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Monday, August 8, 2022

The Quaternary Principles of Plot: Setups, Payoffs, Connections

In order to write a strong story, it's helpful to know and utilize the principles of plot. So far, we have covered the primary, secondary, and tertiary principles. While not every likable story has a powerful riveting plot (some may emphasize character or theme more), with these elements you can create a solid one and strengthen it.

As a brief review, here are the components we've covered thus far.

Monday, July 25, 2022

The Tertiary Principles of Plot: Plans, Gaps, Crises

In storytelling, the primary principles of plot include goal, antagonist, conflict, and consequences. You can't have a great plot without those elements first. The secondary principles of plot build directly off the primary, and they include progress, setbacks, costs, and turning points. As you likely guessed, the tertiary principles build off the prior two sets, and they include plans, gaps, and crises. 

Here is a very brief review of what we've covered so far.

Goal--the protagonist has a want that manifests in a concrete goal. (There are different types of goals and the goal may change, but a goal is necessary to create context for the plot.)

Antagonist--the antagonistic force is a form of opposition; and thus it is something in the way of the goal. (While there is often a primary antagonist, most stories will have multiple--and even temporary--antagonistic forces)

Conflict--because the protagonist and antagonist "want" opposing things (to some degree), this leads to conflict.

Consequences--conflict only really matters when it carries consequences. This gives a plot a sense of cause and effect. Stakes appear as potential consequences. Ramifications appear as consequences that actually happen.

Progress--progress is used to measure how close the protagonist is to getting the goal. A sense of progress comes from reaching smaller goals within the larger goal.

Setbacks--setbacks happen when an antagonistic force blocks or pushes back the protagonist from his or her goal. They work as the opposite of progress.

Costs--when the protagonist moves forward and comes into conflict, there is often a sort of cost. This may be their physical or mental well-being, time, money, or any other sort of resource. Costs put responsibility and accountability on the protagonist as they exercise agency.

Turning Points--turning points appear as an action (event) or a revelation (information) that changes the cause-and-effect trajectory of the story (consequences). The plot was going one direction, but a turning point shifts it onto a new path.

Monday, July 18, 2022

The Secondary Principles of Plot: Progress, Setbacks, Costs, Turning Points

Plot is more than "stuff happening." At the most basic level, a plot should have these elements: goal, antagonist, conflict, and consequences. In this article, we will go over the secondary principles of plot: progress, setbacks, costs, and turning points.

But first, let's briefly review the primary principles. Without these things, the storyline will always feel weak or even "broken."

The protagonist has a want (which may be abstract) that manifests in a goal or even goals (which should be concrete and measurable--in that the audience knows what reaching the goal looks like). Not all protagonists start the story with a clear goal, but nearly all protagonists should have one by the end of Act I. Furthermore, not all protagonists have the same type of goal--for example, some goals may be aspirational, others goals may be simply to stop the antagonist, others may be to return balance to a previous lifestyle. It's possible the goal may change, and in such cases, it may be helpful to view the story as having act-level goals, rather than one, grand overarching goal from beginning to end.

Something antagonistic is in the way of that goal. The antagonistic force is a form of opposition--it is something in the way of the goal, not just something annoying or heckling the protagonist. In some cases, it may be more helpful to think of the antagonistic force as the resistance or obstacle in the way of the goal, and there will probably be more than one. Not every antagonistic force that appears in a story will be the "main bad guy" (or what have you), particularly in scenes and sequences. Nonetheless, if it is something obstructing the way, it is an antagonistic force.

The protagonist and antagonist want conflicting things. There isn't an easy, foreseeable way for them each to have their desires. This leads to conflict. The protagonist needs to somehow outsmart or overcome the antagonist. The more the protagonist wants the goal, and the tougher the antagonist, the bigger the struggle. This helps create meaningful conflict, not conflict that is cleverly disguised filler.

Conflict only really matters in that it affects what happens next, or in other words, it has consequences. This is where cause and effect come in. A strong plot follows a sense of cause and effect. In most stories, the effect will be both internal and external, but it's possible to be only one (internal emphasizes character more, external emphasizes plot more). When we project the cause and effect trajectory forward, we create stakes (what is at risk in the story). Stakes = potential consequences. Ramifications = actual consequences.

Next, we will dive into the secondary principles of plot: progress, setbacks, costs, and turning points.

Monday, July 11, 2022

The Primary Principles of Plot: Goal, Antagonist, Conflict, Consequences

The Primary Principles of Plot is Story

A plot is more than a "storyline" or "a series of events," and in order to have a solid plot, it must first have these primary principles: goal, antagonist, conflict, and consequences. Without these things clearly in the story, the plot will always feel weak or even "broken."

