Plots and Stories
A plot is not a story, nor does every story have a strong plot. Good writers know the importance of both plot and story, especially before they dare to write a story with a “weak” or “thin” plot. Any plot can feature a love story; that illustrates the difference. Plots are events, stories reveal how characters react to those events.
Because the writers, editors, publishers, and producers with whom we work target mass market audiences, we make no apologies for what might seem a formulaic approach to story structure. Producers and publishers know that audiences have expectations writers need to meet. If you want to write literary fiction or experimental cinema, this guide is not for you. Also, aftere you have sold a work that follows the rules, it is slightly more likely that you can bend or break the rules.
Structure is Not Story
Do not confuse traditional (or nearly traditional) plotting and story structure with formulaic storytelling. Many of the greatest literary stories adhere to traditional structures. The structure of a work does not dictate the story told, the theme addressed, or the style of the writer. That “good” and “bad” versions of classic myths exist proves that storytellers make the difference, not the basic structure.
Cultural traditions dictate audience expectations, and therefore guide storytellers. You must learn when and how to challenge those norms through experience… after you master the traditions. We encourage writers to focus on their stories, within a traditional structure, because you need the audience’s support for them to share a story with others.
Literary works that break from traditional structure help create new traditions. But, within tradition you can tell stories in unusual, unexpected, and unorthodox ways. A literary work that maintains structure might be self-referential, breaking the fourth-wall between the work and the audience. Experimental works
might be disruptive in other ways, beyond the scope of this page.
Contrary to many general-purpose dictionaries, a plot is not the main story of a work. A plot is the series of events providing conflict within a story. The search for a murderer is a plot. Surviving a natural disaster is a plot. A plot can be summarized without specific names or settings. (Do not argue with teachers about this… plot is whatever they want it to be!)
The plot is sometimes called the “spine” of a story. The plot is the action, while the story is the emotions associated with the action. Yes, a plot can be caused by the emotions of characters, but the action is apart from the story. Plots are the results of choices made by the characters: the characters take action (or don’t) and events happen as a result.
Aristotle set the “rules” for modern plots: there is a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning is short, the ending shorter, and the middle is where most of the plot twists reside. If you write 100 pages, it might take 30 to introduce the characters and plot, 50 for the twists, and 20 for the ending. The beginning ends with the introduction of the primary plotline. The middle ends with a climactic showdown.
Many writers “plot” their plots, like a timeline. It helps
to see where choices are made and actions taken, so you can pace the
story. Pacing is important because most stories accelerate in action
as they progress. While the beginning events might last days, the end
usually occurs in hours.
Western storytelling traditionally features one, three, five, or seven acts, in three movements: beginning, middle, end. Conditioned by history, audiences expect the beginning, middle, and end structure. Our stories depict change, transformation, growth, or evolution of at least one character. If you dare to experiment, resisting change offers a rare, interesting variation. Change “for the worse” done well is also effective, but most attempts at this variation fall short.
You can view the three movements as embracing a structure of past, present, and future. Using non-linear plots highlights these times, making them more integral to the story. Many stories begin at the end, for this reason. Suggesting the past and possible future(s) is also dramatic, letting the audience create personal variations of the story.
Two Sentence Test
For mass market works, it should be possible to state a plot in one or two sentences. If a plot requires more than two dozen words to describe, it is too complex. The primary plot is simple; the story is complex. The more provocative, unusual, and thoughtful a plot, the more likely a reader or audience is to want to know the complete story. Shakespeare’s plots are simple, but the plays have wonderful depth. Tom Clancy spy novels are long and complex, but the plots are easy to state. Think about your favorite stories and how simple the primary plots are.
Conflicts Big and Small
The plot of a work is the basic conflict, either from which or alongside other conflicts are created. An effective plot contains one major conflict. We have a guide that discusses conflict in greater detail; this guide includes only an overview of common conflicts in mass market works.
Don’t gripe about our use of “man” — the list of conflicts is classic. We know it is outdated. Feel free to use “main character” or “protagonist” for a gender neutral list.
Generally, if you cannot state the plot in a 12-word sentence then you have no idea what the primary plot is. If you are the author, that is a bad sign. There are only three or four “simple plots” used in most mass market books or movies:
- Man versus man: antagonist and protagonist.
- Man versus nature: the universe challenges the protagonist(s).
- Man versus self: protagonist must overcome deep, dangerous flaws.
- Man versus man’s work: creation out of control.
Remember that we are discussing stories for the mass market. Conflict is more complex than the four models listed, and many great stories include elements of several of these conflicts.
