What is Plot vs story and why it make Onward feel empty?

*** This post about Plot vs Story contains spoilers for the entirety of Onward, How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, The Lion King and a little bit of Moana ***

My Issue with Onward

So, I finally got around to watching Pixar’s newest film, Onward. I was quite looking forward to watching it because it sounded like the sort of film that would be right down my alley, even with all the backlash it’s gotten. How could I not love a film about siblings working together to battle through a dangerous world to get their dad back from the dead. I love films about siblings and family, and tend to enjoy adventure in films too, so it should have worked for me. As you probably guessed from the title though, that unfortunately wasn’t the case…

I didn’t hate it, but I just came away feeling underwhelmed. Yes, the ending was fulfilling and the climax was great, but when I thought back to the middle section I just felt like I was looking back into an empty void. I can remember some parts of it if I think for long enough, but for the most part, the middle and beginning of the film were just very dull. The weird thing though, is that for some reason the ending of this film really grabbed my attention and made me feel connected to the story in an emotional way. This was also the case with other films such as How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, they all seem to grab me at pretty much the same part, from the climax, or basically the 3rd act, onward (I’m not sorry).

Onward has a great climax scene!

It’s not just the emotion

At this point you might be thinking that I’m just going to say that there weren’t enough emotional scenes during the film… and yes that’s partially right, but that’s not the only issue, as with most things the answer isn’t binary, but I’m getting ahead of myself. At this stage I was just thinking this whole issue through, there must be a reason behind the boring beginning and middle and exciting ending trend, and then it came to me! I thought that it’s probably something to do with story vs plot, not that I knew the difference or anything, but it just sounded right. As you shouldn’t just run with something because it sounds right though, I decided to investigate more.

I wish that there would have been more of this in the rest of the story

So, what is the difference between plot and story

The weird thing is that I still liked aspects of the film, I liked the hybrid magic/normal world of whatever the town in Onward was called, and I could empathise with the Onward characters. I also liked the concept of magic that they had in the film… there was still a lot of things that the films did right. Ok though I’ll stop rambling, Plot vs Story, what’s the difference. Well isn’t that a question that is way harder to answer than I thought it would be.

I honestly still can’t believe this, but people can’t make up their mind. Even worse when they give their definitions, they talk as if their definition is the absolute definition. So while I was researching this topic, I was there thinking that I was going crazy until D4Darious came and said that this debate is an actual thing. There actually isn’t a definition that everyone agrees on for two of the fundamental aspects of a film! So what I am going to do, is that I’m going to try and separate what the majority of people say into two sides. Then I’m just going to run with one and then say how that relates to Onward.

D4Darious’s video on Plot vs Story

Side 1

On side 1, story is kind of like the finished product for everything, including the music, characters, voice acting, plot, an outline for a story, and everything else that’s in a story. The specifics for what are happening are under the plot, whereas the outline is in chronological order of what happens and is very vague, so vague in fact that it can be used multiple times for different stories. For example, I imagine the story outline for Onward would be the following:

The outline could also contain parts that are cut from the story, or weren’t planned to be put in the story in the first place but were still thought about. So, who knows, there may be some details that they thought about that they never even made public. Alongside this the characters and themes will likely have been decided upon, but there are still a whole load of questions on the table.

Question Examples:

  1. Why was only a part of the parent brought back?
  2. What made the characters care to go on the journey that they went on?
  3. Why does the parent have to leave at the end of the day?

This is a good thing because having a story that leads to a lot of questions gives a lot of room for building a solid, unique plot, or in the case of TV shows this could also allow for multiple plots to be made within the same world. For example, in BoJack Horseman, which I’ve recently been making my way through.

BoJack Horseman story outline:

  1. An event happens that causes an issue
  2. The first event leads to another issue happening
  3. The first issue is resolved while the second is usually getting worse in the background
  4. The second issue gets resolved
  5. There’s a new normal where issues from that episode then effect future episodes.

Being able to plot out a series like this might sound bad, but it’s very much the norm for these shows to have repeating structures. In fact, BoJack Horseman is an absolutely great show, don’t let the bad first episode put you off it’s so much weaker than everything else. Anyway, story outlines are so vague that they can even happen between different films, even though that’s not usually being their intention. For example, while it wasn’t Moana‘s main story, you could plot Moana’s grandma’s story in a very similar way to what happened with the brother’s father in Onward.

