When I to went Clarion, waaaaaay back in the day, Algis Budrys taught a lesson on the five beat plot (variously the seven beat plot, the well-made plot, and I’m sure there’s another dozen names for it somewhere). The five beat plot boils down to: 1) the heroine has a problem; 2) the heroine attempts a solution; 3) an obstacle thwarts the solution; 4) the heroine solves the problem; 5) validation. (There are many different names for the five segments, but that’s the essence of the thing.)
Think of stories you’ve read, stories you’ve perhaps loved. I have this dread ring of power, see. I must destroy it! We gather our team. I hit obstacles (boy, do I hit obstacles). Eventually, through toil, danger, and blood, I destroy the ring. But not only have I destroyed the ring, the quest etc. has changed me on a fundamental level. I get to vanish into the West with the elves (and does anyone but me wonder if Bilbo ever felt homesick or bored, there among the elves?). I bet you can think of a zillion works, from Austen to Zelazny, which employ this bare-bones outline.
No, the five beat plot isn’t the only way to tell a story, although I’ve met writers who believed it was. And you can hit all five of the beats and still turnout something that lies there on the page like a dead thing. But I’ve heard, a time or two, people dissing stories that use this outline as… too simple? Not artistic enough? Something. I am here to say, firmly, that just because a story does hit all five beats doesn’t mean it is somehow inferior.
Which brings me to CODA, a lovely film that has a bunch of Oscar nominations, and won a SAG award for best ensemble, and a SAG award for best supporting male actor, and a whole bunch of other awards and accolades (I think it just won some BAFTA awards, too). CODA stands for Child of Deaf Adults and specifically is used to mean a hearing child of deaf adults. So there’s Ruby, the only hearing member of her small working-class family. Since childhood, Ruby has been the family’s ambassador to the hearing world (to the extent that she accompanies her parents to even the most personal doctor visits, profanity included) will or nil she. She’s a senior in High School, and because there’s this cute guy, she signs up for chorus as an elective class, and she discovers that she can sing. Well enough that her choir teacher offers to tutor her for an audition to the Berklee School of Music. But she’s integral to her family’s ability to function in their world–she can’t just leave. Her problem is complicated by the fact that she wants to do a thing that is utterly beyond the experience of her parents; it isn’t that they don’t understand, it’s that on some level, they can’t. Of course you know, because it’s a movie, that she’s likely to triumph in the end. (Honestly, this is hardly a spoiler if you’ve ever seen a film or read a book.)
What makes CODA as satisfying as it is isn’t the plot. It’s the minutely detailed world that includes a place (New England), an industry (independent fishermen), and a family which has worked out a way of dealing with the world has unexamined costs for all of them. The characters are beautifully observed and, again, the details are wonderful–and not always the ones you expect. The performances are terrific (especially Troy Kotsur, as Ruby’s dad). It isn’t that there’s a surprise about what Ruby’s journey is–the delight is in becoming involved with these people for two hours, loving and occasionally hating them or being frustrated by them. I could tell you all the things I love about this film–that it doesn’t condescend to its working class protagonists, that Ruby’s parents are absolutely nuts about each other even after 20+ years of marriage, that Ruby’s best friend is cheerfully, um, sex-positive and the movie makes no judgments–but really, you should see CODA. It’s on Apple+, which may mean it’s not available to you now, but remember it. When it comes around somewhere you can see it, do.