Master Reference Guide For Creating and Structuring Plot - All Genres
Links: Field's Three Act Structure Siegal's Nine Act Structure The Plot, Setting and Conflict Outline
The "Plot Point" is sometimes defined a bit differently depending on who you read. At Author Salon we define it as a major occurrence that emphatically changes the course of the story. In an average novel of any genre, we see three to five major plot points depending on various factors: first PP that begins the rising action, second PP defined by the first major reversal, a third PP defined by a possible second major reversal, a climax PP, and a theoretical PP residing in the denouement, i.e., we think the story is going to resolve a certain way after climax but a surprise happens that resolves it differently
- Michael Neff
Algonkian Author Salon has developed the Six Act Two-Goal novel structure for writers of book-length fiction and nonfiction. The point here is to understand and utilize a tightly plotted act structure, similar to that used by screenplay writers, to effectively brainstorm and outline a very competitive and suspenseful plot for the genre novel, i.e., fantasy, SF, YA/MG, mystery, and so forth. Upmarket or literary fiction with a strong plot also benefits.
We combine Siegal's "nine act structure - two goal" screenplay (very much like the Syd Field three act except that the "reversal" from Field's structure becomes the "Act 5" in Siegal's version) with the Field classic three act. The Two-Goal Structure, Siegal maintains, creates more dynamic plot tension due to the insertion of PLOT REVERSAL later in the story, and we concur with this.
In the opening of a story, the protagonist(s) are focused on a major goal begun by the first major plot point that starts the second act (in the Field model), but by the middle of the second act or later, they realize they have pursued the wrong goal. The protagonist(s) are forced to alter their course and struggle for a new, more accurate goal.
The fusion of the Siegal and Field models we outline below thus becomes a tighter six act model for the novel or narrative nonfiction. Here is a plot outline guide developed by Author Salon for approaching the integration of the model: THE PSCO GUIDE.
Note that pages referenced are double-spaced and approximate for each act, overlap and variation always likely, and for an average 400 page manuscript ("+" notes the possibility of a somewhat higher page number).
Before you begin, take note that your most important elements to sketch and produce from the onset are:
NOTE: we use examples of novels, stories and films below that will likely be familiar to the widest range of readers. These include ANTIGONE, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, THE HUNGER GAMES, HUCKLEBERRY FINN, ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, GLADIATOR, THE GREAT GATSBY, WAR OF THE WORLDS, CATCHER IN THE RYE, CITIZEN KANE, HARRY POTTER, DA VINCI CODE, THE MALTESE FALCON, THE SUN ALSO RISES, COLD MOUNTAIN, THE WIZARD OF OZ, and MISERY. But make no mistake, the rules governing the art of fiction, or good storytelling, remain steady regardless of genre, and have pretty much been fixed since Apollonius of Rhodes wrote about the Argonauts. And if you happen to be one of those writers who believes that writing a novel "your way" or simply "from the heart" or "only with my character’s direction" means avoiding or denying the critical elements of commercial fiction and good storytelling found below, it‘s best to move on quickly from this page and seek the Elysium of your desire. All best wishes to you.
NOTE 2: The "Plot Point" is sometimes defined a bit differently depending on who you read. At Author Salon we define it as a major occurrence that emphatically changes the course of the story. In an average novel of any genre, we see three to five major plot points depending on various factors: first PP that begins the rising action, second PP defined by the first major reversal, a third PP defined by a possible second major reversal, a climax PP, and a theoretical PP residing in the denouement, i.e., we think the story is going to resolve a certain way after climax but a surprise happens that resolves it differently. Bonus.
Backstory to Set Up The Tale
You must carefully forge your backstory before you begin. Understand the issues below. This does not directly appear in the story except by use of flashback and via other methods to deliver EXPOSITION:
- Writers set up the disaster that is coming in the story.
- Forces need to already be in motion before the story begins in order to create conflict for the characters.
- Usually the emphasis for the backstory will be on the antagonist, but even protagonists carry baggage into the story.
- Years and years of planning might have gone into planning the collision course.
