Essential writing skills: how to avoid losing the plot

One of my biggest gripes about the final Hobbit movie was the way it – rather literally – lost the plot. Not just the plot of Tolkien’s wonderful kids’ classic, but the plot that this curious adaptation had defined for itself.

'That's no moon'. Wait - yes it is. It's Mimas, orbiting Saturn.
‘That’s no Death Star’. It’s Mimas, a moon of Saturn.

In particular, the big battle scene – which from a dramatic perspective should have been the closing drama of the eight-hour, three-movie sequence – dribbled. We lost it half-way in favour of Legolas defing physics in a cartoon-character climb up falling stones; and Thorin going into glacially slow single combat with a CGI orc on a skating rink.

Abandoning the battle scene around which the movie was built –  was  a major structural failure on the part of Jackson and his script-writing team. Sure, it enabled them to personify the fight and resolve the tensions of the ‘big bad guy’ who provided ‘chase melodrama’ in the first movie.

But that could have been set amidst the battle. And should have been. Tolkien did in the original, when the battle became the setting for Thorin’s redemption of himself, through combat. Thus one of the key character arcs resolved in synch with the dramatic climax of the story.

This is a basic dramatic principle. Sure, it’s good form to personify the challenge your hero has to meet, in the form of a ‘big bad guy’. But you can’t isolate the resolution from the way the plot’s been built. For a great movie example of that, check out Star Wars, where the underlying plot – the need by the rebels to destroy the Death Star – came together with the personal character arc, Luke’s tensions with Darth Vader, who was also the ‘big bad guy’ of the Death Star. Everything came together in a single very exciting scene. This was simply brilliant movie-making and story-telling. Losing the plot – literally – is something novelists need to avoid too.

The base principle, both for novels and films, is simple; plots move in dramatic rising waves until the final climactic scenes when both the plot and the main character arcs resolve. Putting the two together creates real tension and drama. Failing to do so results in melodrama, at best. At worst, it’s simply silly – as The Hobbit: Battle of Five Armies showed us. The key to bringing the character and plot together correctly is planning. Not necessarily blow-by-blow; there’s still room for good ideas. And for re-planning if those ideas threaten to overwhelm the balance of the plot.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


10 thoughts on “Essential writing skills: how to avoid losing the plot

  1. You know, I enjoyed each of the Hobbit films, until I read your opinion on each and thought, ‘Hmm, the guy makes a good point.’ Thanks for ruining them for me😉

    On the other hand, your critiques are teaching me much that I can again apply to my writing. So, thanks for filling in the gaps caused by my not studying Literature and Creative Writing😀

    1. I was having a chat with a friend of mine about these movies, just yesterday – consensus was that the studio decision to spread them across three films almost certainly contributed to the train wreck. And I KNOW that Jackson et al have the chops to write properly structured stories! The epic-scale approach would have been brilliantly suited to almost any of the tales out of The Silmarillion & one can but lament the decision of the Tolkien estate not to release the film rights.

      1. I actually thought while watching the third film that it would have been better had there been only two. But then the studios wouldn’t have made so much money.

        Would you believe I still haven’t read the Silmarillion? I own it. I’ve started it many times. But I’ve yet to finish it. I always seem to get sidetracked when I try. There are a few books on my shelf like that.

        1. It’s very different from LOTR or The Hobbit – Tolkien in full epic/myth mode. Definitely hard to access in places but I figure plenty of scope to translate all that into the more populist visual style Jackson uses.

  2. I’ve got nothing to add except that I think this happened in the second movie, early on. Perhaps the director’s edit will be better, but there’s really no saving the barrel scene, I fear.

    1. Exactly – and we can hope. The first movie, for all its padding, at least followed the original narrative in a sort-of form; and the Gollum scene was sublime. But then – well…er…

  3. Reblogged this on quirkywritingcorner and commented:
    I particularly like the point that “plots move in dramatic rising waves until the final climatic scenes when both the plot and the main character arcs resolve.” I have trouble with pacing, but if think of this point as I’m writing, I believe it will help with the pacing also.

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