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Humanities LibreTexts

10: Plot

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    39588
  • Every play is different and every new playwright is not only developing their voice, but also trying to break the rules. However, human beings have been telling stories since before we ever developed written language. Stories are how histories were passed down, how life lessons were learned, and how we found our place in society. There is a wonderful book called The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall and in the book he talks about how human beings have evolved around story. We wake up and eat breakfast and read stories either on the phone, on the cereal box, or watch them on the television. We then go to school or work and listen to information that if it is told in story form we remember more easily. On breaks we see our friends and tell them about the stories of our day. We then go home and watch stories on the television, our phone, or read stories. Finally, we go to sleep and dream in stories. Every part of our existence is tied to stories. Religion is just a story large groups of people feel is so important it has become sacred. Because stories are the vehicle of communication with our species and as a theater artist you are a storyteller, it is a good idea to understand how a story is constructed.

    Plot is just another name for Story. Plot is the series of events that are structured to take the hero on a transformative journey throughout the story. Stories have been around for centuries and throughout that time the structure of storytelling has become solidified and with that there are essential components or rules you must follow. There are always attempts to break the form and some are done quite well, but if you just follow the structure and deliver a strong and well crafted story your audience will be receptive and happy. Each plot or story has essential components and below I will briefly outline them. I will first outline the minimum essential plot points you will need in any story, joke, etc. and then I will provide a more detailed plot outline for you to follow if you choose.

    Minimum Essential components of a story:

    • Set up / Prologue / Exposition
    • Catalyst or Inciting Incident
    • Rising Action
    • Finale/Climax
    • Denouement or Resolution

    Setup/Prologue/Exposition

    The setup/prologue/exposition is set up within the first 10-12 pages of the play. Every story whether it be a novel, play, story you tell your friend, or even a joke has to have certain elements in the beginning in order for your audience to understand and follow the plot. If the following elements are not clear in the beginning of the story the audience will spend most of the play/story trying to figure them out and as a result will not be following your actual story. In the set up you have to establish the setting/ time/ location, introduce the main characters, set up the rules of the world, and establish what a normal day is like in the main characters world.

    Establish the Setting:

    The audience needs to understand where and when the play is taking place. Remember that in a play the action and story is being conveyed through dialogue and will need to be clearly established up front. You even do this when telling a quick story to your friend: “Last I was walking into Wal-Mart and ____”

    or in a joke: “2 guys walk into a bar.”

    or in a Fairy Tale: “Once upon a time in a land far far away…”

    In each instance the Setting is established up front so the audience has a location in which to stage the rest of the story.

    Introducing the Main Characters:

    Within the first few pages of the story the audience needs to be introduced to the main characters they will be following for the journey of the play. The audience needs to know who to care about and identify with. If you want the audience to bond with your character, it helps to have the protagonist do a small act of kindness to allow us to see the characters potential as a hero. The audience does not need backstory, but they do need to be aware of the principal players in the world of the story.

    Setting Up the Rules of the World:

    Every story takes place in an alternate reality and each reality has a set of rules that the characters must abide by. If your characters are in a world where ghosts or magic exists, you must establish this early so that when these elements are explored later the audience is with you. You have to clearly establish these rules early so that they can be used later in the story.

    Even in situations where the story seems realistic there are rules. For example, every romance has the rule or convention that “love at first sight” exists as well as the rule/convention/concept of the existence of a “true love.” In a story the author needs the audience to root for the leads to get together and since the author is limited to a two hour narrative the easiest way to establish a strong connection is to create the existence of “Love at First Sight.” This rule is not realistic because the only human beings that truly believe in love at first sight are stalkers, but the convention or rule allows the author to establish a connection between the main characters and then use the rest of the time to focus on the plot elements that help tell the actual story.

