On another thread, Jazz made the following assertion: ….lack of a good story might be a valid and compelling criticism.
Dr Frank said once that there are 9 basic stories which can be expanded to 36 total i.e. the number of stories to be told is finite.
I was unable to find that list, but I found this here :
The 20 Basic Plots are collected by the Tennessee Screenwriting Association . After you come up with your own system for generating ideas, the next step is to put them in some recognizable story form (the basic plot idea), build your central conflict (the story premise sheet), then build your character and underlying themes (the thematic premise sheet).
1. QUEST – the plot involves the Protagonist’s search for a person, place or thing, tangible or intangible (but must be quantifiable, so think of this as a noun; i.e., immortality).
2. ADVENTURE – this plot involves the Protagonist going in search of their fortune, and since fortune is never found at home, the Protagonist goes to search for it somewhere over the rainbow.
3. PURSUIT – this plot literally involves hide-and-seek, one person chasing another.
4. RESCUE – this plot involves the Protagonist searching for someone or something, usually consisting of three main characters – the Protagonist, the Victim & the Antagonist.
5. ESCAPE – plot involves a Protagonist confined against their will who wants to escape (does not include some one trying to escape their personal demons).
6. REVENGE – retaliation by Protagonist or Antagonist against the other for real or imagined injury.
7. THE RIDDLE – plot involves the Protagonist’s search for clues to find the hidden meaning of something in question that is deliberately enigmatic or ambiguous.
8. RIVALRY – plot involves Protagonist competing for same object or goal as another person (their rival).
9. UNDERDOG – plot involves a Protagonist competing for an object or goal that is at a great disadvantage and is faced with overwhelming odds.
10. TEMPTATION – plot involves a Protagonist that for one reason or another is induced or persuaded to do something that is unwise, wrong or immoral.
11. METAMORPHOSIS – this plot involves the physical characteristics of the Protagonist actually changing from one form to another (reflecting their inner psychological identity).
12. TRANSFORMATION – plot involves the process of change in the Protagonist as they journey through a stage of life that moves them from one significant character state to another.
13. MATURATION – plot involves the Protagonist facing a problem that is part of growing up, and from dealing with it, emerging into a state of adulthood (going from innocence to experience).
14. LOVE – plot involves the Protagonist overcoming the obstacles to love that keeps them from consummating (engaging in) true love.
15. FORBIDDEN LOVE – plot involves Protagonist(s) overcoming obstacles created by social mores and taboos to consummate their relationship (and sometimes finding it at too high a price to live with).
16. SACRIFICE – plot involves the Protagonist taking action(s) that is motivated by a higher purpose (concept) such as love, honor, charity or for the sake of humanity.
17. DISCOVERY – plot that is the most character-centered of all, involves the Protagonist having to overcome an upheavel(s) in their life, and thereby discovering something important (and buried) within them a better understanding of life (i.e., better appreciation of their life, a clearer purpose in their life, etc.)
18. WRETCHED EXCESS – plot involves a Protagonist who, either by choice or by accident, pushes the limits of acceptable behavior to the extreme and is forced to deal with the consequences (generally deals with the psychological decline of the character).
19. ASCENSION – rags-to-riches plot deals with the rise (success) of Protagonist due to a dominating character trait that helps them to succeed.
20. Descension – riches-to-rags plot deals with the fall (destruction) of Protagonist due to dominating character trait that eventually destroys their success.
(Note: Sometimes #19 & #20 are combined into rags-to-riches-to-rags (or vice versa) of a Protagonist who does (or doesn’t) learn to deal with their dominating character trait). For an in-depth look at these plots, read the excellent 20 Master Plots and How To Build Them by Ronald B. Tobias.
Someone added the this:
First person present, internal, no plot or sub-plot, only actualization of being.
What is a good story?
If there are a finite number of stories, which ones are the good ones?
A lack of a good story is only valid criticism if the film is primarily story driven: ie if everything in the film exists for no other reson than to drive the story forward. In that case I imagine a good story would be a somewhat fresh take on a basic plot.
