So You Want To / Write an Excuse Plot
Are you tired of spending hours and hours wanting to write the next great American work? Do you just want to kick back and have the main idea set up as quickly as possible so you can get to the details, or use it to showcase a new character, special effects or gimmick of the week?
Well, wait no further; we'll show you how to do just that, with the tried and true Excuse Plot
Most Excuse Plots rely on the following tropes:
- All There in the Manual: Often in older video games due to either memory or technical limitations, or as a preference in a more contemporary work, whatever plot the game has will usually be delegated to the manual, or in supplemental material like novels and comic book tie-ins. Fighting, sports and racing video games, as well as most arcade games, frequently do this, even to this day, as the very nature of their gameplay or format frequently precludes having a strong narrative or characterization.
- Beige Prose: While an excuse plot doesn't necessarily have to be simplistic, more often than not their plots can be easily summarized very concisely, often in one or two sentences at best. In example, the story of Super Mario Bros. can be summarized as "Bowser has kidnapped the Princess and is trying to take over the Kingdom, and Mario has to save the day!" As mentioned above, many early video games usually reserved their backstory and plots for the game manual, with the conflict being implied or shown instead of being described—and when they did describe a story in-game, it was almost always a brief box of text, including very quick to the point summaries like "The president has been kidnapped by ninjas. Are you a bad enough dude to rescue the president?"
- Characters: It goes without saying, but even if your plot is a formality, a work with an excuse plot still needs an interesting, or at least appealing, character to carry it out, unless your work is meaning to showcase something that doesn't have characterization in mind, as video games frequently do.
- Dancing Bear: Often, an Excuse Plot serves as a backdrop for a gimmick that a work is built around.
- The Everyman: Because a work using an Excuse Plot is sometimes (but not always) perceived as being something that leaves little room for characterization or has a format that precludes it, characters in some works using them tend to be either one note or simplistic in personality due to this.
- Exposition: Necessary to establish the story, but frequently kept to a minimum in works using Excuse Plots, such as being delegated to the opening of a work to quickly set up what little plot the work has just to get it out of the way.
- Pizza Boy Special Delivery
- Rule of Fun / Rule of Funny: Often, a work relies on an excuse plot simply because the work doesn't warrant or need anything more elaborate.
- Sliding Scale of Plot Versus Characters: Naturally causes stories to land more on the "Less Plot Than Characters" end of it.
- Spectacle: Many, many movies and video games rely on this to hold audience interest, with the story being a setup for these grandiose centerpieces.
- Why use the excuse plot in favor of a richer, more involved narrative? In some cases, it's simply because a work doesn't warrant anything more than that, and in some cases, anything more elaborate could actually be a detriment to the work.
- Charlie Chaplin, one of the most influential filmmakers and actors in history, who made whole movies by trial and error, only used some pre-planning on his features and never a full script, said that he didn't worry about the story, knowing it would naturally grow out of the characters.
"I don't care much about story—plot, as they call it. If you have the neatest tailored plot in the world and yet haven't personalities, living characters, you've nothing."
- Shigeru Miyamoto cites this as a reason why he doesn't allow the Super Mario Bros. series to have plots more elaborate than its basic "Save Peach and defeat Bowser!" stories—he felt that anything beyond that would just get in the way of the lighthearted tone and gameplay of the series. While he's not against having games with richer narratives (his own series, The Legend of Zelda, certainly does not rely on the Excuse Plot) he feels some works simply don't warrant elaborate stories.
- Doom co-creator John Carmack likewise has similar feelings about narratives in a game. His own Doom series relies on basic survival horror plots that serve as an excuse to shoot the crap out of the legions of hell.
“Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.”
"If you like a cartoon, you might say: "I liked that, therefore it was a good story." Sometimes maybe it is, but story is not the main ingredient of entertainment. Sensations are. I've never heard anyone say, "Boy that was a great dance. I wonder who wrote it." or "Who wrote this ice cream?" These make about as much sense as "That cartoon made me laugh, therefore it was a good story." Most pleasures are not derived from story. In entertainment, story can certainly be an ingredient of the experience, but it isn't entirely necessary and it's only one of many possible things that are fun to watch, listen to and experience. I use drawing, acting, animation, sound effects, music, voice acting and every possible type of entertainment tool I have at my disposal to try to amuse the audience."
- As noted on the main page, an Excuse Plot does not imply that it is inherently a badly written, stupid or even necessarily a skimpy or cliche story. To qualify as an excuse plot, its purpose obviously has to be a formality, an excuse to showcase something else in a work.
- An excuse plot could possibly lead to a series work becoming formulaic. Even a critically acclaimed series like Mega Man (Classic) (and its follow ups such as Mega Man X) have been criticized for almost always falling back on the threat of Dr. Wily and his robots (substitute with Sigma and his Mavericks in the X series) as a plotline, only being compounded by the increasingly transparent villain twists as the series ran their course.
