First, write a log line for your story. A log line is a concise one-sentence description of the essence of a story.
A good way to approach this is to consider If someone asked you “What’s your story about?” how would you respond?
That can be a tough question to answer! After all, you’ve probably done a lot of thinking about your story and have all kinds of bits and pieces you might like to include.
Still, you aren’t likely to tell them every single idea you have for your story. That wouldn’t have a spine or a central thread. It would just be a big cloud of creative notions and probably a bit boring since you wouldn’t be actually telling them your story but telling them about the things you want to include in your story.
What they really want to know is the gist of your story – a short description of the plot, the principal characters, and perhaps the setting and genre. But trying to boil down all your ideas into a concise description that does justice to your concept and captures the essence of your topic can seem well nigh impossible.
Here is some additional information to help you get it done:
Creating a log line centers your story, provides it with an identity, and ensures that all your story development work will be guided by this beacon so your story becomes sharply focused and every element is clearly connected to the hub. It is like when a huge cloud of dust and gas condenses into a solar system and ignites into a sun around which all your story concepts orbit.
Without a log line, a story often remains just a cloud and the telling of such a story tends to meander aimlessly. Rather than forging ahead with a clear direction, it stumbles forward, tripping over its own unfocused feet and landing in the lap of your readers or audience with a dull thud as an amorphous lump with no form, no purpose, and no meaning. Now isn’t that sad, perhaps even pathetic? So let’s avoid that.
As you write your log line, think about the story any initial material you may have already developed or have in mind. Think about the reason you want to write this particular story in the first place, and then write a log line that embraces that.
Once you have your log line, it becomes the seed from which your story can grow with focus and purpose. In the steps that follow we’ll draw on your Notes and also develop new material to expand your log line into a full-blown story concept called a synopsis that includes all your major plot events, your principal characters, your thematic topic and message, and the elements of genre that give your story its personality.
A log line sums up the essence of what your story is about in a concise little nugget.
For example, a log line for Hamlet might read:
A prince of Denmark seeks revenge against his uncle for murdering his father and feigns insanity to buy time to plan the best method, but ultimately fails to achieve his goal.
Now clearly everything that makes Hamlet amazing is missing from the log line. But it does serve to capture the gist of what is going on and most important answers the question “What’s Hamlet about?”
For a longer example, here’s a log line for Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol:
At Christmas time, an unhappy and miserly man has isolated himself from emotional attachments as a shield against his own childhood pain of loss and rejections, but through the intervention of three ghosts who force him to confront his past, present and future, he ultimately sees how he has victimized both himself and others, repents, seeks to make amends and rediscovers the joy of Christmas.
Though this log line meets the requirement of being a single sentence, it’s a run-on sentence. That defeats the purpose of refining your story concept until it’s sharp as a tack.
A better attempt would be:
A wealthy but stingy businessman who has become bitter due to great personal losses in his youth learns the value of giving after being visited by three ghosts on Christmas eve.
In this shorter version there’s a lot of important and meaningful material that wasn’t covered, but the longer the log line, the less focused your story concept becomes. Of course, the Log Line Police are not going to bust down your door and confiscate your keyboard if you exceed one tight sentence, but the point here is to boil down the heart of your story to its essence in the least number of words you can manage.
Now it’s your turn to write a log line. After you do, make sure it is only one sentence. And no cheating by trying to cram more information into it by writing a big long convoluted James Joyce sentence. Seriously – you’d be surprised how many writers hate leaving anything out. They hate it so much they would rather bloat their log line to the point it is unusable rather than lose a single thing, which completely defeats the purpose!
Don’t do this! The whole point of this exercise is to get your wonderful, passionate, inventive, compelling story boiled down to one dull, boring (but informative) line.
The example log line we’ll be using for the next few steps is:
A sheriff is trying to stop a gang of cutthroats from repeatedly robbing his town.
Sound like dozens of cliché stories you’ve read or seen before, right? Your story’s log line might seem the same way at this stage. Not to worry. As we progress through the next few steps, you’ll see this simple example expand and refine until it becomes a truly rich story world, just as yours will.
Writers often begin the story development process by thinking about what their story needs: a main character/protagonist/hero, a solid theme, a riveting plot and, of course, to meet all the touch points of their genre.
