The Screenwriter's Column
PLOTTING A STORY NOT JUST TELLING ONE
Plot encompasses three important factors that when understood will improve every
aspect of a story.
For most people, the terms 'story' and 'plot' are synonymous. People read a book or go
to a movie and come away saying, 'What a great story!' But the reason the book or film is so affecting is
generally because the story has a great plot. (Don't think I'm forgetting about character and its
importance to a great story. I'm including it in plot as part of a well-told story.)
So What Exactly Is Plot?
In literature or drama, plot encompasses three important factors.
- Arrangement of Events
First, it refers to how events
are arranged to achieve an intended effect. (Webster defines 'plot' as 'a plan or scheme to accomplish a
purpose.') A plot is constructed to make a point, to reach a climax that produces a specific
- Causality Plot is not just 'A' happens, 'B' happens and 'C' happens. It's
'A' happens and causes 'B' to result, which in turn causes 'C' and so on. These cause-and-effect
relationships between scenes are instrumental in pushing the story action forward, as well as developing
the conflict and characterizations by illustrating the consequences of events. (In this vein the adage
'character is plot' or 'character is fate' proves true. A well-defined character's personality inexorably
demands a specific resolution, one that at the end of the story feels retrospectively inevitable. Great
works of dramatic art achieve this feeling of inevitably with regard to ALL the major dramatis personae.
Consider the fate of the major characters in stories such as Dangerous Liaisons or Reflections in a Golden
Eye. Individually they feel psychologically real and, when meshed together, the climax feels
Dramatic conflict is the struggle that grows out of the interplay
of opposing forces (ideas, interests, wills). Conflict creates tension and that awakens the audience's
instinctive desire to watch other people fight it out: we want to satisfy the intellectual curiosity of
knowing who wins, and to enjoy the accompanying feelings of satisfaction, joy and/or Schadenfreude. But
while we are vicariously absorbed in the fight, we also want to understand the nature of the conflict so
our minds jump ahead, trying to make sense of it. In the end, how we understand the resolution of the
conflict is what makes for a satisfying conclusion.
We might say this: plot is a series of interrelated actions that progresses through a
struggle of opposing forces to a climax and resolution that defines the meaning of the work.
Plot Is Building To An Emotional Payoff
Plotting is the art of bringing your story to life. Let's say you've worked out the
perfect act one climax to your story. A young man, Bernie, takes revenge on the man, Harry, who killed his
father. In scene nine Bernie goes to kill Harry but stops when he sees Harry give five bucks to a street
kid. That gets Bernie thinking maybe murder isn't the way. Now your hero Bernie is conflicted by guilt
("Am I a coward for not avenging dad's death?") and relief ("I didn't want to kill a man anyway!"). Now
you've created an internal obstacle that heightens the drama. But your first act break calls for Harry's
So in scene ten Bernie goes to his dad's trailer in the country and finds a dog his
father owned dead. Bernie sees another aspect of his dad's murder is how an innocent animal died of thirst
or hunger. Harry's murder of Bernie's dad is replayed in an emotional sense. The pain of his father's
death registers again with Bernie and he's now more motivated to go and kill Harry. Not because a dog
died, but because the magnitude of Bernie's dad's death isn't really felt until Bernie has seen, not
merely learned, the ramifications of losing his father.
The point is that even a first act curtain needs to be plotted for maximum emotional
payoff. In a pitch meeting you might say, 'Bernie comes home from the army and avenges his dad's death by
killing Harry, which in turn gets Harry's gang to go after him.' But when it comes to plotting the script,
you can't use your turning point, the structural point of the first act break, as an effective guide by
itself. Story points are the intermediate goals; plotting is what takes you there.
Plotting Is Tying Actions To Emotions
Extending one scene into several allows the emotional weight hinted at in your outline
to come to the foreground. We want the audience to understand fully Bernie's pain. But it's also more
realistic to have Bernie cope with many feelings before deciding to act.
When characters demonstrate feelings the audience shares in similar situations, the
audience feels empathy for the characters. We might not agree with or even like the character, but the
'common' reaction binds us at a human level. Nothing says we have to like Bernie or agree with what he
decides. But for us to believe what Bernie does, we have to understand his feelings. Plots keep stories
relatable. We genuinely feel King Lear's pain and loss at the end of Shakespeare's play without liking him
Not allowing for separate 'emotion-reaction' scenes is a common mistake writers make
in moving from outlines to scripts. In real life, people need TIME to assess life-changing events.
Reactions, feelings can deluge us until a 'plan' emerges for how we'll deal with the 'event.' In art, we
must make sense of the emotional chaos that ensues when dramatic episodes develop, but too often we just
want to get on with the action of the story. (Steven Sonderberg did this to great affect in his direction
of Erin Brokovich. He added small scenes where the heroine reflects on what's just happened to her and her
family. These brief moments, often only seconds in duration, significantly added depth to what might have
been a more routine, MOW-style story.)
Plot Is The Ordering Of Emotions
Plot is more than an outline of events; it is also the ordering of emotions.
Emotions make stories more compelling, illustrate motivations by creating emotional stakes, and make
characters appear more authentic. When the emotional side of a story is left out, or only hinted at,
characters feel less true and the story loses dimension. "Real characters must be given a chance to reveal
themselves, and we (the audience) must be given a chance to observe the significant changes which take
place in them," Lajos Egri wrote in The Art of Dramatic Writing seventy years ago. Plots pushed by action
and not characters' emotions manipulate the characters like puppets, making the audience less likely to
The best writers understand and use this in their plotting to make their stories more
gripping. They find the balance between event and consequence and are able to weave the tapestry of action
and emotion, the elements of plot and character, to tell page-turning stories.
We've all seen those maps of mountain ranges of the Rockies or Himalayas with
elevation points outlined for the highest peaks. Think of those peaks as the main story points in your
outline, the major turning points you want to build to. But what those maps may not show are the windy,
harsh, wind-, snow- and ice-slapped paths that carry you up to the precipice and down into the next valley
of complications. Those paths are the plot of your story, the route you must cover step-by-step to get to
your goals. Forging those paths is the only way you're getting to the summit and back down again. And the
goal really is making the trip, not just looking down from the top -- that you can do from an airplane.
Plotting your story is really 'plodding' your story ('to work slowly and steadily'). Story structure is a
map, plotting is taking the trip. Nightfall, avalanches, weather, and animals real and fanciful will try
to distract you, so set out well prepared. You can use a guru for story; for plot, find a Gurkha.
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