If you make explicit what you already know intuitively about the structure of movies and stories, you’ll have yourself a conscious plotting tool. The rhythm of story is in all of us right now, especially for those who were read to as youngsters and continue to read today.
Storytellers often intuitively tap into this rhythm and are able to weave all three plot lines without much conscious thought to structure. When they get stuck, it is always because one or more of the three elements has been ignored by:
- Concentrating on action only, forgetting that character provides interest and is the primary reason that people go to the movies and read books.
- Organizing solely around the character and overlooking the fact that dramatic action provides the excitement every story needs.
- Forgetting to develop the overall meaning or the thematic significance of their stories. When the dramatic action changes the character at depth over time, the story becomes thematically significance.
Plot Tip: The best way to become a better writer is to read a wide variety of good literature. Not only will you learn how the pros develop all three plotlines, you will discover useful tricks along the way.
Plot the Overall Story
Plot is made up of three intertwining threads:
- Character emotional development.
- Dramatic action.
- Thematic significance.
In other words, the protagonist acts or reacts. In so doing, he or she is changed and something significant is learned. Whether you are a writer who likes to outline first or to face a blank page, begin your story with a character who wants something so fiercely that she will fight for it. Thus begins both the character emotional development plot line and the action plot line. Tie the character’s private passion to a bigger, more universal public subject, and the thematic plot line is launched.
The story builds as the character confronts one antagonist after another. The six basic antagonists are: another person, society at large, nature, machine, God, and/or the character herself. A story ends when the final cliffhanger is resolved and the character has been changed at depth. Here is an example:
In the first quarter of National Book Award Ernest J. Gaines’ A Lesson before Dying, Grant, the protagonist, desperately wishes he could “get away from here.” Grant’s private fear of responsibility and his proclivity for running and hiding conversely introduces the bigger and more universal idea of how resistance and defiance of what is expected is actually heroic. So begins the thematic plotline.
Throughout the middle of the story, Grant is confronted by the gatekeepers to his freedom: his aunt, a family friend, his girlfriend, the white establishment, a man condemned to die by electrocution, his community at large and ultimately himself. Through dramatic action that is linked by cause and effect, each antagonist teaches Grant about himself, what it means to be a man, and the nature of heroism.
In the final quarter of the story, Grant, through witnessing another man’s struggle for dignity and his ultimate heroism, is changed to his core. By staying where he is needed, Grant defies the expected and becomes the hero of his own life.
In this example, working together seamlessly, are the three plot lines:
- Character emotional development.
- Dramatic action.
- Thematic significance.
The dramatic action reveals more and more of Grant’s emotional development. The dialogue and narrative and mood and character and even the details of the dramatic action, both in the tangible objects of each scene and in the metaphors they represent, all reinforce the thematic significance. For example, the school children Grant teaches drag a small oak tree through the mud to school. Though an unexpected choice, in the end, this small detail turns out to “be a beautiful Christmas tree” and reinforces the theme.
Plot Tip: Pick up your favorite book or movie and consider its theme. See if you can articulate in one sentence what the author is trying to say with her work. What techniques does the author use to prove this underlying meaning?
Plot the Parts of the Story
Every story is divided into three parts: the beginning, the middle and the end. In a movie, these parts are generally known as: Act One, Act Two and Act Three. Each of the parts or acts has specific structural parameters that are almost universal:
- The first quarter of the scenes or pages of a movie or book constitutes the beginning.
- The middle or Act Two makes up one half of the entire project.
- The end is one quarter.
- Within each part and interacting together in uniquely different ways are the:
- Character emotional development plot line.
- Dramatic action plot line.
- Thematic significance plot line.
The beginning or the first quarter of the book or movie usually:
- Introduces the core conflict of the story which becomes the basis of the dramatic action.
- Introduces all the major characters.
- Establishes most of the protagonist’s pertinent emotional and psychological plot information.
- Introduces the theme through showing details.
- Ends on a cliffhanger that propels the protagonist into the unique world of the story.
Once your characters leave the beginning, they have crossed into the heart of the story world. The middle is where the main action of your story takes place. This long, empty expanse and its many demands often appears daunting, like a huge wasteland waiting to devour the writer.
The middle constitutes a whopping one half of the entire project and is no place for the action to meander. Understand that when you hit the brick wall that often lies in wait for you in the middle of the middle, it is not you. It is the nature of the beast.
In the middle:
- The stakes of the character emotional development plot line and the dramatic action plot line steadily rise. The writer must come up with one tension, conflict or suspense scene after another, each with more significance than the last. This can be especially hard for writers who fall in love with their characters and don’t want to see anything bad happen to them.
- The highest point of the story so far – the crisis comes toward the end of the middle of the story. Each scene in the middle portion of your story serves to march the protagonist one step closer to the crisis. The protagonist believes she is marching closer and closer to her long-term personal goal. When the crisis hits, she is shocked. The reader, however, has experienced the steady incline and feels the inevitability of this shocker from the linkage between each scene and from each thematic detail.