Because this is just the beginning of the process, they usually don’t have much of that worked out yet. And so, they are faced with the daunting task of figuring out their story’s world, who’s in it, what happens to them, and what it all means before they even write a word. This can throw a writer into creative gridlock right out of the gate and can get so frustrating that the Muse completely deserts them.
Fortunately, there’s a better way. Rather than asking what the story needs, we can turn it around and ask what the author needs. What is the most comfortable sequence of activities that will lead a writer from concept to completion of their novel or screenplay?
As varied a lot as we writers are, there are certain fundamental phases we all go through when coming to our stories. In fact, we can arrange the entire creative process into four distinct stages:
The Inspiration Stage begins the moment we have an idea for a story. This might be an overall concept (computer geeks are transported to the old west), a plot twist (a detective discovers he is investigating his own murder), a character situation (Ponce de Leon still lives today), a thematic topic (fracking), a character study (an aging rock star who is losing his licks) a line of dialog (“Just cuz somthin’s free don’t mean you didn’t buy it.”), a title (Too Old To Die Young) or any other creative notion that makes you think, that’s a good idea for a story!
What gets the hair on your writerly tail to stand up isn’t important. Whatever it is, you are in the Inspiration Stage and it lasts as long as new ideas flow like spring runoff. You might add characters, specific events in your plot or even write a chapter or two. A very lucky writer never gets out of this stage and just keeps on going until the novel is completely written and sent out for publication.
Alas, for most of us, the Muse vanishes somewhere along the line, and we find ourselves staring at the all-too-familiar blank page wondering where to go from here. Where we go is to Stage Two: Development.
In the Development Stage we stand back and take a long critical look at our story so far. We now have quite a few ideas and there are likely sections that are ready to write, or perhaps you’ve already written some. But there may be other areas that are a bit lean or even downright sketchy, hanging by only the thinnest of story threads.
What’s needed now is to grow each of those ideas to add more substance. So, story point by story point we add richness and detail until every notion we generated in Inspiration has become a fully developed concept. What’s there looks good, but what about what isn’t there?
Even though each idea is now fully formed, in between them may be story holes, both small and gaping, and breaks in logic when what happens first makes no sense in connection to what happens later. Then there might be characters that don’t ring true, unresolved conflicts, and expressed emotions that seem to come out of nowhere.
And so, the work begins – filling the space between your ideas and trying to make them all fit in the same story. By the end of the development stage, you’ll have added detail and richness to your story and added all the pieces needed to fill the gaps.
Eventually (thank Providence) you’ll have fully developed your ideas and plugged all the leaks. But what you have now is more like a box of snarled threads than a fabric. The pieces are all there but they aren’t yet working together. You realize you need to integrate your individual ideas so they can work in concert. You also realize you have quite unawares stumbled into Stage Three: Exposition.
Exposition isn’t just about revealing story points to your readers or audience. It is even more about pulling all of those threads together so they become a yarn.
Here you will consider how one story point affects another, and how plot impacts character impacts theme impacts genre. Stories are holistic, and every piece should inform all the rest and, conversely, be informed by all the rest. In this way, your story becomes organic and transcends the pieces from which it is made.
And when you have all that figured out, you are ready to begin the final stage: Storytelling.
Storytelling is more than word play and style. It is also about deciding how to weave the threads of your story as it unfolds. Scene by scene or chapter by chapter you’ll lay out the arcs of your characters and their relationships with one another, you’ll carry your plot through twists and turns, you’ll subtly build your theme into a powerful message, and you’ll grow your genre into a unique reader or audience experience.
And lastly, before we send our creation out into the world, we writers shift and substitute and polish until (almost regretfully) we let it go, just like a parent bundling up a child for the first day of school. StoryWeaver can’t help you find the resolve to write “The End,” but as Da Vinci is credited with saying, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”
Imagine a story’s structure as a war and the Main Character as a soldier making his way across the field of battle. In your mind’s eye, you likely see they whole scene spread out in front of you, as if you were a general on a hill watching the conflict unfold.
That all-seeing “God’s eye view” is a perspective not available to the Main Character, but only the author and audience (as he chooses to reveal it, here and there, casting light on that dark understanding of what is really going on or keeping the readers in the dark.
