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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.

Why Are the Secondary Principles "Progress, Setbacks, Costs, and Turning Points"? 

The primary principles are required to create the most basic level of plot. You can't have a solid plot without goal, antagonist, conflict, or consequences. You may think you can, but it will probably always feel flimsy or "lesser." 

The secondary principles build directly off the primary principles, strengthening and reinforcing the plot, making it more stable and satisfying. Here is how this works:

Progress relates to goal.

The goal is something the protagonist wants and is therefore taking action to get. Progress is used to measure how close the protagonist is to getting the goal. It's seen as something positive.

Setbacks relate to antagonist.

Setbacks happen when an antagonistic force opposes the protagonist and the goal. The antagonistic force gets in the way and sometimes even "wins" the conflict within a scene, sequence, or act. These create setbacks, which are the opposite of progress. They are seen as something negative.

Costs relate to conflict.

When the protagonist moves forward and comes into conflict, there is often some form of cost. The conflict may cost the protagonist their physical or mental well-being, time, money, or any other sort of resource.

Turning points relate to consequences.

Turning points shift the cause-and-effect trajectory the story is on, which means they change the consequences in some meaningful way.

Since both the primary and secondary principles are merely principles, there are always rare exceptions of likable stories that don't adhere to them exactly. But in order to have a strong plot--as opposed to a story that focuses more exclusively on character arc or theme--this is often what is necessary.

Still, even that argument can be a little iffy--after all, a strong plot can breed a strong character arc and theme. Nonetheless, some types of stories emphasize one or two elements over the other(s).

Show Progress Toward the Goal

In a lecture series on Youtube, #1 New York Times best-selling author Brandon Sanderson talks about how a sense of progress is key to a good plot. Progress keeps the audience invested, particularly through the middle of the story. If there is no progress, then the reader feels as if the plot isn't going anywhere. 

But we can't even begin to have progress until the protagonist has a goal--because we can't measure what progress is without knowing where we are going. So this again shows why a goal is so important. Yet, a goal with no progress feels stagnant. And a sense of progress will naturally reinforce the presence and importance of a goal.

Sometimes in the writing community, we are told to keep our protagonist failing until the end, but this is really a half-truth. If we adhered to this literally, the story would be annoying because there would never be any progress. What people actually mean is, don't fully resolve the primary plotline until the end (there may be some exceptions, but this is the general principle).

In some stories, the protagonist appears to be making progress, but in an ironic twist, it turns out they were heading the wrong direction. These stories still work, because there is perceived progress--there is still a sense of progress. 

Similarly, in some stories, the protagonist may obtain the goal halfway or three-quarters of the way through, only to realize it's not what they actually need, or to have it taken away, or to recognize there is actually a greater goal beyond it (this is why sometimes it's more useful to think of the plot as having act-level goals).

Nonetheless, the feeling of progress still exists--the audience feels as if the protagonist is getting somewhere

Recall that we talked about how larger goals are usually made up of smaller goals. The big goal to be a lead singer requires smaller goals to accomplish. The protagonist must make goals to take singing lessons, nail auditions, and perhaps perform in lesser roles to gain renown. Each time the protagonist succeeds in a lesser goal, it creates a sense of progress by bringing him or her closer to the larger goal.

Dramatica Theory outlines some points of plot that can be utilized to better understand progress. There are essentially one of two ways to reach a large goal, and both require smaller goals along the way. Dramatica refers to these as "requirements," and they will manifest like this:

In one, the characters must follow an order of steps, like following a set of directions. For example, in Jumanji, the characters have the goal to restore the world to normal by winning the game. But they must do this in a proper order--they can't skip turns. They must each take their turn and deal with the inevitable obstacle and conflict.

In the other, the characters must do or obtain things in any order, like a shopping list. For example, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the trio wants to defeat the antagonist by destroying all the Horcruxes, but it doesn't necessarily matter what order the Horcruxes are destroyed.

