Believe it or not, having repeatedly written that Story is about more than the plot (in fact, the plot is almost incidental) you’d think I wouldn’t be surprised when people still don’t get this idea. But I am still surprised by it. I know I shouldn’t be.
And it’s not just when people fully focus on the plot of something they’ve read/watched/listened to that shows this. It’s when they don’t get that stories with either minimal plot or no plot at all are in fact still stories. They just don’t get them.
I’ve been thinking about this whilst having a couple of songs from the “Cats” musical stuck in my head for a fair number of days now. I’ve confessed before how much I like musicals. But there are some musicals I absolutely LOVE and Cats is one of them. It was one of the first musicals I think I saw on stage (I started much earlier with Film musicals). This is probably why it’s in my top three.
The thing is, when I mention how much I love “Cats” (The musical – I also love cats…. but that’s an entirely different post) there are some poeple who look at me with blank faces and mutter “but there’s no story”. What they mean is that there is no plot. Even in this they are mistaken. It may be a scant plot, hung on the poems of T.S.Eliot, but it’s there nonetheless. There are heroes and villains, a battle and a kidnap, daring rescue and a happy ending. But I totally get where those folks are coming from, because for most of the running time, and in most of the songs, it’s basically the different cats/characters coming on stage and describing themselves. It’s all, “this is me and this is what I’m like”. Yes, I can see why they think there’s not much story there.
But in fact, it’s more of a story than something that’s just all plot (Soaps, I’m looking at YOU!) because story is truly rooted in characters, rather than the events that surround them. It’s the characters that draw us into a story and it’s the characters we fall in love with that keep us there. It’s the characters with their strengths and weaknesses, flaws and virtues, their desires and pitfalls that make you go back to the story over and over again. You don’t want to know what happens next just for the sake of it, you want to know what happens to those characters you like – or to ensure the ones you hate get their comeuppance. And this is why Cats is so great. It’s essentially a character study. It lets us just exist and breathe with the characters without the pressure of “what happens next?” Plus, theatrically, you’ll not experience anything quite like it – Skimbleshanks, the Railway Cat still lives with me 26 years later.
I get these same feelings when I’m in the midst of a Buffy re-watch. You see, there it is, almost in the middles of the whole saga. A whole episode of dream sequences, the episode “Restless” – the Series Four Finale. And like a dream, although there is a narrative stream (“something is after me!”) there is a whole heap of stuff that doesn’t seem to make sense at all, that just doesn’t seem like a story. Yet once again, what we’re getting here is a look at characters we know and love from a subconscious view of themselves – and very interestingly a view of how they see the other characters. Joss Whedon, creator of the show and writer of this episode describes it as a “tone poem”, an ode if you will to the themes underlying each character. A comment on where they’ve come from and clues to where they might go.
To get the inside scoop on the vulnerabilities and fears of these four characters we’ve grown to love is a genuine story goody – like a sweet treat given to us by Joss and team. To share in the deepest selves of the characters – that’s true storytelling. And it’s all really without a discernible plot – just the insane and perfect logic of a dream.
And dreams are indeed the truest form of storytelling, for we cannot lie to ourselves there.