Coming up with an unexpected change in direction of your plot that alters the course of your story.
Keeping that information from your readers until just the right moment to reveal it for maximum surprise.
As a technique, it is far easier to build a plot twist on your existing plot than to imagine one as a lone outlier and then try to connect it to the main.
To begin, suppose we have a story about a Marshall in an old west town who must overcome a notorious gang.
Rather than trying to invent a twist out of nowhere, ask a question you haven’t answered yet about your plot.
How does the Marshall first find out about the gang’s activities?
Now, let your Muse run wild and come up with as many potential answers as she can – from the sublime to the ricidulous
1. The gang rides into town hootin’ and hollarin’ (pretty typical)
2. He is told about the situation, right after he accepts the job and pins on the badge. (minor twist)
3. He saw a newspaper account of the town’s gang problem and came there on his own to get the job to clean up the gang. (minor twist)
4. The gang sends a telegram to the marshall’s home to taunt him by letting him know they are in town shaking it down. (uncommnon twist – not major, but unexpected)
Okay – none of these are particularly “oh, wow!” but this is just the first step in the technique. Now, you want to pick one of those scenarios (which has added to your plot) and ask another question to advance the potential of your plot twist into even more surprising growund.
For example, let’s pick the following to develop from our initial answers to the initial question:
Answer 3: He saw a newspaper account of the town’s gang problem and came there on his own to get the job to clean up the gang.
Now ask questons about that answer, as you did before, but this time you’ll be farther along your plot thread, giving it even more of a twist.
1. Where was he when he saw the newspaper?
2. Has he done this kind of thing before?
3. Why does he want to interfere?
4. What makes him think he is qualified to do anything about the problem?
5. Does he notify the town’s mayor or governing body before he shows up?
Then, you repeat the second “creative” step with your Muse and provide answers.
Question 2. Has he done this kind of thing before?
1. Yes, he is independently wealthy and does this all the time as a hobby.
2. Yes, one time. His family was killed when he was a child and in his first adventure, he read a newspaper account of a child who was made an orphan due to a gang’s violence in a town in the East. He brought the gang to justice and found a foster home for the child. It was so fulfilling, his ordinary job has been miserable since, and this new article has made him realize he needs to step forward to give his live meaning.
I could go on and on, but you get the idea.
Now, through this exercise, what twists have we created for our story? Perhaps these:
1. A scene showing the Marshall as a young boy when his family was killed (by who and how and where can all be figured out using the Creative Two-Step).
2. A scene showing the Marshall see the first article and decide to get involved.
3. Several scene, perhaps in a montage or in a scrapbook of how that first adventure went.
4. A scene of him encountering this new newspaper article and how it affects him.
5. A scene of him quitting his job (how much he needs the money, what kind of job, and so on can be created using the two-step)
6. A scene of him arriving at the town.
7. How he gets the job (again, use the two-step to come up with ideas for this)
8. His first encounter with the gang (casual, antagonistic, high or low tension, anybody get hurt?, did the gang know he was the Marshall when they first encounter?)
The benefit of this technique is that by asking a questions, then providing multiple potential answers, then asking another question about the one you chose, your plot grows and twists at the same time, suggesting new scenes, new characters, and new thematic issues along the way.
Bottm line – don’t get mired in a random process of trying to force yourself to invent a startling plot twist. Simply apply this technique and let the plot twists suggest themselves.
Melanie Anne Phillips Creator, StoryWeaver Co-creator, Dramatica
Here are some links to some good stuff for writers:
My main website for writers – https://storymind.com
A library of the hundreds of writing tips I’ve penned – https://storymind.com/blog
Most authors think of plot as what their story is about. And beyond that, they recognize key events and turning points in the story that are part of plot as well. That’s a good place to start, because it is how plot appears from the creative perspective as you are developing and writing your story.
But plot is quite a bit more than that. Structurally, a plot needs specific story points such as a goal, requirements that need to be met to achieve that goal, and even the price that will be paid if the goal is not met.
In this installment of our series on story structure, we’re going to reveal the key story points of plot and lay out the structural timeline as well.
By the time we’re done, you’ll have a much more refined understanding of what plot structure is, and how to manipulate it to create just the kind of story you want.
Let’s begin with the four most important plot points: Goal, Requirements, Consequences, and Forewarnings. All four of these work together to define what your story is about, what needs to be done, and what happens if the protagonist fails. Taken all together, these are the control knobs that adjust your plot’s dramatic tension.