Moana and her Grandma

What is Plot in Side 1

After writers create the story outline, we can start putting together the plot. The plot then is where a writer takes the story outline, and puts it to a structure that often takes the outline out of its chronological ordering. It then structures it in a way that the crew think will tell the most appealing story. In plot we know exactly what is going to happen for that story, the plot answers all the why questions and it links everything together. So for example the question of, “why was only a part of the parent brought back” would be that Ian wasn’t strong enough to complete the magical spell so ended up losing control half way through the spell and broke the gem that allowed for the spell to happen, and since it was just the dad’s legs that were retrieved, he couldn’t speak.

Side 2

On side two, a full package contains a fully fleshed out story and plot that put them side by side in a project. Story contains the thoughts and themes, while plot contains the actions. To oversimplify the concept, story is to do with the internal and plot is to do with the external. On side 2 a story builds the world, characters and outline and the “stores” them seperately. For them, making a good overall product is usually a matter of balancing story and plot. So when someone complains about there being no plot they mean that no action happened, whereas when they say there was no story, they mean that things happen, but they have no reason to care about any of the things that are happening, there’s no connection or empathy between the viewer and the film.

When thinking about Plot vs Story on side 2, the plot isn’t what the character wants to do necessarily, but it’s what they must do to get to their desired state of mind.

Plot vs Story example in How To Train Your Dragon 3

PlotStory
Looking for the hidden worldWanting to look after Berk’s residents
Hiccup fighting back against GrimmelHiccup wanting to be a good leader
The group raiding the ship at the beginning of the plotHiccup wanting to show the world that dragons are friendly

I Want Songs are a great example of story

I want songs are also a great example of story if you follow the 2nd side’s version of this argument. The song writers intentionally devoted these songs to be an avenue to tell the audience exactly what the characters want to achieve within the film, Mulan doesn’t sing about how she wants to cut her hair and Ariel doesn’t say that she wants to become a human, instead Mulan is singing about how she doesn’t fit in with patriarchy and societal traditions and wants to be able to be herself and Ariel is singing about how she wants to be able to explore the human world and be a part of it.

Reflection from Mulan

Part of Your World from The Little Mermaid

If they did sing about what they are going to do to achieve those things before going off to do them, and it somehow didn’t sound terrible, that would have been plot. Neither of these sides is necessarily worse than the others and there may be variations here and there, but these two ways, is my interpretation, are how most people from this side think of story vs plot.

I’m going to go with side 1, although if you want to see the 2nd side talked about more in depth, here’s a video by Frustrated Jacob, fun name there, who goes in depth on that argument.

Frustrated Jacob’s video on Story vs Plot

So… Was me not liking the film plot and story related?

As my initial hunches predicted, the reason I didn’t like this film actually relates to plot vs story, that is side 1’s version of plot vs story. When I thought back to the story of Onward, the themes of not following the crowd and valuing the family you have with you, and also the world itself and even most of the characters, I do think that the Onward creators made them well. Even the outline sounded great. The plot just missed the mark for me on this and other films though.

The issue for me is that these films didn’t pull enough of the interesting things from the overall story they created to really make for a rich plot. All of the elements that could have made this film great were all there in the story, but the plot just didn’t live up to its potential leaving it feeling very generic and basic in my eyes.

As I was watching the film I was seeing stuff happening, Barley became small for some reason and the brothers were running away from fairies at another point. These points do make sense in the world, but even though they make sense, the issue is that they don’t help with the story’s themes or help bring the characters together, they just happen without much thought for why they should be happening. That’s not to say that the filmmakers didn’t make good scenes here and there, for example I loved the scene of Ian having to trust Barley and his magic while he was walking between the two cliffs to bring down the bridge. These scenes were very rare however, and that was the issue.

How they could have made the plot serve the story more and be more exciting

Maybe instead of having a mediocre car chase by some random fairies that randomly show up and contribute precisely nothing to the story, this story could have focused more on the final journey after finding the artefact that they find.

