HowTo: Pick the Right Screenplay – Part 5

Part 5 – Plot vs Story: Why you need both in the Right Screenplay

Many filmmakers search for the most intriguing stories they can find. We come to watch indie films for this reason. Show me something I can’t find in the “lowest-common-denominator”, four-quadrant films of the major studios. Hollywood’s job is to exploit conventions. Indie Film’s job is to create new conventions.

Of all moving picture art forms, Independent Film is the exploration vehicle by which we push the envelope into subject matter that keeps us fresh. Of all these,  Independent Film carries the responsibility to feature both plot and story that is innovative, intriguing, inspirational and inventive.

What is “Plot” and how does it differ from “Story” and where do they both fit into indie filmmaking? 

Many filmmakers do not differentiate between the terms Plot and Story and I think it’s about time we did because both of these concepts are deeply important to indie film. While this definition is by no means the be all and the end all to the debate, for the sake of discussion I’d like to pose the following;

Plot is more akin to genre. It is the underlying familiar structure that supports the core of the film. One or more Plot Types may be common within a single genre. The COMEDY genre may have “Screwball”, “Romantic”, “Farce” plot lines within it. The CRIME genre may have “Redemption”, “Revenge” etc. within it.  Story on the other hand is more like the “outward facade” that wraps the plot structure. Story is the “skin”, while Plot is the “bone”.  I like to relate the concepts of Plot and Story to that of a Christmas Tree.

There are many species of Christmas Tree. Although they all have some basic elements in common, each one has unique subtleties that make it different from the others, however everyone “just knows” what a Christmas Tree should look like. It has branches, a familiar shape, it has a central trunk and it has roots. And just like Christmas Trees, genres and their related plots have  the same relationships.

Like Christmas Trees, all plots have certain elements in common (a spine = trunk, etc) and certain elements that are unique (Horror vs Drama = species). And just like these trees, they are all immediately recognizable to the audience. Even though we may not be able to accurately name the species or some may be a hybrid we are able to tell when something “just doesn’t belong”. 

If you saw your neighbor decorating a Buick for the holiday’s you would immediately know that something was wrong with this picture. If someone tried to pass off a Murder Mystery as a Romantic Comedy it would be just as obviously wrong. This is not to say that some plots can not be blended. They can, but it takes a writer and filmmaker that knows  all the rules well, before one can break or bend those rules.

Story on the other hand, is the unique design that rests on top of the plot. Story design is where most of the creativity should apply. While we may have only 25 unique species of plot structure, we can have an infinite number of stories that are built upon those plots. If 100 people decorate 100 identical Christmas Trees, we will then have 100 unique visions.  

The Right Screenplay for your independent film should have the same relationship; A familiar plot (structure) wrapped in a unique story (vision).  The term “Advancing the Genre” is what is meant by this concept. Our responsibility as Independent Filmmakers is to “Advance the Genre” that we are working in. Hollywood’s job is to “exploit the genre”. (Genre being a group of related Plot lines)

This is a critical concept for the successful Independent Film. Too often filmmakers try to make a “Hollywood Film” for an indie price. In a sense, they are trying to make a familiar plot with very limited funds. This tact is destined for failure. No one wants to spend good money to see a common plot made cheaply!

At the other extreme we see indie filmmakers who attempt to “create” entirely new plots and stories. While there is a place for experimental film, be advised there are only 1 in 1,000 filmmakers that can achieve this goal and even fewer that can make this profitable.

The Right Screenplay for the indie filmmaker is to take a familiar plot and show us this familiar structure in a new and intriguing story light. Key elements of the story to investigate are  TOPIC, SUB-CULTURE, LOCATION and main character POV.

Let’s take a look at some of the most successful Indie Films that follow this concept:

“Supersize Me” –  Morgan Spurlock’s entertaining and engrossing documentary about the fast food industry. Familiar Plot – the “Documentary Expose”, the structure of which he follows to the letter. The Unique Story is “About Me” (ie himself). Typically the TOPIC of documentaries are about anyone BUT the filmmaker. Spurlock’s twist is to make the documentary about himself, placing his own life and health on the line.

“Brick” – Rian Johnsons’ film starring Joseph-Gordon Levitt. Familiar Plot – the “Detective Noir”, however Johnson takes us into unique SUB-CULTURE of the high school teenager and effectively “dresses” the familiar “Detective Noir” structural points in terms of a teenager’s story of alienation, sexual desire and identity confusion.

“El Mariachi” – Robert Rodriquez’ thriller about an unassuming musician who wanders into a deadly situation. Familiar Plot – the “Wrong Man”, which is a favorite of Alfred Hitchcock’s. The unique twist is the LOCATION; a small mexican town and the sub-culture of its inhabitants.

“The Station Agent” – Tom McCarthy (starring Peter Dinklage), the story of a man who battles loneliness after the loss of his only friend.  Familiar Plot – the “Testing Plot” (i.e. man battles a larger than life force, such as God, fate, Death, the weather etc.).  McCarthy’s twist is to shift the POV of the main character from a “normal” POV to that of a man (Peter Dinklage) born to dwarfism.  The irony being that the character’s limitation is not his small physical stature but his  “small (limited)” POV of other people.  Dinklage’s character “passes the test” when he learns to accept other people in his life.


 There are arguably a limited number of unique Plots that are germane to all human beings. There are an infinite number of Stories that can be wrapped around these limited number of familiar Plots. Hollywood’s job is to exploit the existing conventions of  familiar plot ( and genre) . The Indie Filmmaker’s job is to “Advance the Genre” by creating unique stories to present these familiar plots in a new light. Indie Filmmakers can advance these plots by investigating new areas of key story elements (Topic, Sub-Culture, Location and POV) which make the familiar structures “fresh and interesting”.


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