Let’s investigate each of these four primary plot points:
Goal is really about as straight-forward as it seems: what the characters of your story are trying to achieve. Now, keep in mind that the protagonist is leader of the effort to achieve the goal. And, as we all know, there’s also going to be an antagonist who is working against the protagonist, either to prevent the goal from being achieved, or to achieve it for himself instead.
Without a goal, there is no clear cut destination your characters are trying to reach. So, you’ll need to describe that goal in no uncertain terms of your story will come off as unfocused and without a defined purpose. To your readers (or audience) it will seem to meander.
What kinds of things can be a goal? Just about anything: To escape from something or someone, to complete a task, to obtain something (could be a treasure, a diploma, or someone’s love), to discover something, to become a better person, to come to terms with the past. Really, almost anything can be a goal. It just needs to be something you don’t currently have, and can’t get just by snapping your fingers – you have to work for it.
Requirements describe the specific steps that must be taken or the necessary conditions that must be met for the goal to be achieved. If any step or condition is not completed, the goal will not be achieved.
Why are requirements important? Without them, your characters (and readers) have no idea what is needed to arrive at the goal. So, everything that happens seems arbitrary. And if they are ultimately successful, it comes off as if the characters just magically achieved the goal – it just happened, not because they worked to make it happen, but just because after running around in all kinds of directions, eventually the goal just plopped down in their lap for no apparent reason.
Like goals, requirements can be all kinds of things: getting the approval of all the members of the board of directors to stop an immoral project, gathering all the ingredients for the secret formula to saving the dying princess, searching the rooms in a haunted house to find an close the portal to hell, meeting the conditions necessary to prove you are worthy of someone’s love.
The key point in regard to requirements is that they be a limited set – a specific number of items or steps, well-delineated right up front, so the reader knows exactly what conditions must be met and can, therefore, track progress toward the goal.
Consequences are the bad things that will happen if the goal is not achieved. Why are consequences necessary? Because they double the motivation to achieve the goal. Without consequences, characters, just like real people, are likely at some point to say, “Hey, that goal would’ve been nice, but geesh, these requirements are just too darn hard. That goal ain’t worth it!”
But, with consequences in place, there is a price to pay if you just give up on the goal. If the goal isn’t achieved, you (and/or those you care about) will suffer. Achieving the goal not only obtains a good thing, but also prevents a bad one. And that is why your characters will push on to the end.
Forewarnings are the indicators that the consequences are gaining on you. They could be cracks in the dam that show it is getting closer to the consequence of it breaking and flooding the town if the goal of diverting the water upstream isn’t achieved or some unknown individual buying up more and more shares of stock until the consequence of him gaining control of the company prevents you from the goal of stopping an evil project.
As with requirements, forewarnings need to be clearly specified, but they don’t have to be a specific number of them. For example, how many cracks does it take before the dam breaks? With forewarnings, additional cracks, small pieces of concrete popping out, shuddering do to increasing instability, all these things can indicate the dam is getting closer to breaking, and collectively they ratchet up the motivation for the characters to push harder and faster because time and/or options are running out.
You can easily see how Goal, Requirements, Consequences, and Forewarnings work together as the master controllers of any plot’s structure.
These are the four power-drivers of the plot. However, there are many other plot points that fine tune how the dramatic tension of the Big Four is channeled through your story. But that is a subject for a future installment in our ongoing series on story structure.
This entire story structure series is referenced from our book on the subject that we published way back in 1991, Dramatica: A New Theory Of Story. Just click on the link to read it for free in a downloadable PDF.
Also, you may wish to try our Dramatica Story Structure Software with the world’s only patented interactive Story Engine. The Story Engine cross-references your answers to questions about your story to generate a structure that perfectly supports your intent, free of holes or inconsistencies.
Some novice writers become so wrapped up in interesting events and bits of action that they forget to have a central unifying goal that gives purpose to all the other events that take place. This creates a plot without a core.
But determining your story’s goal can be difficult, especially if your story is character oriented, and not really about a Grand Quest.
For example, in the movie “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” all the characters are struggling with their relationships and not working toward an apparent common purpose. There is a goal, however, and it is to find happiness in a relationship.
This type of goal is called a “Collective Goal” since it is not about trying to achieve the same thing, but the same KIND of thing.