ACT ONE (Page 1 - 30+)
Issues of The Hook: Protagonist Intro - Antagonist First? - Inciting Incident - Extreme Importance of Setting - Establishment of Characters - The MacGuffin - In Media Res - Crucial Sympathy Factors - Something Bad Happens - Exposition - Theme?
What needs to be done from the start? Why is the hook of Act I critical to this novel and to being taken seriously as a writer?
- The author showcases their best prose and narrative skills. Opening scenes clearly use show-don't-tell effects to render the protagonist and major characters as necessary. Scenes themselves have clear beginnings, middles, and ends. Point of view is rendered masterfully on both a distant and close level. Narrative and story progression don't feel overly derivative, but rather fresh and suspenseful, definitely engaging.
- Act I foreshadows the primary external conflict or complication (related to the protagonist goal in ACT II) to come.
- Protagonist sympathy factors in the first 20 pages critical for connecting with the reader. We see the character playing out their role in active scenes. We learn about them, their strengths and weakness, and we learn these things by virtue of their actions, various internal concerns and conflict, and by the way other characters react to them in real time (vital--set up characters whose role, at least in part, it is to reveal the traits and inclinations of the protagonist).
- Following on above, what does YOUR PROTAGONIST NEED? Love? Friends? Status? Money? A way back home? When you sketch your protagonist, consider this carefully and write it down, mull it over. Might make a huge difference.
- Conflict begins on one or two of three levels (inner conflict(s) and interpersonal conflicts).
- Setting is established (and it must be one that works to create verve and opportunities).
- IN MEDIA RES may be employed here ("beginning in the middle"), ie, beginning where it most benefits the story, at a point of action, turmoil, or during a lively or curious event, etc.
- Something bad, irritating or tension-causing usually happens (Chief Bromden gets electro-shocked in the CUCKOO'S NEST or Jake debates his impotency with his ex-girlfriend in THE SUN ALSO RISES) or has just happened (murder victim found in the mayor's plum tree).
- An INCITING INCIDENT may take place that sets in motion events leading to the FIRST MAJOR PLOT POINT (see Act II below). In the movie, GLADIATOR, Commodus murders his Emperor father (Inciting Incident) which inevitably leads to the Emperor's general, Maximus, realizing the murder. He defies Commodus and faces execution (Plot Point) as a result. In King's MISERY, the author protagonist gets in a car accident and is rendered helpless (Inciting Incident). Kathy Bates finds him and imprisons him in her house (Plot Point). In ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, McMurphy is sent to the asylum as a result of a fight (Inciting Incident) and later bets the inmates that he can shake up the Big Nurse and not get sent to the shock shop (Plot Point).
- The author cleverly parcels in EXPOSITION in a variety of ways, via narrative, dialogue, characters, flashbacks, etc. NOTE that all major exposition must be delivered before or during the scene wherein the FIRST MAJOR PLOT POINT takes place. All information necessary to understand the story going forward must be known. Pardon the cliche, but exposition horse before the plot point cart at all times. In THE SUN ALSO RISES, Jake delivers the final round of exposition about his love, Brett Ashley, to his rival, Robert Cohn, just as Robert is making it known he wants Brett for himself. Jake reveals Brett's background and future plans (Exposition), and Robert indicates his plans for pursuing her (Plot Point).
- The MacGuffin, if any, might well be introduced or foreshadowed as an object (or even goal) which catalyzes the plot line, or at least assists creates a source of mystery or tension (THE MALTESE FALCON, “rosebud“ in CITIZEN KANE, the strange scar of HARRY POTTER).
