The other night I went to the West End to see Mike Leigh's new film, Another Year, and where we had an audience with him afterwards. I'm a huge fan of Mike Leigh - Abigail's Party and Nuts in May... His films start off with a skeleton script and they develop, shoot and direct all at the same time. This is a bold process but I think that is why his characters feel so organic and real with edges of untidiness. When you see this film there isn't much of a plot - it is, surprise surprise, about another year that rolls by, and how if at all, the characters change (some of them don't and there's a poignancy in that). It is intensely gripping, beautifully shot, and with the characters at the core.
As writers we can learn from this film: how to unearth a character and make even the most unattractive ones sympathetic, how to bring heart and warmth into a story to balance out the dark. With a story, without character - even with the best plot in the world - unless we care about what happens why bother reading it?
When we talk about internal conflict versus external conflict or emotional versus plot arcs we're discussing how the external plot impacts on the emotional arc and forces the character to change. This is vital for your protagonist and essential in most genres such as children's and women's commercial (not so necessary for thrillers but there still should be a character we're gunning for). So, while I adore a page-turning edge-of-your-seat plot, even in my own writing (cowgirl romance) I must not get carried away with the thrills of herding cattle and knife throwing (and yes, I can do both) and forget about my character and the emotions she is forced to go through, and how the plot should constantly test her core problem or goal. This is established at the beginning of the story and could be a fear of being loved or a need to find a sense of home - that even the character may not be aware of - but where by the end she has overcome her fear or achieved her goal.
In Another Year the characters shift but not in the way that you would expect (I can't give the story away now, can I?!) where you can practically see the feelings gnaw away under their skin and where there is more said in what is not said that is often contradictory to the dialogue. It's a masterpiece and I highly recommend it to all you writers out there. As an editor, though, there were a few incongruities, some stray characters that didn't really serve a purpose and one or two scenes that were overlong but, hey! who am I to judge...
[By the way, I've been trying to get a DVD copy of Nuts in May and there are none available. If anyone knows how I might get hold of one please let me know - it's an all time favourite].