So don’t try to force some external, singular purpose on your story if it isn’t appropriate. But do find the common purpose in which all your characters share a critical interest.
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.
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.
Some time ago I write an article that described the difference between the two basic forms of story structure with the following phrase:
You spin a tale, but you weave a story.
The common expression “spinning a yarn” conjures up the image of a craftsperson pulling together a fluffy pile into a single unbroken thread. An appropriate analogy for the process of telling a tale. A tale is a simple, linear progression – a series of events and emotional experiences that leads from point A to point B, makes sense along the way, and leaves no gaps.
A tale is, perhaps, the simplest form of storytelling structure. The keyword here is “structure.” Certainly, if one is not concerned with structure, one can still relate a conglomeration of intermingled scenarios, each with its own meaning and emotional impact. Many power works of this ilk are considered classics, especially as novels or experimental films.
Nonetheless, if one wants to make a point, you need to create a line that leads from one point to another. A tale, then, is a throughline, leading from the point of departure to the destination on a single path.
A story, on the other hand, is a more complex form of structure. Essentially, a number of different throughlines are layered, one upon another, much as a craftsperson might weave a tapestry. Each individual thread is a tale that is spun, making it complete, unbroken, and possessing its own sequence. But collectively, the linear pattern of colors in all the throughlines form a single, overall pattern in the tapestry, much as the scanning lines on a television come together to create the image of a single frame.
In story structure, then, the sequence of events in each individual throughline cannot be random, but must be designed to do double-duty – both making sense as an unbroken progression and also as pieces of a greater purpose.
You won’t find the word, “throughline” in the dictionary. In fact, as I type this in my word processor, it lists the word as misspelled. Chris Huntley and I used the word when we developed the concept as part of our work creating the Dramatica theory (and software). Since then, we have found it quite the useful moniker to describe an essential component of story structure.
Throughlines then, are any elements of a story that have their own beginnings, middles, and ends. For example, every character’s growth has its own throughline. Typically, this is referred to as a character arc, especially when in reference to the main character. But an “arc” has nothing to do with the growth of a character. Rather, each character’s emotional journey is a personal tale that describe his or her feelings at the beginning of the story, at every key juncture, and at the final reckoning.
Some characters may come to change their natures, others may grow in their resolve. But their mood swings, attitudes, and outlook must follow an unbroken path that is consistent with a series of emotions that a real human being might experience. For example, a person will not instantly snap from a deep depression into joyous elation without some intervening impact, be it unexpected news, a personal epiphany, or even the ingestion of great quantities of chocolate. In short, each character throughline must be true to itself, and also must take into consideration the effect of outside influences.
Now that we know what a throughline is, how can we use it? Well, right off the bat, it helps us break even the most complex story structures down into a collection of much simpler elements. Using the throughline concept, we can far more easily create a story structure, and can also ensure that every element is complete and that our story has no gaps or inconsistencies.
Before the throughline concept, writers traditionally would haul out the old index cards (or their equivalent) and try to create a single sequential progression for their stories from Act I, Scene I to the climax and final denouement.
An unfortunate byproduct of this “single throughline” approach is that it tended to make stories far more simplistic than they actually needed to be since the author would think of the sequential structure as being essentially a simple tale, rather than a layered story.
In addition, by separating the throughlines it is far easier to see if there are any gaps in the chain. Using a single thread approach to a story runs the risk of having a powerful event in one throughline carry enough dramatic weight to pull the story along, masking missing pieces in other throughlines that never get filled. This, in fact, is part of what makes some stories seem disconnected from the real world, trite, or melodramatic.
By using throughlines it is far easier to create complex themes and layered messages. Many authors think of stories as having only one theme (if that). A theme is just a comparison between two human qualities to see which is better in the given situations of the story.
For example, a story might wish to deal with greed. But, greed by itself is just a topic. It doesn’t become a theme until you weigh it against its counterpoint, generosity, and then “prove” which is the better quality of spirit to possess by showing how they each fare over the course of the story. One story’s message might be that generosity is better, but another story might wish to put forth that in a particular circumstance, greed is actually better.
By seeing the exploration of greed as one throughline and the exploration of generosity as another, each can be presented in its own progression. In so doing, the author avoids directly comparing one to the other (as this leads to a ham-handed and preachy message), but instead can balance one against the other so that the evidence builds as to which is better, but you still allow the audience to come to its own conclusion, thereby involving them in the message and making it their own. Certainly, a more powerful approach.
