The Stupifying of Story

I understand that most people don’t actually care about story.  They might think they do, but it’s only in the broadest, most obvious terms.  It’s not such a surprise.  As a fiction writer, I’ve been thinking about story for a long time, and while I’ll agree that story and plot isn’t the most important part of telling a good story, it should be somewhat important.  Characters and memorable moments count for a hell of a lot, but if the story itself doesn’t hold together, shouldn’t that matter?  Not to most people.

That’d be fine if they understood that.  If someone tells me they don’t care about the story, then we’re free to move on.  Once the parameters of the debate are established, I’m fine with discussing it on those terms.  Instead, people most often equate plot (good and bad) with whatever elements of the story they like or dislike.  They pick and choose, based on whatever they’ve already decided, what works and what doesn’t work.  For most people, the definition of a plot hole is a part of the story they didn’t care for.

Story is so unimportant to people that we have had a string of non-story films that have nothing approaching story logic.  What is story logic?  It’s pretty dry, but it comes down to this.  Every scene in your story should have some relevance to the characters and / or plot.  Scenes should have consequences and connect, and what happens in Scene One should have some effect on not just Scene Two, but Scenes Three through Ten and so on.  For a surprising number of blockbusters, this just isn’t true anymore.

What’s important here is that I’m not talking about whether the story is good or not.  I’m speaking purely from a mechanical perspective.  It’s not the most glamorous element of storytelling, and once you understand how it works, it’s not that hard.  The exception is often found in “literary” fiction and non-genre, independent films, but putting aside those weird exceptions, it’s pretty simple stuff.

Which is why it’s so damned galling to me that it no longer seems to apply.  Major motion pictures by major studios are being released with such a disregard for the basics of storytelling that it’s mind-boggling to me that they continue to get away with it.  I get that people don’t care about this stuff, but there’s a point where it should matter.  Otherwise, every story is just a series of events with no purpose.

But moviemakers have become proficient at the appearance of purpose.  The current blockbuster model is an imitation of a good story without actually bothering with the story.  It is all just so superficial and empty.  There are exceptions, but those exceptions are often lumped together with broad disdain.  The Avengers has a solid story structure.  Every scene has relevance, and the overarching plot arc ties together.  Captain America: The Winter Soldier has a coherent plot.  Pacific Rim has one.

Star Trek: Into Darkness does not.  Godzilla does not.  Skyfall does not.

Since Godzilla is the hot film at the moment, let’s take a look at that.

Nothing in Godzilla has any relevance.  In the end, this is a story about a giant monster fighting other monsters, and nothing the humans do matter.  Some people have been arguing that this is a common problem in kaiju stories.  My response is that this is simply bullshit.  Even in the original Godzilla, more of a horror movie than an action flick, the central story revolves around a scientist as he debates whether to unleash a terrible weapon to save Japan from a rampaging monster.  Godzilla might lurk on the periphery of the story, but he’s still central to the story and the choices the human makes (to defeat the monster and sacrifice himself in the process) is the entire point of the story.

‘Zilla spend a lot of time with its human cast, all of whom have clear goals, relationships, and motivations.

In the Gamera, Guardian of the Universe trilogy, there is not just a plot arc for Gamera’s relationship with the humans in each film, there’s an arc to the trilogy itself.

Most kaiju films make the humans relevant in some way.  Heck, even Godzilla 2000, where the humans mostly exist to explain the plot and motivations of the kaijus, takes the time to create a relationship between these characters that makes them more than set dressing.

Godzilla ’14, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to know what to do with its characters.  It doesn’t seem to know what they should be doing, and it isn’t clear that they know why they’re doing anything either.  All of that takes a backseat to them appearing relevant without being relevant.  This is evident from its choice to include a character named Dr. Serizawa, named after the original scientist at the heart of the original Godzilla.  But where the original Serizawa was the heart of the struggle in the film, this Serizawa serves only to appear serious, make serious pronouncements, and not contribute to the plot in any way.  His actions have no bearing.  His character has no arc.  He could be removed entirely from the film and his absence would make the film shorter, but have no other effect.

That’s just bad plotting, folks.  No two ways about it.

Nothing any character does has any real consequence, and that might be acceptable if they had anything approaching a sensible character arc.  Ford Brody, our most prominent protagonist, wanders from scene to scene.  The military itself is neither hero nor obstacle in this battle of titans.  There are scenes where generals discuss blowing up the monsters, but it’s all empty chatter.  It’s never relevant to the actual story.

