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Monday, September 11, 2023

What it Means to Progress the Plot & How to Do it

In the writing community, people often talk about "progressing the story," which is obviously something we all want to do. But years ago, I would often get stuck on this phrase. Yes, I want to "progress the story," but what exactly does that mean? What exactly does that look like?

Well, if you've been following me for a while, you'll know that I believe there are three core elements that make up a story, and I call them the Triarchy of Story. They are plot, character, and theme. Setting is important too of course--usually as the stage the story takes place on (though it can come in through plot, character, and theme, as well.)

While I plan to eventually address what "progressing the story" looks like for each element, today I would like to start with plot, which is usually what this phrase references.

What does it mean to progress the plot?

Let's go back to some of the key principles of plot, which will help us answer this question.

The first element of plot, is a goal. Until there is a goal, what happens doesn't really matter much, because it doesn't carry weight one way or another. What does it matter if a path is blocked by a boulder, if the character doesn't have the goal to go down that path to begin with? 

There are three types of goals: obtain, avoid, and maintain. People often frown upon a goal of maintaining, because it can come across as passive, but that's only a problem if there is no antagonistic force for it--just as obtaining and avoiding can become a problem if there is no antagonistic force for them.

Another key element is a plan. A goal without a plan is only a wish. If the character truly wants something, she will have a plan to get it--whether that plan is explicit or implicit on the page.

As the character pursues the goal, with a plan, she will encounter antagonistic forces that (directly or indirectly) oppose her. This creates the rising action of conflict, which should escalate through the structural unit--whether that is a scene, act, or the whole narrative arc.

Eventually, this conflict peaks in a significant turning point. A turning point (also called a "plot point" or "plot turn") changes the direction of the story. It was going one way, and then bam! Some action happens, or some information is revealed, and now things are going a different way. The major turning point of the structural unit can also be viewed as its climax. After this moment, the main conflict of the unit is resolved, and we (visually, literally) turn into the falling action.

Notice how the climax visually turns the direction of the story.

Acts within the narrative arc (Act II is often halved) 

Even scenes follow basic structure

These principles are true with whatever structural unit you are working with (we've talked about this).

There is, of course, room for variations, exceptions, and rule breaks.

But generally speaking, this is how things should work.

Lately, I've been thinking more and more (and more) about turning points. And when I was making slides for my online course, I noticed something I wasn't fully conscious of.

A turning point should shift the goal and/or plan in some way.

This is true of all structural units.

In the whole narrative arc, the major turning point is the story's climax, which resolves the main conflict. Either the protagonist succeeds or fails (simplistically speaking), and this obviously changes the protagonist's goal. Katniss doesn't need to win the Games when she's just won them.

But this is also true of acts. Each act should have a major turning point. It should also shift the goal and/or plan in some way. In Star Wars IV, Luke's goal shifts with each act, because of a major turning point. In The Hunger Games, Katniss's goal remains intact, but her current plan to get that goal shifts with each act. And you can also have a combination, where the plan shifts for one act, and the goal shifts for the next.

This is also true of scenes. The difference is that the turns and shifts are smaller. If Katniss's goal for the scene is to find Peeta, and she finds him, she obviously now needs a new goal. If Luke's plan is to make it safely back to the Millennium Falcon, but he ends up in the garbage compactor, then obviously his plans on how to do that shift.

Now because of the nature of basic story structure repeating within itself (like a fractal), sometimes the lines between a "goal" and "plan" can blur. For example, I could also say that Luke has a new goal, which is to escape the garbage compactor. 

And we could go even smaller than this, and break it all down even more. Essentially all goals and plans break down to even smaller goals and plans. And they fit inside one another.

Okay, so let's get back to "progressing the plot."

What exactly does that mean?

And what exactly does that look like?

It means making sure the goal and/or plan shifts after a unit's turning point.

It's making sure the situation at the end of the unit is different than at the start of the unit. 

As a side note, this also means the unit has relevant consequences (i.e. stakes and ramifications).

If the situation hasn't changed--if the goal and/or plan hasn't shifted--then the plot hasn't "progressed" in one direction or another. It has only done a circle, if anything.

And the story will feel repetitious.

Either this act feels too much like the last act.

Or this scene feels like a repeat of a prior scene. (And not in a good way.)

Even stories where the character is literally repeating scenes (like in a time travel story, such as Edge of Tomorrow), the character's goal and/or plan within that particular scene still changes in order to progress the plot. Major Cage is trying different ways to affect the alien invasion, even though he is reliving the same timeframe, over and over. This is exactly why these stories can work, without feeling repetitious.

While there are other technicalities that can be brought up (we could talk more about consequences--stakes and ramifications--or about setbacks or about costs), the easiest, simplest way to make sure your plot is progressing, is to ask if the goal or plan has shifted by the end of the unit.

Acts should have a big shift.

Scenes will have a smaller shift, but they should still shift.

There are several ways to shift a goal or plan. Let's go through them.

Goal Shifts:

- The character gets the goal (and therefore soon needs a new one)

- The character gains an additional goal (he can have more than one)

- The character abandons the current goal (maybe he fails or quits)

- The character swaps goals (this could be a change in priorities)

- The character gets part of the goal (some goals can be broken down into pieces)

- The character's goal gets more detailed and specific (ex. he wanted to graduate, but now he wants to graduate with honors)

Plan Shifts:

- The character forms a new plan

- The character abandons the current plan

- The character changes or swaps out the plan

- The character's plan gets more detailed and specific

You may find some overlapping in these options, that's fine. Writing isn't always clear cut. The point is, the goal and/or plan shifts in at least one way.

Perform a scene or act check at the close of the unit by asking if that happened. If not, the unit probably isn't progressing the plot.

Now not every single scene ever written has to progress the plot--but a scene that doesn't is an exception. A story that doesn't have a meaningful goal or plan in play, is a rare variation.

Make sure the goal and plan are shifting properly in your story, and you'll be progressing the plot.


  1. This is SOOOO good! The best I've seen in many years.

    1. Wow, thank you, Jan! The insight is really helping me in my own writing. What's weird, is once you realize this, it seems so simple. Or at least, simple to check the plot is progressing. But before, it was much harder to see, let alone explain.

  2. I must agree with Jan. I've been looking for Arc info, rise and fall within a chapter, and how to not stall in over all plot line. This is it!
    I also love the name September. I recently encountered Tomorrow as a name. They speak of promise to me.
    I read time stamps. Jan commented before 7 am. And September before 6 AM. As a morning person, this is commendable. And inspiring!

    1. Hi Anon,
      Thank you so much! Oooh, I love the name "Tomorrow," for a character. It does sound promising.
      I'm very much a morning person, but I wasn't always. I will say, once I became one, I never went back. It's so much easier to have a good day and be productive when you get up early. At least for me, anyway. As dramatic as it sounds, it changed my life. Funny though, I wouldn't have believed it, if someone had told me.


I love comments :)