But there is a second point of view implied in this war of words – that of the Main Character himself. The Main Character has no idea what lies over the next hill, or what troubles may be lurking in the bushes. Like all of us, he must rely on our experience in trying to make it through alive.
The view through the eyes of the Main Character puts your readers in his shoes, experiencing the pressures first hand, feeling the power of the moment. In a sense, this most perspective connects the Main Character’s tribulations (both logistic and emotional) to those we all grapple with in real life. It draws us in, makes us personally involved, and also causes us to see the message or moral of the story as being applicable to our own journey.
Many authors establish both the overall story and the Main Character’s glimpse of it and stop there, believing they have covered all the angles. After all, the Main Character can’t see the big picture and that overview can’t portray the immediacy of the struggle on the ground. All bases covered, right?
In fact, no. Suddenly, through the smoke of dramatic explosions the Main Character spies a murky figure standing right in his path. In this fog of war, he cannot tell if this other soldier is a friend or foe. Either way, he is blocking the road.
As the Main Character approaches, this other soldier starts waving his arms and shouts, “Change course – get off this road!” Convinced he is on the best path, the Main Character yells back, “Get out of my way!” Again the figure shouts, “Change course!” Again the Main Character replies, “Let me pass!”
The Main Character has no way of knowing if his opposite is a comrade trying to prevent him from walking into a mine field or an enemy fifth column combatant trying to lure him into an ambush. But if he stops on the road, he remains exposed with danger all around. And so, he continues on, following the plan that still seems best to him.
Eventually, the two soldiers converge, and when they do it becomes a moment of truth in which one will win out. Either the Main Character will alter course or his steadfastness will cause the other soldier to step aside.
This other soldier is called the Influence character, and though you may not have heard of him, this other soldier is essential to describing the pressures that bring the Main Character to a point of decision.
In our own minds we are often confronted by issues that question our approach, attitude, or the value of our hard-gained experience. But we don’t simply adopt a new point of view when our old methods have served us so well for so long. Rather, we consider how things might go if we adopted this new system of thinking right up to the moment we have to make a choice.
It is a long hard thing within us to reach a point of change, and so too is it a difficult feat for the Main Character. In fact, it takes the whole story to reach that point of climax where the Main Character must choose to stay on course or to step off into the darkness, hoping they’ve made the right choice – the classic “Leap of Faith.”
This other character provides a third perspective to a story’s structure – that of an opposing belief system that the Main Character is pressured to consider. What would the original Star Wars have been without Obi Wan Kenobi continually urging Luke to “Trust the force?” How about A Christmas Carol without Marley’s ghost, as well as the ghosts of Past, Present, and Future?
Without an Influence character, there is no reason for the Main Character to question his beliefs. But just having an opposing perspective isn’t all that an Influence Character brings to a story.
A convincing theme or message is not built just by establishing an alternative world view to that of the Main Character. That would come off as simply moralizing since it presents the two sides as cut and dried, in black and white. Few life-changing decisions in life are as simple as that.
Rather, the two views must also be played against each other in many scenarios so the Main Character (who represents us all) can begin to connect the dots and ultimately choose the tried and true approach that isn’t working or the new approach that has never been tried. In other words, at the moment of conflict, both courses are evenly balanced which is why, no matter which side the Main Character comes down on, it is a leap of faith.
It is that repeated questioning of the Main Character’s closely held beliefs that comprises the fourth perspective of our story when seen as a war – the personal story between the Main Character and the Influence Character in which the author’s message is argued.
This fourth point of view elevates a structure from being a simple tale that states “here is how it is,” to a fully developed story that makes the case for “here’s why it is as it is.” Such stories feel far more complete, even though they may still work well-enough to be successful without it.
For example, in the movie, A Nightmare Before Christmas, Jack Skellington, King of Halloween Town, is dissatisfied with his lot in life and decides to take over Christmas by kidnapping Santa Claus.
The kidnapping and all that follows in the plot is that Overall perspective of the general on the hill.
Jack is the Main Character, trying to improve his life through altering his situation, embodying perspective number two.
Jack’s girlfriend, Sally, is the Influence Character, providing the third perspective: an alternative belief system. As Wikipedia puts it: “Sally is the only one to have doubts about Jack’s Christmas plan.” Essentially, he tell Jack that Halloween and Christmas should not be mixed and he should be satisfied with who he is.
