So, let’s talk plot.
Plot people talk most commonly about three-act structure, so we’ll roll with that. There’s also four-act, five-act, six-plus-act, and more — and whereas we’ll focus on a common architecture called “the hero’s journey” to flesh out our acts, there are certainly others.
Don’t obsess about it or let yourself get overwhelmed. If you start having high school composition class flashbacks, step back and take a few breaths. We’re not here to give you a technical lecture, and there won’t be a test at the end. We want to give you a framework. Take what makes sense, and don’t sweat the rest.
That said, we feel — after hundreds of stories, having developed a thorough process for fleshing them out — that story structure is something that’s easy to overthink. People make plot maps that would make a mathematician cringe, but in reality it doesn’t need to be that tricky. There are a few key things to keep in mind, and they’ll probably feel intuitively correct if you’ve seen a few movies and read a few books. The stories that felt best hit the high points we’ll spell out, and chances are great that when a story didn’t quite work for you, it was because the storyteller didn’t follow the rules.
In a three-act story about a hero’s journey from slavery to freedom (like yours), the breakdown goes something like this.
In Act 1, the hero’s normal world is disturbed in some way, and she decides to go on a quest. The quest might be literal (Lord of the Rings), conceptual (Harry Potter), or internal (American Beauty).
Conceptual quests look a lot like literal quests except instead of going from Location A to Location B throughout the story, the actions take them through a more localized journey of discovery.
Internal quests don’t look like quests at all, because all the “journeying” takes place on the inside. Things happen in American Beauty, but the real story is Lester’s journey from meek to strong and (ironically) only fully alive just before dying. Same for a movie like Mr. Holland’s Opus. There are external events, of course. But the focus is on Holland growing up, becoming less of a selfish, insecure bastard and more of a complete human, realizing that not all accomplishments resemble the stage at Carnage Hall.
Act 1 is about the jostling of a character’s world. She realizes there is something else out there and her current reality no longer fits. She’s not yet self-aware enough to see she’ll need to change to chase what’s passing her by, but she does want to chase it — whether she’s pursuing a goal, coming to another character’s defense, or anything else. The first act ends when the protagonist decides to go on (rather than being dragged into) the quest for whatever-it-is.
Act 2 — which in movies and books usually takes up half or more of the total story — is all about the character’s attempt to get what she wants using her current paradigm, then slowly coming to realize it isn’t going to work.
In a romance, the second act is all about the selfish man trying to woo his love interest by force of will (and starting to realize that maybe he should try a softer and more vulnerable approach, though he hates the idea), or the woman trying to get the man to open up by being distant and aloof (and starting to realize if she wants to let him in, she should probably lower her walls).
In an action flick, it’s where the good guys try to storm the terrorist compound using conventional tactics, slowly realizing that an unconventional (and terrifying) approach might be required instead.
In Mr. Holland’s Opus, Act 2 is Mr. Holland trying to achieve self-respect and significance for his life by shoving others aside and completing his opus … but getting hints from the world around him that say he’s maybe already significant in a quieter way, by making a difference with his students.
The second act ends with a point-of-no-return moment, where another choice is made — this one, irrevocable. It’s a leap of faith. The hero must decide to try the new way instead of her old way and jump into the deep end. She’s changed, and this is her chance to put her money where her mouth is, and the new approach over the old one.
This is where the romantic hero, having failed his lover and gone through a dark night of sadness that’s caused him to realize he can’t live without her, decides to stop being a closed-off bastard, opens up, and declares his love in the most frightening and public way possible.
This is where the action star must set aside memories of all the times he’s been betrayed to place his faith in the informant, trusting her to lead him safely into the terrorists’ lair.
This is where Indiana Jones, who’s chased the Ark of the Covenant for its historical value, lets Belloq call his bluff. He won’t blow up the Ark to keep it out of Nazi hands because he’s come to believe in it as something more. Only by letting himself be captured and trusting the Ark’s power to save them — giving up his own curiosity to see what’s inside in the process — will he and Marion survive.
Act 3, then, follows the inevitable consequences of the protagonist’s choice at the end of Act 2. The conclusion there is a point of no return and leads to a climax. The biggest and best scenes of the book or movie happen in Act 3 as a result of the choice in Act 2. This is where everything comes to a head. The action of the story and the emotional catharsis of the protagonist as she comes full-circle on her arc.
The climax is the culmination of the plot and the redeeming moment for the change within the protagonist. We see her internal journey (and the bravery it took to make it) has made her a better person. We see the good guys win and the bad guys punished.
