Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Plotting Part 2: Beginning Your Plot

The 8 Key Scenes (with an Optional 9th)

Each of the four story parts begin and end with an important event that marks the transition from one story phase to the next. Add in two special scenes which occur in the middle of Part 2 and Part 3 and you have 8 key scenes to shape out the skeleton of your story.

The Opening Scene—This is one of the most important scenes of the story and usually one of the hardest to get right. It has to let us know what kind of story to expect and hook us with a story question that makes us wonder what is about to happen next. Ideally it should introduce the protagonist, or the antagonist, or possibly a side character that will connect the two—to give us someone to identify with or care about. Ideally, it should also introduce the main conflict of the story, or at least foreshadow it, or another conflict that ties into the theme (Inner Plot) of the story—so that we'll wonder what happens next. While it's doing all this, it also needs to begin to introduce the setting and the tone of the story.

The First Plot Point—After spending the first 25% of the story trying to avoid or deny the main conflict, or just being trapped in his lie, the protagonist is forced to act when something changes his world forever. He may get slapped in the face with the story conflict, or even be given a positive opportunity that sets him on course to the story conflict, but he is ultimately forced to make a choice to go somewhere or do something to set things right. Even if all the protagonist can do is try and make a new life for himself in a new place or under new circumstances he cannot keep his current life.

The First Reversal (1st Pinch Point)—After spending the first half of Part 2 just trying to figure out how to respond to the 1st Plot Point, the antagonist steps in at the 37% mark to wreck things again. Any progress the protagonist has made is probably lost—or worse—discovered to be harmfully misguided. This emphasizes the fact that the protagonist can't just adapt to the problem but must face it directly if he is to ever find peace/happiness again. It will usually reveal the problem to be bigger, more powerful or more complicated than first thought and that acting upon The Lie is not only not helping the protagonist to reach his Goal, but actually making things more difficult. If the First Plot Point forces the protagonist to commit to action, the First Reversal ups the tension and urges him forward.

The Mid Point—Exactly halfway through the story, everything changes again. Like the First Plot Point, the Mid Point marks the beginning of Part 3 with a major change in the protagonist's situation where the protagonist switches from defense to offense. I have heard it said that if the First Plot Point was positive, then the Mid Point should be negative and vice versa. Either way, the protagonist finally begins to understand The Truth, both of the general nature of the conflict and of himself. He won't have given up on The Lie yet, but he will begin to see that he needs The Truth to solve his problem. From now until the Third Plot Point, the protagonist will begin to take charge of the situation and set things right (insert training montage here) using the resources gained in Part 2. While his inner conflict between his dependence on The Lie and his need for The Truth will begin to fade as he leans on The Truth (he may even begin to resist the effects of The Lie), he will be forced to make an ultimate choice between the two at the end of Part 3.

The Second Reversal (2nd Pinch Point)—Having begun to understand and use the power of The Truth, the protagonist is forced to face the cost of continuing the conflict. Halfway through Part 3 (62% of the way through the story) the Second Reversal appears, where the Antagonist strikes back and the protagonist pays a big price. (If the protagonist has a mentor that is going to die, this is where they bite it.) From now on, the protagonist continues progressing with renewed--even fierce--determination.

The Third Plot Point—At the end of Part 3, 75% through the story, the protagonist was at the final point of victory where his Goal was in reach. All he had to do was turn his back on The Truth and act according to The Lie. (Feel the power of the dark side!) He may have even started to do just that, but then disaster strikes as the Third Plot Point arrives. The antagonist engineers a major disaster and the protagonist, knowing he can no longer merely use The Truth while clinging to The Lie, is forced to choose. He can reject The Lie, which may cost him the Goal he had been fighting for, or reject The Truth, which will cost him the one thing he most needs. If this is a positive character arc story, he will be forced to recognize how The Lie has failed him and reject it, sometimes almost reflexively. This illustrates that the protagonist's values have clearly changed because to reject The Truth would be to sacrifice these things he now values. From now on until the climax, that choice will be tested as everything else the Protagonist once valued may be stripped away to prove his commitment to The Truth.

The Climax—Having been stripped of everything but The Truth, and starting Part 4 at the lowest of low points emotionally, the protagonist pushes straight toward the final confrontation with the antagonist. Enduring a final series of challenges to his commitment to The Truth (sometimes including the mockery of bystanders or even urging from allies who believe the fight is lost or the cost too high to continue) the protagonist confronts the source of his problems directly and all the cards are laid out on the table. Ideally the climax of both the inner and outer plots will occur together at the end of the story. Often that final revelation of The Truth in the inner plot will empower the protagonist to defeat the antagonist in the outer plot. With a sense of inevitability, and yet still an element of surprise, the protagonist completely overpowers the antagonist and fully appreciates his new relationship with The Truth.

The Resolution—It might not be a full scene. It might only be a paragraph or two, or even a couple of lines—though if your name is J.R.R.Tolkien it might run on for chapters—but the resolution is no less important than any other scene. This is the reader's emotional payoff for enduring the struggle. It shows the results/reward of living by The Truth by indicating how the protagonist and his circumstances have changed as a result of his decision to embrace The Truth. It's also a final chance to answer any remaining story questions which may have gone unanswered in part 3 and part 4.

The Backstory—Your optional 9th scene, is an important event in the protagonist's past (often traumatic) that convinced the protagonist of The Lie. Screenwriters sometimes refer to this as "the character's ghost" because it haunts him, reminding him of The Lie while motivating him to live by it. If the event is dramatic, it may be shown in flashback—especially at the end of part 3 where the protagonist wrestles with refusing The Lie. If it is important to the outer plot, it might be used as an opening scene. It may also only be referred to indirectly or remain a complete mystery (to the reader) throughout the story.

Next time—Plotting Part 3: Fleshing Out Your Story, with an extra bonus feature.

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