This tutorial is meant to introduce the elements of story line. The particular models used here for illustration pertain to screenplays and novels, but the elements, if not the proportions, apply to all of fiction and many other forms. The complaint that this presentation is formulaic is similar to the complaint that the alphabet is formulaic. As the letters of the alphabet occur in every work of literature, so do the elements of story. Whether you put the elements together in a hackneyed way, is another issue, but nothing worth reading can be put together without these elements.
In order to explore the plot structure of the novel, we will begin by looking at the paradigm for a screenplay as it was presented in Syd Field's classic work for screenwriters Screenplay. There are several more recent works on the screenplay, some of which analyze the screenplay in as many as nine acts or more. Naturally, if you wish to write screenplays, you should study as many of the other approaches as you can. But as the purpose here is to explore the elements of story, Field's model is especially suited to this purpose because of its simplicity.
The following ASCII diagram consists of a line divided into three parts. The middle part is about four times as long as each of the left and right end parts. The segments are label from left to right Act I, Act II, and Act III. Act I and Act III bear a caption meaning 20 minutes. Act II, the long segment in the middle, bears a caption meaning 80 minutes. In the segment labeled Act I, just before the division between Act I and Act II, is a point labeled Plot point A. In Act II, just before the division between Act II and Act III there is another point labeled Plot point B. The whole line is labeled with a caption meaning 120 minutes.
20 mins. ACT I | ACT II 80 mins. | ACT III -----------X-|----------------------------------X-|---------- (120 mins.) 20 mins. ^Plot point A ^Plot point B
The salient points of the diagram above are:
If your VCR or DVD player is not in hock and you have some movies, get out your watch and verify how well this structure fits most movies. Proportions vary slightly, and there are some films that do not fit the paradigm, but not very many.
Plot point A is what I call "There is more here than meets the eye."
Act I introduces us to the main character(s), and establishes a situation. Plot point A is where we are likely to exclaim "Aha, the plot thickens!" In a mystery movie this might be where the most likely suspect in a homicide is him- or herself murdered; it becomes apparent that this is not a routine murder investigation. In a romance it might be when the principals first make eye contact.
The first plot point transforms a situation into a plot. In an example provided by students in a class, a teenaged woman gets pregnant. That is a situation. Her boyfriend drops her and takes up with another woman: now it is a plot.
A good example of Plot Point A is in Chinatown when the detective (Jack Nicholson) discovers the he has not been working for the wife (Faye Dunnaway) of the man he has been watching.
Plot point B is what I call "There is the culprit, after him men!"
The business of the picture, of course, is in Act II, it's largest part. Plot point B is the beginning of the end. It might where we know the detective knows the identity of the culprit — although we may not know who it is. It may be where the chase begins. It maybe where the lovers decide they were made for each other. In "Chinatown," it is the famous mother-sister scene.
Plot point B is not the end of the film or the end of the plot. It points to the end. All becomes clear.
The end of the plot is the resolution. This is where whoever gets the girl, gets the girl, or whodunit is revealed. Some aspects of the resolution usually are obvious: the detective will solve the crime, the good guy will get the girl, the superhero will prevail. If there is going to be a serious violation of the basic expectations of the resolution, this has to be established early.
The bulk of the plot is Act II, as is most of the running time of the film. The problem is to keep the plot points A and B from collapsing upon one another.
Plot point B should be, in some sense, a logical consequence of plot point A. If the novel is a romance, plot point A might be that they meet, and plot point B might be that they decide to get married (and of course it will be assumed that they live happily ever after). This, however, makes for a very short picture or novel if nothing happens to keep B from following A immediately.
The something that keeps A and B apart is what I call the agon (contest). The same thing is sometimes called the struggle or the conflict.
In times past, the agon (contest, conflict, struggle) was between two people who were the agonists, and agonists came in two flavors: protagonist and antagonist. In modern works, the conflict, contest, or struggle, is likely to involve the natural world or aspects of the main character's personality. Nonetheless, "protagonist" is still the word used for the main character, the character with whom the reader is supposed to develop sympathy.