Here’s where the art of imitation reigns supreme.  Every kaiju flick is required to have a scene where the military discuss things.  So the movie has that scene.  That the scene is irrelevant is apparently unimportant.  It just has to have the scene.

Our hero has a tragic backstory where his family was torn apart by a monster attack because that’s required too.  But is it actually important to anything he does?  Does he swear revenge on this monster that destroyed his family once he discovers this?  Does he dedicate himself to destroying this monster to keep it from doing the same to any other family?  Does he take his father’s dying words to heart and fight his way back to his family to save them from the monsters’ rampage?  No.  He does none of that.  He just wanders from scene to scene like a puppet of the screenwriters.

Our hero has a family.  That family contributes nothing to the story, nor his own character arc.  It only exists to give him something to kiss before the credits roll.

This is basic storytelling, and it’s just not that hard to get right.  Or at least not get wrong.  But let’s assume that it’s irrelevant to this discussion and that Godzilla is simply a big, dumb blockbuster.  I’ve never found that to be a good defense, but, hey, it’s one I’ve heard often enough.  The film still doesn’t bring anything new to the table.  Of course, that’s probably why it works.  People like what they’ve seen before, and if there’s one thing Godzilla excels at, it’s looking exactly like the type of respectable Godzilla movie people are allowed to enjoy.  It even has Bryan Cranston acting dramatic because everyone knows that Bryan Cranston is the best actor ever (this week)!

We only need to compare this latest offering to the previous American ‘Zilla film to see what matters to the audience.  It’s not story.  It’s whether Godzilla looks like Godzilla.  It’s how melodramatic the acting is.  The illusion of a “serious” arc.  It’s entirely superficial, and I might even be okay with that in the right context.  But like most superficial people, this Godzilla is convinced it has something interesting to say.  And because it looks right, because it has the appearance of depth, it gets away with it.

Even “big, dumb blockbusters” should be held to a higher standard than this.  We can do better, and perhaps most importantly, we should certainly be asking for better than this.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,



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  1. Posted May 20, 2014 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    Very happy to see this post. As a writer myself, I get so annoyed by the lack of any kind of coherent structure in movies that cost SO MUCH money to make.

    I would like to use your phrase “imitation of story” to my playwriting students.

    Well said!

  2. Charlie
    Posted May 20, 2014 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

    “Nothing any character does has any real consequence, and that might be acceptable if they had anything approaching a sensible character arc. Ford Brody, our most prominent protagonist, wanders from scene to scene.”

    Have to disagree with you there, (also posted this to your Godzilla review) as Ford saves Godzilla from the MUTOs by torching there eggs, then gets the boat going that will move the bob out of the range of San Francisco thereby saving its huddled masses.

    To a lesser degree, he is the link between his father’s research and Dr. Serizawa, tipping the Monarch team off to the Echolocation being used by the MUTOs. Then Serizawa (whom you credit with only serving to be ominous) connects the dots about why the creatures are communicating (they want to mate), what they will do in San Francisco (make a nest), and why you can’t nuke them (they grow bigger).

  3. Posted May 21, 2014 at 6:15 am | Permalink

    While I agree entirely with your premisi, I don’t think that you are taking the audience into consideration – as in, the target audience has changed.

    It’s early in the morning as I comment so forgive the lack of supporting detail, but I do believe that what you are commenting on has a lot to do with the changes we’ve witnessed to what the audience expects from their films.

    I’ve noted that a major component of this shift transcends film. One of the symptoms is a lack of reliance on audience participation. Hardly any of these films take place inside the viewer’s head. This is reflected in the ascendance of gate show type conventions over traditional cons, the emphasis on going to be entertained as opposed to going to participate.

    The popularity of films that don’t have story would certainly seem to suggest that there is an audience out there for whom this kind of non-story story works. ‘cool’ disconnected scenes may be an effective replacement for stunted imaginations. if a viewer is not internalizing the story, (incapable of doing so?) than only surface detail is required.

    I strongly suspect that Casablanca would completely flop these days.

  4. Posted May 24, 2014 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    Thank for this – for articulating why I feel so let down over the last decade (?) when I go out to see a movie. Melodrama and spastic camera movements are no substitute for character motivations and a plot that make sense as a whole.

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