Taking your readers on a trip

I went to see Steve Coogan’s movie ‘The Trip’ this week.  For those of you unfamiliar with Coogan, he’s a British comedian most famous for portraying a nerdy DJ along the lines of Garry Shandling or Larry David from ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’.  ‘The Trip’ is a semi-real story about two guys – Coogan and his friend and fellow comedian Rob Brydon, both playing themselves – on a trip through the north of England on a restaurant tour for a magazine article.

The movie’s ok, funny in places, heartfelt in others, but it falls flat when it comes to successfully telling the story, and that’s what I want to talk about this week.

Two of the things that are most important when telling a compelling story are character and conflict.  The characters of a story have to be appealing, attractive to the viewer.  You have to be able to relate to them, and – in the context of the story – they have to develop, change, mature.  The impetus for this change is, of course, conflict.  It doesn’t matter if the conflict is external or internal; it provides the drama of the story, and the character (or characters) is/are changed by it.

Coogan’s character in ‘The Trip’ is established well enough: when we meet him, he’s asking his associate to go with him on this restaurant tour, because his (ex-)girlfriend has returned to America.  This immediately sets him up as a sympathetic character.  Along the way he becomes more real; we see him complaining about his career, getting irritated with Rob, sleeping with women.

The plot is real, too; the two men go from restaurant to restaurant, tasting food, cracking jokes, sightseeing.  Coogan talks to his agent.  Rob talks to his wife.  In the end they go home.  The end.

 

And therein lies the problem.  It’s too real.  The conflict of the story and the development of the character are very, very subtle, as they are in real life.  Unfortunately they’re so subtle that many people won’t even catch on.  The dramatic conflict, the climactic conversation (in which Coogan’s character is forced to search his own soul and make the decision that determines his development), and even the final resolution are played down to such a degree that they’re virtually unnoticed as plot devices.

Fiction doesn’t work that way, though.  The audience expects drama, not a retelling of their own lives.  ‘The Trip’ doesn’t deliver, and it’s a great warning note to other storytellers.

Reality isn’t good enough for fiction.  To be entertaining, it needs to be a bit more dramatic than the average reader’s day.  Or a lot more dramatic.  The conflict should not only pose a problem for the character(s), but pose a big problem – even if it’s not a big deal, make it seem that way.  Illustrate the flaws and foibles of your characters, and show the reader how they’ve changed over the course of the story.  Provide some tension in the climax.  Keep them interested, and they’ll be sure to come back for more.

 

I’m sure you can think of some other examples where the plot and/or character didn’t deliver the drama.  Post a reply, let me know what they are!

3 Comments

  1. This makes me think of some of the video games that came out, like that Star Wars game a few years back, where players had to “work” to gain status, money, a little experience. It wound up being a bit of a second job, and wound up flopping after a bit. Why? Because similarly, playing a game is an escape from real life, not an escape into more of the same.

    • Oddly that doesn’t stop people from spending hours playing World of Warcraft or The Sims. Once again, though, I think that has to do with compelling storytelling. WoW, at least, has a variety of challenges and quests that are each stories in themselves, and on top of that there are continuing stories throughout the larger world. The characters, of course, are compelling because they’re written by the players themselves. :)

      • Good read. I have not seen the movie you mention, but your blog made me remember the literary classifications of conflict: man vs himself; man against nature; etc. I could only remember 3 & checked web for others. Turns out there are 7 basic conflicts: Man against Man, Man against Nature, Man against Himself, Man against God, Man against Society, Man caught in the Middle, Man & Woman. When I read the litany of conflicts, (oddly) I thought they sounded vaguely like my basic day, which of course is not interesting to anyone other than me as the “semi-average-protagonist” of my own life that is trying to jump through all the flaming-hoops that make up an ordinary day. Anyway, I especially liked the concept of “Man Caught in the Middle,” which kind of intrigued me and made me think of several really funny events lately that fit nicely into that genre. I couldn’t immediately think of any books or movies for this genre …maybe Kafka’s The Trial. But, taking your thought above that “development” makes conflict in a movie more interesting, I’m wondering if one were to focus more on the “development” aspect stemming from conflict in real life, if a routine day might become more Hollywood-esque. Strangely, I kind of think so. But, admittedly, this idea sounds embarrassingly like Deepak Chopra or Tony Dobbins (or whatever their names are).

        Oh and in case you are wondering what kind of conflict with “nature” I might routinely have — today it was 107 degrees here in North LA. …was missing being in CA. Other times, it’s our ‘rescue dog’ from Tensas Parish.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>