I recently started watching the mini-series Under the Dome, which is based on the long, eponymous novel by Stephen King. As any constant reader of King will tell you, his stories often translate well to television or the big-screen (Misery, Pet Sematary, The Shawshank Redemption, Stand by Me).
Under the Dome does an only passable job. The other night I was watching an episode that revealed a storytelling flaw, which frustrated me to the point of making me need to write about it. The flaw is that the writers artificially create conflict between two characters despite the fact that nothing in the scene suggests conflict has to occur.
Plot and Character in Fiction
Let’s start with some basics about plot. King’s stories never lack tension and any writing coach will tell you that this is what makes readers flip pages. If tension exists on the page, readers will burn through those words to find out if it leads to actual conflict. And if it does, what will the cost be and to whom? Tension and conflict are the foundations of effective plot. It’s not simply enough for characters to simply do things. If there is no conflict, readers lose interest and they don’t finish reading (or watching) the story.
Character, on the other hand, is built on the back of the values, beliefs, hopes, fears and dreams of an individual. In fiction (as in life), no two people are the same and their differences represent the potential basis for tension and conflict.
Two people need the same resources to accomplish different goals. They will fight for ownership of the desired resources. That is conflict. Two other people are religious zealots though of different faiths. Both faiths encourage the destruction of infidels. What will happen when the two get together? You see where this is going.
Since character differences create conflict–conflict being the basis of effective plot–character differences also, by extension, drive effective plot.
Under the Dome: An Overview
Okay. So if you’re with me so far, let’s turn back to Under the Dome. A little background may be in order. Chester’s Mill is a small town in Maine (you’ve never heard a Stephen King story start that way, have you?) that suddenly gets cut off from the world by an invisible dome that seemingly drops out of the sky from nowhere.
The two authority figures in town are Duke Perkins, the town’s sheriff and “Big” Jim Rennie, town councilman. The two are not the bestest of buddies, to say the least, but when Chief Perkins experimentally touches the dome, his pacemaker explodes (set off by the dome’s charge), killing him and leaving the door open for Big Jim to take charge.
Here’s where things get interesting.
Because just about all the commentary I have read about Big Jim and Under the Dome suggests he is this malevolent, power-hungry megalomaniac. And yes, that part of him is there. He DOES kill the town pastor who knows he is smuggling propane in to Chester’s Mill to make methamphetamines. There is that, yes. Some power grabbers are completely single-minded and unsympathetic.
But Big Jim, even while he is a take-charge, get-er-done kinda guy with a dark side, truly does seem to have the welfare of Chester’s Mill in mind, or at least he thinks he does, especially following the town’s predicament of being cut off from the rest of the world by a giant dome. (Oh, and those methamphetamines? He isn’t really going to sell drugs near the town though he WILL use the proceeds to benefit the town.)
When the town is running short of water, he knows where the artesian wells are that can provide a much-needed resource. When the farmer who owns the land on which the only operating well is located decides not to share, Big Jim reminds him the welfare of Chester’s Mill is at stake. When the farmer brings in friends with guns to demonstrate how strongly he feels about his current position, Jim shows his willingness to step it up as well.
When Jim’s psychotic son locks his ex-girlfriend, Angie, up in an underground shelter, Jim frees her. He does try to get her not to tell anyone in town what happened, which earns her well-deserved disgust. But Big Jim does nevertheless let her go, and the two develop a kind of strained alliance as they try to manage the town’s unraveling social threads. The death of Rose, the local diner manager, at the hand of thugs strengthens their partnership. Rose and Jim were genuine friends, and Angie looked up to Rose as a kind of mother figure.
Jim has some fairly reprehensible qualities, but he also knows Chester’s Mill better than anyone and has access to resources. His soul and that of the town are the same. And he doesn’t, like the farmer with the artesian well, hold anything for ransom.
Plot Interferes with Storytelling
It is unfortunate that Big Jim is not respected sufficiently by the story’s writers as the flawed but complex character they have created. The writers, instead, use implausible plot devices in two scenes to minimize his rich character, and interfere, as a result, with some otherwise powerful storytelling.
Here they are.
In one of the earlier scenes in the series, Big Jim and Dale Barbara (“Barbie”) form a search team to scour the local woods for a dangerous police deputy. The deputy, in a state of stressed panic due to the dome, just accidentally killed a colleague then fled with his weapon. At a certain point in the search as the sun is setting, Barbie suggests to Jim they call off the search until the following day but Jim insists on finishing the job now. Barbie’s retort: “Why’s that? So you can show the town what a big man Big Jim is?”
There is no basis for that comment. The two men met just hours before and Jim has done nothing during their short time together to suggest he is trying to impress anyone about anything. He is, however, the town councilman and, in the absence of the now-dead Duke Perkins, an entirely plausible go-to official who might feel responsible for finding a man who jeopardizes the welfare of the town.
Okay, check. Now the next scene.
This is the one I watched most recently, which sent me running to my keyboard to pound out this blog post. The scene is also between Big Jim and Barbie. I have already alluded to the standoff between Jim and the farmer who didn’t want the townspeople of Chester’s Mill to use his well. Big Jim and his supporters, in the ensuing gunfight, win the day. At the end of the scene, Barbie wanders into Big Jim’s office. Jim offers him a celebratory drink, which Barbie declines.Instead, he suggests Big Jim might want to control the well himself. Barbie, in other words, makes it plain he does not trust Jim.
Once again, there is nothing in the preceding scene to suggest Big Jim wants the well for anything other than to have a critical resource for the town. Barbie’s comment makes no sense other than to advance a plot point of interest to the story’s writers, which is heightened tension between Big Jim and Barbie.
From the beginning of the miniseries, the writers have positioned Barbie as one of the good guys. But I honestly couldn’t help, despite his flaws, but feel a little sorry for Big Jim. Yes, the overarching arc of his character is one that will make him a bad guy. You can see that coming a mile away.
The problem is that, despite the intention of the writers to manipulate viewer opinion over the long term, the writing in each scene must stay true to what is happening in that scene and not to what the writers WANT viewers to believe.
Plot Vs. Character Redux
Back to our conversation about plot and character.
Behavior reflects character. When we watch Big Jim, or Barbie or any other character in fiction behave, we get some idea about what motivates them and what they value. Yet, in both above instances, the show’s writers introduce a point of conflict between Barbie and Big Jim that falls flat. Nothing in Big Jim’s behavior during his time with Barbie indicates he is motivated by anything other than, in the first case, a desire to imprison a dangerous man and, in the second case, to preserve access to water for the townspeople.
Writers are supposed to work their magic invisibly through the behavior of characters who inevitably clash with each other. But in this case the writers have shown their hands. They WANT something: They want viewers to have an opinion about Big Jim regardless of what the storytelling actually accomplishes.
Some might argue I’m being too elitist and that many arguments exist about the roles of plot and character in fiction. Thrillers and suspense novels, for example, arguably do little with character other than to serve as the life-support system for some deep mystery. Plot, in that case, is paramount. But while Under the Dome does propose a mystery in need of solving–how can Chester’s Mill get rid of the dome?–the town citizens face numerous problems throughout the miniseries that require them to be fleshed-out characters with their own personalities and goals.
Under the Dome is a great experiment (as so many of Stephen King’s novels are) in how communities respond sociologically to tragic events.
But the writers who developed the miniseries (which actually lists Stephen King as an executive producer) fall down on the job. They have developed some great characters. But they overstep their authority. The writers just need to get out of the way, stop worrying about plot and let their characters fight.
Given the otherwise impressive storytelling, you know they will.