Soylent Green Is People
When Charlton Heston uttered these words in the classic 1973 science fiction film, Soylent Green, he was referring to the discovery that to survive the over population of a future Earth, its inhabitants were eating a product that was literally made from human beings. So the plot of this story, the big reveal, was that humans were eating humans to survive.
People eating people.
What I like about this film reference is that it is a literal depiction of what every story should be. No, not people eating people. People…just people. Human beings living their lives, on their own personal journeys, doing whatever they have to do to get what they want or get where they need to go.
Now, being a writer, I spend a lot of my time talking about plots and storylines. And of course, that’s the structure we hang our stories on. Honestly, though, plots are boring. It’s like talking about a fantastic summer vacation by showing you a map of the places you visited. What about the people you met, the food you tasted, the good times you had? The journey.
All the money for a writer is in that journey.
What I’m about to tell you seems to go against everything we are taught. It goes against our instincts. And it flies in the face of so many of the books we read about screenwriting.
Movies are about people, not plots or storylines.
The plot is just a device that is used to facilitate the personal journeys of your main characters. That is the most important thing I will ever tell you about screenwriting. Most of the writers I coach are obsessed with the plot and write from that bias. They spend an enormous amount of time trying to cram character work in the nooks and crannies of the plot. When they get notes from producers and script analysts, it’s always about their characters.
Compelling characters grab your attention. They make you care about the film and the story. They draw talent to your project. Most scripts sell because of producer relationships with top talent. Bankable stars are looking for great roles. Great roles are about great personal journeys, not great plots.
It is easy to fix a plot, it is harder to fix a weak character.
I’m not saying to ignore your plot, I’m just telling you that great characters are more important to a script than a great plot.
I’ll give you and example. Die Hard. A great action film starring Bruce Willis. Clearly a plot driven film, right? Well, maybe…but think about the story for a second. On the surface it’s about an off duty cop who saves a bunch of people from terrorists who take over a building on Christmas Eve.
What is it really about? Bruce Willis shows up uninvited at his wife’s company Christmas Party to take one last shot at saving their broken marriage. That’s why he’s there. That’s his personal journey. He has screwed up his relationship and wants to win her back. He loves her and believes she still loves him. When he gets there, everything goes haywire. He has to defeat the terrorists, save the building and the lives of the people inside to save his wife and have a shot at saving his marriage.
The plot is a metaphor for his personal journey and creates obstacles to Willis getting what he wants. The plot is utilized to help solve the personal journey of the characters. I won’t speak to the sequels because they fail in this and all regards.
Every film you really love is about people, not plots. Whether it’s action, horror, romance, science fiction or a western. Spend your time on who populates the worlds you create. Who are they? What do they want? Why is it a matter of life and death? The plot is about how they get there.
If you want to write great scripts, write great characters on great personal journeys.