Plot Happens

I know you’re scared, but there’s really nothing to fear. Plot happens every day. You’re living plot right now, albeit probably not as epically as you’d wish. You make plans, a goal, or a to-do list for the day; something happens to screw it up; you react emotionally; then you come up with a new or revised plan.

That’s plot. Over and over again. With each new conflict making it seemingly harder for you to accomplish your goal.

With each new conflict creating tension and raising the stakes because now you’re losing precious time to get through your list.

With each new conflict forcing you to find alternative and creative ways to make things go according to your plan.

The secrets of plot revealed.

And so for the next several days or weeks, you’ll be figuring out what your character’s goal is, throwing a wrench (or screwdriver) at it, showing us how the character reacts, then showing us how your character revises his old goal or comes up with a new way to reach it. Repeat this several times and by the end of your story, your main character will have grown as a person because, “that which does not kill us makes us stronger” (Friedrich Nietzsche).

Here’s another analogy: Plot is like planning a vacation.

You probably have some idea of where you want to go and some idea of things you’d like to see and do, but you don’t know how to get there or where you’ll stay until you start figuring out your itinerary. Plot is the writer’s version of an itinerary. And these are a few suggestions of how I came up with my itinerary.

The first thing I did to plot out my story was make a timeline. first timeline

I used bright pink stickys (the top row) to plot out the actual timeline of important events in the Jack the Ripper murders. Beneath that, I used orange stickys to map out the major scenes of my storyline in the corresponding order. I used stickys because I like having the ability to move things around, step back, and see how everything plays out.

Plus, as any teacher knows, writing on a blackboard (or a reasonable facsimile) uses different neural pathways (which is why teachers make more spelling and grammatical errors when writing on one than on paper) and forces your brain to work more “creatively.” And who doesn’t want to be more creative?

From this timeline, I wrote a synopsis of each scene on a half-sheet of paper (some writers use index cards but I’m cheap and used old notebooks) and arranged them in oder on my bed (you may wish to use a table or the floor). Again, I like having the flexibility of moving scenes and sequences around while being able to see how logically the whole story unfolds. This took several hours, but with each new pass at my plot, I came up with new scenes and subplots to fill out the outline.

second timeline

After a generous amount of time working on my scene “cards,” I moved back to my wall timeline with a fresh sheet of paper (I cut sheets of paper stores use to wrap breakables and taped them to my wall). Keeping the original Jack the Ripper stickys up for reference, I plotted my corresponding murders with the orange stickys.

Next, I wrote a brief sentence or two (or three or four) summarizing each scene. I even used different colored markers for each plot and subplot thread as an easy visual guide to make sure I wasn’t leaving any one thread for too long. My color system is basically purple for the main plot, pink for romance (I know), green for family relationship problems, turquoise for suspect scenes, dark blue for journalism themes, orange for scenes that hide clues as to the killer’s identity, and magenta for school conflicts. Yours will depend on what genre you’re writing and what threads you think are most important.

One other outline tool that I use from my studies in screenwriting is a beat sheet. This is basically a numbered list of scenes, each described in only a few sentences. I revised mine two or three times while working on the wall timelines.

The best thing about the beat sheet is that it’s portable. You can bring it to Starbucks and not have people looking at you funny when you spread out a 3-foot long roll of paper with a bunch of colored writing on it. (Although I think I’m going to try it someday just to see how people react.) beat sheet

 

So these first couple of passes at the outline were just to get my scenes down in a somewhat logical order and fill in as many gaps as I could. The wall timeline nor the beat sheet are the final version of my plot. There is more work to be done, and I’ll have more suggestions/tools for you too.

For now, work on writing out your ideas/scenes in whichever format feels comfortable or try different ones. Keep those neural pathways working.

Next time, we’ll go more in depth about plot points, scene structure, and how to fill out your beginning, middle, and end.

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Pre Frenzy Week 3- We Got the Beat

By now you’ve done some work on your characters and found out what makes them tick. Hopefully you’ve discovered their major character flaw through listening to their back story. You’ve figured out what it is they need most in life even if they haven’t figured it out yet. You’ve also come up with a situation, a quest so to speak, to help them get what they want. After all, that’s what storytelling is all about–creating a situation that forces your protagonist to get over himself and live a better life. (Yes, even in tragedy and death the protagonist grows.)

Last week’s exercise was a sort of fill in the blanks of the ten elements of screenwriting. Here’s an example of what yours might look like:

1. Back Story— Rumer’s father, an assassin for SI:7, is accused of treason against the King of Stormwind and executed in front of her and her sister, Whisperra. While trying to help Rumer escape their father’s murderers, Whisperra is kidnapped, and Rumer is left to fend for herself. Growing up alone and despised for her family name, Rumer takes to drinking and refuses to form close relationships with anyone except her giant saber mount and companion. She travels Azeroth searching for her sister.

2. Internal Need–to trust and open herself up to others without fear of abandonment; to allow others to help her.

3. Inciting Incident–While chasing yet another lead on her sister’s whereabouts, she learns her father’s charge of treason could have been part of a larger conspiracy against the entire Stormwind Alliance.

4. External Goal–to stop the murder of King Varian Wrynn of Stormwind.

5. Preparation–She infiltrates SI:7 to confront Master Mathias Shaw, who supposedly ordered her father’s execution. She gathers a group of would-be heroes, a healer, a hunter, a magic user, and a warrior, to raid the conspirators’ stronghold and rescue her sister. She devises a strategy for stopping the assassination attempt on King Wrynn.