Now, with that said, not every likable story has an amazing plot. This is when we turn to what I consider the holy trinity of writing: character, plot, and theme. Generally speaking, for most stories, 99% of what you write should be touching and progressing one of these things, and often, all three. However, not all of them are evenly balanced for every story. For example, no one would say that Forrest Gump is about a thrilling plot that leaves you breathless and your mind spinning. It's mostly about character. Others may lean more heavily on theme (this is often what makes Pixar's stories tug at the heartstrings). And some, like the thriller, very much lean on plot.

Nonetheless, almost any decent story will have at least the primary principles of plot, which I'll be covering today. This is a part of a series where I lay out the primary, secondary, tertiary, and even quaternary principles of what makes a great one.

Monday, June 27, 2022

What Plot is NOT (How NOT to Fix Your Story’s Plot!)

According to the dictionaries, a plot is a "storyline," "main story," or "plan" in a literary work. A search online will tell you that a plot is a "series of events," "a list of checkpoints to move a story," "how the story is delivered in a book," "the structure of events," "what happens," "a chain of events" in a story.

You know what? To be frank, all these definitions of "plot" stink.

Not only are they pretty vague, but some of them don't even check out. 

Plot is "the structure of events"? No! That's structure. 

Plot is "what happens." Really? So I can write a story about a character looking out a window at a boring neighborhood with nothing meaningful, then have him lie in bed getting nowhere, and get up and get a snack out of a fridge, and then watch T.V. with nothing meaningful, significant, or insightful? Sounds like a plotless story to be sure!

Plot is "the main story." This doesn't even make sense. Story is more than plot. And what about the secondary plotlines? They don't fit the definition of "plot"?

I could go through the other definitions, but I think you get the point.

For the last couple of years, I have been thinking and studying plot quite a bit. Because on the one hand, I totally know what plot is, but on the other, at a deeper level, I have no clue what plot is. Like, I know what it is, but what IS it ReAlLlLy???

In the past, I knew writing great plots was something I struggled with--and what's worse, I knew I was struggling, but couldn't find the magic pill that would make everything click together for me! It's not that I didn't understand anything about plot, but I could never get what I was hearing to work into a big, old, powerful plotline that would leave the reader breathless, like I wanted. 

When I asked others for help and resources, most people couldn't provide what I needed or sent me to structure. And for the record, plot isn't structure, which is what many seem to think (more on that in a bit).

Finally, everything clicked into place at a level it hadn't before for me. In short, I'll be doing a few posts on plot to explain it all to my past self, and maybe it will help someone else struggling.

Or maybe you already understand plot at a deeper level than I did.

In any case, with such crummy definitions, I want to start by talking about what plot is not

And surely I've caught myself and others trying to make the following things into plot. And have sometimes even heard instructors talk about them as if they are plot. I realize some of these things will sound obvious, but you might be surprised how people can disguise them.

Monday, June 20, 2022

Balancing Out Your Cast of Characters

It's no secret that side characters can be amazing in their own right. Great side characters feel like real people--even if the focus isn't on them. They have lives that exist beyond the scope of the protagonist. When they seem to exist only to help or exacerbate the protagonist, they lack authenticity.

With that said, untamed side characters can water down a strong story, or worse, steal the story. While we don't want our characters to be exact copies of each other (unless, of course, you're writing a story about characters being exact copies), it can be helpful to examine the main character and his or her journey to bring balance, depth, and meaning to your cast. After all, side characters are also called supporting characters, which means they are meant to support the protagonist's journey, not take away from it. 

In her book, Story Genius, Lisa Cron explains that while we need to develop secondary characters that have their own driving agendas, realizations, and often, own arcs, we also need to create them with this purpose in mind: "to help facilitate the protagonist's story."

She writes, "This means that although each one of them could stand alone as a full-fledged human being . . . you'll create them and their beliefs so they will naturally facilitate your protagonist's story."

Consider what role the character plays in the protagonist's journey, and develop the character with that in mind. What kind of qualities and attitudes are going to challenge your protagonist? What does your protagonist need to learn from this person? Who would uncover a new side of your protagonist? It's possible to fully brainstorm a side character who actually doesn't interact well with your protagonist. But when you consider these questions and similar ones, you're more likely to create a side character who offers meaningful exchanges. 

If the character is an ally, some writers feel compelled to make him or her too similar to the protagonist. In reality, it's often more interesting if the ally contrasts the protagonist. In Pixar's Soul, the protagonist, Joe Gardner, has a thirst for life (jazz, specifically), but he is allied with 22, who has no desire to even be born. This contrast brings each character into sharper focus, balances out the story, and provides more opportunities for meaningful discussions. 

