at least on short on youtube. He is given character, screentime and as a result we care about him. I was shocked when he was impaled by Loki!
So, my final thoughts.
You can apply a plot to a new narrative and get a new story. Even if the audience are the same.
Don’t underwrite/undersell secondary characters. Readers might need to care about them someday, and that can have a profound impact.
They are both weak films in the sense that the huge unstoppable army is effectively defeated by a killswitch plot device.
Avengers Assemble is the stronger movie. But I still like Transformers.
All the best.