But that fourth perspective is missing – the thematic argument between those two conflicting points of view that would have provided a strong and organic message to the story. Sally states her opposition, but she and Jack never pit one way of looking at the world against the other, not through discussions, nor argument, nor even through a series of scenes illustrating the value of one over the other.
Think back to A Christmas Carol. How many times is Scrooge’s world view contrasted against that of the ghosts in a whole series of scenarios? But in Nightmare, the opposing world view is stated but never argued, leaving the story, though incredibly inventive and exciting, somehow less satisfying in a way the audience can’t quite identify.
All four of these perspectives are needed for a story structure to be as powerful as it can be. In developing your own stories, consider our analogy of story structure as war to ensure that each of them is present, and your story will be far stronger for it.
This first technique holds audience interest by revealing the true size of something over the course of the story until it can be seen to be either larger or smaller than it originally appeared. This makes things appear to grow or diminish as the story unfolds.
Conspiracy stories are usually good examples of increasing scope, as only the tip of the iceberg first comes to light and the full extent is ultimately much bigger. The motion picture All The President’s Men illustrates this nicely. Stories about things being less extensive than they originally appear are not unlike The Wizard Of Oz in which a seemingly huge network of power turns out to be just one man behind a curtain.
Realize that your mind is a narrative-generating machine. That is why narratives exist in the first place: because they mirror the processes of the mind. But the mind is also a repository of topical information – subject matter – and engages in the process of synthesizing two or more old ideas into a new one. The new ideas may or may not fit into the narrative the mind is constructing. And yet the heart is drawn more to the new ideas, just as the mind is drawn more to a balanced and complete structure.
And so, in waking and in sleeping our conscious and subconscious minds each rule for part of our lives, with the other being the opposition party for a few hours. And in the term of office of each, they push through their agendas: more subject matter, ever-expanding or more accurate structure, ever-refining.
The act of creation is a political war between our conscious and sub-conscious selves – our hearts and our minds – our love of a subject and our need to put that subject in a contextual framework.
Only when negotiations commence and compromises are made is a balance between topic and matrix achieved. And then, though our hearts and minds will never be fully satisfied with the treaty between them, they will let the work of art go out into the world and call it complete, as the loss of some of our most important story elements ultimately is less than the ongoing losses within us in a war between our emotions and our reason.
You can make your story a lot more focused and targeted if you know what kind of a story you are creating. A good place to start is to figure out which of the four basic types of stories yours is.
Now, these four story categories are a lot like the basic colors – Red, Blue, Yellow and Green. In practice there’s really a whole spectrum of stories out there, but you can begin adding clarity to your story by dividing them into these four groups: Situation, Activity, Mind Set, and Manner of Thinking.
Situation stories are like Poseidon Adventure where folks are trapped in an overturned cruise ship in the middle of the ocean or the original Die Hard where terrorists have trapped people in a skyscraper. Each is a fixed situation and until they get out of that situation, they’re just stuck in a real problem.
Activity stories are more like The African Queen where the characters have to make it down a jungle river in order to blow up an enemy ship or The Great Race where the characters have to participate in a turn-of-the-19th-century auto race from New York to Paris, the hard way around. Each of these stories is about a an ongoing physical effort, and is quite unlike a fixed situation story.
Mind Set stories are like A Christmas Carol where it is Scrooge’s attitude that is the underlying problem or like To Kill a Mockingbird in which people’s prejudice is the mind set that is causing the story’s problem. Each of these stories is about an unchanging state of mind, and the story’s problems will continue until that mind set is changed or overcome.
Manner of Thinking stories are like Hamlet where his father has been murdered and he wants to take revenge but keeps overthinking the plumbing and getting lost in his own ponderings or like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in which the characters are out to cause as much emotional pain as they can in their ceaseless predatory bickering. Each of these stories is about problems created by people who’s way of thinking is off-kilter and problematic, and the difficulties will continue unless the some to grips with things.
So, fixed situations, ongoing activities, fixed mind sets, and ongoing problems with the way folks are thinking. Those are the primary colors of types of stories.
