In the final act of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Pt. 2, we follow two stories: the battle between Harry and Voldemort in parallel with Hermione and Ron’s quest to kill the last horcrux, Voldemort’s snake Nagini.
The constant cutting between these two stories makes the whole final act a suspenseful, fast-paced adventure. After surprising Voldemort’s army of Death Eaters with the fact that the boy-who-lived still lives, Harry and the Dark Lord stumble through Hogwarts in their desperate attempts to kill each other. As it begins, however, Harry manages to aim his friends at the last horcrux, and we watch the two struggle to destroy the enchanted snake. Meanwhile back at the ranch, the outmatched, young wizard continues his high-powered duel with Voldemort, clearly losing ground. It is not until Neville Longbottom appears with the Sword of Gryffindor to aid Hermione and Ron in their quest and slays the serpent, that Harry is able to match the Dark Lord, and ultimately defeat him.
[Spoilers for lots of movies you should have already seen]
This is the second installment to my series on great movies, and this week we’re going to talk about plot. I’m a little bitter about it, I’ll be honest with you; if there is one element of film that is overemphasized, it’s plot.
Most of us, when we talk about the movies we like, we talk about the plot—“Oh, that twist ending was amazing,” or “That story was so original.” When we talk about a movie we didn’t like, we point out all the “plot holes”—“That never could have happened,” “That movie totally stole its entire plot,” “It was kind of boring; nothing really happened.”
The first problem apparent in these sort of reactions is not realizing that plot holes don’t really matter. The universally loved Dark Knight is the prime example of this. That movie has more logic problems than a libertarian, and everyone still loves it. The same goes for 1977’s Star Wars, the poster boy for generic storytelling.
The point is: when it’s understood that internal consistency and novelty is simply icing, then you can start to appreciate the craft of writing the plot. You’ll see that groundbreaking and complex films like The Empire Strikes Back, Back to the Future, and The Departed, intricate Sci-Fi flicks or the intentionally deep work of Christopher Nolan stand alongside solidly scripted (though more straight-forward) movies like The Godfather, The Lord of the Rings, or Raiders of the Lost Ark.
For most films, their screenplay flies or falls based on one simple principle: connection. This connection can be as loose as a bouncing ball:
Pretty graphic and stuff. Also, Pulp Fiction works in much the same way.
But most of the time, movies need to be internally threaded and have a strong, progressive logic. This is sometimes called “Therefore-But” storytelling and is juxtaposed with “And then...” storytelling. And really, I can’t begin to emphasize this enough. An audience’s ability to keep track of what’s going on is paramount to the success of a film.
Consider the recent Disney hit, Moana (a gem if there ever was one). The entire film can be summed by the main character’s repeated mission statement: I am Moana of Moto Nui. You will board my boat, sail across the sea, and restore the Heart of Te Fiti. This simple mantra encapsulates the entire movie’s narrative progression. Every scene acts in service of it. And while that would be enough, every scene is bookended with the information we need—what’s happening now, and what are we trying to accomplish. (It also helps that half of these clearly defined goals are economically delivered through Oscar-worthy song.)
Arrival, another recent film, deserves a shout-out for this as well. Arrival has a fairly simple plot for most of it, and it follows that path steadily. Near the end, it gets a little more creative, but the power of the plot is in how the movie handles its sci-fi ending compared to a film like, say, Interstellar. While both are great, Nolan’s galactic odyssey can feel as if it’s reaching at times, while Arrival’s ending feels earned, each step was natural—the plot was elegant.
And then there’s the flip side.
Consider the blockbuster, Batman v Superman and this video by the Nerdwriter. In the video, the argument is made that there is a difference between moments and scenes and specifically that BvS panders to the former. The video describes moments as being inauthentic and not earned, and it doesn’t really define scene (but tries at 2:53). I think, however, the problem with DC’s blockbuster is not moments—that’s how all writers write scripts—instead, the real problem, the problem that the Nerdwriter is edging towards, is how BvS connects them. There is no internal logic to the scenes; we stumble through the plot, unsure what is happening and why. We may regain our footing in any one scene, but as soon as the setting changes, we’re lost again.
The recent addition to the Harry Potter franchise, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, struggles in a similar way. As with all Rowling flicks, the movie is lovely, but its visuals cannot save it from being a narrative mess. We are given an array of characters (some with motivation, some without), an array of plot-lines, and an array of conclusions. And somehow none of them seem to line up.
Of course there’s more to effective movie plots than the connective tissue. While economic and efficient storytelling is what most movies should strive for, there is also the possibility for elegance. A movie may decide against forward momentum and opt instead for a slower, meditative pace. No movie does this better than 1973’s Robin Hood (that’s the fox one for those who don’t fanatically memorize Disney release years). Robin Hood would really be a great example for next week’s character discussion, but this family favorite is a perfect example for act structuring, dividing a movie into chunks with discernible purpose where we can slow down and spend time with our characters.
A thousand more examples could be given for well scripted movies—Twelve Angry Men, Casablanca—but I want to mention my personal favorite, Jurassic Park. On some days, this movie really is my favorite: it has perfect plotting—it has raptor thrills; it woos us with grandeur and sweeping music; it teases us with the ancient made new, but keeps the best dinosaurs for last. It balances all of this with drama and relationships. Jurassic Park could stand as a great thriller but rather borrows Crichton’s real commentary on nature and science, and through the metaphor of birds teaches us about aging.
And Harry Potter does much of the same (it certainly helps starting with good source material). As a whole, the original series has a grand arch, a goal to achieve along with a threat to thwart. Within each film, we have smaller missions. The weakest additions to the series are, of course, those ones where that mission is ambiguous. Deathly Hallows Part 1, while generally an aesthetically potent and well-made movie, suffers from undefined goals, lots of and-then plotting, and a few too many “buts.” Part 2, though, is an entirely different matter. We end the series with the most clearly defined objective yet. We know what must be accomplished, and everything that happens leads us up to our climax, and the parallel tasks described above. Harry Potter allows time for elegance, but we know: kill the snake, kill Voldemort. That is something you can’t say about Fantastic Beasts.
There are far too many topics to discuss concerning plot—dialogue, arcs, story segmenting, parallel plots, trope usage—but the main thing to understand is that great movies do not have to be novel or complex (though it helps). Movies simply have to make sense. And part of making sense is writing a tight script, a script that the audience can follow. Sometimes the audience is allowed to wade in a scene, to better know a character, but there must be progress and there must be connection.