- Something called THEME might well get a foothold here. Does the author have a message or a bigger point she or he wishes to portray in the plot, or by means of the character struggles, their conflicts and arcs, or perhaps by means of the setting itself? All the above? And THEME doesn't have to be the province only of literary or upmarket literature. From Wikipedia concerning theme in THE HUNGER GAMES:
The choices the characters make and the strategies they use are often morally complex. The tributes build a personality they want the audience to see throughout the Games. Voice of Youth Advocates (VOYA) names the major themes of The Hunger Games as "government control, 'big brother', and personal independence." The trilogy's theme of power and downfall, similar to that of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, was pointed out by Scholastic. Laura Miller of The New Yorker finds that the author's stated premise of the Games – an exercise in propaganda and a "humiliating as well as torturous .... punishment" for a failed uprising against the Capitol many years earlier – unconvincing. "You don’t demoralize and dehumanize a subject people by turning them into celebrities and coaching them on how to craft an appealing persona for a mass audience." But the story works much better if the theme is vicissitudes of high school and "the adolescent social experience"
- The antagonist and his or her minions (if any), are introduced to a meaningful degree, along with more characters as necessary, or sidekicks of the protagonist.
Note to Writer: don’t create a minor or major character who doesn’t somehow play a role in the development of the plot(s) and/or the protagonist arc. And they must create a presence on the stage of the page, either by virtue of their personality, position, attitude of the moment, or all of the above. You must consider and weigh and sketch each character carefully. Imagine they are all in a film. Will they seem gratuitous or vital to you? Sufficiently energetic or too quiet?
The primary antagonist might remain a mystery (Lord Voldemort in HARRY POTTER), or be introduced first (the Big Nurse in CUCKOO’S NEST or the Opus Dei albino in DA VINCI CODE or the Wicked Witch in WIZARD OF OZ) to produce dramatic concern once protagonist accepts the goal.
NOTE: The above is a very important dramatic effect. If you understand to a meaningful degree the power of the antagonist, whoever she or he may be, then instinctive concern for the protagonist enters the reader’s mind as soon as she or he accepts the goal in ACT TWO (see below).
ACT TWO (Page 10+ - 50+)
More Hook: Write the Story Statement - Establishment of Major Goal - Primary External Conflict or Complication Begins - First Major Plot Point and Plot Line - Protagonist Psychology - Rising Action
What's the mission? The goal? What must be done? Created? Accomplished? Defeated?
Defy the dictator of the city and bury brother’s body (ANTIGONE)? Place a bet that will shake up the asylum (ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST)? Do whatever it takes to recover lost love (THE GREAT GATSBY)? Save the farm and live to tell the story (COLD MOUNTAIN)? Find the wizard and a way home to Kansas (WIZARD OF OZ)? Note that all of these are books with strong antagonists who drive or catalyze the plot line going forward.
Note to Writer: If you can’t write a simple story statement like above (which builds into your hook/log line) then you don’t have a work of commercial fiction. Keep in mind that the PLOT LINE is an elaboration of the statement, of the primary complication. Also, look over the brief summaries of these novels in the Author Connect Deal News. These contain the simple statement, but more elaborated into a short hook.
Necessary Preparation Steps for the Author:
- Write the story statement. Make it clear.
- Brainstorm necessary complications, reversals, and conflicts on all levels.
- Write a short synopsis to reveal the major elements and clarify (see examples in AS Profile Guide).
- Sketch the plot line(s) with notes on the proper settings.
- Write the hook/log line and listen to how it sounds (see examples in AS Profile Guide).
The FIRST MAJOR PLOT POINT therefore takes place that establishes your protagonist‘s overall goal. In other words, the course of the action or plot changes, often drastically, and usually with a change of setting. Success seems possible.
The RISING ACTION of the story truly begins with the launch of the primary external conflict or complication. A means to achieve the goal is decided. The work begins, the war begins, the feet hit the bricks, the plan to reunite the lovers is initiated. The graph has begun to rise and it won't stop until after the CLIMAX.
In other words, the protagonist commits to the goal(s). But why? What is the motivation? What are the internal and external issues involved? She or he may go willingly into the situation because the alternative is worse, or to help an apparent victim. She or me may undertake the task not realizing the true dangers or complications ahead, out of ignorance. Another character might trick or push the protagonist into situation.
ACT THREE (Page 50+ - 250+)
Plot Line Evolution: Minor Reversals - Complications - Thee Levels of Conflict - Major Reversal Time - Plot Points - The Martians are Winning
The dramatic pursuit of the goal evolves.
