It’s Never the Plot

Many people try to come up with a great story. While a high-concept idea can attract attention, a great screenplay is more than a plot. You also have to execute as well.

Take two movies with similar plots and you’ll notice that it’s never about the plot but always about the characters. “Jaws” was about a sheriff trying to redeem himself in the eyes of the community by killing a shark. “Jaws 4” was about a woman trying to get revenge against a shark that only kills members of her family. The plot is nearly identical about a shark attacking people, but the story execution in “Jaws” is subtle and compelling while the story execution in “Jaws 4” is outright ludicrous, especially the ending where the shark stands on its tail out of the water so the hero can aim a sailboat at the shark and impale it with the boat.

Two other movies to compare are “Concussion” and “Spotlight.” “Concussion” is about a doctor who discovers that the NFL has been covering up the dangers of concussions to the players. “Spotlight” is about the Boston Globe uncovering a cover up by the Catholic Church on sexually abusive priests.

While both movies are about coverups, “Spotlight” is superior to “Concussion” mainly because all the major characters in “Spotlight” change as a result of their investigation. One of the main characters in “Spotlight” finally must admit to himself and everyone around him that when this story first broke years ago, he was one of the journalists who helped bury the story to avoid embarrassing and upsetting the community.

This revelation from the main character makes the story in “Spotlight” interesting because not only do we get to see the main characters discovering how the Catholic Church has been covering up abusive priests, but we also get to see how this revelation affects each main character personally.

In comparison, “Concussion” is far weaker. There’s only one main character and he doesn’t appear to change much and neither do any of the other characters around him. The story focuses mostly on the external conflict between the hero and the NFL, but largely ignores how this external conflict changes the hero’s life. Ultimately what makes “Concussion” weaker is the lack of diving deeper into the hero’s life. Instead, “Concussion” focuses on the affect concussions have on the players and the hero’s struggle to get the NFL to believe him.

“Concussion” isn’t a bad movie, but it’s not a great one either. “Spotlight” is a great movie because it’s not just about the story but about the characters. Ultimately, every story is about the characters. Come up with a great plot to get the attention of studios, but execute your story by writing great characters that people will care about.

There’s a huge difference between “The Avengers” and “Suicide Squad.” Both are about groups of superheroes who fight together, but one shows us character changes and interaction while the other largely ignores its main characters in favor of constant flashbacks or simply ignoring the main characters altogether.

The formula for a good movie starts with focusing on great characters. The plot is important, but ultimately secondary to the characters.

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