However, keep in mind that, again, smaller goals fit in bigger goals, so in a given story, the two approaches may not always be so black and white. For example, while the trio can (more or less) defeat the Horcruxes in any order, in smaller goals within that, there may be a specific order. For example, in order to destroy the locket, they must first locate it, then obtain it (a specific order). One may also argue that ultimately, there is somewhat of an order the Horcruxes must be defeated by the end, as a sort of twist. The point being, there is room for complexity: it may be like following directions, or it may be like a shopping list, and each can fit into larger versions of the other. (As a side note, this is also similar to how basic story structure works, with smaller structures making up bigger structures.)

You can also think of progression as hitting stops on the way to a final destination. In a sense, each stop is its own destination--it's a progression. After you get there, you eventually leave to travel to the next stop, and then the next stop, and then the next stop . . . until you arrive at the last.

Dramatica argues that beyond the "directions" or "shopping list" there may be prerequisites: essentials one must have, to pursue the goal at all. Prerequisites on their own don't bring the goal closer. For example, in order to win the game of Jumanji, one must have the game and all the players present. When the characters don't have that, they can't pursue the overall goal. They must recover the game board or find and convince the other players to play. 

There may also be preconditions: non-essential demands placed on the characters in exchange for prerequisites. For example, in Karate Kid, a prerequisite is that the protagonist must receive extra lessons from a master, but the master adds the precondition of doing chores. One does not technically need to do chores to do karate. But he must do the chores in order to have access to karate.

While I certainly find Dramatica's approaches useful in certain situations (and these can be helpful with brainstorming plot), if we want to keep it simple, the overall idea I want to communicate in this section, is that inside bigger goals are smaller goals, and as smaller goals are met, it helps create a sense of progress. 

Even if recovering the game board in Jumanji is a "prerequisite" in the overall plot, it still becomes a goal within that scene, sequence, act, or what have you. Even if doing chores is a "precondition" on the road to the end goal, it still becomes a goal within that scene, sequence, or act. 

Just remember that a sense of progress comes from reaching smaller goals within the larger goal.

Show Setbacks from Antagonists

Setbacks are the opposite of progress. Just as obtaining smaller goals on the road to the big goal creates progress, the opposite is true. Setbacks happen when the protagonist is obstructed, outsmarted, or overcome by the antagonistic force. Instead of making headway, the protagonist may be pushed further away from the goal. While we don't want a whole story where the protagonist makes no progress, we also don't want a whole story where the protagonist experiences no setbacks. Life just isn't like that, and the story will ring of inauthenticity. Progress without setbacks is bland and boring, and weakens the plot. 

Setbacks will come from antagonistic forces--even if they aren't the primary antagonistic force. Remember, the antagonistic force is something that opposes the goal. It may simply be seen as an obstacle or some form of resistance in the way of the goal. While one may argue that the obstacle itself is a "setback," to keep things clear in this series, I'm defining a "setback" as an outcome (not getting a goal). 

Again, just like with goals and progress, you can look at setbacks as living inside structural units. A scene may have a setback, a sequence may have a setback, and an act may have a setback.

There are a couple ways a setback can manifest.

In the first, the protagonist is simply obstructed or stopped from getting the goal. For example, say our protagonist who wants to be a lead singer has the scene goal of getting to her audition on time. She's cutting it close, but manages to get ready fast, outmaneuver her chatty neighbor, and take a side route to avoid traffic. Then bam! There is a car accident that brings the traffic to a grinding halt. She misses her audition. 

The character was obstructed by the antagonistic force (this time, coming from the environment) and didn't make her goal.

In a more drastic setback, not only will the protagonist not get the goal, but will get pushed further away from it. Same scenario as above. Our character takes a side route to avoid traffic. Then bam! She gets in a car accident and gets sent to the ER. Not only did she not get her scene goal, but she's now even further away from getting her ultimate goal, as she may have to do physical rehabilitation before being able to even attend another audition.