This reminds me of one of my pet peeves: using “it was too predictable” as criticism. If in the last 5 minutes it turned out that the killer was an extraterrestrial midget with a penchant for lingerie would that have made for a better whodunnit? Come to think of it…
I’m going to answer the thread topic (‘Is a lack of a good story a valid and compelling criticism?’) not the question you’ve asked in your post (‘What is a good story’?), seeing as these are two completely different questions. To be brief, I’d say that this can only become a serious criticism if the film’s primary focus is on narrative development. Narrative development: is that not really what counts as story? Things changing from scene to scene?
To take an extreme example, taking Stan Brakhage’s films to task because they don’t have a story would be like criticising a black and white film for not having more colour (both criticisms HAVE sadly been mounted). But even in the case of a film like, for instance, Stalker, complaining about the film on the level of narrative and story should have about the same relevance as taking an exceptionally well-acted and well developed plot-driven film to task for not tweaking its colour scheme, not quite perfecting its tracking shots, holding a close-up a touch too long. While the criticism might be true, it is criticism that says nothing about whether or not the film is succeeding in its PRIMARY aim. One needs to critically engage a film on the terms of its own artistic objectives and not consider the transmission of a ‘good story’ to be the transcendental prerequisite for all filmmaking. Because with a film like Stalker, I would argue that the film’s overall effect would be HAMPERED by a greater emphasis on plot complexity, increasing the pace at which the events unfold, etc. These would be examples of ‘tweeking the colour scheme’ only to introduce a colour that countered the overall effect the filmmakers were trying to achieve.
A good example of what I’m proposing is the critical appraisal of Theo Angelopoulous. Rather than take him to task for not catering more to the requirements of plot, narrative tension, event development – which is, after all, not at all his primary focus – one could rather ask whether he successfully articulates a profound feeling of time and space in his cinema (his films are obsessed with themes of history and human displacement). To what degree does he succeed in this endeavor? To what extent is this theme lost in the midst of high-brow self-indulgence (it is from this angle that one could then defend or attack the charges of his films being ‘too slow’)? I’m not saying that this is the only way to engage with Angelopoulous’ work. One could ask if he conveys the right mood or atmosphere in his films or whether one just gets the sense of watching paint dry. All of these questions and approaches would be better than merely deriding the films because they don’t seem to have much of a ‘story’.
I’m aware that I’m not really responding to what you’ve written in your post, but it was the thread topic that drew me here :)
Plots are only there for people who don’t know how to read films.
Films, unlike photographs or paintings, have got a movement from point A (the beginning) to point B (the end), so inevitably every film has got a kind of a linear structure, which could be a more traditional story-driven narrative or more loose, mainly imagery based narrative. The question is where is the borderline and what can we name a story? I believe every film has got a story to tell, without exception, but not in the narrow sense of the word, so my answer is – yes, it is a valid criticism because we are talking about the whole structure of the film.
Some paintings and photos tell a more vivid and complex story than many a film. Yes, films have movement. They are a time-based art form. Movement does not always imply story.
Sometimes I think we try to grasp at something tangible when trying to express why we don’t like a film. Story is usually the easiest and most objective target, also the most significant. I have no problem critiquing a narrative-driven film for a bad story. Even old, well-known stories can be told in exciting and compelling ways. So ultimately, I don’t look for novelty in stories, I look for good crafting.
This is just flatly not true. Film has been a major storytelling medium over the past 100+ years. To assert that those interested in story structure merely lack the ability to understand filmic grammar is at least a little arrogant. I’d like to look at David Mamet as an example here. Mamet, a dramatist from the world of theatre, is clearly interested in story structure, classical structure at that (watch his movies, read his writings), but (watch his movies, read his writings) you’ll also note that Mamet has a firm grasp of filmic possibilities vs. stage possibilities. The two things (film language and storytelling) do not have to be at odds. Neither does storytelling have to be viewed as mere subterfuge. People put certain characters in certain situations on the screen for a reason. It’s not arbitrary.
I would say that most films are story-based to some extent (not all, of course), and can therefore be criticized based on their ability to tell the story. But the problem I have is when we jump to this criticism too quickly before seriously considering other options. Perhaps the film possess other qualities, non-story qualities, that need to be examined? Is it a didactic film? Does it express a particular style or mood? Is the film even attempting a classical story structure (poor to criticize a film for doing something that its not even trying to do)? Is it based in a more poetic mood? Is it a movie about architecture? Is it a movie about ideas? Is it just two people talking?
