Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The Godfather and the secret of plot

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Several months ago, when I first started this blog, my introductory post described the single most useful piece of storytelling advice I know. It’s from David Mamet’s book On Directing Film, and it’s so important to artists of all kinds that I’m going to quote it again:

The nail doesn’t have to look like a house; it is not a house. It is a nail. If the house is going to stand, the nail must do the work of a nail. To do the work of the nail, it has to look like a nail.

Which means, as I’ve said before, that the role of the writer is to ensure that the smallest units of the story do the work for which they have been intended—and no more. It’s easy for an author to fall into the trap of trying to make a particular moment carry more meaning than it can bear. The writer knows that he’s got a great story to tell, but all the good stuff is pages away. What to do? Maybe he hints at what’s coming with a coy aside to the reader, or puts a mood of foreboding into the weather, or inserts a discordant note into a line of dialogue, so that the reader senses that the dashing cadet will strangle the beautiful shepherdess on page twelve.

This is a mistake. Even the most intricate plot is nothing more than a sequence of individual moments that a reader experiences one by one. Each moment needs to do its own work—no more, no less. You start by figuring out the meaning of the moment at hand, e.g., The dashing cadet wants to sit next to the beautiful shepherdess. You find ways of expressing that meaning as cleanly and concisely and uninflectedly as possible: He brings her a handful of posies. (Not: He murderously brings her a handful of posies.) Then you move on to the next moment. And the next. And if you’ve done your job, that sequence of moments, written in isolation, will result—as if by magic—in a plot.

But what exactly is the “meaning” of a scene? Nine times out of ten, it’s the answer to the following question: What does the main character want? As Kurt Vonnegut pointed out the other day, it doesn’t need to be something big. It can be a drink of water. Or to sit next to a beautiful shepherdess. But each scene will work best if you structure it around a specific, tangible objective of the main character, and end it as he succeeds or fails (or, as is often better, slightly before). And the scene will be  more comprehensible, and hence more interesting, if you don’t get distracted by what’s coming next. The cadet says to the shepherdess: “Here, I brought you these poises.” He doesn’t say: “Mind if I sit next to you, because I’m going to murder you in a few pages?”

For the best possible illustration of this principle, I know of no stronger example than The Godfather. Watch it again, or read the screenplay here. The opening sequence, in the wrong hands, could be a nightmare: there’s no action, only dialogue at a wedding, and we’re introduced to something like twelve important characters in the space of twenty minutes. And yet it works beautifully. Why? Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo structure the opening, in essence, as a series of self-contained short scenes, each of which centers on a character with a clearly defined objective. Bonasera wants revenge for his daughter; Don Corleone wants Michael in the photograph; Sonny wants the FBI to get the hell off his property; and so on. For the most part, these are small moments. No real action. No violence. Not yet. But by the time the wedding is over, we know these people.

If this all looks disarmingly simple, that’s because it is. And it’s also the hardest thing in the world. One more time: Plot is a series of objectives. If you can structure each scene around an objective that the main character pursues in a logical fashion, your plot is halfway done. Tomorrow, we’ll be talking about the other half.

Written by nevalalee

January 25, 2011 at 10:18 am

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