This is by no means an accredited assessment of how plot and story works, but it is a good collection of principles I’ve discovered. I’ve written short stories, novels, feature-length screenplays, short screenplays, and graphic novel scripts, so I’ve played around with the concept of plot in a lot of different ways.
What I’ve found is that there are some key principles that one should focus on in order to have strong plot. Each of these can be view as an arc. Whether or not these are outlined or planned (and each writer has their own system and their own different levels of preparation need), they will be present (unless the story is extremely strange):
- Story Structure: There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. Things happen. This could be called the external conflict.
- Character Motivation/Obstacles: What the character wants changes throughout the story, as does what stands in their way. This could be called the internal conflict.
- Relationships: Who cares about who in this story.
Meta plot elements. I
won’t elaborate on these, but they’re good to keep in mind:)
- Underlying Message: You are human, with an agenda. Whether you like it or not, this will be an issue.
- Reader/Audience Expectations: Manipulating the audience is key to delivering powerful stories, but this is more of an improvised dance that your story does with them. It’s a much less precise art (unless you’re Shakespeare).
Each of these manifests both generally and specifically. Meaning, they can be seen as 1) nebulous, over-arching elements of the entire story; 2) inferential, menacingly immanent influences that push things forward across sequences; and 3) critical, almost-concrete elements that drive each individual scene.
Let’s define some key terms, because things can start to get really technical really fast:
- Plot: The over-all plan or outline of the story, from beginning to end
- Plot point: an incident in the story that causes severe change in characters’ motivations, in the story’s conflicts, or the rules of the world.
- Scene: A series of actions in a specific place and time. Jack Sparrow spars with Will Turner in the blacksmith shop. Onboard the Millennium Falcon, Han Solo tells Obi Wan that he doesn’t believe in the force.
- Sequence (film)/Chapter (novel): A string of scenes forming a discrete story chunk, or “beat.” Andy Dufresne escapes from Shawshank. Buzz Lightyear discovers he’s a non-flying toy. Sequences in a film can range from a single scene to multiple scenes, but chapters in books tend to be about 2,500 to 10,000 words and are usually all about the same length in a given novel. Chapters also can contain multiple story beats.
- Act: A string of sequences making up a full movement in the story, where character motivations remain fairly consistent. Neo tries to find out what the Matrix is. Ana searches for Elsa. Everyone is generally moving in a particular direction and the world around them follows a certain set of rules. In movies, an act is usually 20-90 minutes, with the first and last acts usually being shorter (about 30 minutes). In novels, it’s a bit less predictable, but tend to be around 10,000 to 50,000 words.
So, with that out of the way, on to the first element of plot. Here’s Freytag’s pyramid, often used to explain the traditional structure (via Wikipedia):
Act I is the introduction (or “exposition”), which ends with a plot point that leads to Act II. The second act begins with rising action that leading to the climax. The latter half of Act II is the falling action. Falling action ends with the anticlimax, which leads into Act III (the “denouement”), which has the resolution and ending.
Western storytelling doesn't follow this as format as much as it used to, especially in the second half. I’m not sure if he was the cause, but the beginnings of a switch in dramatic structure can be seen very clearly in Shakespeare’s work.
In a Shakespeare play, there’s still a climax near the middle of the story, but contained within this climax is a twist, something unexpected.
In Much Ado About Nothing, for the first half there’s a bunch of frittering around with this person in love with that person and what-not. Romantic tensions gradually rise, until Don John tries to trick everyone into thinking that Hero is sleeping around. Everything crescendos when Hero’s father falls for the deception and condemns her in a blast of rage. What was just a story with playful flirting and gossiping escalates suddenly into the near collapse of a family.
Modern film has shifted the dramatic structure even further, but it’s still centered around this transformation of the “climax” into the “midpoint twist.” The middle of the story is no longer the peak of action, though, instead becoming a peak of success. It is the point where the hero is winning, where it seems goals will be achieved.