Man versus Man
A “man-versus-man” plot features a central character and an opposition character as the primary actors. The central character has a goal and the opposition is going to attempt to stop the central character before he or she obtains the goal. Stories of single-person conflict work well as plays or movies. Novels and larger story arches tend to have “groups” in conflict.
A movie in a series or a single chapter in a book might seem to be about interpersonal conflicts, but once you discover the entire story, it is often much more. Star Wars is not about Luke versus Darth Vader — it’s about a fallen republic versus a dictatorship, good versus evil on a much grander scale. Most authors use individuals to make a larger point.
Man versus Nature
A “man-versus-nature” plot features a central character against a natural event or other phenomenon that threatens the character or something important to the character. These stories are about a search for inner-strengh and confidence. Nature is not a “moral” entity — it simply is. To overcome nature requires something internal… a character must rise to the challenges faced.
Man versus Self
Generally not the source of a primary plot, internal struggles are commonly story elements we might consider “sub-plots” along the way. Since the most interesting character has some manner of internal flaw, an emotional issue to discover and conquer, there is an element of “man versus self” in great stories.
Man versus Man’s Work
It’s a cliché of sorts, but Frankenstein and most science fiction delves into the risks of technology without morality. When we create, we seldom think of the consequences. In modern stories, the “work” might be pollution or illness. These are morality plays, as the stories aim to caution readers against a complete faith in our creations.
A story is built upon the conflicts created by a plot, unless the work is experimental or philosophical. A writer selects a setting for the plot and then throws in a few detailed characters. With a plot, setting, and characters, the story can begin.
Stories are plot-driven or character-driven. A plot-driven story captivates readers or audiences through the excitement of events. The characters are important, but the action takes precedence. Character-driven stories rely on interesting characters and their responses to situations. While the situations arise from the plot, readers or audiences remember the characters.
A story sits on a plot; it is the emotional reactions of and choices made by various characters or groups. The choices move the story to plot points, while each plot point creates yet another choice and the accompanying emotional issues. When we make a choice, there is some emotion involved. The choice results in more actions and reactions, leading to yet another choice. That is how life works — and how a great story works.
There is a theory that stories are written to unite a society and explain the social order to members of the community. We use stories to convey our values, morality, and social structure to the young, new members, and to reinforce the existing membership. Consider all stories “propaganda” if you wish, that is the extreme view of the theory. The plot serves as a way to carry the message, while the story depicts the message.
Ask yourself, “What is my lesson?” Are you illustrating a concept? An idea? Maybe a personal theory of human behavior. If a story lacks a lesson, even a cynical one, it lacks a coherent purpose. (It is possible to write a story without purpose, but rarely.)
Joseph Campbell was a literary critic, philosopher, and anthropologist. His theories on story development, especially mythology, are recommended for all writers. Agree or disagree with his theories, Campbell managed to reveal common types of stories throughout the cultures and history. The Joseph Campbell Foundation maintains a website on his works and theories (http://www.jcf.org/).
Start Quickly, End Faster
Modern stories, in all forms, tend to start quickly and end even faster. The middle of the story is two-thirds or more of the work. As a result, there is ample opportunity to explore sub-plots and twists.
Readers and audiences with some exceptions, expect stories to start quickly. Readers and audiences do not want to wait for a story to capture their imaginations; they want to interact with the story immediately.
Contrary to elite opinion, reading a book and watching a screen are often interactive. Most people try to guess how or why a character will act. The worst insult a movie can receive is, “It was too predictable.” Audiences like a challenge. However, they do not want to be guessing what the storyline is.
Effective stories introduce the apparent primary challenge as quickly as possible. This is the situation that ignites the plot. Most episodes of the television series Law and Order open with the discovery of a body. You can’t start much faster.
Opinions vary as to what constitutes starting quickly. The following are our guidelines.
|Type of Work||Simple Plot Introduced||Story Established|
|Short Story||First paragraph or within 50 words||Within 150 words|
|Novella||By page three to five||By page ten|
|Hour-Long Script||By page five||By page ten|
|Movie Script||By page ten||By page 25|
|Novel||Within 25 to 50 pages or by the third chapter||Within 50 to 100 pages.|
Dramatic endings do not “drag” or feature lengthy commentaries. By the climax of action, any social commentaries are out of the way. Only a small number of issues remain unresolved, allowing readers and audiences an opportunity to enjoy the ride.
Scripts usually end faster than they start. A script with a 20-page beginning might end in ten to 15 pages. A novel starting over three chapters ends in one or two. Ending quickly leaves the audience excited, like a roller coaster ending with a steep drop.
