Plot Basics

Posted by John Brown on December 2nd, 2008

In the comments to this week’s writing excuses on the 3 act structure, a writer asked if the try/fail cycle would really work with her chase story because her folks do not “fail to solve the problem” every time so much as “escape by the skin of their teeth”.

I thought this was a great question because we ARE often led to believe that the characters need to fail in each attempt. But if we look at a number of stories we’ll see that this isn’t the case. The hero is NOT always failing in his scene or sequence goal. In fact, much of the time he succeeds. So how does plot really work? Here’s my post.

[edited for clarity]

Jen, fwiw:

A few things finally opened up acts and plot to me. Maybe they’ll be helpful to you. I say this because a chase would work the same as anything else. I’ll just start at the beginning, although I’m sure you know a lot of this.

1) Story is about someone solving a problem. The problem is one of happiness (danger or lack on some level–physical, social, freedom, etc.) or mystery.

2) The reason why we tell stories about problems is because the solving of problems, if done a certain way, evokes suspense, surprise, and curiosity in the reader, and then a release of emotional tension. Why we humans like that ride, I don’t know. But we must keep this in mind when dealing with #1 because these effects are the main effects the bulk of people go to story for.

3) Plot is simply the actions the characters take, the results of their action, and what they decide to do next. Except this can’t be any old action and result. It has to be action and result that builds the anxiety of suspense, surprise, and the mystery or puzzle.

4) There are four possible answers to the question of “did the hero’s action solve the problem?”: yes, no, yes but, no furthermore.

For example. Yes, you killed the monster. No, you didn’t. Yes, you killed the monster, but it bit you and now you have the virus that’s going to turn YOU into a monster. No, you didn’t kill the monster furthermore you woke up its mumma.

Of those four possiblities, only the last two build suspense and curiosity. The first removes it totally. So it’s out. And a no answer leaves suspense unchanged. All you’re doing is delaying things with that. What you want to do is ratchet it up.

So if you want to build suspense then when a character takes an action, that action has to make things worse. They may escape by the skin of their teeth, but now the federal police know where they are (yes-but). Or not only did they not escape the police, but now the mafia, the real bad guys, know where they are (no-furthermore). These escalations and complications to the plot/problem continue until the hero’s plan is in total shambles and it appears he really is done for. That’s when they get one last shot at it.

If someone is trying to escape you don’t need a different plot structure. Their actions simply need to make it harder and harder and harder. Their plan needs to start to come apart. Things go wrong. Things they didn’t plan for make it worse. Someone double-crosses them or goes AWOL. We need to see them walking into dangers they didn’t plan for. If you go back and look at Prison Break season 1, you’ll see this all over the place in the last two episodes.

5) Acts are just a nifty way of breaking up the problem solving process into parts. In act 1 (the beginning), as stated, you introduce the problem and show that the character won’t or can’t walk away. Often a big reversal or reveal (a big yes-but or no-furthermore) marks the end of that act. But the key thing is that the hero MUST act. The stakes or too high or they simply can’t get away.

Now in act 2 (the middle) the hero says, aha, this is the real problem. Let’s try to solve it. Act 2 is a breeze to write IF you think about escalations and complications and nasty surprises–yes-buts and no-furthermores. He takes an intelligent action. BAM. It gets worse. And as these complications pile up we see that the hero comes to a point where his plans are in a shambles and the problem looks almost certain to squash him for good. In Star Wars, sure they saved the princess, but they led the empire to the secret base and the death star is going to blow them away (a grand yes-but).

In the last act, the hero straps on his guns and trys one more thing. Sometimes it helps to think of acts 1 and 2 as the hero reacting and act 3 as the hero finally getting the inititative, although it appears to be almost too late, and strapping on his guns. In Star Wars they do this. They’re running, running, running, and then they attack the death star. But the odds are slim. And they only have one little chance.

Remember: the odds are slim at this point and things get worse not because this is how problems are solved. Many get solved on the first try in real life. But because solving a problem in this way produces maximum suspense, surprise, and curiosity–the chief effects readers go to stories for. Any time you see a new plot structure or theory, you need to ask yourself what effect it has on the reader. If you can’t see any, junk it.

