plot development

Plot Triangles and Circles

This all started because as I was cleaning up the office, I found a portable hard drive with a copy of Trapped In The Closet on it. Say what you like about how absurd the story and the videos are, but there’s a plot there. As for whether or not it’s a “good” plot we can debate, but I’m going to tell you that I’m gonna side with the guy who made remix of Ignition fresh and hot out his kitchen more often than not – it’s entertaining while being vaguely in the ballpark of coherent, which is what we ask out of a plot.

The original draft of this post was a rundown of the Trapped In The Closet beat structure, but over time I started seeing that it wouldn’t do any good to bring up the midget and being deep in the streets without first making sure we’e talking the same language in plot.

What Is A Plot?

A plot is a series of events and actions that occur in an order that help resolve a question, conflict or challenge. If that conflict has to do with character, it’s a character plot. If it has to do with the main crux of the story, it’s called story plot.

All Plot Has A Structure

Plot ideally escalates and resolves according to divisions in stories we recognize as Acts. And in school, we most often see two different kind of Act structures: 3-Act and 5-Act.

Got this straight out of a textbook


Notice any similarities?

Look at both of these, they each deal with what’s called the Triangle or in some cases the Mountain, where the middle of the story is filled with the plot’s escalation, climax and resolution. The degree to which we delineate the start, rise, and resolution helps determine if we’re talking 3 or 5 Acts, but there’s no real way past the Triangle, or is there?

Here Comes the Circle

There’s this thing called the monomyth, the hero’s journey, Campbell’s structure … it’s all the same thing. It’s the progression of a hero through their story. It can be represented as a circle.

There’s a prettier version in color, but I like this version too.

The Triangle is gone. So are the clear markers about where the Acts start and end.  It’s a visual representation of progress more than it’s a sense of scale (the triangle has a high point that’s the tallest thing in the image, so that must correlate to the climax).

So Which Is Better?

Stop that. Stop thinking one is better, or that if you use one or the other you’re making some kind of profound statement as to what sort of writer you are, or how literary or whatever tilted bullshit is circulating in the writing media you consume. There is no better. They each have their uses. Each has situations where one will produce a more linear plot with fewer creative difficulties, so at best you can say one is situationally better than another, but no, there’s no Plot Thunderdome or Quickening to determine the best kind of plot.

And if you’re asking, yes there are other models of plot, and the one I teach clients will be up on Patreon starting this week.

These are just tools, and tools are only as potent as the person using them, no matter what they’re using them for.

I’ve set all this out so that we can get on the same page. This is going to be our common language for what we’re talking about today.

Plot Fuel, Plot Momentum, Plot Roadblocks

If you’ve ever said or thought, “I suck at plotting.” I will tell you that you don’t. You think you do, but that’s because you’re defining plot like it’s built out of something other than the rest of the storystuff – decisions and intention.

What you choose based on what you intend is the fuel that drives plot. All plots. Characters. Stories. Series. All of it.

Let’s nip the “my characters don’t follow my plot” idea in the bud – You made your characters. You made the plot. You make all the decisions as to what happens or what doesn’t happen. If one train of thought isn’t working out, you have the full ability to change part(s) of it until it does work out. Being uncomfortable with the responsibility for your creation is something you should come to terms with before proceeding down any creative path.

Intentions (like “I intend to tell a story about A meeting B and then doing X” or “This is a story about one woman’s struggle to find an identity as a beekeeper and office drone.”) help frame decisions, and as the story progresses you approach the subsequent with questions of “And therefore what” “And then” “Which leads to what happening and why?

These questions help build momentum in the story, because they lead you to make more new decisions in an orderly fashion rather than spraying thought shrapnel all over the place.