Plot, too, is assisted by multiple throughlines. Subplots are often hard to create and hard to follow. By dealing with each independently and side by side, you can easily see how they interrelate and can spot and holes or inconsistencies.
Subplots usually revolve around different characters. By placing a character’s growth throughline alongside his or her subplot throughline, you can make sure their mental state is always reflective of their inner state, and that they are never called upon to act in a way that is inconsistent with their mood or attitude at the time.
There are many other advantages to the use of throughlines as well. So many, that the Dramatica theory (and software) incorporate throughlines into the whole approach. Years later, when I developed StoryWeaver at my own company, throughlines became an integral part of the step-by-step story development approach it offers.
How do you begin to use throughlines for your stories? The first step is to get yourself some index cards, either 3×5 or 5×7. As you develop your story, rather than simply lining them all up in order, you take each sequential element of your story and create its own independent series of cards showing every step along the way.
Identify each separate kind of throughline with a different color. For example, you could make character-related throughlines blue (or use blue ink, or a blue dot) and make plot related throughlines green. This way, when you assemble them all together into your overall story structure, you can tell at a glance which elements are which, and even get a sense of which points in your story are character heavy or plot or theme heavy.
Then, identify each throughline within a group by its own mark, such as the character’s name, or some catch-phrase that describes a particular sub-plot, such as, “Joe’s attempt to fool Sally (or more simply, the “Sally Caper.”). That way, even when you weave them all together into a single storyline, you can easily find and work with the components of any given throughline. Be sure also to number the cards in each throughline in sequence, so if you accidentally mix them up or decide to present them out of order for storytelling purposes, such as in a flashback or flash forward, you will know the order in which they actually need to occur in the “real time” of the story.
Once you get started, its easy to see the value of the throughline approach, and just as easy to come up with all kinds of uses for it.
There is a multitude of plot points, but among these, four are the most visible:
2. Personal Goals
The Goal is what the Protagonist is trying to achieve and what the Antagonist is trying to stop or prevent.All the other central characters of your story side with one or the other in varying degrees of motivation.
What motivates the characters to try and achieve or prevent the goal is each character’s own Personal Goal.Each character sees the story Goal as a means to an end, as something that will enable them to achieve their Personal Goal.Therefore, the Goal becomes a quest, driven by their own wants & needs.
Every Goal has Requirements.These can be feats that must be performed, items that must be obtained, or conditions that must be met.The list of Requirements provides the audience with a means of knowing how far the quest has progressed, and also provides a sense of how far the story can range.
What happens if the Goal is not achieved?The Consequences add tension and importance to the Goal.The Consequences may occur if the Goal is not achieved, or may already be in effect but will remain unless the Goal is met and ends them.
In the following screens, Storyweaver will help you define and refine your story’s Goal, determine each character’s motivating Personal Goal, the Requirements need to achieve the Goal, and the Consequences that will be suffered if the Goal is not achieved.
There are many story points relating to your plot, ranging from the the outcome of the quest to the obstacles the characters face along the way. While all story points are important, there are four essential ones that provide the cornerstones of your plot.
We are all familiar with the need for a central unifying goal to drive the plot forward. This goal can be a shared objective, such as the desire to rob a casino in Ocean’s 11, or it can be a shared or collective goal, such as in Four Weddings and a Funeral in which all the characters are seeking a satisfying relationship, but not with the same person!
Goal is the primary and most essential story point in your plot, but there are three other plot points that are nearly as crucial to creating a captivating plot.
If the Goal is what the characters are after, then the Consequence is what is after the characters! If the characters are chasing something, that can be exciting. But if something is chasing the characters as well, it doubles the tension.
Typically, consequences are the bad things that will happen if the Goal is not achieved. But they can also be bad things that are already happening and will continue to happen if the Goal is not achieved.
For example, if the goal is to find a hidden treasure, that can create drama. But if the families of those trying to find the treasure will be sold into slavery if the treasure is not found, that is much more intense drama.
Having a goal is fine, but if it were something that would be achieved or not in only a moment, the story would be over before it started. Goals can’t just be achieved. Rather, a series of Requirements must be met that will cause the goal to be achieved, or enable the characters to then tackle the goal directly.
Requirements can be a collection of items that must be obtained or endeavors that must be successfully undertaken in any order, like a scavenger hunt. Or, a goal’s requirements might be a series of objects or activities, which must be performed in order, more like advancing through grades in order to graduate from school.