The second has greater consequences. Not only does it slow progress toward the goal like the first, but puts her on a different cause-and-effect trajectory, with new complications she has to deal with. Both types have their places, but if you feel your setbacks lack luster, or alternatively, feel too dramatic, it may be because you are only utilizing one type.

When we talk of progress, the audience needs to know ahead of time what direction the protagonist is going (goal). Unlike progress, some setbacks can be totally unforeseen, like the traffic accident above. Other times they may be a known risk. For example, two boxers want to be victors in a fight. The protagonist loses to the antagonist. This is a setback that the protagonist would have imagined as a possibility prior.

To summarize, the setback may simply stop the protagonist from reaching a goal, or may actually push the protagonist back further from the goal. This may or may not be foreseen as a possibility.

Another way to look at the second setback, is to think of it as taking away something the protagonist already has, or is on track to have. In our earlier example, our protagonist already had her health--so we took that away in an accident. In Jumanji, the characters already have the game board and are dealing with the horrors that come out of it. Then a pelican snatches up the game and takes it away. Now not only are the characters having to deal with the creatures, but they no longer have the game to even play (setback).

But of course, like progress, setbacks may appear more complex in the actual story. There may be ironic moments where the protagonist progresses and experiences a setback simultaneously. For example, the protagonist may get the goal (progress) only to realize it's about to destroy them (setback). The starving character finally gets food in his belly, only to learn the food is poisoned. This creates an ironic twist.

Make Costs Meaningful

I very much debated whether costs belong in the secondary principles or the tertiary principles, but ultimately decided to stick them here because a plot that doesn't handle costs right can be disappointing. Costs also seem to build off the primary and other secondary principles better than the tertiary. 

Costs are what the protagonist has to "pay" to move forward on the journey. This may be physical and mental well-being, time, money, resources, or what have you. 

Just as random conflict doesn't make a story great (it needs to be conflict related to goals and consequences) random costs aren't very effective either. This is where I sometimes see issues come up when I'm editing manuscripts; bad things happen to the protagonist, but they are random. His grandma might suddenly die, and that's hard for him, but it doesn't come out of or affect the plot. Or some jerk having a bad day punches him in the gut, but it doesn't change anything. These would be examples of what I call "passive pain.

Passive pain is hurt or hardship that just happens to the character. It does have a place in storytelling, though. Passive pain is usually introduced in the first act during the setup. This is where the audience learns about any unfair hardships the protagonist has been a victim to--being an orphan, a deformity, being hated or abused by someone. The passive pain promotes likability and helps the audience care about the character. It helps the audience get invested in the story. 

Passive pain can also come up in other parts of the story, and work well, but once the main conflict gets started, it shouldn't be the primary type of pain. It's only interesting for so long, and then it can become boring or even annoying. We all have random crap we have to deal with; it's part of life. And if the story just focuses and reiterates what pains happen to the protagonist, it's usually not very engaging for very long.

It's much more interesting, and more intense, when the pain becomes a cost for the protagonist on his or her journey. Having grandma die randomly is one thing. Having grandma die because the protagonist was pursuing the plot goal (cost), is way different. It's more intense, more painful, and more meaningful. Of course, costs need not always be as intense as death--it depends on the story you want to write. Nonetheless, the steeper and higher the costs of the journey, the more intense the plot (and sometimes the steepness is more internal than external).

Costs should generally come out of meaningful conflict--when the protagonist's pursuit of the goal hits an antagonistic force, and has to "battle" it out. This creates a struggle with consequences. If the protagonist doesn't struggle for success, the problem isn't actually that difficult, and the victory doesn't feel "earned." It can still be effective to employ unfairness--it's unfair that the antagonist tortured and killed grandma, who knew nothing about what the protagonist was doing--but it's unfairness related to the plot

The costs will again illustrate how bad the protagonist wants the goal. (And remember, the more the protagonist wants the goal, the more the plot can seemingly torture them.) If the protagonist is in a cooking contest and burns her hand, and keeps going, the audience can see how much the contest means to her ("show, don't tell"). 

