The Green Book: Character Not Plot


The Green Book: Character Not Plot

The Green Book is an example of the pitfalls of creating fiction based on fact but also of character study films. This category primarily explores the main character’s personality.

Other character study films are Remains of the Day and even Little Women. If you remember (I may be speaking to only half the audience), Little Women focuses on how Jo realizes her dream to be a writer, Amy to be fashionable, etc.  There isn’t one big climax to which all the other component parts contribute.

Similarly, the Green Book is a study of character and, although lots of things happen, there really isn’t a plot.

The movie does so have a plot

I can hear the protest, “The movie does so have a plot—I mean, they meet in New York, and drive through the South…” Yes, yes. But those are events and even lots of events don’t necessarily add up to a plot. It is particularly tough to see in this movie since the character development is so well written (and acted) that you don’t even notice the lack of a story.

How can you tell the difference between character and plot driven stories?

Usually by the elevator speech about the story. Someone asks what the Green Book is about. Which are you more likely to say: “It’s about two men who find the humanity in each other despite their differences in race”; or “It’s about two men getting into trouble in the Deep South during the 1960s.”? Both are correct but I think the first in more accurate because it gets at the real intent—character.

Why does it matter?

Well, it doesn’t for the reader since both types can be very satisfying. But it does for the writer.

At some point, you need to understand whether you are writing character or plot. Is it about the growth of your main character’s humanity? Or does the story have a climax moment which resolves the issues presented in the novel?

The annoying bit is that you often want to do both—develop your characters into real people and put them in situations which they resolve. And frankly, it is a better piece if you can.

Both character and story

So why the fuss?

The problem arises when writers just keep writing interesting, entertaining, or even touching events which don’t really lead anywhere. Just stringing a set of scenes together, no matter how true or life-like, will not necessarily make a story.

In fact, novels or memoirs written this way often dissatisfy the reader without her knowing why. She might say something like, “Yeah, it was okay—lots happened to him.” But won’t say “Wow, I really understand how his life shaped who he became,” OR “Wow, it was fascinating to see how he overcame such a difficult challenge.”

What about your writing?

You don’t need to start a writing project knowing which direction you want. In fact, might impede your creativity if you do. Instead, consider this after the first draft when you’re looking to create a final product.

Do you have a classic story arc with interesting characters who change? Or is the essence the growth of the main character, illustrated by events in his life? Which you decide will help focus what needs to be added, cut, expanded or shortened in your second draft.

I know this is a tough one so I will do another post (later) on a movie where this events- without-story is more evident.