What does that look like? This:

Character realizes they’re trapped in a stifling job and their real passion is beekeeping.”
And then…
They try for weeks to get fired from their job, only to be promoted again and again for being ‘outside the box.'”
Her rival at work discovers her plan to get fired and tries to reveal it to the company
Which leads to what happening and why?
During the big merger talks, everything is exposed and…

What these questions do is help develop momentum because the later actions build off the earlier ones. It’s not a quick jamming together of disparate things that sound individually cool under the idea that if individually they’re cool, so collectively they must be double-extra-cool. You can prove this false by looking at movies that jam in extra villains hoping that more badguys make for more opportunities for awesome to happen, like in the Batman movies pre-Nolan, or comparing the plot development of the Star Wars prequels to the OG trilogy.

What you’re looking for is sequential, because that’s how you build momentum.

But now we have to talk about a roadblock.

No, not that guy.

I’m talking about the manufactured obstacles you put in the way of the story, without thinking they’re obstacles. The ideas that seem like they’d work or be cool or contribute to a better overall story.

This is the “I could have a character who…” or “What if this also happened while this other thing was happening…” additions that can come across like impulse additions or things that got included because they’re supposed to “help a book sell”

These might be great ideas when thought of as a bubble or a passing thought while you’re putting lunch in your face, but as with anything developmental, you have to ask how does this new thing work with the existing, and is it really worth it to tear apart what I’ve already got, just to add something that either doesn’t need a payoff or needs a payoff that profoundly impacts what I’ve got and where I wanted to go in first place.

I’ll offer two examples, one more serious than the other, so you can see what I mean.

Serious example: Add a love interest for Charlie Bucket into Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

There isn’t a romantic subplot in the movie. And while it may sound interesting to suddenly take one of the contestant kids and make them fall in love with our protagonist Charlie, so that ultimately when it’s time for this love interest to be proven unworthy of winning (which is the heart of the movie), we feel some extra level of sting when they meets their candy-themed demise. It sounds like this should be really compelling. It would let you write scenes with dialogue, and you’d get a look at what Charlie is feeling and you could maybe even talk about loss and grief once the love interest goes out but Charlie soldiers on. Sounds like a great idea.

Until you look at what the story is built on and see that adding something no matter how cool it might be to stretch your writing chops ultimately would involve really tough third act resolution. What if the love interest makes it to the end of the story? Are they still in the contest? Would they co-win? Wouldn’t that mean you’d have to make the secondary character a primary one to justify the story’s logic? Is it ultimately important for the story about childhood kindness, empathy and goodness to have to grapple with substantial emotional topics beyond the fact that a kid just watched another kid turn into a blueberry or fall down a hole or shrink and be taken away to be stretched? Aside from being a thing for the writer to write, what would that contribute to the story’s greatest plot-message?

Less serious example: What if in addition to blowing up the Death Star, Luke also has to overcome a fear of podracing?

One of the big traps people find themselves in is thinking that their plot isn’t enough, that their characters aren’t doing enough and that every element from small to large has to tie together. Now this gets a little tricky, because people read that and think I’m somehow writing a permission slip to have wild plot holes and loose ends. I’m not. I’m saying that you don’t need to tie every element back to some other part of itself or its package like some plot Ouroboros in order for the predominant plot to make “better” sense or fit “nicer” into the big picture of all the stories and ideas you’re presenting.

In the podracign example, trying to tie a thematic nod to a series element (podracing) to the rather focused narrative (blow up the Death Star) can result in slowing down pacing and making any additions (like a new podracing scene) feel like it’s unnecessary — because it would be. To add a bell or whistle when the story stands on its own won’t help make the story better, just different.


The point I’m making will all this — no matter what method you use to plot, no matter what that plot shakes out to be, every element in it, has to, in some positive way, contribute to the story’s completion or its depth. Depth isn’t meant in a pretentious way, I mean it in a “this has to add something that can connect to other material in a substantial way, that enriches existing material in some may other than cosmetics or fan service.”


I absolutely have more to say about plotting, so look for more next week. Happy writing.

Posted by johnadamus in plot development, plot stuff

I didn’t really like it as much as I think I was supposed to

As I write this post, I’m less than one hour removed from having walked out of a movie before the big third act. And it was a very popular movie, one that broke quite a few records. It’s a wonder, really.