Costs can also be more indirect. Perhaps our protagonist wins the cash prize of the cooking contest, and because of that, now her neighbor (who was also competing) can't afford to take his young daughter on a trip this summer. The neighbor, who was always friendly, may now be rude to the protagonist, which makes the protagonist's dog walks a nightmare . . . This is more indirect, but it still comes as a cost of the journey.

It also leads me to my next point. Costs should be there whether the protagonist is pursuing something "good" or "bad" and whether the protagonist is experiencing progress or setbacks. Everything has a cost and everything has a struggle. Even in the story of Jesus, someone who was perfect, had to pay tremendous cost to do the right thing, for other people. 

If costs aren't there, the story feels inauthentic. No one gets anywhere without struggle and sacrifice. Innocent, pure-hearted, talented people pursuing good things have to pay painful costs on the road to success, just as wicked, hard-hearted people pursuing bad things have to. 

Costs are also important because they put responsibility and accountability on the protagonist. The protagonist doesn't bear responsibility and accountability for random bad luck. But when they lose the rest of their rations because they thought crossing the river would lead to civilization--it's their fault the remaining food was lost to the waves. And that's more effective. 

It also means we can haunt the protagonist with their choices. Maybe if the protagonist wasn't pursuing his goal, grandma would still be alive. This can lead to great character moments, that in turn, affect the plot. Should the character continue the journey? When it's costing lives? Is this worth it? Are they helping or hurting the situation? Turning into someone better or someone worse? And that plays into character arc. In order to defeat the antagonistic forces, they must become someone different. Or, they must find it within themselves to remain steadfast. You can't have these strong character moments without costs. What the character chooses, reveals who she is, and what she then does affects what happens next.

One way to strengthen the pain of the cost is to make the resource very limited. If the protagonist only has three matches and needs to build a fire to stay warm, using one to cauterize an ally's wound becomes more costly. Using two to do that becomes even more costly. Or, when the protagonist is trying to defuse a time bomb, every second counts, and anything that takes more time, is more costly.

Costs are closely related to consequences. They come out of conflict, but they also lead to ramifications: grandma's death, a burned hand, lost rations, one match left. When the character can foresee the costs beforehand, they become part of the stakes: "If I keep pursuing this, grandma will die."--grandma dying is the cost. Sometimes the costs are unknown until the conflict unfolds, and sometimes they are only revealed after the conflict seemingly resolves.

They need to come out of meaningful conflict and matter, and they need to come (directly or indirectly) out of the protagonist's pursuit so that she bears responsibility and accountability. Those things can go far in strengthening a plot.

Change Trajectories with Turning Points

I've talked about turning points several times on here before, but now let's talk about them within the context of this series, and in particular, how they relate to consequences.

A turning point works by (you guessed it) turning the direction of the plot.

This can only happen one of two ways (well, or both of them): a revelation, or an action. 

These are the only two ways to turn a story. 

The biggest turning point of a story is the climax, so referring to it will be the best example. THE climactic moment in a story will either be a revelation or an action and often it's both. 

It might be a revelation that leads to an action. Or it might be an action that leads to a revelation.

For example, the protagonist may have an epiphany (a revelation, and often a thematic one) that informs him how to defeat the antagonist, so the protagonist takes that action. Alternatively, the protagonist takes an action to defeat the antagonist, and the result leads to a realization. (Generally speaking.)

Whatever it is, that's a turning point. 

But a plot will have multiple turning points. Each act should have a turning point. Each scene should have a turning point. It's just that a scene's turning point will be smaller than an act's turning point, and an act's turning point will be smaller than the major turning point of the climax.