Now, just knowing what type of story you are writing doesn’t write it for you. But by understanding which of these categories your story falls into, you can better target your efforts and give your plot, in fact your entire structure, a consistent and focused core.
Some time ago I wrote an article explaining how plot wasn’t the order in which events appeared in a story, but the order in which they happened to the characters. The storytelling order can be all mixed up for effect. As an example, consider the Quentin Tarantino movie, Pulp Fiction, in which several interconnected story lines are presented quite out of order from how they actually came down. A large part of the fun for the audience is to try to put the pieces together in the right sequence so they understand the meaning of the story.
Of course, that’s an extreme example. Much more common is the simple flashback (or flash forward). But even here, some flashbacks are plot, and others are storytelling. First, consider a story in which the story opens in a given year and then the next section begins with the introduction, “Three years earlier…” In this case, the characters aren’t being transported back in time, just the reader or audience. The author is showing us what happened that led up to where things are “now” in the story. That is all storytelling, and can be quite effective.
But now consider a flashback in which a character recalls some incident in the past. The character drifts off into reverie and then we, the readers or audience, watch those events as if they are in the present, observing the memories as the character experiences them. This is plot, not storytelling, because neither character nor readers are transport back in time. Rather, we are just observing just what the character is reminiscing about in the here and now. And so, this trip to the past does affect the character – it changes how they feel and perhaps what they will do next.
This is also true of flash forwards: Do we jump into the future to see where a character will end up, or is the character projecting where they might end up and we are seeing what they are thinking? The first variation is storytelling, the second is plot.
Of course things can get really out of whack in time-travel stories, especially since you can add both plot flashbacks and storytelling flashbacks also. The important thing here is to know when you are actually altering your plot or just changing the order in which the readers or audience are shown parts of the plot. If you are aware, you can play these techniques like a virtuoso, but if you treat them all the same, you’ll just end up with a cacophony.
But, as I said, that was covered in an earlier article I wrote, but I am repeating it here as a necessary foundation to what comes next. And that is, the difference between Static Plot Points and Sequential Plot Points. Very important.
To begin, if you strip away all the storytelling aspects of plot and get down to just the structure (the order in which things happen to the characters), you’ll find there are two kinds of plot points: One, Static Plot Points, such as the story Goal, that remain the same for the whole course of the story, and Two, Sequential Plot Points, such as Acts, Sequences, Scenes, and Beats within a scene, in which the story moves from one to the next to the next until the progression of the plot arrives at the climax, resolves and ends.
And that is what this article is about – giving you a glimpse into those two aspects of plot.
First, let’s look at the static plot points. We’ll cover just four in this article to make the point about static vs. progressive and address others in later articles. Here’s the four we’ll explore:
Goal, Requirements, Consequences, and Forewarnings.
Here’s a brief description of each:
Goal is what the protagonist is trying to achieve and the antagonist is trying to stop. Each probably has recruited their own team of helpers enlisted to aid in their two contradictory quest, but it is ultimately the protagonist and antagonist who have to duke it out to determine if the effort to achieve the goal ends in success or failure.
Now we all know that some goals turn out to be not worth achieving and that some goals are born of a misguided understanding, and also that goals can be partially achieved so, for example, the protagonist doesn’t get everything they want but enough to cover what they really need. No matter how you temper it, the story Goal is the biggest linchpin in your story’s plot.
Requirements are what’s needed to achieve that Goal. Requirements might be a shopping list of things the characters need to obtain or accomplish in any order (like a scavenger hunt) or Requirements could be a series of steps that need to be checked off in order.
Now you’d think that would make Requirements a sequential plot point, but it doesn’t because the Requirements remain the same for the entire story. So, just because you have to fulfill requirement 1 and then 2 and then 3, doesn’t make them sequential. Sequential plot points are like gears that turn to a different setting every act, sequence, or scene. The focus of each act, for example, is different than the last one, while the Requirements remain the same, even if they have to be accomplished in a certain order.
Yeah, this stuff can get pretty complex. That’s why you have me, your friendly neighborhood teach of story structure and storytelling to guide you through these tricky little story structure quagmires.
Consequences, are sort of like an Anti-Goal. Consequences are what will happen if the goal is not accomplished. It’s kind of like the flip-side of the coin. One the one side is the positive desired future and on the other side is the negative undesired alternative if that future isn’t achieved.
