12/10/2012 11:54 pm ET Updated Feb 09, 2013

The Plot Thins: Mythos in Movies

Between seventh and 12th grade, I think I read Aristotle's Poetics in at least three different classes. For those of you who were absent those days, the Poetics is a brief analysis of what works and doesn't work in the presentation of dramas. Aristotle listed six fundamental elements of any good drama, and at the top of his list was mythos, or plot. Every time I studied this list, I thought that can't possibly be right. Surely theme, character arc, metaphor or onomatopoeia were more important than plot. I mean, those things were on the test. The plot was just the story. If you repeated what happened in the story on the test, you usually got a D.

I've come to decide that Aristotle was a pretty smart guy and that plot, in both content and structure, matters quite a bit. I also have come to decide that we live in an age where plots have been greatly degraded. It's no secret that 21st century Hollywood values spectacle (to Aristotle, opsis) above plot, and pretty much anything else.

I was leafing through my Entertainment Weekly recently (yes, I read Entertainment Weekly. Get over it), and noticed that five of the 10 movies in the "Critical Mass" section had composite scores from critics of an A-. That's huge. Must be a great year for films. Then I started thinking about the movies themselves...

(Note: I am about to criticize some movies that a lot of people, some of them critics, really love. So let me say up front that I actually like all of these movies. They have a lot of good things in them and are mostly enjoyable. That's not exactly the point.)


Everyone loves Argo. It's exciting and feel-good and it shows an America that can combine espionage and entertainment to beat the evil in the world. And in Canada, we have a great Robin to our Batman (with nationalized medicine to boot). But -- as we approach a key moment toward the end (the end of Act II for you screenwriters), our hero, Tony Mendez is told to abort his mission and abandon the six Americans he is trying to rescue. Tony is not happy. He asked these people to trust him. He gave them his word. In order for this moment to work best, we (the audience) and Tony (the character) should have developed close rapport with the six stranded Americans. But due to plot structure decisions, those people have barely been on-screen. Neither we nor Tony really have any reason, beyond their emblematic situation, to care about them. The emphasis on the Hollywood adventures of John and Lester, which is highly entertaining, took up some of the time that we would normally have been bonding with the hostages.

Silver Linings Playbook

Two dynamic lead performances by two of the best relatively young actors we've got these days. Great characters. But -- the plot turns on such a ludicrous proposition -- that Pat Sr. and his gambling buddy would care at all about making a parlay bet on a football game and the outcome of a dance competition they didn't even know existed five minutes earlier -- that is hard to take seriously. I knew a writing teacher once who talked about "the props of your story" showing. The props hit you in the face here.


Skyfall is a better movie than Law Abiding Citizen. But -- I'm not sure that absolves the writers from lifting the second act of their plot from that 2009 film. The new Bond is intentionally derivative of old Bond, and that's kind of fun. But the opening recalls Bourne and the midpoint recalls Silence of the Lambs and the entire movie, as much fun as it is, doesn't rate high on the originality scale.

Life of Pi

I'm a very big Ang Lee fan. I think he's the closest thing we have to Jean Renoir working these days. Adapting Life of Pi was a monumental task and I really have nothing bad to say about the plotting of the challenging story. Sure, it took a little too long to actually get Pi and Richard Parker onto the lifeboat, but I'm giving that a pass.


Haven't seen it. Sorry. So I'll sub the B+ rating...


Like Silver Linings Playbook, Flight is an excellent character story acted by one of the best we've got. But -- the first act shows us a brilliant plane crash. The rest of the movie shows us the internal struggle and ultimate crash of the hero. First acts often serve as promises to an audience of what the movie will deliver. By loading so much action and incident into that first act and then not reaching that action level again, the movie doesn't deliver on that promise. I'm not usually a fan of non-linear structure, but this strikes me as the perfect candidate. Show a little bit of that crash in sequence, and then space out more and more of it via flashback throughout the rest of the story so that Whip Whitaker's heroism during the crash is finally juxtaposed with his collapse during his hearing.

OK -- accuse me of nitpicking is you want. Defend these plot choices. Or go after Aristotle's original ranking. Better yet, just tell me a really good story to shut me up.