Story & Plot

(This is a summarised post, I want to see if I can elaborate on some things later on, particularly the points about character designs in MvA, as I think it makes a great metaphor on its plot/story on the whole. Plus some extra elaborations on torture-porn as a film genre).

You can be forgiven to think that the words "story" and "plot" are essentially synonymous, and maybe one day they will be, but at this point in time they contain two entirely different meanings. Need more proof? Check out their wiktionary definitions: story and plot.

Rather than arguing over the specific dictionary meanings of words, however, I will simply state my own definitions for the ease of understanding how I use them. To break it down, the story is not something that can be communicated on its own, since it is not a single time-line, it is multiple events and ideas all happening at once - like a structure. Think of seeing a building, taking it all in on the whole. The plot is a way to relay the story in sequential time - to focus on details and specific events. You see the building, now you have to describe it. What is its colour? What is its shape? Its history? Where do you begin describing? Where do you end? So obviously, in order to start describing this building, there must first be a building to exist before you begin to describe it, right?

The human mind has an amazing ability to connect pieces of information into a logical form. While it is processing information based on what pieces of plot it is given, it will automatically update the structure of the story on a whole, and in turn re-order the plot into a coherent chronology. It is the author's job to craft the plot in such a way as to communicate the story in a specific way they want the viewer's mind to see it. The real art is to shape the story starting from a single piece of information and ending with a large tangled web of intricately designed tapestry that weaves in and out of itself forming a larger 'picture' or concept. This applies to fiction or non-fiction. It especially becomes overwhelming when the story is something abstract or complicated that in some cases will be too much for a mind to take in one single participation.

Then there are authors who simply skip straight to communicating a plot without having conceived any kind of story behind it. When the story loses integrity it starts to break down, crumble and eventually cease to exist. It can take a single miscalculated plot point to do this, but the mind is creative enough, I think, to forgive a mistake in the knowledge that it has been acknowledged as a mistake. But sometimes it is not a mistake, it's just calculated sloppiness, which brings me to Monsters vs Aliens, a 2009 Dreamworks animated film I watched recently.

There is plenty to say about the character designs in MvA, but I will summarise briefly by saying that they all look like some cartoonist's crude disproportionate caricatures of random people handed down to the animation department and forced by the producers to model them exactly as they are. Under expert hands they would have been convincing if animated in 2D (I'm reminded of 'Mok' from Rock & Rule), however in 3D they come off like stretchy rubber puppets. They don't follow any solid form or structure which leads the designs to be less functional or appealing to work with, which is something that could also be said of the film's story and plot.

I will use one scene as an example, which I take as a synecdoche to describe the whole movie. It is the scene where we enter the war-room and the President of USA, fed up with facetious solutions to the giant robot invasion, gets up and walks over to press a big red button, panicking the advisers sitting at the round table behind him, warning that the button will set off all their nuclear missiles. He then stands confused and asks which button makes the latté, and someone replies it's the other button right next to the nuke-launching one, where the camera pulls back to reveal another big red button that looks exactly identical. OK, I'm following so far, there was a gross error in the design of the war room. So the President presses the other button and it pours coffee into a mug. The President irately questions "what idiot designed this thing?", to which an off-screen voice answers "you did, sir". Calmly, the president says "fair enough" and goes about drinking his coffee.

That is the plot of the scene, in order as it appears in the film, specifically designed in such a way to pile on more and more new pieces of information that shape an entirely absurd premise, which can't really hold itself together unless you conceive it to be designed specifically to serve the convenience of the gag. So let's try to regurgitate the story back out into a more coherent order, just to attempt to make sense of it all.

So there is this dimwitted nutjob who can not tell the difference between left or right and has somehow been elected the President of USA - leader of the entire nation - and somehow he has been allowed the responsibility to make integral design choices to the architecture of the official war-room, specifically adding a large red button to indicate the launch of all their nuclear missiles, without a safety-net or a prompt to ask if you're sure you want to launch all nuclear missiles in case, as may often happen, the button is pressed by accident. Perhaps he liked the big red button so much that he used its exact same design again to operate a coffee machine and place it right next to the nuclear missile launch button. Mad with power, he did not listen to anyone who would obviously contest his design flaw, only to later discover the flaw for himself, forgets that he was responsible for it, shrugs it off and accepts the fact he has placed the world in imminent danger in every waking moment, which might just be the spice he needs to make his coffee taste that much better.

How much of that sounds completely stupid, riddled with holes and convenient coincidences of idiocy? All of it? I ask how does this scene exist?

"But Jim!" The voice of reason cries out. "It's supposed to be stupid, that's what makes it funny!"

I don't think that's how humour works. I wasn't laughing, anyhow. Instead I had my palm to my face thinking about how this script was approved by a line of producers who were paying for this to be made, and probably handed over through many script-polishers who decided not to change it in any way to make the least bit of logical sense, and then screened before test-audiences who did not seem to pick up on how absurd this all is, and my final thought is the one I dread the most - they probably laughed.

I'd like to think that humour works best when you have 1. a plot point that serves a purpose to tell the story, 2. a story that doesn't break down and crumble when you start to think about it and 3. well timed communication of the plot. The scene above contains number 3, but misses out on 1 and 2.