- The Excuse Plot could leave little, or in worst case scenario, no room for strong characterization, character development or Sub Text if mishandled, or alternatively, the lack of attempting characterization of spite of it could keep the work from being engaging. Its ephemeral nature may likely (but not always) preclude attempts at World Building as well.
- It can also be hard to introduce an excuse plot into an entry in a series that is otherwise known for not having them.
- It also has to be noted that an Excuse Plot is still a plot; it is not the total absence of a plot both in the work or in supplements to a work—that would be No Plot? No Problem!.
Suggested Themes and Aesops
While the very purpose of the Excuse Plot is ephemeral, it can lend itself well to a broad variety of plots. Some of the more popular ways to use it include:
- The pioneering films of Georges Méliès used paper thin setups for their stories (i.e. an astronomer is having a nightmare in "The Astronomer's Dream") as a means of showing off his imaginative and revolutionary special effects work.
- Super Mario Bros.: The main video games only sporadically have any story more elaborate or unique than the tried-and-true "Rescue Princess Peach and defeat Bowser!" formula. This is intentional on the part of Shigeru Miyamoto, who believes Mario doesn't need rich stories because they would just get in the way of the gameplay.
- Looney Tunes: With very few exceptions, Story is always a formality in the theatrical cartoons and amounts to little more than very basic set ups for each film, and some films, like the early Harman and Ising Bosko shorts and Tex Avery's spot gag pictures, didn't even bother with plots, instead relying on either lighthearted musical gag romps or a string of gags based on a specific theme. The conflict in the series peak year shorts are always a result of either an individual characters actions or friction between the characters personalities and very rarely from an outside conflict or influence. Chuck Jones stressed in his biography "Chuck Amuck" that the characters personalities were always given top priority over the stories;
"An idea has no worth at all without believable characters to implement it; a plot without characters is like a tennis court without players. Daffy Duck is to a Buck Rogers story what John McEnroe was to tennis. Personality. That is the key, the drum, the fife. Forget the plot. Can you remember, or care to remember, the plot of any great comedy? Chaplin? Woody Allen? The Marx Brothers?"
- Many vintage cartoons like Felix the Cat and Mickey Mouse in general aren't as much about narratives as they're variations on a comedic theme. Tom and Jerry is a perfect example of this; the shorts rarely had anything resembling real stories, relying on wafer thin setups within the basic cat chases mouse formula (i.e. Jerry is protecting a friend or his ward from Tom, Jerry has Spike the Bulldog work as a bodyguard for him, Tom gets rich but isn't allowed to harm Jerry as a catch) which in turn lead into a series of vignettes, to accommodate the series fast paced slapstick and pantomime.
- Betty Boop is an example of a cartoon series that prominently relies on the excuse plot. The films were structured like surrealistic music videos with gags and sex appeal sandwiched in.
- Despite his acclaim as a master storyteller and his legendary reputation for having anal-retentive attention to detail in his films, Walt Disney firmly believed in using the Excuse Plot in both his short cartoons and feature films, even as early as his Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons. To him, gags based on character motivation and context were what really mattered. Two of his top animators, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, verify this early in their book "Too Funny For Words: Disney's Greatest Sight Gags";
"At that time, however, even the distributors were questioning whether gags were enough to sustain a whole film and they started asking for more story. Walt, the greatest of storytellers, reacted in a surprising way. "By the time you have a story really started," he said, "it is time to iris out (end the picture), and you have failed to make the audience laugh." Obviously, in Walt's mind, the first priority in any film was the laughter, and too much story quickly became tedious. He never forgot that point throughout his whole life, constantly shying away from projects that had more continuity than entertainment."
- Disney's The Jungle Book is acclaimed as a legitimate animated feature classic, even though its plot is wafer thin. Walt Disney specifically told the story artists to not read or follow the book, and even chewed them out when they had concerns over the simplistic story, saying the characters and entertainment were more important. Animator and story artist Floyd Norman, who worked on the film, summed it up on his blog:
"With Pixar's string of successful movies it became popular among animation buffs to quote the familiar mantra, story, story, story. But, I remember it was no less than Walt Disney himself who chewed us out back during the development of "The Jungle Book." Because we thought we had legitimate concerns about the films' simple plot line. Well, we caught the wrath of the Old Maestro head on. "You guys worry too much about the story," Walt shouted. "Just give me some good stuff." And, what was that good stuff Walt Disney was talking about, you ask? Fun, humor, entertainment. In a word, Walt was speaking of gags. "The Jungle Book" didn't need a more involved story line because we already had great characters to work with. Let the humor come out of the situation, the characters, and the story will take care of itself."
The Epic Fails