Jul 19

The Basics of Plotting

By definition, plot is the construction or linking together of events which tell a story. In its most basic form, there are three parts to it (1) the beginning, (2) the middle, and (3) the end. It’s like a joke, except that a basic joke is said to have just two parts, (1) the set up and (2) the punch line. In fact, the set up of a joke is the beginning and the middle which leads to the end.

Like a joke, if you give away the ending first, there’s no pay off or satisfaction because the audience knows where the joke is going. We’ve all known people who will ask if you’ve heard the joke about such and such (the punch line), and if you say, “No,” they then tell you the joke but you’re already ahead of them and know where the joke’s going. So, when the teller of the joke delivers the punch line again, it’s not very funny.

The same is generally true with a story (although there are exceptions). Knowing the ending, unless the story teller is very clever, the audience knows where the tale is going before the teller gets there.

Both good story telling and joke telling involve a surprise at the end. With a joke you require the audience to make a leap to connect double meanings to the words of the punch line, or to infer actions only vaguely referenced in the set up. The best story tellers are constantly surprising us with what’s in each event or scene, where each scene or event leads us, and ultimately to an unexpected conclusion that both surprises us but also satisfies us given all the information of the events, places, characters, actions, and dialogue of the story.

Wit in the dialogue, contrasting locations, costumes, characters, and their actions all make for a more interesting story than A meets B, A falls in love with B, and then A and B live happily ever after.

If A meets B and they take and immediate dislike to each other, then A and B are stuck together because of unexpected events, and finally A and B discover they are perfect for each other in spite of everything they both thought or believed because of something that happened when they were together, this is a more interesting story.

Still if you change the ending of the story so that A falls in love with B and asks B to marry A, but B refuses, then A kills B and himself, that’s more surprising. It’s not necessarily a more satisfying story but the twist would be unexpected.

If you add another character, C, to the mix, you could have a tale where A meets B and dislike each other, C decides to put A and B together, and then A goes off with C, you have another twist.

Here’s the first point. Stories are about one character; A. You may have A, B, and C who all go to Paris to find love and we may follow all three stories, but A is our principal character. We need to be more interested in A and concerned about what happens to A no matter what happens to B and C. You can only have one main character. All the others are supporting players.

The way you find out who is you’re A character is to find out which of your characters makes the major decision, takes the most significant action in the story. If A meets B, and then A and B are thrown together by C, and in the end, B and C run off together, this is not A’s story. It’s really B’s story – or even C’s.

The story of Abraham Lincoln is NOT the story of John Wilkes Booth. Now we’re into the world of fiction vs. reality. If you’re trying to tell the story Lincoln’s assassination, it’s not Lincoln’s story unless he makes the decision to put himself in harm’s way that leads to his own killing. In the key scene of this story, who does the doing? Lincoln or Booth? Lincoln is the receiver of the action, not the actor, not the doer.

Even in stories about hesitant heroes, like Hamlet, the story moves forward only when the main character make a decision/takes an action. It is this character’s story because he is doing things, taking his life in his hands for better or worse, and altering who and what he is. That’s the second point. Good stories are not about victims who have things done to them but about those to take hold of life and make things happen.

In classic playwriting, one way to look at it is that the story begins once A, the main character, makes a decision/takes an action involving the second character, B.
Romeo falls in love with Juliet.

This sets up the major dramatic question of the story. Point number three is, what is it we want to know in the story – what’s the major dramatic question? In the case of Romeo and Juliet, we want to know if they can ever find happiness?

Then next significant plot point is another action taken by A with B that creates even more conflict in the story and deepens the major dramatic question.
Romeo marries Juliet.
Still we have the same dramatic question but now it has more meaning; can Romeo and Juliet ever find happiness?

The next turn in the story is when A makes a decision/takes an action with the third character, C.

Romeo kills Juliet’s cousin Tybalt in a sword duel.

Now the major dramatic question has been answered. Can Romeo and Juliet ever find happiness? No, not in this world.

All that is left is the acting out of end of the tale.

Again A takes an action/makes a decision with B.

Romeo thinking Juliet is dead, kills himself.

The major dramatic question is answered in stone. No, Romeo and Juliet can never find happiness in this world.

In reaction, Juliet kills herself, but this is anticlimactic because the major dramatic question has already been answered.

Plots are about three people, A,B and C. A can be the good guy but we must care about him and what he does even if he’s a gangster and a killer, and B can be the bad guy or B can be to love goal of A as in Romeo and Juliet. Basically A wants something and B is somehow preventing him from achieving it (Juliet prevents their happiness because of her family’s hatred for Romeo’s family). C is the third character in the mix that impacts events and ultimately is involved in the course changing scene of the story.

The major actions of the story are taken between A and B with A always being in charge. The action with C is one time A acts significantly with another character, but again it is A who acts upon C, not the other way around.

Bottom line, plots are about events, actions, decisions made by a main character, which the audience cares about, not actions received by this character. These key actions are with a second character. A significant scene in the story involves the main character with a third character that bring about a major twist, reversal, or turn in the story. Then the tale ends in a final action involving the main character and the second character which is both unexpected but satisfying because of other events and information in the story.
Your challenge in plotting is to get from an exciting, engaging, or somehow arresting beginning, through the middle were a lot of character development, back stories, and general information and even philosophy are given to the audience in ways that keep the reader/viewer engaged, and arrive at a non-predictable ending that is true to everything which has come before it and still both satisfies and amazes the reader/audience.

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