Written by Sarah Yoon
You browse plot diagrams, wondering how to create rising action or find your story’s climax. They’re all empty terms until you dive in and bring your plot to life. When you look back from the finis, you realize that your characters drove the story to places you hadn’t outlined, making the story richer with each unexpected twist. Maybe the diagrams can help along the journey, but often your plot just needs to take a life of its own.
Diagrams help to some extent, but you just need to figure out what type of story you want to tell and try to tell it well. Here is one key question to ask yourself: is your story low concept or high concept? This will determine whether your story turns out more like Miyazaki’s bizarre character driven adventure Howl’s Moving Castle, or like the structured, Hollywood offerings.
High and Low Concept Stories
Roughly translated, high concept stories are often plot driven, because they rely on a key incident to direct the story. For example, dinosaurs attack island visitors. Or consider the famous line: “I see dead people.” These stories are high concept, and it takes little effort to describe the plot’s main focus. This style of story makes your work easy to pitch and accessible to wider audiences. However, unless you’re careful, high concept stories are prone to cliché characters and formulaic plot arcs.
Low concept stories are often character based, which makes them more difficult to explain. Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey follows the lives of an older couple in the 1920s Alaskan front, exploring a complex journey of emotional healing. Paper Towns by John Green struggles with internalized thoughts and emotions rather than an external antagonist. Summarizing the story’s arc takes much more effort, which can lead to the difficulty of overly obscure themes or inaccessible stylistic choices. The complexity, however, allows for deeper characters and greater creative freedom.
Some stories don’t fit in either category, but waver in the middle. Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick can be packaged up quite simply: a man gets out of a mental institution to deal with his past. However, the story has many subtleties and impressive character formation that defy this simple explanation. Not all stories stick to one side or the other, because the low-high concept terms simply exist to help organize and understand plot styles.
Where Howl and Sophie Fit In
In Howl’s Moving Castle, Miyazaki’s plot is highly unconventional, veering far off from the traditional plot arc. The story cannot be summed up that easily—if you’ve seen the film, try to describe it in 10-20 words. You could say that a woman cursed with old age learns to live and love, but that only describes Sophie’s character arc—a slim third of the story.
The story’s plot and characters are much more complex. As Matthew Edwards comments in Critical Hit, “You don’t get any heroes here that are perfect. You don’t get the superman style, good boy-scout personality.” Add Howl’s own convoluted arc, along with the Witch of the Waste, Calcifer, Turnip Head, and the war that underlines the entire story, and you’ve got a complex low concept plot.
Plotting Through Obscurity
The plot is structured around the characters’ growth and is propelled by a series of mysteries: Why does Howl say “There you are, I’ve been looking all over for you” when he first meets Sophie? What on earth are those blob men that follow Howl? Why does the witch of the waste curse Sophie, and how does Sophie break the spell?
Though these questions are important to the plot, the answers are quietly slipped in, sometimes only noticeable in a 2nd or 3rd viewing. As Matthew says, “It’s very complicated, it doesn’t explain a lot,” and David Hoffman comments that “it can leave the film lacking a bit of direction.” These comments point to the possibility that Miyazaki tripped up on a low concept storytelling pitfall: inaccessible stylistic choices.
Why doesn’t Miyazaki clearly explain his story? Though it may bother some viewers, he makes them work for answers and focuses on his own agenda: character growth. Viewers naturally want to fix Sophie’s curse, but Sophie accepts the change and even lives more fully because of it. As Kyle Keene points out, the characters’ curses relate to “some very strong character flaws.” The curse exposes Sophie’s timidity and frees her to express herself. Miyazaki weaves the curse’s antidote into Sophie’s character instead of letting the plot point dominate the story.
Break the Rules
Despite defying convention, Howl’s Moving Castle is one of Miyazaki’s most beloved stories. He focuses on what is right for the characters rather than giving all of the answers away. When writing your own first draft, ignore convention and see where the characters or the concept take you. Feel the natural rise and fall of tension. Howl’s Moving Castle leaves some viewers scratching their heads, but the story as a whole has entranced audiences because it is exciting, mysterious, and heartfelt.
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Image 2 – Wind Dancer by Malina
Image 3 – Hayao Miyazaki by Zobly