The artefact they found that lead to what most of the story should have been like

On the way the brothers could have come across more obstacles that are along the lines of the invisible floor that they could only be overcome by magic, or if they was too hard, the story could have been started with easier challenges. Also, if they had to have a car chase, why not have the car chase take place between the brothers and the cops, rather than between them and the random fairies. That way you could incorporated the brothers and father into the scene and we could have learnt more about their relationship through their interactions. So that answers that but what about a certain other question I had.

Satisfying end but boring middle, what’s up with that?

This is down to what tends to happen towards the end of films in act 3. If you think about how filmmakers typically end films after the climax, that part is the part where the filmmakers bring the characters, themes and other non-plot story elements to the forefront. At this point plot takes a step back, and really lets the rest of the story shine. Onward has an exciting climax, but the reason I believe that we feel the satisfaction is because the story showed us little hints of Ian’s development here and there throughout the film. They didn’t show as much development as they should have done, but they did show enough to let it us know it was happening, in my eyes the plot just didn’t show enough of that side.

They touched on the learning process a bit, but got distracted by stuff that didn’t contribute to the story way too much

This character development issue also extends to the relationship between the brothers, Ian and Barley. The brothers were together for a lot of the film, but when I think back to how much time that they actually spent to slow down, talk and generally develop their relationship, I don’t think there were nearly enough. The filmmakers made the time the brothers could use to interact even less by the fact that the plot kept moving over to the mum and dragon character, both of whom I thought were very forgettable, taking the attention away from the characters we are supposed to care about the most about.

They were together for a lot of it, but I don’t feel like lots of what they talked about what memorable

It doesn’t matter if it’s a “Kids film”

So, some individuals may think “it’s a kids film it doesn’t matter” as they read this. Here’s the thing, just because you think of it as a kid’s film doesn’t give filmmakers free licence for them to pump out any rubbish they want. A filmmaker that has made a bad plot, has made a bad plot whether it’s made for a toddler, a middle-aged person, or an old aged pensioner. Also you have to remember that a good plot doesn’t always mean a complex plot, take The Lion King for example, a story that I feel has a plot that interweaves really well with the other elements of the story and is overall very strong and memorable.

How The Lion King was interesting throughout its runtime

In The Lion King, the main theme of the story, although there are more, is that we build upon the people (Or animals in the case of The Lion King) that came before us, and they will always live inside us. The makers of The Lion King show these themes throughout the film, not as something that the plot heads back to every now and again, but as something that they have woven tightly into it. This theme is basically the idea behind the circle of life, it is representing the fact that the animals and plants that lived in the past, and then died, were needed to keep the species going. Whether they were there to be food that’s eaten responsibly, be support, be past rulers or the parents or a combination of the above, they were all important.

The Pride Lands

The direct comparison with the Elephant graveyard, only helps to enhance the theme because that’s a world where the circle of life isn’t a thing. It’s a place where the characters have no regard for maintaining any sort of balance or contributing in any way that would make the world better for future generations. As viewers progress through the story, we get the talk between Simba and Mufasa the characters talk about this theme directly and then later after Mufasa death, that scarred so many of us, that message is constantly there within the film.

The Elephant Graveyard

And the theme continues throughout the rest of the story

In the second act we see the internal battle that Simba goes through where he feels let down by his father and feels like he’s not being supported by those people, but still somewhere in the back of his mind he still believes that they’re there looking down at him from the stars. Rafiki then comes and literally knocks him back into gear and helps him to believe in his past relatives being there to keep pushing him forward. This philosophy is what Rafiki means when he says that Mufasa is still alive and is living in Simba, he is basically talking about his father’s lessons and general wisdom not being inside him. This then gives Simba the courage to go back and be the support that his pride needs.

Rafiki Giving Simba Advice

As you can see The Lion King is an example of a story I feel has a strong plot. It’s a plot where every character matters, every location matters and themes are woven into the plot to make something great.

Conclusion

Onward didn’t do a terrible job of having interesting location, the world it has built still had the potential to be really interesting, and bar the fairies I didn’t have an issue with any of the characters. The filmmakers just didn’t give the characters and locations the strong incorporation into the story that they should have given it, as we saw in the “The Lion King” example. What really makes this such a shame too is the wasted potential I felt like this film had, which the third act really highlighted to me, if Onward’s makers just put in a bit more of the important stuff and less of the plot points that go nowhere, they could have made the first and second act great too.

I have put the sources I used here.

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What is Plot vs story and why it make Onward feel empty?

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