I do not know what constitutes a good story unless we apply some formula to it (and there are plenty of formulas to apply). But, because many films veer from classical storytelling (and/or formulaic storytelling), I think it is best to keep criticisms of narrative structure in our back pockets for a little while. Break them out only when necessary. Look at the whole film first.
Good storytelling in cinema is the ability to not tell a story.
I mean, really, why do I care about some schnook that got his bike stolen because he wasn’t paying attention?
Or some old people who’s children have forgotten them?
Cinema is the ability to move beyond the essentials of narrative in favor of the visual communication of emotion.
Why don’t you care?
If you refuse to enter the storytelling process, then that’s your deal. But to assume that storytelling is mere subterfuge is just silly to me. Storytelling – and not just in the movies – arranges people in very specific patterns to create a certain effect and, perhaps, to say things about those people. Do you really think that De Sica arbitrarily chose an unemployed man with witch to tell Bicycle Thieves? Do you really think that the (SPOILER) plot point of having said man try to steal another bike is arbitrary? Those are plot issues.
Already you have found your own criteria with which to judge and have tacitly admitted that good storytelling (probably not just limited to cinema) is an important factor. If there can be good and bad storytelling, then we can ascertain that it is not just icing on the cake.
@Hellshocked A lack of a good story is only valid criticism if the film is primarily story driven…
I think that is Jazz’s claim – primacy of the narrative determines whether story matters. Looking at Pixar he is saying that they are narrative films whereas many would claim technology is their primary reason for being.
@ Jacques de Villiers
I agree, as most probably would, with your assertions. Ultimately, we have to know what a good story is, to know what a bad story is when the narrative is primary, no?
@ Nathan M…I do not know what constitutes a good story …..I think it is best to keep criticisms of narrative structure in our back pockets for a little while.
I think that is precisely how I feel about narrative.
If there can be good and bad storytelling, then we can ascertain that it is not just icing on the cake.
Otherwise, the story doesn’t matter and it is the ‘how’ that matters. Designating a film as primarily narrative has a way of elevating the story out of proportion; thus making narrative the ultimate basis for criticism.
Which I guess is okay, if we know among the finite number of stories which are the good ones.
“story” is just like any other element of filmmaking. When the “story” is good that’s nice, when the story is bad that sucks, but a good “story” is by no means required to have a good film. If you have excellent performances, photography, editing, music, ect… a “weak” story can be more than made up for elsewhere.
That isn’t to say the story “doesn’t matter”. It does, just as much as any of the other major “facets” of a film.
Okay, but tell me what a good story is – is The Color of Pomegranates a good story?
For me it is an excellent story, but that is based on how it was told to me.
If the story is the what then the narrative is the how. If (as suggested by the 20 standard plots in the OP), there are a limited number of answers to what, the beauty of film is that there are an unlimited number of answers to how. This is why I prefer using the term narrative. Story is so basic, it neither succeeds or fails on its own, but narrative is the core to all, but the most abstract films. If Enter the Void, for instance, uses a number of unique visual techniques in an original way, the question to ask is, do those techniques serve the narrative.
Like a few others have said, lack of a compelling story is only a valid criticism if the film is attempting to have a compelling story.
And yes, if you break movie stories down to the most very basic level, you can interpret them as variations on a handful of templates. But those variations can be wildly different and combine them in new and interesting ways, with different tones, and with different characters.
Like, Kind Hearts and Coronets. It’s revenge, and it’s ascension. Can you reduce it to either? Absolutely not.
In terms of story telling, the “telling” is in fact much more important than the actual story.
A bad joke can be quite funny if it’s told a certain way.
“Why don’t you care?”
The narrative doesn’t give you any reason to care.
The unemployed are everywhere. People driven to crime are everywhere. Why do you care about some non-actor pretending in a film made in 1948, but not about the actual unemployed neighbor that lives a few blocks down?
You care because De Sica gives communicability to his emotions through his visuals, which some random neighbor or poverty stricken thief you see on the news does not have/is not given.
“Storytelling – and not just in the movies – arranges people in very specific patterns to create a certain effect and, perhaps, to say things about those people.”
Actually specifically in the movies, staging does that. So does character development. The story, many times, just sets up the patterns created by those other two aspects of cinema.