What’s even more of a wonder, woman or man reading this, is how I feel about it. It was okay. It wasn’t great or rad or huge or amazing. It just was. It was better than some of the other movies I’ve seen in the same universe, but it didn’t grab me or transport me or take me anywhere. I stayed in my seat, and did a lot of head shaking. A little eye rolling too. And that’s the problem.

Well, that’s part of the problem. I mean, in theory we should all be able to have our opinions and share them knowing that we’ll be respected as much before sharing as after, but I don’t know if you noticed this, it’s particularly difficult for some people to disassociate socio-political elements from storytelling elements. And that poses a significant problem for me right now, because I’m about to talk about some story issues with a movie and some people are going to assume I must be waving my genitals in outrage because how-dare-I-swim-upstream against all that this movie represents.

Here comes another dude talking Wonder Woman. Oh joy.

So first, let me say this and say it clearly – I have zero problem with the directing in this film. I have zero problem with the genders of anyone above or behind the line. It’s sad that it’s taken so long for a woman to accomplish what’s been accomplished. I think it’s fantastic that box office records are broken and a lot of people have panties and boxers in wads. Good. But that’s not where my issues are, and they never will be. However I know that for a lot of people that sort of thing forms a thick filter through which anything else I say will be colored, so even when I break down “hey this isn’t great development” it’ll be translated as “John sure does hate the womenfolk”, which is wrong, and any attempt to explain myself somehow reinforces that to a reader who comes in with their mind pre-decided.

Let’s talk about some positives. Wonder Woman, Gail Gadot, she’s great in this movie. She’s, yes, a good looking woman, but more importantly, she’s given a whole hell of a lot more to do in this film than stand around two dudes in a fight scene. She’s earnest and strong, and she is everything Wonder Woman.

Other positive: I think I saw the sun in a few shots. Like actual not-Snyderverse grey skies. The actual sun. Holy shit. Yes the color palette plunged quickly back to “muted = badass”, but there was actual color on screen at times.

Other other positive: It’s a really lean movie. Unlike the other Snyderian films that digress with long shots of staring or strange dream sequences or time tunnels, this story moves us from A to B to C without a lot of fat on the steak. Yay directing! Yay camera movement!

Okay, now let’s see if I can cover this story without plot spoilers. Just about everything I’m going to talk about is available in the trailers, so aside from one note about secondary characters being incredibly secondary, I’m not going to drop anything that isn’t either already out there, or isn’t sort of obvious.

Diana is an Amazon princess of Themyscira, the island home of the Amazons, and when World War 1 breaches the shores of Paradise Island, she takes up sword, shield, and lasso (hey where was the lasso when she was hanging out with Batfleck and allegedly-Superguy?) to go do what’s right. Joining her is Captain Kirk and a cast of otherwise pretty forgettable goodguys. Opposing her, as is pretty standard in her early story, are some Germans. Ultimately, her journey teaches her valuable lessons about heroism and it’s what molds her into the woman who will later fight a CG burnt-testicle cave troll.

That’s the plot in really broad spoiler-free strokes. That’s it. This is an origin story.

Let us dive then into the parts where the story goes askew:

  • Character Consistency. One would think that the Amazon princess who has never encountered the real world would be the very definition of the “fish out of water”, being that her civilization hasn’t really progressed much past the Battle of Thermopylae in terms of technology. However, throughout the film this is either ignored, or played up only when humorous. She doesn’t know what a dress is, but she has no problem encountering a truck or phone.  What this conveys is that she’s only a fish out of water when the story doesn’t need her to know something, which means you’re sacrificing story momentum for the sake of joke beats before working to get back up to speed. If she’s a fish out of water once, she’s a fish out of water always, unless she’s got an in-story reason to understand something. This does not mean everything foreign needs to be explained to her, but it does mean that the writing needs to make deliberate choices about what she knows, what she can deduce or intuit, and what remains unknown to her.