So you might have three acts, four, five, seven (all variations I’ve seen). It doesn’t matter. An act usually ends with a huge change in the nature of the problem. See Robert McKee’s STORY. But the number of acts isn’t the issue. It’s the effect on the reader. The acts are just means to an end. If we don’t keep the end in mind we’re likely to misuse the techniques. 

6) The key for moving through the acts is to ask myself about actions, obstacles, and results. Here are some questions I’ve found productive.

Action. What are some intelligent actions the hero might take in this situation? What would I do? What are some logical steps that the reader might not think of?

Obstacles. What happens? What are some compelling obstacles the hero will face in this attempt? Are there points of conflict with himself, someone else on his side, the antagonist or his henchmen, someone in the background, with the setting? What does the antagonist do to foil the hero? What is a logical but maybe an unexpected and surprising obstacle to both the reader and hero? How does the hero’s plan begin to come apart?

Results. What happens? What are some possible results that pose a yes-but or no-furthermore? What would be unexpected, surprising to both the hero and the reader? How does the character’s action make it worse? How does the result reveal the problem is much worse than the hero and reader first thought?  I’m thinking of complications and escalations–things that make the problem harder to solve or more important because more’s at stake.

In all of these, I choose the options that gives me the most zing and run with them. If they peter out, I try another (take 2, take 3, take 4), until I have one that works. Then I repeat it all over again and again until the hero is looking the gun in the face.

7) The “hero’s journey” is nothing more than a bunch of mystical names for common elements in this specific type of problem solving structure. Why does the hero have to leave home? Not because of some mystical archetype mumbo jumbo. No, because this forces them out into unfamiliar territory–adventure, risk. Things go wrong. The hero has to face the problem.

Why does the hero go to “the cave”? Again, not because of some mystical archetype mumbo jumbo. No, because turning and facing the monster, going onto ITS turf, poses the MOST RISK and hence most danger and hence most suspense for the reader.

Always keep the purpose of the story in mind. Suspense and curiosity DRIVE the structure of most stories. Yes, there are other effects we go to story for. But the reason stories are structured the way they are is because of those two reader effects. And all the rest of those Joseph Campbell terms are useless to writers unless they make the connection and see how they play into suspense and curiosity.

And even then I’ve found it’s wrong-headed to bind yourself to to a form just because. Or to think you need to slavishly follow it. The decision has to feel right for the story. It has to build anxiety and curiosity. And whatever does that well is right, regardless of whether it follows some formula. Although, I will say that certain story structures are used again and again because they deliver the goods to the reader better than other structures. Like biological evolution, they survive because of natural selection by readers.

So that ended up longer than I intended. Hopefully the ideas were as helpful to you as they were to me.

This writer’s question arises because of the common way of explaining the try/fail cycle sets us up to think there is only a no or no-furthermore option to each attempt by the hero. However, if we just look at a handful of stories, we’ll see the yes-but option is used all the time. What we want to avoid is the yes option, because that just stops the story. It stops the story because story is about solving a problem. And once the problem is solved, the story is over.  

Other writers talk of formulas, however “pattern” has always been a more helpful way of looking at it than “formula.” I know, that’s semantic quibbling. But “formula” suggests to me THE way while “pattern” suggests to me something not so strict, something with some give to it and perhaps a great number of variations. Either way, pattern or formula, I found that unless I can understand the why of a part of the pattern, the effect it has on the reader’s experience, it’s not much use to me. It all comes down to plunging our hero into trouble or mystery, and then making the trouble or mystery worse SO THAT the reader feels increasing anxiety, curiosity, and surprise.

BTW, here’s a good explanation of the 3 act structure with some tips from Stephen J. Cannell, an old pro. I really like his tips on act 2 issues and complications. Because if we make the antagonist an active force, he or she will provide many wonderful yes-but and no-furthermore options.

You’ll find other excellent explanations of plot in TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER by Dwight V. Swain, HOW TO WRITE BEST SELLING FICTION by Dean Koontz, and THE SECRETS OF ACTION SCREENWRITING by William C. Martell.

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