See: La Roue
4 1/2 hours long, about 10-15 minutes of narrative development. But you’d never notice if you study Gance’s staging and characters.
I think it’s a valid criticism in some cases, however not all films attempt to have an interesting story. They might be more invested in visuals, message/theme, etc. But for all films that possess a basic narrative structure, yes, it’s a very valid criticism. Would The Godfather be an exceptional film if the story was uninteresting? Not at all. You could still appreciate the performances, and the musical score, and the cinematography, but if the story was uninteresting I don’t think nearly as many people would give it the time of day.
At the risk of embarrassing myself completely, I’ll challenge that claim. Is the “story” to The Godfather really that interesting?
It’s kind of your generic “mobster” genre story, right? Innocent (relative) heir to the throne rises to power, many a gangland slaying, hits, revenge hits, ect.? Now maybe The Godfather “invented” the genre and maybe it didn’t, but I think it took a “classic” narrative and told it well, it tells it with an elegance, and I think I would argue that gives it its power, more so than the actual narrative, in a vacuum.
“Looking at Pixar he is saying that they are narrative films whereas many would claim technology is their primary reason for being.”
Being one of Pixar’s techno-fanboys, I still want to acknowledge that Pixar has branded itself as having a unique commitment to story, so in the case of Pixar films, criticizing story is a valid and compelling approach.
There is only one story: a character wants something. Does he get it?
From there sure, you can divide into subtypes. How ‘bout this? Answer Yes = comedy. Answer No = tragedy. And in the end, if he gets what he wanted and it turns out not to be what he wanted (The Hustler) or he doesn’t get what he wanted but it turns out he’s still better off for it (The Big Lebowski), then you have an Ironic Comedy or Tragedy.
Or whatever. Point is, story is the narrative structure that is driven by character motivations and the choices they make. It is not required for cinema, but cinema is just as good a medium as any other for telling a story. A poor story is a valid criticism where the movie offers no other compelling elements to support it, as others have said. A ‘good’ story can be defined from a craft-based perspective that each choice the characters make are logical and follow and progress the characters through their changes until they either get what they want or don’t. A ‘poor’ story would miss those changes, or follow them illogically, or just fail to realize a character’s motivations. All of those craft books that break down story elements with terminology like ‘inciting incident’, ‘plot-point’, ‘beat’, ‘five act structure’, and so on all are saying the exact same things over and over again, only isolating different particulars of story and giving them a taxonomy, but the point of story is for people to watch people struggle for an outcome.
@Axel- You have an interesting point. The question is, when we talk about “story” for the purpose of this thread, do we mean the premise of it or the execution? The premise of The Godfather is basic, yes, but its execution is brilliant. I guess one premise might be interesting to someone and uninteresting to another, so that’s not really a valid criticism (we all have films that we’re less prone to like just based on what it’s about- for me, that’s most westerns. I don’t know why). But if the execution of the basic story is poor, then you probably won’t get a good film, and certainly not a great one, so that’s a very valid criticism.
Story is so basic, it neither succeeds or fails on its own, but narrative is the core to all, but the most abstract films.
Maybe we need differentiate story from narrative
Story: a sequence of events.
Narrative: how the events are told in a consumable format.
Given those definitions, a story told out of order becomes a narrative e.g. use of flashbacks
Plot: a structure for a narrative’s telling e.g. Gustav Freytag’s five parts
I still want to acknowledge that Pixar has branded itself as having a unique commitment to story, so in the case of Pixar films, criticizing story is a valid and compelling approach.
Aren’t they just marketing to a target – I mean that is the point of branding.
If they aren’t producing ‘fresh’ & ‘satisfying’ stories, how are they doing?
If revenues are down, I would say it is valid criticism of their marketing but as film criticism, no.
They are marketing a target, but they’re not ‘just’ marketing a target, in that if they are branding themselves as a studio with a tradition of good storytelling, criticism on their storytelling qualities movie to movie can be compelling and valid regardless of their revenues. For instance, Cars and Cars 2 are their highest-earning products, but often get the most criticism for poor storytelling — nevertheless, Cars and Cars 2 have substantially, in my mind, better storytelling than what you can come to expect from most animated children’s movies. They have better stories than all the Shrek sequels, for instance. Meanwhile, Pixar’s most complicated (not necessarily good) story was Ratatouille, and it earned the least — but whether people thought the story was good or bad (there are critics in both camps, but the ‘good’ camp is much bigger), no critic that I know of has deigned to state that obviously as the least earning Pixar movie, the story was bad. Those are separate considerations despite Pixar’s branding.