"Agon" is a synonym for contest. It is the contest, the conflict, the struggle of the plot. "What is the conflict of your novel?" means "What is the agon?" and vice versa. The answer to the question "What is the conflict of your novel?" has to include a verb like combats, struggles, searches, confronts, contests, strives, or seeks.
The analysis of plot can be generalized to the point that some adjustment has to be made to this list of verbs.
You should be able to express the agon (conflict) of your plot in one sentence. If that sentence contains a being verb or a verb in the passive voice, the odds are good that you are not expressing the conflict of your plot, but are stating the situation. Here are some examples that may help you tell the difference between conflict and situation:
|Tom is an alcoholic.||Tom's mother struggles to get him to confront his alcoholism.|
|Mosquitoes bite people.||A housewife combats neighbors' apathy to eliminate mosquito breeding areas.|
|Clerks in a store are surly and rude.||New manger confronts the bad attitudes of the sales staff.|
|Children are abused in an orphanage.||A clerk in the welfare office searches for evidence to expose abuse in an orphanage.|
Chinatown also provides a good example of the difference between situation and conflict. The situation is that a private detective begins looking into an apparent case of marital infidelity. The situation is interesting, some of his techniques are ingenious, and he seems to be turning up some evidence. Although this is all outside of most viewers' experiences — and that is why it is interesting to us — it seems to the detective to be very routine and mundane because this kind of work is the staple of the private detective business. He does not have a conflict. He is just doing his job, and seemingly he is doing it adequately. It becomes a conflict when he discovers he is being used in some kind of scheme he doesn't understand at all and that his license is in peril as a result.
No matter how deplorable a situation is, it is not a conflict until and unless someone who wants to do something about it is aware of it — and this means someone besides the reader. An author who thinks the situation is the conflict often has made some assumptions that may not be entirely justified. For example: if the situation is that a preacher in a small sect has a plan to unify all right-wing Christians into one large, politically active denomination, the writer may be assuming that readers will find this deplorable. But of course, some readers will not. The situation: a seventeen-year-old girl is pregnant. Some readers will see a conflict inherent in such a situation, but others will not. Throughout most of human history, in many cultures presently existing, and in some social classes, there just is not some conflict involved in the situation that will go without saying.
The situation has its place in the novel. But it is not the conflict.
The plot structure of a feature film is actually a good structure for a novel or story or theatrical play.
For literary works (works in letters, as opposed to films or works performed on a stage) some of the proportions may need to be adjusted. In particular, as we do not have our audience more or less trapped in a dark room, literary writers have to beef up the first act. Few readers will stick with us for four or five chapters before things get interesting. We need something to engage the reader's interest right up front, and this thing is called the hook.
The ASCII diagram that follows is very similar to the diagram for the screenplay above. A line is divided into three parts, with the middle part much longer than the first and last parts. Timings and the names Act I, Act II, and Act III have been omitted. However, at the leftmost end of the line is a point indicated by the hook-shaped letter J and at the rightmost end, there is a point indicated by the letter K. Plot points A and B are still indicated, just before the ends of the first and second segments.
Resolution J----------X-|----------------------------------X-|---------R ^The hook ^Plot point A ^Plot point B
(Of course, more and more movies and television scripts are written with a strong hook, now that everyone has a channel zapper and is likely to surf away if the first moments of a show seem a bit slow.)
The hook is the exciting (or interesting) part that comes at the beginning to draw the reader into the story (to get him or her hooked). Not just anything will do for a hook, otherwise every novel would begin with a train wreck. The hook may or may not have anything much to do with the plot of the novel, but it must tell the reader what kind of novel this is. For example, a novel might begin with a detective attending the execution of some murderer he has detected in the past. The past crime may or may not have anything to do with the crime of the present novel, but this gruesome opening scene tells us, at least, that this is a detective novel and it introduces our detective. The novel cannot turn out to be a romance and it cannot turn out to hinge on the work of some other detective — that is just not fair to the reader.
