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Plotting Along

By Linda J. Cowgill

For most people, the terms story and plot are synonymous. People read a book or go to a movie and come away saying, What a great story! But the reason the book or film is so affecting is generally because the story has a great plot. (Don't think I'm forgetting about character and its importance to a great story. I'm including it in plot as part of a well-told story.)

~~ So What Exactly Is Plot?

1. Arrangement of Events
In literature or drama, plot encompasses three important factors. First, it refers to how events are arranged to achieve an intended effect. (Webster defines plot as a plan or scheme to accomplish a purpose.) A plot is constructed to make a point, to reach a climax that produces a specific result.

2. Causality
Plot is not just 'A' happens, 'B' happens and 'C' happens. It's 'A' happens and causes 'B' to result, which, in turn, causes 'C' and so on. These cause-and-effect relationships between scenes are instrumental in pushing the story action forward, as well as developing the conflict and characterizations by illustrating the consequences of events. (In this vein, the adage character is plot or character is fate proves true. A well-defined character's personality inexorably demands a specific resolution, one that at the end of the story feels retrospectively inevitable. Great works of dramatic art achieve this feeling of inevitably with regard to ALL the major dramatis personae. Consider the fate of the major characters in stories such as Dangerous Liaisons or Reflections in a Golden Eye. Individually, they feel psychologically real and, when meshed together, the climax feels preordained.)

3. Conflict
Dramatic conflict is the struggle that grows out of the interplay of opposing forces (ideas, interests, wills). Conflict creates tension and that awakens the audience's instinctive desire to watch other people fight it out: we want to satisfy the intellectual curiosity of knowing who wins, and to enjoy the accompanying feelings of satisfaction, joy and/or Schadenfreude. But while we are vicariously absorbed in the fight, we also want to understand the nature of the conflict so our minds jump ahead, trying to make sense of it. In the end, how we understand the resolution of the conflict is what makes for a satisfying conclusion.

We might say this: plot is a series of interrelated actions that progresses through a struggle of opposing forces to a climax and resolution that defines the meaning of the work.

~~ Plot Is Building To An Emotional Payoff

Plotting is the art of bringing your story to life. Let's say you've worked out the perfect act one climax to your story. A young man, Bernie, takes revenge on the man, Harry, who killed his father. In scene nine, Bernie goes to kill Harry, but stops when he sees Harry give five bucks to a street kid. That gets Bernie thinking maybe murder isn't the way. Now your hero Bernie is conflicted by guilt (Am I a coward for not avenging dad's death?) and relief (I didn't want to kill a man anyway!). Now you've created an internal obstacle that heightens the drama. But your first act break calls for Harry's death.

So in scene ten, Bernie goes to his dad's trailer in the country and finds a dog his father owned dead. Bernie sees another aspect of his dad's murder is how an innocent animal died of thirst or hunger. Harry's murder of Bernie's dad is replayed in an emotional sense. The pain of his father's death registers again with Bernie, and he's now more motivated to go and kill Harry. Not because a dog died, but because the magnitude of Bernie's dad's death isn't really felt until Bernie has seen, not merely learned, the ramifications of losing his father.

The point is that even a first act curtain needs to be plotted for maximum emotional payoff. In a pitch meeting you might say, Bernie comes home from the army and avenges his dad's death by killing Harry, which, in turn, gets Harry's gang to go after him. But when it comes to plotting the script, you can't use your turning point, the structural point of the first act break, as an effective guide by itself. Story points are the intermediate goals; plotting is what takes you there.

~~ Plotting Is Tying Actions To Emotions

Extending one scene into several allows the emotional weight hinted at in your outline to come to the foreground. We want the audience to understand fully Bernie's pain. But it's also more realistic to have Bernie cope with many feelings before deciding to act.

When characters demonstrate feelings the audience shares in similar situations, the audience feels empathy for the characters. We might not agree with or even like the character, but the common reaction binds us at a human level. Nothing says we have to like Bernie or agree with what he decides. But for us to believe what Bernie does, we have to understand his feelings. Plots keep stories relatable. We genuinely feel King Lear's pain and loss at the end of Shakespeare's play without liking him one bit.

Not allowing for separate emotion-reaction scenes is a common mistake writers make in moving from outlines to scripts. In real life, people need TIME to assess life-changing events. Reactions, feelings can deluge us until a 'plan' emerges for how we'll deal with the event. In art, we must make sense of the emotional chaos that ensues when dramatic episodes develop, but too often we just want to get on with the action of the story. (Steven Soderbergh did this to great effect in his direction of Erin Brockovich. He added small scenes where the heroine reflects on what's just happened to her and her family. These brief moments, often only seconds in duration, significantly added depth to what might have been a more routine, MOW-style story.)

~~ Plot Is The Ordering Of Emotions

Plot is more than an outline of events; it is also the ordering of emotions. Emotions make stories more compelling, illustrate motivations by creating emotional stakes, and make characters appear more authentic. When the emotional side of a story is left out, or only hinted at, characters feel less true, and the story loses dimension. Real characters must be given a chance to reveal themselves, and we (the audience) must be given a chance to observe the significant changes which take place in them, Lajos Egri wrote in The Art of Dramatic Writing 70 years ago. Plots pushed by action and not characters' emotions manipulate the characters like puppets, making the audience less likely to embrace them.

The best writers understand and use this in their plotting to make their stories more gripping. They find the balance between event and consequence and are able to weave the tapestry of action and emotion, the elements of plot and character, to tell page-turning stories.

We've all seen those maps of mountain ranges of the Rockies or Himalayas with elevation points outlined for the highest peaks. Think of those peaks as the main story points in your outline, the major turning points you want to build to. But what those maps may not show are the windy, harsh, wind-, snow- and ice-slapped paths that carry you up to the precipice and down into the next valley of complications. Those paths are the plot of your story, the route you must cover step-by-step to get to your goals. Forging those paths is the only way you're getting to the summit and back down again. And the goal really is making the trip, not just looking down from the top -- that you can do from an airplane. Plotting your story is really plodding your story (to work slowly and steadily). Story structure is a map, plotting is taking the trip. Nightfall, avalanches, weather and animals, real and fanciful, will try to distract you, so set out well prepared. You can use a guru for story; for plot, find a Gurkha.

Meet the Author: Linda J. Cowgill


Linda J. Cowgill teaches at the Los Angeles Film School and Loyola Marymount University.