At risk of creating a tangent, I believe the saying: “It’s easier to care about one person than it is to care about a million people.”
If there was only one homeless person in the world, he’d have a very easy time getting people to give him money.
It is important to make a distinction between story and narrative, and narrative is usually far more important. In mainstream film, character development is usually more important than either. But that’s not to say having a good story is not completely preferable to having a bad one.
“The unemployed are everywhere. People driven to crime are everywhere. Why do you care about some non-actor pretending in a film made in 1948, but not about the actual unemployed neighbor that lives a few blocks down?
You care because De Sica gives communicability to his emotions through his visuals, which some random neighbor or poverty stricken thief you see on the news does not have/is not given."
I missed this first read through.
Actually quite a lot of theorists, Campbell the predominant one, insists that you care BECAUSE it’s a story, in other words it draws you in because it sets you in that character’s perspective, makes his desire your own, his journey your own — you’re not dealing with some unemployed guy among many that you don’t know and don’t have spare change for, you’re dealing with the thought ‘what if?’ you were dependent of a bicycle for your income, and it got stolen? That story provides the ‘communicability’ and ‘emotions’. In this way of looking at it, the visuals serve the story.
You can disagree but the real point I’m trying to make here is you are saying
A, thus B
where many other people have already said
A, thus C
and A isn’t going to change, but B or C is going to predicate on what compelled you more, the story or the visuals.
…often get the most criticism for poor storytelling
I’m not that familiar with Cars 2, but looking at NYT, Ebert, and Rant i don’t see much about the storytelling in the reviews.
If we are saying story is primary, wouldn’t that be the case – that story is being mentioned in a review?
Jirin, mainstream films are plot driven, first and foremost id argue. The characters are just functions of the plot for most part, almost pure effects, hence the lack of character depth.
“At risk of creating a tangent, I believe the saying: ‘It’s easier to care about one person than it is to care about a million people.’”
Hence why I framed it in singulars (the neighbor, the thief on the news).
The media presents us with stories all day long. Anyone seen those anti-smoking commercials that present a presumably “real” character, story, narrative arc and tragic conclusion in 30 seconds? One about the father who had a heart attack and can no longer play with his children. One about the mother who had a stroke and can no longer wash herself.
The best stories in the world are those of commercials. “… In other words it draws you in because it sets you in that character’s perspective, makes his desire your own, his journey your own…”
The reason those commercials are not art, even, if you take my perspective, are repellent is because they communicate suffering and leave it at that. The visuals make these people less than pathetic, less than people, without emotion. Just objective tools for a machine bent on ending the usage of a product its users already understand the dangers of.
Storytelling does not a cinematic work of art make.
Even if we take the idea about perspective. Antonio’s perspective is presented as minor and subjective, even in the film. One need only study opening scene, the scene in the pawn “shop” (auditorium may be a better word), the scene in the fortune teller’s house, the scene in the police headquarters, the scene in the restaurant, and, more important than all, the scene in which Antonio confronts the thieves and we realize their poverty is his poverty.
De Sica definitively defeats that notion, “…easier to care about one person…” Because he uses his form to make one person the emotive communicator of several million.
I wish Mubi would ban the word “valid” instead of the word “pretentious”.
@Robert: “If we are saying story is primary, wouldn’t that be the case – that story is being mentioned in a review?”
Elements of story are almost always included in review: characters, plot points, conflicts…
@ Falderal: “The best stories in the world are those of commercials…The visuals make these people less than pathetic, less than people, without emotion. Just objective tools for a machine bent on ending the usage of a product its users already understand the dangers of….Storytelling does not a cinematic work of art make.”
‘The best stories are these poorly told and uncompelling stories that aren’t as artful as art.’ Great.
“Even if we take the idea about perspective. Antonio’s perspective is presented as minor and subjective, even in the film.”
You’re confusing perspective with POV.
I’m talking about craft storytelling, that shit Robert McKee named his book after and endless craft books have written about. What are you guys talking about, because this conversation ain’t meshing somewhere.