“Which story feature do you value the most: plot, character, or setting?”
I was asked this question once in a creative writing course, and for me, the ranking was instant.
Plot is difficult to maintain and more times than not ends up being inconsistent.
Setting, when capitalized on for details, can play an immense part towards establishing realism.
Characters are what really count—anything else is expendable but you can’t slack on layered characters. They’re what you’ll remember years from now, long after the specific twist and turns are forgotten. They are the reason you’ll continue following even the most questionable story arcs, because you care about what happens to them.
For me, television is the creative medium that most shares these sensibilities. Certainly it would be an overgeneralization to claim every program fits such a mold (nor should setting or plot be undervalued), but overall the TV show format exhibits a greater natural agreeableness for character development. It’s an advantage cultivated from the knowledge that, given a renewal at season’s end, you will be following these same people over years of episodes. That means life changes, transformations, triumphs, breakdowns, and everything in between. Show writers can take their time divvying out information because they have more time. Characters can grow into actual full-fledged human beings with that level of long-term commitment to their backgrounds. Nuance is required when you hypothetically have unlimited airtime at your disposal, to talk about these same individuals’ lives.
Yet where television has risen in my esteem, movies have gotten spoiled. That is to say, I’ve become less able to accommodate to the speed required in cinema to tell a story. Narrative devices like time lapses or flashbacks occasionally help get around length limitations, but such loopholes can merely be stretched so far. There’s still only an average two hours to get from point A to point B, making it either impossible or at least very difficult to pull off the same level of character development achieved on television.
There also can be a greater pressure to cave to narrative cheats in film, like stock personalities or overly-spelled-out interior monologues that don’t actually get put into words in real life. TV has their explication scenes, too, but in a movie they can be more noticeable due to the rush (and necessity) of story progression. Transformations have to happen now or never, because once those credits start rolling, it’s over. Film endings have greater permanence. Excepting the occasional sequel or trilogy, these characters aren’t coming back on screen again.
But sometimes, a movie comes around that makes you step back in awe and be reminded of what can be accomplished in cinema—that any doubt in films’ ability to create complex characters is ill-founded. In refusing to handhold the audience, first time director, Yann Demange’s insular war film ’71 manages to create an entire cast of memorable characters through solely their short interactions with the movie’s lead.
‘71, which is running on limited release, is a tense Irish thriller set during the The Troubles about a British soldier, Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell, Unbroken), who gets assigned to Belfast. While trying to placate an angry crowd in the Divis Flats, right on the border of the ongoing conflict between the Catholics and the Protestants, he gets separated from his troop. He is then forced to spend the majority of the film trying to find his way back to his barracks without getting killed first by one of the many folks, IRA and British alike, out looking for him. O’Connell does an impeccable job with a role that is especially remarkable considering how little he actually gets to say—his reactions are quite efficient at expressing the toll of his sudden nonstop confrontations with danger, where every ounce of restraint is needed for him to keep moving forward towards that chance of survival.
It would have been very easy for a movie like this to rely completely on its compelling set-up. It would have been very easy for a movie like this to revert into good versus bad simplicities—the honorable British soldiers fighting the good fight against the evil, gun-wielding IRA member antagonists. Fortunately for viewers, if not the protagonist, there are no clear-cut morality lines drawn in this movie. Alliances and understandings of who’s on which side, and whether that side’s on our lost soldier’s side, are constantly being muddied, removing any possibility of trust. No one is safe. Everyone is trying to stay alive, and sometimes that means doing the right thing (or knowing what the right thing to do is) gets complicated.
Complicated situations generate complicated characters and, despite the speed of events and the direness of the situation, this story takes the time to develop even its most minor characters. Strangers interacting with Hook for the first time are not forgettable faces in this whirlwind of a night. You grow invested in them, making their occasional deaths painful instead of “routine casualties” in a violent time.
Such a feat is accomplished not only by some strong performances all around but by a recognition that the smallest throwaway line can add an incredible amount of depth and understanding to a character’s motives, making them tenfold more interesting and compelling. Like a short story, glimpses of their individual backgrounds are provided. Watchers are forced to play an active role in catching these snippets—making connections on their own and filling in the blanks. Full explanations aren’t offered.
For example, towards the beginning of the movie Hook goes to pick up his son at some kind of boarding house (actually not sure their relationship’s ever confirmed but it’s heavily implied he’s his son). We don’t know why the little boy’s staying there, or what happened to his mother, or any other relatives that could’ve been watching him while his dad was on duty. In any case, when Hook is late bringing the boy back, the man who buzzes him in at the door tells Hook, “You of all people should know better.” Easily forgettable? Maybe, but that one line of dialogue implies that Hook stayed at that home, too, growing up, and his lack of family support then has continued into his adult years. Such details might not add a lot to the A-plot, but the very fact that this information could have been left out makes it important. It’s the inclusion of these small tidbits that raise the movie from good to great.
For some moviegoers, this kind of hinting, allowing things to remain unsaid, can make them crazy. When hinting happens on a television show, it’s different because there’s an expectation that somewhere further down the line these questions will be answered. Hinting on television creates anticipation and rabid enthusiasm for those future segments. If a one-off movie makes hints (and for both creative and monetary reasons this independent film doesn’t scream “impending sequel”) they will always remain in that condition.
It takes cojones to commit to such a stylistic approach, because you always run the opposite risks of either ostracizing your audience or saying too little. In my opinion, ’71 succeeded at keeping the perfect balance, arousing curiosity and continued speculation long after the closing scene.