    The concept of “True Love” is also useful and equally counter to real life. The rule of true loves existence allows for the audience to understand that the main characters share a special bond and connection that is worth enduring the trials of the story. In real life human beings have complicated relationships with everything. Do you love your parents? Do you love your spouse or significant other? Do you love your children? Do you love food? Now do you love all of those things the same way? NO!! That is both disgusting and illegal, but you cannot say that your love for any of those things is less ‘true’ than the other. Nevertheless the concept of a true love allows the author to establish a worthy connection between the characters and convinces the audience to root for the characters to get together.

    Establishing Normal:

    For the purpose of telling your story you need to establish what the rules of the imaginary world you are creating are and then show us what a normal and average day in this world, with these rules, looks like. It is very important to do this because when you introduce the conflict it will disrupt the normal flow of the world and both the characters and the audience will see it.

    Catalyst/Inciting Incident

    The inciting incident or catalyst is the thing that happens that causes everything else to happen. This is the event that will introduce the conflict of the story. This can be a character being introduced, an event occuring, or something as small as a letter being dropped off. This is the plot device that disrupts the normal life you have established and sets the plot in motion. Ultimately, this is where the problem is introduced that you are going to spend the rest of the story solving. While there are many points in the rising action and prologue/exposition, there is only one inciting incident.

    Rising Action

    The rising action is the series of events that build tension and lead towards the finale and climax. The rising action is the struggle and the sole reason the audience is watching the show. Once the problem has been introduced through the Inciting Incident, the character then tries to solve this problem and in doing so creates more struggles and obstacles. Each scene is an attempt to solve the problem and each attempt is unsuccessful and increases the hero’s struggle. Each scene should build in intensity and be harder for the hero to overcome, but along the way you want the hero to gain knowledge and skills that will help solve the problem in the end. Remember: Each obstacle increases the suffering of the protagonist and each obstacle helps prepare the protagonist for the final confrontation with the antagonist. Do not be afraid to make things hard for your hero. The more the character suffers, the more the audience suffers and that suffering is matched in the relief and celebration shared by the hero achieving the end goal.

    Finale

    The finale is the strongest point of conflict where the hero and antagonist collide. The more the hero has struggled throughout the journey, the more the audience has anticipated this confrontation, so make sure to capitalize on this by increasing the heroes struggles leading up to this point.

    Climax

    The climax is the highest point of tension. Tension is created when we are anticipating an event but it has yet to occur. This is the moment where you extend the anticipation of victory or defeat, because once the event occurs it becomes part of the resolution and the audience will begin the process of disengaging from the performance and reconnecting with their lives. This is why kisses take so long in dramas. The audience understands the finality of the kiss, within the rules of the world. A kiss seals the relationship of the couple, and so the more you make the audience wait, the more they root for your characters.

    Denouement / Falling Action / Resolution

    Denouement means to unravel or unknot. The plot has been building tension and tying knots in the audiences stomachs and denouement is where the story receives closure and the knots are untied. In the Denouement the conflict is resolved,the hero is either victorious or fails, life returns to as normal as possible for the characters following the events of the plot, and the audience begins to internalize the themes and knowledge gained from the story. This should not take too long, and do get ‘precious’ or sentimental with the subject matter. This is the final 5 pages or less of the script.

    More Detailed Plot Description

    Some stories need the loose structure of Minimum Components outline, however most stories follow the following plot outline. This list combines many different theories and techniques of plot structure and consolidates them. Remember that all stories are metaphors for the audience to learn from and your goal should be to connect your hero with your audience and through the journey transform your audience through your character.

