Every story has a rewarding line of dramatic action that has a meaningful resolution
It is vital for the writer to maintain control over the story from page 1 until the final page; the control will reveal a meticulously intricate plot that may seem simplistic on the surface, but is a cleverly and complicated web of set-ups and payoffs that ultimately result in a meaningful and rewarding experience.
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, a rewarding line of dramatic action that has a meaningful resolution.
- Story is what happens.
- It is one large master event. Just as a symphony unfolds in several movements, the story is told in movements called acts.
- Structurally, a story is conventionally divided into three beats: a beginning or set up (known as Act 1), confrontation (Act 2), and a resolution (Act 3).
- The series of acts builds to a story climax, which brings about absolute and irreversible change.
- The story is the whole, it holds the plot together.
- Stories are humanity’s way of understanding our lives and the world in which we live; when we try to comprehend an event – a crime, a marriage, the fall of civilisation – people tend to investigate and explain the events in terms of story.
- We ask the basic question: What happened? Then we ask: “Why?” Then: “What happens next?”
- Human beings ask questions every moment of the day, questions about the world, about people, about ideas.
- The plot is how the what happens.
- It is the parts that make up the whole (story). It’s the writer’s choice of events and their design in time.
- Structurally, the plot is conventionally broken down into story events that are broken down into beats: a series of beats build a scene, a series of scenes build a sequence, a series of sequences build an act, and a series of acts build a story.
- There could be as little as one act, or a maximum of 5 acts, but traditionally there are 3 acts in classical design in screenwriting.
- A story always moves forward, each action caused by a preceding action and in turn causing yet another action to follow. The arrangement of this action is the plot of the story.
- Plot results from the writer making order out of the chaos; it is the intellectual side of action.
As Aristotle said:
“Plot is not the imitation of life; plot is the imitation of the action.”
The action is something that happens when something is born, develops, or dies between the beginning and the end.
- Plot will always be the least respected and resented. The raw material of plot – the extreme situations of life’s rare climaxes and violent events – is resented for its rawness; the finished plot is resented for its lack of rawness, its artificiality.
- The plot should never be detached from the meaning of the story. It should contribute to the meaning and be shaped by the meaning, the thematic purpose.
- If story is an art of extreme situations, plot is the means by which the writer gets the audience into those situations and out of them again, and creates the necessary collisions that arouse curiosity and are arranged to create suspense.
So What Exactly Is Plot?
Webster defines plot as a plan or scheme to accomplish a purpose.
Arrangement of Events
- In literature or drama, plot refers to how events are arranged to achieve an intended effect.
- A plot is constructed to make a point, to reach a climax that produces a specific result.
- 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.
- 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.
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 what a character is feeling; 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.
Plots keep stories relatable.
- We genuinely feel King Lear’s pain and loss at the end of Shakespeare’s play without liking him one bit.
- 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.
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 70 years ago.
- Plots pushed by action and not characters’ emotions manipulate the characters like puppets, making the audience less likely to embrace them.
- 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 14 Structural 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.
Copyright © 1999 – 2015 The Writing Studio/ Daniel Dercksen