Then descending action from the climax, and then resolution.
All the way to The End.
The midpoint, which tends to happen right in the middle of Act 2, is a highly dramatic moment wherein “everything changes.” It’s also sometimes described as the moment when the stakes are raised — which, in turn, changes everything.
In Jurassic Park, the midpoint is the huge T-rex battle. Before that, the park’s problems are distant and centered on containment. Fixing the problems and returning to normal. After the T-rex, it’s all about survival — and if the whole park has to burn in the end, nobody cares anymore.
In Up, the midpoint is when Carl and Russell are brought to Muntz’s lair. Before that scene, Carl wants to get his house to Paradise Falls. Afterward, he must fight to survive — and come to realize he cares about the dumb kid and dog who were bugging him before the stakes were raised.
In The Lego Movie, it’s the battle of Cloud Cuckoo Land, in which everyone learns Emmett isn’t The Special and can’t save anyone after all.
There’s a wonderful bit in On Writing where Stephen King describes a scary moment he had writing his opus The Stand. King is a pure pantser; he doesn’t have any idea where a story is going when he starts writing. For King, hook is everything. It’s all he has. Sean and I believe in having an idea of the end before we begin (failing to do so in life is like shooting at a target you can’t see), but Stevie fires right from the hip.
This practice gives him unadorned freedom, but it also unspools long lengths of rope with which he may end up hanging himself. Partway through The Stand, that’s exactly what it started to seem like. King had unleashed a sprawling cast of characters, lost in their stories, at the end of the world without any compass. They didn’t know where they’d end up, but unfortunately neither did King.
Which resulted in a real oh shit moment.
He was losing his book. He probably wondered if he’d have to throw it away. How could he gather all those disparate storylines together? It’s only interesting to read a sprawling narrative for so long; eventually the reader starts looking for meaning.
How do all these things relate? What is the author planning for them all, as a grand symphony?
In King’s case, the answer was nothing. That was the problem. The worst thing you can do to a story is turn it into a long list of stuff that happens. Purpose binds us, but all those characters in The Stand had none to bind them.
So King took a long walk to think it over.
And as he walked, he found variants on a single question rolling through his mind: Why am I writing this? What’s the point? What’s it all about, Stevie?
King had created a bunch of interesting characters, then explained how they’d survived the plague and what had happened thereafter. In true King fashion, we knew all about those people, both good and evil. Full of depth, from A to Z. We even had the shell of a mission, though even he didn’t know what it meant that two groups were being called to Las Vegas or Boulder.
It was a lot of stuff happening. There were many cool events, like the scene of Nick Andros making his way through the traffic-jammed tunnel in the dark. But if much more time rolled on without King revealing his grand plan, readers would lose interest. Lost, like the author himself.
In asking What’s it all about? he found himself circling some interesting answers.
For one, the world had gone out of control. Human irresponsibility had created the plague and killed the population. But the problem was, What now? Enough people had survived to make twin societies, and now they were getting the power back online and picking up all those old weapons of war to defend themselves … or rid the world of their enemies.
How was this world, King wondered, different from the one that had so recently been destroyed?
And that’s when he realized what his book was about. Finding new guidance, which in The Stand has a decidedly religious (if agnostic) bent. It was about subjugating base pleasures for greater goods, and obeying human connection over technological delights. The dream voice of Mother Abigail had drawn the enlightened to Boulder, but how were these good characters behaving any different from the evil being gathered in Vegas by Randal Flagg?
They weren’t. Even the good ones, it seemed, were falling right back into their own patterns.
So King put a bomb in one character’s closet. Killed a bunch of his better characters — slaughtered at the hands of a traitor among them. It was, for King, the hand of God reaching down to smack them around and remind them why they’d survived, why all of this mattered. There was evil in the world, and Flagg had it. It was time to stop putting their faith in the old order and place it in something intangible instead.
The rest of the story flowed. He sent some of his characters on a rather biblical pilgrimage, without food or water or weapons. They had to trust in a higher power. They had to leap, knowing there wasn’t a net.
Only once King got clear on what his story was trying to say — and his purpose in writing it — could he clearly see its direction. Every story, dear reader, needs a reason for existing. Purpose. Meaning.
This excerpt was taken out of the book The Story Solution by Sean M. Platt & Johnny Truant. The Story Solution isn't just about writing, it's about the story of your life. While StoryShop University is hitting on the points that may help you in writing, if you want to take charge of your life and construct your story the way a writer does, The Story Solution is for you.
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