Monday, December 21, 2015

Plotting Part 1: How Story Works

You’ve come up with an idea for a story, brainstormed all the cool elements you’d like to include and mapped out the relationships of the “good guys,” the “bad guys” and everyone in between so that you know how their motives all differ from each other (providing conflict) and how their goals are at cross purposes (so that they can’t avoid each other). You’ve even come up with your core sentence, determining the heart of the story you plan to write, and the main themes you’ll be dealing with.

So how do you actually turn that into a story?

The Purpose and Function of Story
All stories are fundamentally about conflict. Two (or more) forces, each trying to change the world around them in contradictory or at least incompatible ways, come into conflict. The strengths and weaknesses of each are weighed and the implications of each are considered, and a winner is finally chosen and the results are projected.  In a way it’s almost like a scientific experiment. In fact, some years ago, I rambled on my much-neglected blog about how I thought storytelling could be considered mankind’s first science. ( I’ve learned a lot more about how stories work since then, but I am just as convinced now as I was then that this is true. In fact you can pretty much see it in the story’s shape.

2 Plots, 3 Stories, 4 Parts
Every complete story has two plots which I refer to as the Outer Plot and the Inner Plot.

The Outer Plot – is simply the sequence of external events the provokes the protagonist into acting. The outer plot goes something like:

Part 1: A problem occurs which the protagonist may first try to avoid or deny until it affects him personally by changing his circumstances. By the end of Part 1 he cannot go back to anything like his old life until he fixes the problem.

Part 2: The protagonist first struggles to avoid or fend of the problem’s effects or the antagonist’s attacks while trying to figure out the true nature of the problem. The protagonist will be gathering (sometimes unknowingly) the knowledge/weapons/skills/allies/resources /etc. he will  need to ultimately face the antagonist/problem, but probably won’t be able to attack the antagonist/problem directly at this point. If he does, he will fail badly because he is completely unprepared.

Part 3: At the mid-point of the story, the protagonist has gained some insight into the true nature of the problem or a weakness of the antagonist and formulates a method or plan to attack. The protagonist goes on the offense, making progress toward his goal while paying increasing costs at the same time.

Part 4: After having been stripped of nearly all of his resources, the protagonist comes face to face with the antagonist and, while at the very point of losing, pulls one last trick out of his hat in a desperate all-or-nothing attempt to defeat the antagonist.

The Inner Plot—While the protagonist is dealing with the conflict of the Outer Plot, this is mirrored by a similar struggle taking place within the protagonist. The the outer struggle tests the protagonist’s abilities and methods to overcome the external conflict, while the inner struggle tests his values and his understanding of himself, his relationships and place in the world. How he responds to this inner struggle and how he feels about the results determines which of the three basic story types or Character Arcs the story falls into.

The Positive Change Arc: The protagonist starts out with a misunderstanding about himself, his world or life in general. This may sometime be caused by or associated with some significant past personal event. We shall refer to this misconception, or aspect that must change, as The Lie.

The Lie leads to a weakness or a fear which the protagonist must overcome in order to obtain the thing he needs (The Truth) to be truly happy. Unfortunately, the protagonist finds himself in a situation where facing The Lie may cause him to sacrifice his Goal, or the thing he wants because he thinks it will make him happy. The Inner Plot is all about how the protagonist discovers the power of The Truth to overcome The Lie and then sets himself free by learning to commit to it. This is the most common inner plot and is often used with an “everyman” protagonist who functions as a stand-in for the audience.

The Flat Change Arc: The protagonist already knows The Truth but his commitment to it and his ability to apply it is being tested. Everyone else, however, lives according to The Lie—or variations of The Lie. While the outer plot remains unchanged, the inner plot almost seems as if it consists of only Part 3 and Part 4 of the 4 plot parts. If the objective of the positive change arc is for the protagonist to solve the problem by discovering The Truth and change himself, the objective of the flat change arc is for the protagonist to save everyone else by demonstrating the power of The Truth. This is the next most common inner plot and is often used in action hero, superhero or suffering hero type stories.

The Negative Change Arc: The protagonist not only doesn’t know The Truth, he never learns it. As The Lie pushes him further and further from The Truth, the protagonist clings to The Lie even tighter, determined to pay any price to achieve his Goal or go down fighting. He usually fails to accomplish his Goal, but if he does, it is an empty and meaningless victory for which he’s sacrificed everything that could have made him truly happy. He usually fails to see how The Lie has harmed him, but even if he does he will still be powerless to comprehend or implement The Truth. These stories are tragic cautionary tales where the protagonist destroys himself and often the people around him by acting according to The Lie.

Stay tuned for... Plotting Part 2: Beginning Your Plot (The 8 Key Scenes, with an optional 9th)

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