Consequences are really important because they double the dramatic tension of the story. The character are just chasing something positive, they are also being chased by something negative. Will they catch the Goal before the Consequences catch them? That’s where plot tension comes from. Right there.
Forewarnings… Just as Requirements are how you can chart the progress toward the Goal, Forewarnings are how you can chart how close the Consequences are to happening. Consequences can be cracks in a dam, follow by a small drip, a few little leaks, and so on. Everyone knows that at some point, the dam is going to bust – unless the characters achieve the Goal first, such as diverting the upstream flow, or opening the jammed overflow gates.
Forewarings can also be emotional too. A man must make his fortune to satisfy a woman’s father before he can get permission to marry her. But, there is another suitor. While he’s off looking for a legendary treasure, the woman has a casual conversation with the rival. As the man remains away, the woman and the rival share a meal, have a picnic, sit close together on the beach, watching the sunset. We all know that if the man doesn’t return with the treasure soon, the woman will go with the suitor who is there, rather than the man who isn’t.
So those are four examples of static plot points. There are many more. You’d be surprised! Some of them are extremely handy in making a plot click like clockwork. Alas, those are beyond the scope of this particular article. But don’t worry, I’ll be covering those in the not too distant future. Was that a flash forward?
All right. Now what about the Sequential Plot Points? A storya unfolds over time – not just in the telling, but the whole point of a story is to follow a journey and learn if the characters involved make the right decisions or not to get what they are after, both materially and emotionally. And we, the readers or audience, gain from that experience so we are better prepared if we ever face that kind of human issue in our own lives.
Now of course nobody thinks about that while following a story, but that’s how it works at the structural level. That’s part of the craft of authorship: to structure a story to affect readers or audience in a certain way intentionally to move them to feel or respond in a desired fashion when all is said and done.
To this end, think of a story as a symphony. You may know that symphonies are made of of movements – large sections of time in which certain themes are explored. And then the symphony shifts into another movement in which a different theme is explored. By the end of the symphony, all the variations of the theme that the composer wanted the audience to experience have been related, leading to a final climax and conclusion. How very like a story.
In stories, the largest of these movements are the acts. You can feel them when watching a movie or reading a book. There comes a point where something major is completed and the characters move on to a different kind of effort or understanding. Or, some major event occurs that sends everything off in a different direction. You get a sense of completion when you reach an act break, and also the sense that the next stage or phase of the story’s journey is about to begin.
Within acts are smaller movements called Sequences. Sequences usually follow an arc that spans several scenes. It may be a character arc or a kind of effort or process that has its own beginning, middle, and end within the story as a whole. For example, we’ve all heard of the “chase sequence” that often occurs in action movies. That’s how they come across, basically.
Scenes are smaller units and are more defined. They are like little dramatic circuits that have a Potential, Resistance, Current, and Outcome (Power). Each scene is a little machine – a miniature story within an act. Each scene starts with some dramatic potential, runs into a resistance, presses forward, and ends with a resolution to that original potential.
One of the most elegant things about scenes is that the way a scene ends set up the dramatic potential that will start another scene later. Elegant, but hard to get your head around. Again, not to worry, I’ll be covering that aspect of plot in another article soon.
Point being, that each scene is a tooth on the cog of an act. And together all these act cogs work together as part of the plot machinery of your story.
And finally, just as I covered four of the most basic static plot points, here is the fourth and final sequential plot point I’ll give you for now: Beats.
Beats are the turning of the gears within each scene. They are the steps within the scene that introduce the potential, bring into play the resistance, pit those against each other, and spit out the outcome.
What those beats are and how to use them is, again, the subject of another article. But the point here is that the sequential progression of a plot isn’t just one event after another; it is more like wheels within wheels.
And so, I believe we have accomplish our goal of the moment, which is that you are now probably quite away that the order of events in a finished story is not at all the plot. The plot is the order in which events happen to the characters.
And plot has two kinds: static, and sequential. The static point points include such things as Goal, Requirements, Consequences, and Forewarnings, and never change their nature over the course of the story. The sequential plot points are like gears that move the machinery of the plot forward, act by act, sequence by sequence, scene by scene, and beat by beat.
And that, my fellow writers, is how a story rolls.