  • Character Motivations, Part 1. We need to define a writing term first. “Practical motivations” are the things a character knows how to do and therefore excels and looks for opportunities to do those things as a way of asserting control or competence in the world whereas “conscious motivations” are the desires, hopes, goals, and dreams of a character that they feel and that influences them to action. For our woman of wonder, the practical motivations are set up in the first half of the first act, a very breezy set of action montages where Amazons fight each other and our main character shows growing competence. It’s worth noting here (and we’ll do it again when we talk dialogue) that this is uneven montage construction, as she’s never shown failing, just always improving, so it’s hard to assess that these actions, this combat, is truly a challenge for her.

The conscious motivations are imparted somewhat nebulously. We’re told that she’s special, we’re told somewhat that she’s good and that she believes that mankind (non-Amazonians) is by default good, and that by itself should be enough for us to buy her as a hero in the story. Except that we know she’s a hero, because she’s all over the other movie where Bruce punches Clark and then feels bad about it. It’s these conscious motivations that we’re told about and don’t really see (she doesn’t have a “save the cat” moment although she has three moments where she gives the “hero speech”), that lead her to get into the big action pieces of the movie, and we’re supposed to be swept up in it … except that if we’re told rather than shown, it isn’t really embedded in us as an audience. We don’t get that chance to feel what she feels, and we’re distanced from connecting with her.

  • Character Motivations, Part 2. Our main character gets into the plot because she sees danger that no other character sees. This is good, because every character who isn’t her or Captain Kirk is kind of disposable and tepid. And that includes the antagonist (who we’ll get to in a minute). Any time a protagonist has to accomplish something that want for accomplishment should sit at the confluence of two things – a character arc and a plot conflict. Diana doesn’t really have an arc, because naivete isn’t really an arc, it’s part of what’s shed when you have an arc, sort of like the hair you lose during a haircut is only part of what informs the new changed haircut. Diana goes off to confront the bad guy because he’s the badguy, with no other motivation than “that’s what the story says to do.” But what does Diana want to do? What she should do is dependent on her arc, but I can’t say for certain what her arc was beyond “I’mma go be an Amazon during WW1.”

  • The Antagonist. In the majority of superhero stories, the hero and villain are on a collision course because they’re on the same line, moving in opposing vectors at roughly the same velocity. The motivations for each are as much chess match as they are binary conflict. In the film, the fact that Germans represent bad (because Germans = Nazis no matter the history, right?) is used as a blanket to certify that the villain is a badguy. Look out he has a gun. Look out he’s stomping around. Someone has to stop him, oh no. All this guy (it was Danny Huston by the way), all Danny Huston needs is a moustache to twirl and we’ll hit peak generic villain status. We learn about his goals through the protagonist (and worse still, through dialogue said by a secondary character to the protagonist) so that his goals can afford to be generic and broad because anything that ticks the “it’s bad” box counts. So if you were to ask me what motivates the story’s villain, it’s a generic reason of “bad guys like fighting and winning.” Yawn.

  • Lack of Tension. Maybe this is due to the fact that this story is set a century prior to the last one, so we know she survives, and we double-know she survives because she’s in the Justice League trailer too, but here in this movie, where we’re sitting having paid our $16 for a 3D matinee, we should at least have a feeling that maybe there’s some danger. Oh wait, no? We’re gifted with shots of her taking on a war zone unscathed and always looking like she was bred for war with technology she’s never encountered like it’s no big thing? Oh, okay.

Yes, this movie is low on the “Oh I hope she’s not in danger” scale. Nope, she’s not really in danger. And she should have been. Because it’s the overcoming of that danger that lets us root for the hero when the odds are greater as the movie progresses. She’s got gauntlets that deflect bullets. Shinguards that deflect bullets. An indestructible shield, and a sword. Yeah, she’ll be fine. She’s never dirty. Also, her hair never gets messed up. Magical Amazon hair and skin care products, I guess. Also, her makeup palette changed from shot to shot sometimes, either that or someone went a little LUTS-wild.

