In fiction, sometimes a creative premise isn’t enough. By sometimes I mean almost never. Any story should have a purpose to its existence other than showing an audience something that’s never been done before. Let’s face it. Anyone can do something like that.
Here. Watch. A intergalactic space traveler shaped like a giant strawberry frosted cupcake teams up with a dinosaur-kitten hybrid in order to fight a chain of video game critics exposed to a disease that turns them into flesh eating gerbils. There. Done.
But in that mad stew of, well, madness, where is the purpose? What is the story hidden beneath the insane plot?
In an earlier post, I commented on how plot is the sequence of events while a story is what those events mean. At its core, the original Star Wars trilogy is about a father and son in conflict over old vs. new ideals before the father embraces his son’s outlook on life and dies to protect it. John Carpenter’s The Thing is about how mistrust between colleagues sends humanity towards destruction when the man can’t band together to defeat a hostile alien organism. To Kill a Mockingbird is about that painful moment in childhood when we learn that evil is real and how that’s an important lesson in growing up. These aren’t just stories about lightsaber fights, shapeshifting monsters or lawyers protecting human rights. They have a lot more meat to chew on.
Don’t be fooled by genre, because sometimes it can cleverly. 1954’s Them still has a point apart from seeing giant radioactive ants chew people to death. Beneath the veil of a classic monster movie, Them is largely about the looming dangers of the atomic age (The ants were created by bomb tests) and how it has the potential to destroy us all. The story treats us to much more than just a bodycount and animatronics.
Sometimes the purpose of a story can be hard to spot, but even a simple message is still a message. Army of Darkness, the third in the Evil Dead series follows Ash Williams into medieval times to fight demons. He has nothing but apathy for the terrorized peasants and kings that fight the horrors he’s been facing for so long. Soon though, he changes his tune and teaches them how to fight back, ending the Deadite threat once and for all. Well, until Ash vs. Evil Dead came out. It’s a simple story of always looking out for others. It may not be much, but even something as simple as that is enough to keep a story standing.
A simple way to look at a story’s purpose is that’s what a story is trying to say. A premise and plot is just how the story says it. You can do a straight tale of international politics to talk about the dangers of nuclear proliferation, or you can have giant radioactive killer ants. There’s no shame in either one as long as you land the point well.
Of course your purpose should be delivered with tact and skill. Pokemon The First Movie clumsily tried to make itself about how fighting was bad. It did this with several massive scenes of just the characters talking about how much the act of fighting sucks. Not only is this ironic in a series based on a combat centered RPG, but just telling someone the purpose of a story doesn’t make it so. You have to weave it into the narrative.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind shall be our last example of solid delivery on a message. At it’s core, the film is about retaining the wonder of childhood all the way through your adult years. Roy Neary is a child, showing his kids how to do math by crashing toy trains and getting excited at the prospect of seeing Pinocchio on the big screen. Upon contact with an alien civilization, Neary finds a sense of belonging outside his mundane adult life and leaves this planet to find his place, flawed though his methods may be. Through the movie, talk of what it means to be a child and an adult is never uttered. Rather, Neary’s nature is shown and his character developed, giving the story a purpose.
The purpose need not be anything profound. It can be as simple or complicated as you so desire. Purpose though is an important part of a story, as it is the very foundation upon which the story and character’s are built. It’s something i think about a lot when writing. Interesting premises are seldom an issue with me. Still, there’s always that underlying question whenever an idea comes.
“What makes it all go?”
The story’s purpose is the answer.
Now I need to decode what that space cupcake fighting evil gerbils is really about. That’s hitting the presses.