Main characters don’t have to change to grow. They can grow in their resolve.
It is a common misconception among authors that the main character in a story must change in order to grow. Certainly, that is one kind of story, as in A Christmas Carol where Scrooge alters his way of looking at the world and his role in it. But other stories are about characters overcoming pressures put upon them to change their view point and holding on to their beliefs, such as in Field of Dreams where main character Ray Kinsella builds a baseball stadium in his corn field believing the old time players (and eventually even his father) will come to play. In the end, he is not dissuaded from what appears to be an quixotic plan of a misguided mind, and his steadfastness results in the achievement of his dreams.
It is essential in any novel or movie for the readers/audience to understand whether or not the main character ultimately changes to adopt a new point of view or holds on to his beliefs. Only then can the story provide a message that a particular point of view is (in the author’s opinion) the right or wrong way of thinking to achieve success and personal fulfillment.
But not all stories have happy endings. Sometimes, the main character changes when he should have stuck with his guns in regard to his beliefs and becomes corrupted or diminished or fails to achieve his goals A good example of this is in the movie The Mist (based on a Stephen King novel) in which the main character finally decides to give up on trying to find safety from monsters and shoots his son and surrogate family to save them from a horrible death only to have rescuers show up a moment later.
Other times, holding onto a belief system leads to tragic endings as well, as in Moby Dick in which the main character, Captain Ahab (Ishmael is the narrator), holds onto his quest for revenge until it leads to the death of himself and the destruction of his ship and the death of all his crew, save Ismael who lived to tell the tale.
Though writing is an organic endeavor, when you make specific decisions such as whether your main character will change or remain steadfast and what outcome that will bring about, you strengthen your message and provide a clear purpose to your storytelling that results in a strong spine in your novel or screenplay.
Whether your main character changes or remains steadfast is one of the questions we ask about your story in our Dramatica story structure software. You can try it risk-free for 90 days and return it for a full refund if it isn’t a good fit for your writing style.
Here are some general guidelines to help you structure your story’s plot, step by step.
Act One Beginning
The beginning of act one is the teaser. It may or may not have anything to do with the actual plot of the story. This is where you get the feel of the story and the feel of the main character. A good example is in Raiders of the Lost Ark. In the very beginning Indiana Jones replaces a statue with a bag of sand and then gets chased through a lot of booby traps. This actually has nothing to do with the story to come, but it sets the tone and grips the audience.
Act One Middle
The middle of act one is the set up of the situation and goal. Even though you should reveal the goal in this section, you don’t need to have the protagonist accept the goal.
If your goal requires a lot of preparation before starting on the quest, then you might want to have the acceptance of the goal by the end of this section and the preparation in the next section.
In contrast, if your protagonist needs to think or do something before accepting the goal and/or there is no preparation needed for the goal, then the acceptance of the goal can happen in the end section of the first act instead.
Act One Ending
By the end of this section everything should be ready to embark on the quest. All preparation, all acceptance is completed. Just as when you are going on vacation you turn off all the lights, pet the dogs, lock the doors, put the suitcases in the car, get in the car, put on your seatbelt, start the car and drive off out of sight… all this is the first act. The second act begins with the car on the road.
Act Two Beginning
This section presents the beginning of the quest. It is the start of the actual journey. In many stories, this is an upbeat or at least hopeful time. Everything goes as planned. Keep in mind that throughout act two the difficulties in achieving the goal are constantly increasing. This is the section before that starts to happen; when it seems as if the journey will be a piece of cake.
Act Two Middle
This is possibly the most important section you will write. It is the midpoint, the exact middle of your story.
Act two has in it, either in the this second or the end section, a special problem, often called a “plot twist.” The stakes are raised in an unexpected form, and in so-doing the whole picture is changed.
In an action story it will change what the characters think they need to do and make the goal more difficult to achieve. In a character piece, this problem makes it more difficult to resolve their personal problems; it complicates them.
Now you have a choice to make. If your plot twist will require reorganization or recovery by the characters, then it should be in this section. But if the plot twist simply sends things in a new direction, then it should be at the end of the next section.
Act Two Ending
Now you have either put the ground shaking problem in the previous middle section, or you are planning to put it in this one. Remember that if your problem requires reorganization of material or the scheme, then the problem should have been in the last section leaving this section for reorganization and/or recovery. If you want to put the problem in this section, make sure the problem does not require reorganization.