  • Dialogue duds. There’s quite a bit of talking in this movie. Not like an Altman or Smith film, but still, there’s a lot of back-and-forths. And sometimes the dialogue sounds like people, where they have feelings and aren’t cranking it up to 11 for “their moment”, but other times it’s clear that the dialogue is delivered because the character is center frame with a tight shot. Some of this dialogue doesn’t work.

Part of this dialogue revolves around a secret being kept from Diana, and prior to my walking out of the theater, the audience is left barely enough breadcrumbs to suss it together. Not that it needs to be spelled out (though my fear is that the third act hinges on the reveal, so gag me, I’m glad I bailed), but the danger in keeping a secret from the audience is that you can generate more confusion or disinterest than mystery and a want to solve it. Yes, it’s possible to keep a character in the dark but not the audience, but ideally, you keep both in the dark so the reveal carries an impact.

  • Convenient Plot. When a story is lacking tension, a “ticking clock”, a plot-idea that imparts danger or impending harm is used. There’s a ticking clock presented in the mid-second act, but it’s done conveniently. (This might be a spoiler, and I’m sorry) This story hinges around the WW1 armistice, where the good guys want the war over and the bad guys don’t … but there’s an extra level of complication because the armistice is also presented as a problem because it’s happening soon. Or is it?

The movie’s logic is this – if the badguy isn’t stopped, then the war will go on because badguy will be bad. If that’s the case, the armistice won’t matter because the badguy will be cause more fighting. If the badguy is stopped, it’s the same as the armistice, because the war will end. So how exactly is the armistice a ticking clock? Where’s the urgency?

  • Double Convenient Plot. Usually in a linear plot (A to B to C), you arrange the scenes at A, B, and C to be reachable and progressive. Like in a road trip movie you have to go to B from A and to C from B. Weak writing shortens the distances between points (usually between B and C, because it creates false urgency and masquerades as heightened stakes. What happens here is that point C is right next to point B on the map. A literal map.

Convenience neuters tension. It neuters momentum. It takes the foot off the story throttle. It reduces danger. In general, it’s not a good look, particularly in the back half of a story.

  • Slow-Mo No No. Slow motion shots are meant to turn the ordinary into extraordinary by putting the focus and elongating the tension around an action. A ball being caught, a switch being thrown, slow motion turns an action we wouldn’t think twice about into a motion we have to pay attention to. And as in other films (300 comes to mind … which makes me think there’s something about using Grecian material that requires slow mo), slow motion shows up here whenever there’s a big fight moment. A moment, where we’d be paying attention to the protagonist either way, where now we’re forced to double-extra pay attention just because she’s leaping out a goddamned window or jumping like a ballerina before shooting an arrow Horizon Zero Dawn style. Slow motion for slow motion’s sake makes it not special. It’s supposed to be special. Too much of it makes it not special. Also, slowing down action beats doesn’t make the action more important.

  • Lousy CG. Short note here – it’s like someone just learned about masking and keyframes in Final Cut Pro. And why blur on the big CG stunts? To show something you wouldn’t subject a human or practical effect to, why does it have to be partially motion blurred with its lighting slightly off so that it screams “digital effect”?

  • Most Secondary Characters are Bland. The majority of non-critical characters are utterly replaceable, and only two of them stick out in my mind (Princess Buttercup, and I’m pretty sure that one guy was Remus Lupin). Secondary characters are often service characters, people who serve a function to the plot’s completion or character arc, otherwise they’re relegated to quips and levity. With a period piece, the secondary characters are often waypoints to measure the framing of the story, that is, these characters are the touchstones so that the primary characters can stand out more. In this film, this is taken to such an extreme, the secondary characters melt away aside from ticking a few standard movie quotas.

