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!