The twist then robs the hero of this position and leads to an emotional decline. The stakes begin rising higher and higher and hopes drop deeper and deeper, until the story ultimately reaches the plot point that is now the staple of western storytelling, the low point, or reversal.
In most films, there will be one mid-point twist, followed by a low point. In longer films and in novels, however, there can be multiple twists and reversals, often disguised as false low points. This is why longer films and novels usually have more than just three acts.
The lower the low point, the stronger the story will be, in theory. The more miserable, the more hopeless, the greater the failure, the better. This brings in the last act of the story, where the hero will attempt to overcome this situation with varying degrees of success.
Because of all this, the plot arc has morphed into something more like this (animation story artist Francis Glebas refers to this as a “dragon weave,” due to the swooping nature of the arc):
To the untrained observer, a story is a series of actions, one leading to the other. But good stories have good characters, and good characters feel real. It’s those real characters making believable decisions that create those actions that make up the story.
So, just as important as mapping the actions of a story is mapping out the character’s motivations. What do they want? Why? What is standing in their way? How different is what the characters want from what they need?
The tension between character wants, needs, and obstacles is the framework beneath, holding up the story. Without it, the story will feel fake, boring, extremely cliché, or all of the above.
There must be an awareness of this tension at every level of structure, from the over-arching plot all the way down to each individual scene. At the very least the main character's tensions should be outlined.
Character motivations can sometimes appear unclear or subdued, but they can not be either of these things to the writer. However they are presented to the reader/audience, below the surface they must be very real. On an episode of ScriptNotes (a popular podcast for screenwriting), visiting screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna said that one must “harden the wants” of the characters. Clues need to be dropped, concrete ones. Make the reader/audience want to figure it out, if it isn't made clear right away.
The simplest way to track this is to note what’s changed at each plot point:
- Hook/introduction (enter Act I):
- What does the character want?
- What are the obstacles?
- Call to action:
- Which choice does the character want to make?
- What stands in the way of them making either choice?
- Point of no return (enter Act II):
- How have the character’s wants changed?
- What are the new obstacles?
- How will the new goals be pursued?
- Midpoint twist:
- How will the new obstacles be dealt with?
- Low point (enter Act III):
- What is the greatest goal?
- What are the greatest obstacles?
All these details can be mapped out for any character. It's very helpful to do this for the antagonist in the story, as well as the protagonist.
A arc within stories that isn’t talked about as often is the ebb and flow of how close different characters are to each other. This is similar to character motivation, but has an entirely different dynamic. If the hero is in love with another character, then that character is an element of the hero’s wants. But relationships, both in stories and in life, are far more complicated than that.
Mapping out the relationships of the characters around your hero is extremely helpful in having realistic stories. Why do love triangles always feel contrived and annoying? Because the writer didn’t plot out the relationships and instead relied on one of the most over-used tropes in the universe.
And this isn’t just an issue of romantic relationships. The complex feelings and mistrust held by Harry toward all the adults at Hogwarts dictate nearly everything that happens in the stories. The relationship doesn’t even have to be with a “living” thing. One of the key relationships on the show Lost (at least in the first two seasons) is between Locke and the island.
To quote McKenna again, as the writer goes through their story, they need to constantly be asking the question:
- “What is the most important relationship?”
It allows one to look at the story from an entirely different perspective, revealing motivations and might be unclear to the writer and the character. From this, the weaving together of all the different relationships can be mapped out.
This becomes especially useful when a story has a lot of subterfuge and intrigue. Without a logical ordering of relationships between people trying to manipulate each other, their actions and reactions may not be believable.
Don't Go Crazy
I feel like it would be important to mention that it's not necessary to outline every single one of these things I've pointed out. These are all tools, and a lot of them a writer keeps track of in their head anyway. But, if something isn't working, going over these details can help reveal what needs to be fixed. Even just keeping these tips in the back of one's head when planning out a story can very helpful.
And the last thing I would want to have happen would be for this to turn into a gigantic intimidation; something that keeps someone from writing at all. You don't have to have any of this planned out to start writing! If anything written here doesn't help, ignore it. And before anything else, just keep writing.