The FIRST GOAL (the means to the end) within the master goal (the final desired result) is pursued (see STORY STATEMENT above), but this will eventually lead your protagonist to a firewall or dead end, or what is known as the MAJOR REVERSAL in the parlance of our times (Dorothy gets to Oz, but no Kansas until the broomstick is fetched).
NOTE: This act pulls out all the stops to create tension, angst, conflict, and issues for the protagonist and appropriate characters to resolve:
- MINOR REVERSALS TAKE PLACE: protagonist(s) struggle, perhaps score small victories of one sort or another, but these are almost always reversed. For example, McMurphy organizes the inmates and theatrically pretends to watch the World Series in defiance of the Big Nurse, but she makes her will known later and punishes him (ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST). The Wicked witch makes Dorothy and company take a poppy snooze right on the verge of OZ, and later, the Guard at OZ tells them no one gets in, no way, no how!
- MINOR COMPLICATIONS TAKE PLACE: in other words, things happen that have a notable negative physical or emotional impact on the protagonist or those he/she cares about. These are not as strong as minor reversals, but action must be taken to overcome them. McMurphy takes the inmates out for a boat ride, but conflict at the dock with the boat captain and a need to make a quick escape takes place (ONE FLEW OVER). Meanwhile, Scarecrow hassles with crows, Tin Man is rusted, Lion overcompensates for cowardice, and Witch throws fireball. And know that "minor complications" can be fairly serious. In WAR OF THE WORLDS the major character had to bludgeon an insane curate to prevent him from giving away their hiding place to the Martians.
|You get the picture. But how many of them? Good question. Assignment: open up and read three of the best novels in your genre that you can find. Analyze the scenes and pick out the reversals and complications. Make a list. Report back.|
Whether upmarket or genre, MINOR COMPLICATIONS combine with MINOR REVERSALS to continually spike the narrative and story. It can’t be easy for the protagonist and/or her companions. If too easy, you inevitably build to classic mid-novel sag. Tension runs out, wheels spin, and an inexperienced writer pads the middle with lumps of dull narrative and quiet situation. Ugh. "Best Wishes" rejection letter on the way. Off to a minor eBook publisher who will publish you if you have more than 100 Facebook members.
Note: as a bonus, complications and reversals also assist greatly in maintaining all three levels of conflict (see above).
Also, prior to climax, we may have a smart and strong reversal or complication which serves to introduce a twist or an unexpected event in the story (sometimes called a MIDPOINT CLIMAX).
Pinch Points Reveal the Antagonist Aims Sans Filter
Pinch Points take place: an example or a reminder of the nature and implications of the antagonistic force, that is not filtered by the hero’s experience. We see it for ourselves in a direct form as in a brief cut away scene that describes an impending thunderstorm, a peek into the villain’s mind. There should be two and they should be at about the 3/8 mark and the 3/5 mark in the manuscript. In ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST a pinch point took place at the 3/5 mark when the Big Nurse informed the assembled hospital staff just what kind of cruel fate was in store for McMurphy.
Crisis Point or MAJOR REVERSAL = Second Major Plot Point
We’ve already noted what happened to Dorothy. In Stephen King's MISERY, after the captive author protagonist has his knees sledge-hammered by Kathy Bates (God, that hurt!) to prevent him from trying to escape again, he knows he’s been using the wrong means to pursue the master goal (ie, to escape). He must now reboot and choose another path, a second goal to achieve the master goal (escape). To accomplish, the author conceives a new plan of theatrical cooperation with his captor, the new goal within the master goal being to trick her into passivity and lure her into a trap whereupon he can knock her senseless.
In general, at this point, backstory issues, mysterious strangers, twists and turns and events all point out that your protagonist is on the wrong track, and the antagonist graph is rising. The Martians are conquering Earth and the Big Nurse is slowly tightening a noose around McMurphy's neck.
Once more, success seems possible.
