A lot of people don’t appreciate how hard it is to tell a story through narrative mediums like books and songs, but especially film. That’s why I always find it interesting hearing about the little things people do that made it “work”. James Gunn mentioned in an interview recently that the script for Guardians of the Galaxy wasn’t going together until he stumbled across the idea of the Walkman cassette player. That little plot bit tied things together and created dramatic & comedic opportunities that just made everything “work”.
This came to mind just now after I finished watching that Jude Law movie “Sky Captain” for the first time since I originally saw it. Regardless of the fact that it starts with a bunch of action, I actually was pretty bored until something little happened, Gwyneth Paltrow’s reporter/photographer character Polly gets her camera bag blown up in a mine. It left her with just her camera and “2 shots left”. The rest of the movie is set against this little bit of dramatic tension. Is this big unbelievable fantastic thing happening before us, the MOSTest biggest unbelievablest fantastic thing that will happen or should she save the shots for the NEXT big thing? This little tiny thing, a throw away item, then all of a sudden infused the story with a pacing, anticipation and humor that had been missing until then.
It also tangentially reminds me of one of the biggest plot devices and confusions I’ve noticed in some discussions over the years. Why does Tolkein have this strange double ending in The Lord of The Rings? The battle against the dark lord is concluded and yet we find ANOTHER battle yet to be waged when the main characters return to the Shire. All you have to do to understand this however, is go back to the opening line of the book, “This book is largely concerned with Hobbits…” The book is about Hobbits, what it is NOT about is anyone or anything else except in such a way as they speak to an understanding of the character and history of Hobbits. Hobbits were Tolkein’s little plot device, the innovation and creation which imbued the larger story with tension, and humor, and drama, and pacing. How would these little people, so out of their depths in the world of war and battles and monsters, affect and adapt to these situations? The elimination of the final battle in the Shire from Peter Jackson’s film version (or at least from the extended version) was one of the more disappointing moments I have had watching film. I know things have to be changed for the movie medium, but he added new events while eliminating an event that was at the very heart of what the source book was about.
So I’m left with the conclusion that these little plot devices are an art. Not to be generally derided as cheap, or tricks, or marks of lazy or shallow storytelling, but instead understood as one of the most important tools in a writer’s professional kit. Judged on the quality of the device, not the mere existence of the same.
Would Douglas Adams still be a great storyteller without the Hitchhiker’s Guide? Maybe, but read it again and I think you’ll find how that little invention was at the heart of his storytelling, not a disposable sideshow, even to such an inventive mind as his. Often the most important thing is getting something down on the page every day, and if little imaginations like plot devices help someone do it, then more power to them.