    Standard components of a story:

    • Opening Image
    • Set up / Prologue / Exposition
    • Catalyst or Inciting Incident
    • Debate
    • Decision
    • Fun and Games or New World
    • Midpoint
    • Bad Guys Close In or Tensions Rise
    • All is Lost
    • Dark night of the Soul
    • Finale
    • Denouement or Resolution
    • Final Image

    Another way of looking at plot:

    Setup/Exposition

    • Opening Image
    • Set up / Prologue / Exposition

    Catalyst or Inciting Incident

    Rising Action

    • Debate
    • Decision
    • Fun and Games or New World
    • Midpoint
    • Bad Guys Close In or Tensions Rise
    • All is Lost
    • Dark night of the Soul

    Finale

    Climax

    Denouement or Resolution

    Opening Image

    Every single story is about a transformation. Blake Snyder describes this beautifully in his book Save the Cat. He says “Every play is about the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly.” Every story is also a hero's journey. We are introduced to a hero who, like us, is trapped in circumstances they cannot control. Yet this hero has a goal and in order to achieve that goal they will be met with many obstacles. It is watching this character overcome the obstacles that transforms not only the hero but the audience. The opening image is where the story shows us the main character in the beginning or caterpillar stage of their journey. This is important because the opening image and final image are the things your audience will remember the most. It is the contrast of these two images that tell the story.

    Setup/Prologue/Exposition

    Every story has to have certain elements in the beginning in order for your audience to understand and follow the plot. In the set up you have to establish the setting or time and location, introduce the main characters, set up the rules of the world, and establish what a normal day is like in the main characters world.

    Establish the Setting:

    The audience needs to understand where and when the play is taking place. Remember that in a play the action and story is being conveyed through dialogue and will need to be clearly established up front. You even do this when telling a quick story to your friend: “Last I was walking into Wal-Mart and ____”

    or in a joke: “2 guys walk into a bar.”

    or in a Fairy Tale: “Once upon a time in a land far far away…”

    In each instance the Setting is established up front so the audience has a location in which to stage the rest of the story.

    Introducing the Main Characters:

    Within the first few pages of the story the audience needs to be introduced to the main characters they will be following for the journey of the play. The audience needs to know who to care about and identify with. If you want the audience to bond with your character, it helps to have the protagonist do a small act of kindness to allow us to see the characters potential as a hero. The audience does not need backstory, but they do need to be aware of the principal players in the world of the story.

    If this is a love story, the audience needs to see a selfish and childish hero who avoids responsibility and only strives to have fun. We then need to see the over responsible counterpart that is overstressed, overworked, and avoids fun and risk at all cost. These characters behavior, flaws, and routines need to be established so that when they meet in the inciting incident, the audience understands the journey each character needs to undertake.

    Setting Up the Rules of the World:

    Every story takes place in an alternate reality and each reality has a set of rules that the characters must abide by. If your characters are in a world where ghosts or magic exists, you must establish this early so that when these elements are explored later the audience is with you. You have to clearly establish these rules early so that they can be used later in the story.

    Even in situations where the story seems realistic there are rules. For example, every romance has the rule or convention that “love at first sight” exists as well as the rule/convention/concept of the existence of a “true love.” In a story the author needs the audience to root for the leads to get together and since the author is limited to a two hour narrative the easiest way to establish a strong connection is to create the existence of “Love at First Sight.” This rule is not realistic because the only human beings that truly believe in love at first sight are stalkers, but the convention or rule allows the author to establish a connection between the main characters and then use the rest of the time to focus on the plot elements that help tell the actual story.

    The concept of “True Love” is also useful and equally counter to real life. The rule of true loves existence allows for the audience to understand that the main characters share a special bond and connection that is worth enduring the trials of the story. In real life human beings have complicated relationships with everything. Do you love your parents? Do you love your spouse or significant other? Do you love your children? Do you love food? Now do you love all of those things the same way? NO!! That is both disgusting and illegal, but you cannot say that your love for any of those things is less ‘true’ than the other. Nevertheless the concept of a true love allows the author to establish a worthy connection between the characters and convinces the audience to root for the characters to get together.

    Establishing Normal:

    For the purpose of telling your story you need to establish what the rules of the imaginary world you are creating are and then show us what a normal and average day in this world, with these rules, looks like. It is very important to do this because when you introduce the conflict it will disrupt the normal flow of the world and both the characters and the audience will see it. It is also important to note that the world of the exposition is not maintainable and if life were to continue this way for the character the characters would either die or live wasted and meaningless lives. Even if their life is filled with happiness, it is unfulfilled in ways they are not yet aware of and that is why the story is worth telling.