Sometimes it's helpful to keep this in mind:

Revelation = Information

Action = Event

(. . . just because that sounds a little broader.)

And it's worth noting that a choice can lead to gaining more information or taking action. A choice may lead to a turning point.

Turning points work by changing the story, by changing its direction.

In our earlier example about our singing protagonist trying to get to an audition, the car accident is a turning point. The protagonist was on a trajectory to arrive, but there was an accident (an event, something or someone taking action) that changed her trajectory. She didn't make it to the audition, and is now on a different path in regards to the plot.

A turning point can happen from outside the protagonist or the protagonist himself can create a turning point. The car accident is something that comes from beyond the protagonist. The protagonist grabbing a knife and fatally stabbing the antagonist is a turning point the protagonist creates.

Recall that in the last article, we talked about consequences, which add meaning to the plot by giving it a sense of cause and effect. Plot isn't just random things happening. It follows a sense of cause and effect. Stakes happen when we project cause and effect forward; they are potential consequences: "If I nail my audition, I'll become a lead singer." Ramifications are the actual consequences that take place.

Turning points work by shifting the cause-and-effect trajectory.

Our protagonist was on the trajectory of getting to her audition and maybe becoming a lead singer (projected cause and effect). Then bam! She's in a car crash that leads her to the ER. She's now on a totally different path--instead of going to auditions, she's going to physical rehabilitation. This is an example of a big turning point.

Not all turning points need to be that drastic. Our protagonist may be on course to lose an upcoming debate with a political opponent. As he does research to prepare, he discovers a juicy piece of info that will undermine his debater's strongest arguments. New trajectory. Turning point.

Remember how on railroads, a train's path can be shifted by simply switching a track to go another direction? Think of turning points like that. It might be a big turn, or it might be a smaller, but nonetheless significant, turn. Why "significant"? Because it doesn't just change that one moment, that one conflict--it changes a trajectory, it changes a path, it changes the future. That's a turning point.

You'll notice that turning points often lead to progress or setbacks, because they change outcomes and directions. You can create some great zig-zags by moving from positive progress to major setback, or vice versa. But it's also possible to move from progress to greater progress, and setback to greater setback. The point is that a satisfying plot will change, shift, and turn directions.

If there are no turning points, or you never have major turning points, you run the risk of the story becoming repetitious. This is especially true at the act level. If the plot stays on, more or less, the same trajectory the whole time, it becomes predictable and boring. There is only so much of the same foreseeable path the audience can take.

And even if turning points are new to you, you've probably heard of them before. They are also called "plot turns" and "plot points."


So when you hear terms like "Plot Point 1" or "Plot Point 2," you know what those are supposed to be? Major turning points. Act-level turning points. (And the recommended percentages are there, in part, to keep the story from feeling repetitious--you can only go so long before the reader needs a shift.)

This is why my series on plot doesn't contain things like "inciting incident," or "midpoint," or "All is Lost," or "climax." Those are all structural turning points. They are important and interweaved closely with plot, but at the end of the day? They are turning points. 

The inciting incident is part of the plot--it's an important part--but it's ultimately just a turning point. The fact that particular event is the inciting incident has to do, in some sense, mainly with how the story is structured. It's not plot itself. Plot and structure? Not the same thing.

Real quick, I do feel the need to give credit where credit is due--you should know that some of this definition of a turning point came from Robert McKee's book Story, which also influenced Shawn Coyne's Story Grid. However, the commentary on them, along with the majority of this stuff, is my own.

And those are the secondary principles of plot. The tertiary principles will be for another day.

Get plotting!

Continue to the tertiary principles of plot -->

Articles in This Series

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

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

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

The Tertiary Principles of Plot: Plans, Gaps, Crises (Sample)

The Quaternary Principles of Plot: Setup, Payoffs, Connections (Sample)

The Quinary Principles of Plot: Reveals & Twists (Sample)


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