This kind of gag is technically known by its Latin name: 'non sequitur' but in layman's terms is often called "Family Guy humour". However the staple of Family Guy is in its non sequitur gags typically laced with pop-culture references, they still originally served to develop or stabilise the attributes of the main characters in a punchy and surprising way. I'm not a fan of Family Guy and it pains me to use it as a positive example, but I understand that it has become a staple of pop-culture itself, so much so that its name has become synonymous with its own brand of humour.

In this scene from Monsters vs Aliens, the non sequitur may be developing the character traits of the President, but how does this help to develop the overall story? What is the role of the President (voiced by Stephen Colbert) in this movie? Let's see.

1. To goof off.
2. To be as stupid as possible.
3. Probably some kind of inside joke that Stephen Colbert plays a president.
4. oh yeah, and this is not as much of a big deal, but he also needs to move the plot forward by approving the release of the monsters to fight the aliens.

I've had to stop myself writing this at least two times now, to prevent myself from throwing up and crying myself to sleep. I don't enjoy writing this, but I feel I have to, because it's this kind of shit that keeps me awake at night. I need to express that bad movies do exist whether or not you actually like it, or if it made a lot of money, or if it makes people other than me laugh.

"But Jim!" the voice of reason returns. "It's supposed to not make sense! That's the fun of it!"

OK, I don't think every movie needs to be perfect. Some of my favourite movies take huge liberties with logic and reality all the time (eg. Synecdoche New York, Dead Or Alive 2: Birds, Drop Dead Fred, Chimes At Midnight, The Room). MvA could have been an enjoyable film for me if 1. the characters weren't so ugly and 2. the humour came from the heart and not from obvious devices and plot convenience. It's starting to depress me, so I would like to add a good example of how story and plot can be executed. This brings me to the 2008 French film Martyrs, another film I have watched recently.

Martyrs is an example of how "torture porn" or "gorn" can be done well. I often cite Funny Games as how torture porn is simultaneously great and awful as a genre of film, but the difference between the two movies is that Funny Games is a deconstruction, criticism and example of its very own type of movie, while Martyrs is more of a reconstruction.

As much as I would argue that Martyrs is in no way pornographic, it still contains the conventions to what we know as "torture porn", as has been defined by movies like Saw, Hostel, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and most recently The Human Centipede. It especially understands the aesthetic of being THE MOST EXTREME MOVIE EVER! - where it seems to have succeeded. Martyrs has gained notoriety as being the most repulsive, gruesome and disturbing movie ever made; it is designed to test the viewer's threshold of pain. I felt nothing but dread sitting through this movie, and although it was torture to sit through, it was no where near as torturous as sitting through Monsters vs Aliens.

However you want to describe your unpleasant experience of Martyrs - its unsettling themes, its kitschy representation of metaphysical concepts, its constant shifting of central characters, the several plot twists and revelations, the final act reminiscent of the first Guinea Pig film - despite it all the story still holds up.

From here on I will be spoiling some major plot points that may soften the effect of some of the surprises. I doubt many would want to subject themselves to this film, but to the few who may be enticed or challenged to see it and haven't yet I suggest you stop reading here. I have pretty much touched on all that there is to say about the subject, as I mentioned earlier I am only including this example as a way to cheer myself up.

In the scene where the family are eating breakfast, we get a glimpse into the lives of these relatable three-dimensional characters. There's the sibling rivalry, the father's insistence on the son's future direction, the high-and-mighty younger daughter, and the mother bringing in a dead mouse she just retrieved from the water pipes and dangling it in front of everybody's faces. She says "yes, it's gross, but at least we have running water now". Much later we find out why the running water was such an important issue for them. After spending time torturing their victims in the secret dungeon they are required to routinely shower off before returning upstairs - hygiene is important to these people. The family almost appear as a non-sequitur, but it turns out their relevance to the story is highly integral. The plots are constantly twisting and turning but they all serve to give us relevant pieces of information in a consistent, methodical order. It's like we begin by focusing on a tiny detail of a painting and then slowly pulling back to reveal a larger, more complex image. In such a way, the revelation of the larger picture puts all the smaller details in perspective and we begin to appreciate them even more, which we otherwise wouldn't have done if we began by overseeing the whole picture beforehand.

"But Jim!" the voice of reason won't go away. "You can't compare a film like Martyrs to Monsters vs Aliens, it's apples and oranges!"

While I can point out many vague similarities between the two films, the biggest similarity is much like the big similarity between you and me: we are both human beings who think and breath. These are two movies which function on both story and plot. All movies work this way, and as there are some people deficient in thinking, some movies are also deficient in story. Perhaps the two are made for each other? YOU DECIDE.


  1. I read the whole thing but the spoiler alert for Martyrs, which I think I'm going to have to watch now. Not because I enjoy torture porn (or am even particularly affected by it; I just think it's creepy that someone spent a lot of time and money to create it), but because now I am genuinely curious to see if I would enjoy it (or at least, suffer through it less) than Monsters vs. Aliens.

  2. I thought I'd add a couple of points, which don't relate much to the movies but more to the topic.

    * If a story is still structurally held up, it doesn't mean it's automatically good.
    * A good story can't save bad plotting, but it does help.
    * Absurdity is a whole different thing, and it's not the best tool for comedy but can sometimes work if done well. See this tumblr post I made.