Most stories belong to one of two categories: character-driven or event-driven. Some authors favor memorable characters, while others concentrate on events. Your preference depends both on the genre and style chosen.
A character-driven story relies upon the decisions and emotions of characters to advance the plot. The decisions in a character-driven story produce “chain reactions” and conflict. The events, regardless of how many people they affect, are triggered by characters within the story.
Villains tend to drive plots more actively than heroes. Heroes follow rules and tend to fit within traditional types. Villains are “free” to do as they (or authors) want.
An event-driven story relies upon external events and circumstances to advance the plot. External events may be natural or human-initiated, as long as the initiator of the events is not a central character to the story. Natural disasters and wars serve as the foundations for many event-driven stories.
Consider stories set in World War II, which are often event-driven. The men responsible for the greater decisions are “off-stage” during the story.
Plot and Story Charts
The following plot and story chart illustrates the plot points of a story. When writing, it is helpful to create a similar chart and “fill in” the details.
Few current novels or films begin with a prologue, but it was once a common practice. Today, the first chapter might reveal backstory and serve as a prologue. Classic films, from the silent movies through the 1930s, featured opening “cards” with the backstory. This was a tradition from early novels — and even picked up in series books. A prologue sets the backstory through quick exposition.
Often a paragraph or two provides the information necessary. Consider any story set in a time of war: stating the period and location might be enough to inform readers. Additional backstory is dispersed throughout the story.
Catalyst / Inciting Incident
The catalyst of a story is the moment at which the primary character is thrust by circumstance into the action. The start of a war, a crime, winning a lottery, seeing “him” from afar — either good or bad, the catalyst is the event indicating our story has started.
For some reason, the primary character is starting to lose control. He or she has to regain power or a balance in life. In a romance novel, it is all about finding true love — especially in an unexpected way. In a crime novel, the reporting of the crime begins the chase.
The big event relates to the catalyst and concludes the introduction of the story. A big event might be learning the perfect stranger is from the wrong family, as in Romeo and Juliet. The big event could be a murderer daring the detective to prove the case. The big event establishes the path of the story.
You seldom reach the main event without knowing the major characters, basic backstory, conflicts, and a bit of the psychology of the primary character. Some stories hold back a character or two, for drama, but hint at their existence. Readers do not want a writer to “cheat” however. A reader should be able to predict some events and at least guess at potential solutions to the story’s conflicts.
The moment the main character decides there will be a showdown is known as the pinch. It might not be as simple as “I’m going to defeat the bad guy,” but it can be. More often, it is a decision to continue the quest for a solution, while admitting there is a risk. The decision to move ahead, to face conflict, is difficult and results in a “point of no return.”
In movies, the pinch situation and resulting decision might be the intermission. Plays often place the pinch on either side of two acts, so the audience can ponder the choice and wonder which path will be taken and why. Ideally, there is more than one possible choice — but all have consequences.
The “true natures” of various characters are revealed during the pinch. We see why the hero is heroic, and why the villain cannot see that he or she is wrong. The pinch reveals the psychological underpinnings of the story.
Before the showdown, the primary character experiences a crisis of faith embodied by a crisis in the action. There is doubt, fear, and other troubling emotions. A great story has the reader or audience wondering if the main character will rise to the challenge. If there is no doubt of victory, there is no story.
Showdown & Resolution
The showdown is more than a battle between two people — it forces the main character to prove he or she understands any personal weaknesses and has overcome them. The resolution is not about the external victory as much as it is about the internal growth of a character.
The end of a story is a dawn after the action concludes. Think of this as the start of the day after the conflict. In the last page or two, or the closing minutes of a script, there is a hint of future actions. This allows readers and audiences an opportunity to imagine what is not written.
Consider what happens after a romance. It’s “happily ever after… but…” and the reader can ponder all the possibilities. Maybe you show the criminal planning an escape from prison. Or maybe a new villain seems to have been created by circumstances. A good writer leaves a question or two unanswered, without undoing the story.
Because this guide deals only with mass market works, we make no claim that you can or should follow the “rules” above for all creative works. But, readers do expect the familiar plot and story structures. When you violate the expectations of readers, you risk alienating the audience. Literary works don’t aim to please everyone, which is why they can violate traditional models. In some ways, the author of a literary work makes an effort to violate standards.
Campbell, Joseph. Hero With a Thousand Faces. 3rd ed. Novato, Calif.: New World Library, 2008. 9781577315933
Snyder, Blake. Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. Studio City, Calif.: M. Wiese Productions, 2005. 1932907009
Trottier, David. Screenwriter’s Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script. 5th ed. Los Angeles: Silman-James Press, 2010. (ISBN: 1935247026)