So you can have act two go out with a bang if you drop your plot twist right at the end of this section. Or, if the the bang was in the middle section you can have this section (and act two) go out with a whimper.
Now don’t let the name fool you, a whimper can be very effective. As an example, suppose in the middle of Act Two a natural disaster occurs as the Plot Twist bang. All the food the group has with them is scattered to the winds. After this disaster, all the food that can be found must be found.
The end section of act two in this story would involve finding the food, patching bags, rounding up lost horses, fixing what’s broken and so on, recovering. At the very last, everything is ready to go, and the man who is carrying the food sees a last grain of rice on a rock, picks it up, drops it in a bag, gets on his horse and leaves.
That moment with the single grain of rice is the whimper. It ends the act with a subtle sense of closure and the anticipation that Act Three will begin with a new sense of purpose for the characters.
Act Three Beginning
Act three is the buildup to and, of course, the climax itself. All the plot points in the story have been set up in the first act, developed in the second, and the third act is where everything comes together for better or for worse.
The beginning of the third act is a response to the plot twist of the second act. If you put the twist in the middle of the second act, then the characters spent the remaining part of act two recovering from that set back and getting ready to start again. In such a case, the beginning of act three feels like the beginning of the quest all over again – with renewed resolve.
If you put the twist at the end of the second act, then it dropped like a bombshell and changed the whole purpose of what the characters are trying to achieve. In this case, act three begins with the characters setting off in a whole new direction than at the beginning of the quest.
Either way, the reader/audience should be made to know that this is the start of the final push toward the ultimate climax or reckoning.
Act Three Middle
Throughout the story, although the Protagonist and Antagonist may have come into conflict, there have always been extenuating circumstances that prevented an ultimate conflict. In the middle of act three, these circumstances are dismantled, one by one, until nothing more stands between these two principal characters.
At the end of this section it is clear that a final face-off is inevitable.
Act Three Ending
This is climax of your story. It is where the antagonist and protagonist meet for the final conflict. Your entire story has been leading up to this moment, with rising tension and suspense. All the stops are removed and the momentum cannot be turned aside.
When the Protagonist and Antagonist meet, they start with the small stuff, sizing each other up. This is true whether it is an action-oriented story or a character study. The dynamics are the same – only the weapons they use are different.
In action stories there will be physical weapons. In character stories, the weapons will be emotional. In stories about a single character grappling with personal problems, his or her demons come to bear, slowly but directly, building to the final breaking point.
In all kinds of stories, this section builds as the two camps (and their followers) pull stronger and stronger weapons out of their arsenal, since the smaller ones have proven ineffective.
The battle quickly becomes more heated, more imperative, and riskier. Eventually both the antagonist and protagonist have employing all the weapons they have at their disposal except one. They each retain a trump card, one last weapon that they have not yet used for fear that it might backfire or take them down along with their opponent. With the use of this last weapon the battle will be decided, one way or another.
The final moments of the ending of act three might take one of two directions:
1. The weapon (physical or emotion) is employed and the results are seen as the smoke clears.
2. The weapon is employed and the result is left in limbo until the conclusion (epilog, dénouement or “wrap-up”)
The Denouement is defined as the final part of a play, movie, or narrative in which the strands of the plot are drawn together and matters are explained or resolved.
The denouement is the aftermath and epilogue. The climax is over and it’s time to take stock of all that has happened. This is both a cool down period for the reader/audience after the excitement of the climax and a tidying up of loose ends.
How did it all turn out? What was gained and what was lost? Was the effort to achieve the goal successful or not? Or, what the Goal only partially achieved, and was it enough to satisfy the characters?
In addition, you may want to show where things are likely to proceed from here, now that everything is said and done. You may even want to jump to the future to let your readers/audience in on what will become of your characters in later life.
In a sense, the conclusion is a new “set-up.” Just as the opening of your story set-up the way things are when the problem begins, the conclusion sets up how things are, now that it is over. What kind of new situation has come into being through the changes wrought by the climax?
Now your plot (and your story as a whole) have come to an end. And while every plot has it own unique twists and turns, these common touch points can help guide you along the way.
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