INTERNAL CONFLICT IS ON THE INCREASE ALSO. Of course, and so is interpersonal conflict. All three levels of conflict are rising! But back to the protagonist for a moment ... Why should she or he turn back now? Why doesn’t he/she? What’s at stake? Is there a DILEMMA? What makes your protagonist realize the unavoidable importance of her/his original goal? What gives it new meaning? Does someone die? Do the stakes raise? Does reputation suffer or threaten to diminish? We must have a answer. This is true drama. Storytelling at its finest.
ACT FOUR (Page 200+ - 375+)
Second Major Plot Point - New Rising Action and Suspense - Conflict Levels - Climax - Victory at a Cost
Opens with the SECOND MAJOR PLOT POINT as protagonist pursues the new and truly productive goal (the author of MISERY decides to write the novel Kathy wants in order to enact his new scheme to escape). The characters get that final clue, the missing piece to the puzzle, which allows them to make the necessary changes to successfully complete the plot line.
- Success seems more possible than ever despite MINOR REVERSALS OR COMPLICATIONS which may continue to take place.
- The final clue or missing piece to the puzzle is found.
- Possible surprise or twist takes place (the traitor is revealed--or this is reserved for CLIMAX or DENOUEMENT)
- All three conflict levels continue to build, however, some interpersonal conflicts may be resolved by this point.
Climax should be the most intense plot point in the story, but the intensity and nature of that intensity depends on the needs of the genre and the nature of the story. While the climax is the moment when the decisive event occurs, plot development is a process that occurs throughout your novel (see above). As we've noted, the reader must see how main character behaves at the start of the novel, and understand how her/his nature is challenged by the main goal. In HUCKLEBERRY FINN, Huck thinks about going against morality of the day and writing Miss Watson where the Phelps family is holding Jim. Instead, he follows his conscience and he and Tom free Jim, and Tom is shot in the leg in the attempt (victory at a cost).
You can also have a double climax. For example, in HARRY POTTER, when the heroes find and escape with a magical hoarcrux, that's a climax, but a climax is when Harry finally defeats the chief antagonist, Lord Voldemort.
After the climax, you must show the reader the outcome, and how it is good or bad for the main character. Important!
ACT FIVE (Page 300+ - 400+)
Denouement - Loose Ends Wrapped - Theme Wrap - Conclusions - Resolutions - A Final Surprise?
Denouement wherein all loose ends resolved, a final surprise perhaps, hint of the sequel perhaps, but readers on their way with the emotions the writer wants them to feel (Fitzgerald actually saved final exposition regarding Gatsby for the denouement following Gatsby's death).
Internal Resolution and With Theme or No
What does the protagonist and possibly other characters learn as a result of climax? How does this manifest itself going forward? How are things different? How are they changed, especially the protagonist?
In CATCHER IN THE RYE, Holden leaves it ambiguous as to whether he's "better" or not, and many would say there is no "better" anyway; he just has to grow up, painfully and with a lot of depression thrown in for good measure. On the other hand, we look to the last line of the novel for another take on the conclusion: "Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody." Perhaps then, the conclusion to Holden's initial conflict (the tension between wanting to connect but hating everyone) is that he did in fact connect – in one way or another – with everyone he met. The new question isn't whether or not one should connect, but whether or not the pain of inevitable loss is worth the initial gain.
From SPARKNOTES, we have a slice of theme from TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD:
The most important theme of To Kill a Mockingbird is the book’s exploration of the moral nature of human beings—that is, whether people are essentially good or essentially evil. The novel approaches this question by dramatizing Scout and Jem’s transition from a perspective of childhood innocence, in which they assume that people are good because they have never seen evil, to a more adult perspective, in which they have confronted evil and must incorporate it into their understanding of the world. As a result of this portrayal of the transition from innocence to experience, one of the book’s important subthemes involves the threat that hatred, prejudice, and ignorance pose to the innocent: people such as Tom Robinson and Boo Radley are not prepared for the evil that they encounter, and, as a result, they are destroyed. Even Jem is victimized to an extent by his discovery of the evil of racism during and after the trial. Whereas Scout is able to maintain her basic faith in human nature despite Tom’s conviction, Jem’s faith in justice and in humanity is badly damaged, and he retreats into a state of disillusionment.
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
- Michael Neff
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