Similarly, if the character is an opponent, it's often more effective to emphasize a likeness between that character and the protagonist. In Soul, Terry functions as the antagonist, trying to bring Joe to the Great Beyond. Like Joe, Terry is so obsessed with fulfilling his purpose (to count the dead), that he's blind to the inspiring things happening around him: Joe helping 22 finally find her spark. Like Joe, Terry is also aspiring to a moment of recognition--he wants the Jerries to recognize him with an award for him doing his job. 

In Soul, Terry reflects Joe

It may be helpful to consider much of the side characters as foils and mirrors of the protagonist and his situation. We can see how this balances out in Soul. Joe's mom foils him by pressuring him to take a practical job. On the other hand, Dorothea Williams reflects what Joe wants to become. Dez foils Joe by letting go of his veterinarian dreams and becoming a barber. Connie reflects his passion for music. Paul foils by being someone who never went after his dreams. . . .

In a sense, each of these characters represents a different moment of, or outcome to, the journey Joe, the protagonist, is on. In his book, The Structure of Story, Ross Hartmann refers to these characters as clones (a term that comes from award-winning screenwriter Brian McDonald). Hartmann writes, "a clone character . . . is a way for us to show what could, should, or might happen to a character if they take a particular path. . . . [We can] use a clone character to convey information about where the character is headed or might be headed either philosophically, emotionally, or physically." 

The supporting cast is also more balanced when it contains different types of arcs, which tap into the protagonist's journey. A character may change positively or negatively, or hold steadfast (remaining more or less the same) positively or negatively. In the film, Marley & Me, the protagonist, John, changes positively as he learns to embrace the adventures of domestic life. Marley, who already embraces the adventures of domestic life, remains the same, positively, throughout the film. John's friend Sebastian dismisses domestic life to go on career-driven adventures instead, remaining the same negatively. Had the filmmakers wanted to, they could have added a fourth character who leaves the adventures of domestic life to fully focus on her career, which would have been a negative change character (within the context of the story). 

In Marley and Me, John has a positive change arc while Marley has a positive steadfast arc

Because the protagonist's journey also plays into a story's theme, balancing out your cast with your protagonist in mind, can help keep your side characters thematically relevant. For more on that topic, I suggest reading Amanda Rawson Hill's post "Use Theme to Determine Subplots, Supporting Characters, and Tension.

In any case, creating your supporting characters with your protagonist in mind, will likely lead to a more meaningful, balanced cast, and story.

Monday, June 13, 2022

15 Ways to Increase Your Chances of Landing a Publishing Deal (by Query Letter)

Hello, everyone! Recently put together this nice infographic with some great advice on landing a publishing deal. They were thinking that maybe my followers would be interested in it, and I'm thinking . . . they were right.

If you prefer just the text version, you can scroll down and read it.

You can also scroll to the bottom of this page and get some updates from me.

Monday, June 6, 2022

How I Organize My Writing Ideas

Writers tend to come up with ideas at just about any time of the day (or night), while doing any type of thing, and that can often make those ideas difficult to organize. Heck, even when a writer sits down to intentionally brainstorm for an hour, the process can be a mess. I know, I used to have brainstorming sessions on paper with next to no organization, and then later spend almost as much time looking for something specific I had written down somewhere (okay, that might be a slight exaggeration).

A while ago, I was asked to share how I personally organize my writing ideas. I wasn't sure about answering at first, in part because it's a process that might not ring true to everyone, but then I realized . . . almost no process rings true to everyone, and maybe my process would be helpful to someone. So . . . here is my answer.

What idea goes where and when depends in part on when and where I get the idea. . . . 

Monday, May 23, 2022

The 4 Basic Types of Character Arcs (with Examples & Variations)

A character arc is how a character grows or changes through a story. At the most basic level, there are four types of character arcs: change positively, change negatively, remain steadfast positively, or remain steadfast negatively. Any other character arc should be able to--theoretically--fit into one of these four types. This article will go through each, while also giving examples and variations, and talking about common misconceptions.

While I've discussed character arcs on my blog before, including breaking down these four types, I've been missing an article that focuses solely on them to refer readers and clients to, so . . . I figured it was time. 😊  

When you understand the different character arcs, you'll be able to understand your protagonist better and write a stronger story for him or her. You'll also be able to write stronger antagonists and Influence Characters, as well as better side characters. Because character, plot, and theme all interconnect, you'll also be able to write better plots and themes, too.