6.Opposition–Death Knight Malthrassus, advisor to the king and head of covert operation within the Empire to destroy the Alliance. (By the way, it’s important to do just as much character work on your antagonist as well to discover his/her character flaw, internal need, and external goal. You might want to look for something in his/her back story to create sympathy. Antagonists need not be wholly evil, just as protagonists should not be perfect.)

7. Self-Revelation–After rescuing her sister, Rumer knows that together they can clear their father’s name and stop Malthrassus from destroying the Empire.

8. Obsession–Dark Moment: Whisperra is mortally wounded during the escape, and Rumer is left alone once again. New Stimulus: She will avenge her sister’s death by asking her companions for help.

9. Battle–While her friends and SI:7 armies come to her aid, ultimately she must fight Malthrassus alone before he assassinates King Wrynn.

10. Resolution–Rumer and her merry band of heroes are honored by the King of Stormwind. Whisperra’s life is commemorated in a statue. Their father’s name is cleared. The leader of SI:7 offers her a position as his second-in-command.

…or some reasonable facsimile.

So while you were exploring the elements as they pertain to your own story, you probably started getting ideas for scenes. Great! Now it’s time to connect the dots and really begin to plot out your script by creating a beat sheet or step outline.

Sometimes you’ll see the word “beat” written within a script. This generally indicates a moment of pause for dramatic effect before a reaction or response. As writers, we don’t want to dictate every action a character will make–that’s the actor’s job–but there may be a specific place where we want to make sure the change of action/reaction isn’t missed.

A beat is also an exchange of behavior in action or reaction. Beat by beat these changing behaviors shape the turning of a scene. This will be discussed more next week when we work on subtext, but for now think of beat as the motivations behind each character’s actions or dialogue: to beg, to condone, to scorn, etc.

For our purposes this week, a beat sheet (it’s very hard not to write beet sheet or beat sheat) is a one or two-sentence statement that simply and clearly describes what happens in each scene. It can also be called a step-outline in which you number each scene, describing not only what happens in it, but how it builds and then turns again. Remember, each scene should attempt to answer a question as well as pose a new one. In this sense, you can also think of each scene as its own little cliffhanger because what happens in one scene should naturally move the story forward to the next one.

As we begin to plot out our story based on the revelations we’ve made on our characters, their actions and reactions, we also begin to think about structure. The most common structure you’ll probably be working in is the three-act structure. And once you grasp the inner-workings of each act, it becomes much easier to plan scenes.

Here’s a brief overview of each act.

Act One: We meet the major (and some of the not so major) characters in the story, particularly the protagonist. In a few brief scenes, we establish the opening value of the story (positive or negative or somewhere in between), the status quo of the protagonist’s life up to this point, perhaps a glimpse at his or her internal need, and a bit of back story. There may also be the beginnings of a subplot or two. But the biggest thing that happens in Act One is the Inciting Incident–something must happen to upset the status quo. It may also upset the protagonist because, remember, he has a character flaw that is trying to prevent him from acting. (Think about what he fears most.) Next, we introduce some kind of external goal that the protagonist thinks will solve the problem presented by the inciting incident and make everything better. This comes directly out of your premise statement. And to end the first act, we must see the protagonist taking the initial action to achieve that goal. This can be called a plot point, turning point, or first major reversal. The opening value has just changed in a big way.

Act Two: This is the bulk of your story and is all about creating conflicts, barriers, and antagonism. Create progressive complications by gradually raising the stakes. How far is your protagonist willing to go to achieve this goal? With each action and each reaction to these complications, she will pass the point of no return and a new level of conflict is aroused. This is also where we see our character preparing herself and devising strategies to overcome each new obstacle. We meet the antagonist full-force. We witness the strength and magnitude of all his resources and power so that it’s no wonder our protagonist fails. And finally, our main character must face her darkest moment. This is the moment when she becomes conscious of her internal need and despite losing everything, she has to continue toward that goal–even if it means death. Just as Act One ended with a plot point, so does Act Two. Our main character, now obsessed with achieving the external goal and the internal need, tries one more time. Think of what action, rather than dialogue, she will take.

Act Three: Short and sweet. We present our battle scene/climax/showdown/big finish. There is a moment of crisis in which the wrong decision at this time will lose the external goal for both the antagonist and the protagonist. There is no going back for either of them. There is no more planning. There is only doing. They square off. Who wins? Regardless of who does, our protagonist has to achieve his/her internal need. Anything left after the goal has been won is called the resolution. In a scene (or two at most) we can show the spread of climactic effects on other characters by bringing them all to one location like the beach or a party or a wedding. Now with everyone in one spot, we can wrap up any subplots, and we can provide a “slow curtain” for the audience to get their emotions under control. Didn’t you ever wonder why some people stay to watch the credits (myself included)?

Week 3 Exercise: Write a beat sheet/step-outline of your entire screenplay. Just one to two sentences will do, and it doesn’t matter where you start either. Sometimes it might be easier to start toward the climax and work your way backwards. Another idea is to write each scene on an index card then arrange them in an order that seems sensible and logical to you. If you’re a visual writer, and you probably are if you’re interested in screenwriting, it might be easier to visually see your story enfold before you as you shuffle cards into order. And don’t forget to include subplots as well as the main conflict.