- The energy of the story drops off for a bit after the intensity of the crisis to allow the reader or the viewer to catch his or her breath. The protagonist, confronted with a potentially life-threatening or ego-threatening situation, finally sees him or herself for who they truly are. Now he has to make a decision. Is he going to rationalize his way out of change? Or does he accept the challenge to move out of his comfort zone and risk the unknown to live his life differently for evermore?
In the end:
- Once the reader or viewer and the character have had a moment of reprieve after the crisis, it is time to start cranking up the tension and the conflicts again. The end is near. The stakes are high.
- All scenes are required to put the protagonist in situations that force him to make choices, thereby “showing“ the reader which direction he chooses.
- Each scene in the end section builds in significance and relevance through rising tension and conflict until your protagonist reaches the climax of the entire story.
- It is best if the dramatic action and the character emotional development and the thematic significance all collide at the same moment. But even if they occur in different scenes, the three plot lines must show the final confrontation of the biggest hurdle, greatest challenge, and toughest test.
- The climax does not have to be an all-out war, full of explosions and death. What this biggest and most important scene does have to have is meaning to the overall story.
In the first three chapters, which represent the first quarter of the book almost exactly to the page, Nobel Laureate William Golding’s Lord of the Flies introduces:
- All the boys.
- The major characters’ emotional/psychological information.
- The dilemma the boys face bereft of adults on a deserted island.
- The theme as being the defect of society can be traced back to the defect of human nature.
- Golding shows this theme on many different levels throughout the piece. A few examples in the beginning are:
- The choirboys marching in military fashion in such severe heat that one of the boys, Simon, faints.
- The boys immediately establish rules
- The littlest boys fear a beast looking to devour them
Plot Tip: Pick up your favorite book or movie and divide the total page count or total time of the movie by four. Now go to the section of the book or movie that represents the end of the first quarter. Look for a shift in the story that indicates the protagonist is leaving behind their ordinary world for the story world. Analyze this major transition point to find out how your favorite writer signified the passage.
The middle of Lord of the Flies begins in summary, showing that time has passed and establishing that the characters have indeed entered the heart of the story.
- Almost immediately, Jack, the boy who represents evil, dons his colored clay mask and refers to it as the camouflage used in warfare.
- Because he takes his group on a hunt rather than watch the fire, Jack and the appointed leader, Ralph, have a rift.
- As the middle portion of the story develops, more and more of civilized life disintegrates. The more the domestic order breaks down, the more the group loses control of itself.
- Within these pages, the stakes of the dramatic action and the character emotional development grow higher and higher, each with greater and greater significance.
- Near the end of the middle, the tension and conflict steadily rises to the breaking point when all the boys in a ritual frenzy turn into a mob and beat Simon to death.
- This crisis is filled with dramatic tension and represents significant emotional development for both major characters in uniquely different ways. The scene demonstrates an aspect of the theme and carries enormous energy in the story, and sets all the characters on a path from which they are not able to turn away.
- Ralph clearly sees what they did as murder and becomes frightened, fighting to maintain his civilized self. Jack becomes paranoid and even more of a cruel dictator.
Plot tip: Pick up your favorite book or movie again and go to the section that represents three quarters of the entire project. Work your way backwards until you find the crisis or the highest point in the story so far. Analyze what your favorite writer did at this next major transition point.
The end of Lord of the Fliesis filled with scenes that show:
- Ralph’s struggle for sanity.
- Jack’s further descent into savagery.
- Another character death.
- Cruelty, torture, and destruction prevail.
- Evil triumphs.
- The story culminates as the entire island burns and Ralph runs for his life.
Plot tip: Pick up your favorite book or movie again and go to the section that represents the final one-quarter of the entire project. Work your way backwards until you find the climax or the highest point in the entire story. Analyze what your favorite writer did in this climatic scene.
Plot comes in threes: Character Emotional Development, Dramatic Action, and Thematic Significance. Story Structure comes in threes: the Beginning, the Middle and the End. Each of the three plot lines deepens each part of the story structure. Each of the story parts grows into the whole. The rhythm is there. As a reader, you’ve always known this. Now, as a writer, find it and make it your own.
To help you with Character Emotional/Psychological Plot Information – Answer the following questions:
- What is the protagonist’s personal goal?
- That stands in her way?
- What does she stand to lose if not successful?
- What is her flaw?
- What does she hate?
- What is her secret?
Martha Alderson is an international plot and story consultant for writers. Her clients include best-selling authors, screenwriters, writing teachers and fiction editors. She created a line of plot tools for writers, including a book, dvds, and the Scene Tracker Kit. She has taught plot workshops through University of California at Santa Cruz extension, Learning Annex, writers clubs and conferences, and privately. Contact her via [email protected]
Source with permission: The Writers Store