    Catalyst/Inciting Incident

    The inciting incident or catalyst is the thing that happens that causes everything else to happen. This is the event that will introduce the conflict of the story. This can be a character being introduced, an event occuring, or something as small as a letter being dropped off. This is the plot device that disrupts the normal life you have established and sets the plot in motion. Ultimately, this is where the problem is introduced that you are going to spend the rest of the story solving. While there are many points in the rising action and prologue/exposition, there is only one inciting incident.

    Debate

    Once the Catalyst or Inciting Incident has occurred the Hero contemplates taking the journey to confront the problem. Most human beings never feel ready to take on a difficult task, let alone a life defining journey. This plot point is really important to have because it highlights a truly human characteristic. Every great hero does not go willingly at first to their destiny, they doubt themselves. This contemplation is usually a discussion with a friend or mentor, but can also be a soliloquy.

    Decision

    The Hero does not always make the decision to go on a journey to confront the problem. This is the plot point where the decision is made. The Hero either decides to confront the problem willingly or the villian/circumstances make a decision that forces the hero into action.

    Fun and Games/ New World

    The main character begins the journey to confront the problem and this forces the character to enter a new world. The new world is the antithesis of the previous world and all of the rules from the previous world are broken. The section is called ‘fun and games’ by some writers but this does not necessarily mean that the world the character is entering is fun. The fun comes from the exploration of the world. Your main character is clueless to the rules of this world, as is your audience, and both will discover the world together. If for example the world of the exposition is safe and predictable, the hero must enter a world that is dangerous and unpredictable. This section is rather long and allows for new characters to be introduced. This is also why your hero is clueless at the beginning of the story, because as you introduce the new world to them the audience is equally clueless and you can hide any further exposition in dialogue or actions by the hero asking questions or discovering things on their own.

    Midpoint

    The midpoint of the play is where the main character has adequately explored the new world and has unlocked a piece of hidden potential. This event usually manifests itself into a ‘false victory’ or ‘false defeat.’ This means that the character has a minor confrontation with another character and through the confrontation learns a new skill. This confrontation can either be a victory or defeat, but it is labeled as ‘false’ because there is much more to learn and the final confrontation is yet to come. Immediately following the midpoint is the intermission.

    Bad Guys Close In/ Tensions Rise

    Following the victory or defeat at the midpoint the Antagonist becomes aware of the hero and adds pressure. If the hero is part of a team, the team begins to struggle and fall apart. Relationships that were strong in Act 1 now begin to fracture. In addition the hero begins to doubt their abilities, the process, and begins losing faith in themselves and their team.

    All is lost

    This is a major defeat at the hands of the antagonist causing the team to completely fracture and in the process destroys the heroes confidence. This can be the perceived loss of the goal, a character dying, something being lost, etc. In life each person is going to be hit with events that crush any semblance of what we thought we were. This plot point illustrates that in story form and has characters struggle with an equal loss. Due to this loss, all progress made feels lost and the final problem appears insurmountable.

    Dark Night of the Soul

    This is the part of the story where the Hero contemplates giving up and in some cases even ending their life. As the Hero decides whether or not to continue, he or she is offered guidance by a sidekick or mentor and through this conversation the hero finally understands the deeper meaning of the theme. At the end of the scene, the hero decides to meet the antagonist in a final confrontation. The parallel in life is that only once we hit rock bottom can we begin anew and if you build on the lessons you have learned along your journey you can become the unstoppable force you were looking for all along.

    Finale

    The finale is the strongest point of conflict where the hero and antagonist collide. The more the hero has struggled throughout the journey, the more the audience has anticipated this confrontation, so make sure to capitalize on this by increasing the heroes struggles leading up to this point. At this point the protagonist and antagonist are equally matched and now the hero is armed with experience and an unwavering understanding of the theme of the story. The protagonist and antagonist collide and the finale should be designed to test both characters to their breaking points.