The character peg is some clear identifying feature upon which the reader may hang everything else learned about the character. In motion pictures, the character peg is somewhat less important than it is in literature because the viewer of the motion picture can see the characters — nonetheless, it is still desirable for characters to have distinctive appearances, or at least for the main characters to stand out from their fellows. Moreover, in motion pictures, for better or worse, it is thought desirable for characters to have appearances that physically represent their natures: so villains will tend to have scars or deformities, or at least black hats. In a motion pictures if there are two young women who are sisters and both of them are important characters, one will be blonde and the other will be brunette. It is more important that we have an easy way to tell which is which than that they exhibit a close family resemblance. And in literary work, that is what character pegs do: they help us tell one character from another. Eventually, of course, we will know enough about the characters to distinguish them on the basis of more important qualities. But at first we know nothing about them and we need pegs on which to hang those more important qualities.
In literature, too, physical attributes are often used as character pegs. The peg is not a full physical description that might go on for several paragraphs. The peg is some striking feature that can be mentioned briefly: perhaps red hair, perhaps a lush mustache, perhaps extreme height. Character pegs can also be distinctive and characteristic ways of speaking, of moving, or of dressing. It has to be something that can easily and naturally be referred to later to help the reader, so the reader who may not have absorbed the character's name can say to him or herself, "Oh yes, this is the guy who always carries a pencil over his ear."
We are now in a position to consider a plot questionnaire that could serve as the basic plan of a novel.
The questionnaire probably should not be filled out in the above order. Some people will prefer to begin with the characters. Others will start with a situation. Still others will have in mind the nature of the conflict before they know who the combatants will be or much about the situation that led to the conflict.
Plot questionnaires should not be extremely difficult to fill out. You should be able to work through three or four different questionnaires within an hour. In classroom situations, it seldom takes more than five minutes to build up a plot questionnaire from student suggestions.
This is really so simple, so quickly and easily done, that it is amazing that anyone ever undertakes to write a novel without forming answers to these basic questions in some early stage of the work.
At this point one may have one plot questionnaire or a stack of them. It is advantageous to do a little research and review.
For example, the person who drafts a plot outline about a pregnant teenager probably wants to make a strong statement about abortion one way or the other. I'm not suggesting, at all, that a novel is an inappropriate place to express strong feelings on controversial issues. What I am suggesting is that the trap in novels of this kind is the likelihood of borrowing a plot cliché from a tract — and an issue like abortion has clichés in tracts from both sides.
Is teenaged pregnancy at an all-time high? No. Teenaged pregnancy peaked in the late Sixties and has been more-or-less steadily on the decline since. Are "lots" of pregnant teenagers 14- or 15-years-old? Depends upon what you mean by "lots," but two-thirds of pregnant teenagers are 17 or 18. If you do not believe these statistics, look them up yourself. Do teenagers get pregnant to increase their welfare benefits? See if there is any objective confirmation for this belief. What are the reasons teenagers get pregnant? Are there any situations in which bearing children at a young age is advantageous?
I do not expect any of this research is likely to change anyone's mind on the issue of abortion. That is not the point. The point is to explore the information for alternatives to the tract-like, knee-jerk plot that is likely to occur first to anyone who thinks of writing on this subject.
Other kinds of novels require other kinds of research and reconsideration. A space Western of the Star Wars kind probably will not take a lot of research: you need zappers and some kind of faster-than-light travel and plenty of gizmos, but they are all going to be pretty much alike. However, if you want to deal with the paradoxes of time travel, you have much reading to do to be sure you understand the basic issues and to discover whether you can come up with a fresh angle. This does not mean that you cannot rework something that has been done (although naturally you will avoid derivative works that are protected under someone else's copyright). It does mean you ought to know it if you are recovering old ground.
After a suitable period of research and reflection, you should be ready to redraft the plot questionnaire. If you have not so far, pay particular attention to the events that keep the plot points apart — or in other words, that prolong the agon. These are what most of your writing will have to be about, and you can hardly have too many of them. At this stage you may have only a handful — three or four — such events in mind. But there are many chapters in the middle of a book, and sooner or later you will have to add to these events and elaborate on them. Keep an eye out for possible additional complications.
Things do not always work out in the writing, and many plot structures will have to be revised, perhaps repeatedly, as work progresses. Not all problems can be foreseen and eliminated, but revisions are simpler if those flaws which can be foreseen are eliminated as early as possible.
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