It helps a story move along to spell out what the requirements are before the end of your first act, or opening dramatic movement. This provides a clear idea of where things are heading, and allows your reader or audience to put plot events into context.
This is not to say that complications can’t arise, or that additional requirements might be added (“Bring me the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West). But providing an initial list of requirements will create a yardstick against which your readers or audience can judge the story’s progress toward it’s ultimate conclusion.
Just as a goal has requirements, consequences have forewarnings. These can be as simple as cracks forming in a dam or the extent of the rash on a hapless fellow who’s been poisoned.
As with requirements, forewarnings can be a matter of degree (“That’s three people who have quit the program. How many more can you afford to lose before the whole show folds?”) Or it can be a sequence, such as the evil robot breaking past the third of five automatic defense stations.
Without forewarnings, the consequences are just a nebulous threat or existent condition. But forewarnings make the consequence come alive, become immediate, and impending.
All Four Together
All four essential plot points work together to create a web of tension, but long and short term, that can flux and flow. The objective looms ahead as the threat looms in the rear view mirror. And along the way, requirement road signs tell us how far we have to go, while the growing size of the headlights in the mirror forewarn that the consequences are almost upon us.
Will we get to the goal before we are overtaken, or will we be run down from behind just moments before we might have grabbed success? These are the questions that inject tension in your plot, in addition go giving it direction.
There are two types of subplots: Those that run parallel and don’t really affect each other dramatically, and those that are dramatically hinged together.
An example of parallel subplots can be found in Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors” in which the “Crime” story with Martin Landau and the “Misdemeanor” story with Woody Allen never really affect each other. The purpose of having these two stories in the same “work” is for the audience to be able to compare two completely different issues that share a common cultural concern. In “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” it is the differential created between them, which provides a social message that extends beyond the meaning found by either of the two Main Characters.
An example of a hinged subplot can be found in the original “Star Wars.” Han Solo’s debt to Jabba the Hutt is a story in its own right with Han as the Main Character. This subplot eventually comes to have changed the course of the plot in the main story.
The purpose of having a subplot may be two-fold: 1: to enhance a character, theme, plot, or amplify part of the genre of the “work” and/or 2: to move the course of the main story in a direction it could not dramatically go in and of itself.
In “Star Wars,” Han Solo is initially uncooperative and refuses to get involved in the efforts of Obi Wan or Luke. For example, when the group first arrives on the Death Star, Han wants to fight, not to hide in the room while Obi Wan goes off. But when Luke discovers that the princess is on board, Han wants to wait in the room and not fight. It is his nature.
So, how do we get Han to join Luke in the rescue attempt? We invoke Han’s subplot. Luke tells Han, “She’s rich,” and Han is already hooked. But if there were no Jaba subplot, the money alone would not be enough to convince the uncooperative Han to “walk into the detention area.” On the other hand, since Jaba has put a price on Han’s head, he’s dead already unless he can come up with the money, and this is probably the only chance he’s going to get to do that. As a result, Han joins the plan, acting completely against what his character would do dramatically in the main story but in complete consistency with his personal needs (which are more important to him) in his subplot.
By using both the parallel and hinged subplots you can enhance your story’s depth and move it in directions it could not legitimately go with only the main plot.
For your own story, list each of your characters and its role in the main story. Then briefly describe any of your characters’ personal stories that are not really part of the overall plot, but might be a subplot. Put each character who has a subplot in the role of Main Character of his own personal story. Then, determine if that subplot runs parallel to the main story or intersects and impacts it. Make sure to include this impact in the way your characters respond in the main story to ensure they ring true to their complete nature.
Finally, look over your plot and see if there are any times when events require a character to act “out of character.” If so, devise a personal subplot for that character that could explain its unusual action in the main story.
Some writers become so wrapped up in interesting events and bits of action that they forget to have a central unifying goal that gives purpose to all the other events that take place. This creates a plot without a core. But determining your story’s goal can be difficult, especially if your story is character oriented, and not really about a Grand Quest.
For example, in the movie “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” all the characters are struggling with their relationships and not working toward an apparent common purpose. There is a goal, however, and it is to find happiness in a relationship. This type of goal is called a “Collective Goal” since it is not about trying to achieve the same thing, but the same KIND of thing. When considering the goal for your story, don’t feel obligated to impose a contrived central goal if a collective goal is more appropriate.