    Climax

    The climax is the highest point of tension. Tension is created when we are anticipating an event but it has yet to occur. This is the moment where you extend the anticipation of victory or defeat, because once the event occurs it becomes part of the resolution and the audience will begin the process of disengaging from the performance and reconnecting with their lives.

    Denouement / Falling Action / Resolution

    Denouement means to unravel or unknot. The plot has been building tension and tying knots in the audiences stomachs and denouement is where the story receives closure and the knots are untied. In the Denouement the conflict is resolved,the hero is either victorious or fails, life returns to as normal as possible for the characters following the events of the plot, and the audience begins to internalize the themes and knowledge gained from the story. This should not take too long, and do get ‘precious’ or sentimental with the subject matter.

    Closing Image

    This is our final moment or image of the character as the transformed butterfly. This image should be powerful and will be the image your audience will carry with them out of the theater.

    Playwriting Activity 1: Identifying the Set up

    • Choose a film, play, or book, and ask yourself “what does the audience need to know in order for the world to make sense.” Identify which characters tell the audience this and how the information is conveyed?
    • Find a friend or partner and discuss your findings. Do you both agree with your findings? If not discuss and see if you can discover a new perspective that you both agree on.

    Playwriting Activity 2: Identifying Plot Structure

    • Choose a film, play, book, and TV Commercial and identify the plot points in the story. Were you able to find all of them? Were any missing? Did this support or hinder the story?
    • Find a friend or partner and discuss your findings. Do you both agree with your findings? If not discuss and see if you can discover a new perspective that you both agree on.

    Playwriting Activity 3: Creating a Plot Structure about a Public Figure

    • Choose a public figure that you are familiar with and outline their political career. Identify a problem within that career that needed to be faced. Choose a theme, conflict, and setting. Create a Hero, Villain, Sidekick, Heroine/Goal/McGuffin, and Mentor that will help you tell your story. Then incorporate the events in the person's career into a plot structure that you have learned. Do the events build tension? How does the conflict get worse? What did the character learn at the end?
    • Find a friend or partner and discuss your findings. Do you both agree with your findings? If not discuss and see if you can discover a more effective progression for your story.

    Playwriting Activity 4: Creating Tension in the Rising Action

    • Choose a theme, conflict, and setting from the previous activities and create a Hero, Villain, Sidekick, Heroine/Goal/McGuffin, and Mentor that will help you tell your story. Then create an outline where in the setup you introduce your characters and the world. Then use the Inciting Incident to introduce your conflict/ problem. Then outline a series of events that escalate the problem and build to a worst case scenario happening, then introduce a ticking clock.
    • Find a friend or partner and discuss your findings. Do you both agree with your findings? If not discuss and see if you can discover a more effective progression for your story.

    Playwriting 5: Brain Dump

    • Choose a story you have had floating around in your head. Write out all of the events that you want to happen in the story. One you have finished use flash cards or small strips of paper and write each event down so that each event is represented on a single sheet of paper. Choose your inciting incident and your climax. Organize your events in a logical progression that connect your Inciting Incident and your Climax.
    • Find a friend or partner and discuss your findings. Do you both agree with your findings? If not discuss and see if you can discover a more effective progression for your story.

    Playwriting 6: Creating your plot structure

    • Choose a theme, conflict, and setting from the previous activities and create a Hero, Villain, Sidekick, Heroine/Goal/McGuffin, and Mentor that will help you tell your story. Identify a clear Inciting Incident that will begin the action and a Climax to build towards. Then create an outline where in the setup you introduce your characters and the world. Then use the Inciting Incident to introduce your conflict/ problem. Then outline a series of events that escalate the problem and build to a worst case scenario happening, add in a ticking clock and build towards your climax.
    • Find a friend or partner and discuss your findings. Do you both agree with your findings? If not discuss and see if you can discover a more effective progression for your story.
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