A secondary character should strive to stand out in some way that is greater than their plot contribution. Secondary characters should stick in our heads because of the impact they have on the protagonist’s arc, and no, it shouldn’t come through dialogue nine times out of ten. It’s not about catch phrases and quips, it’s about showing something that either makes an impression on a character or showing that not-doing something makes an impression on a character.

This all makes it sound like I absolutely destroyed this movie, and there were parts I liked beyond the physical appearance of actors. The big scenes they’re hanging hats on (No Man’s Land, Themyscira) work, and some of the smaller scenes (there’s one with snow, there’s a great moment with boats and fog) that do work.

If you’re about to tell me that my opinion doesn’t count because I walked pre-third act, I hear you. But by the time you hit the third act, the story should have all its major elements either presented or has hooked me to stick with it. What I saw of the first two acts didn’t keep me in the seat. If your mileage varied, I do hope you liked the movie.

Would I see it again? With friends, yes. On TV or Netflix, once sure.

And for the record, I do think this movie will generate less ire and workshop material than Batman vs Superman, which is both good and bad.

Until next time, good friends and creatives, keep rocking, and don’t you dare give up.

Happy writing.

Posted by johnadamus in keep writing, movie review, movies that make me think things, plot development, plot stuff, pretty but hollow, problem solving, seize the minutes

FiYoShiMo Day 19 Plot Crutches

Our final FiYoShiMo day of plot probably could have come sooner in the list, but I’m happy with it here, since it’s a good segue into what we’re talking about next week with world-building.

Today we’re talking plot crutches, which are all the things we fall back on, over and over, when we’re talking about plot construction. (There are character crutches too, I just didn’t talk about them this month.)

Sometimes we don’t even see them until they get pointed out to us. This is something that happens amid editing passes where I make some remark to a writer like, “You know you’ve started the last three paragraphs off with ‘He and a verb’, right?” then there’s sort of this light bulb moment that marks a shift in how they write.

I’m going to talk about three different crutches today, and I want to stress that you might not realize you’re doing them, and you might not think they’re a problem. I guess we should talk about why they’re a problem.

When a plot crutches on the same elements over and over, particularly in a series, you’re not pushing yourself as a writer, and you can very quickly get tired of churning out identical or nearly identical stories. You should be pushing yourself as a writer, even in a series. Try new constructions, test your assumptions that you can or can’t write a compelling X or Y or Z, try stepping out of your comfortable bubble to a new genre or new point of view.

Crutching risks readers. My best example for this is in video games, particularly the sports ones. Year after year, a new edition is produced, and on the whole, not much changes. They update the rosters, maybe they add one or two animations, but for the most part, it’s the same game with a new paint job. To mix it up, every few games they revamp something substantial, adding a new camera angle or a new mode of play, but it’s still the same sports game, because they tout it “still having the experience you’ve come to know and love.”

For many years I was a devoted purchaser of Madden games. Every year, new game. Every year my brother and I played the snot out of them. This was back when you could shuffle up the personnel on every team, and we’d try to build exciting fantasy teams to beat each other. Then after a while, we stopped buying it. We found other games, other ways to spend our money and our time. Only recently have we come back to the series, after a long absence, and have found the new games to be improved over the old, but hardly the game we need to be playing every weekend. Swap “Madden” for your book, and swap “my brother and I” for readers, and you’ll see the point I’m making.

The first crutch I’m going to point out is the broadest of the three.

Crutch of writer comfort
Let’s say you’ve been writing more than … six weeks. I just picked that number , but really any stretch of time more than a few days would work. You’ve written in school, you wrote when you were younger, you still write now. Or you’ve always wanted to write, and now as an adult you get that opportunity.

You grab pen and paper or laptop or tablet or whatever, and you go write. You write idea after idea. You write this thing or that thing. Maybe you finish things and endure the publication process.

And you do this over and over. Maybe sometimes you’re successful, however you define success. Maybe sometimes you’re not. But no matter what, you’re still writing. In the big picture sense, this is great. This is the sort of will and discipline that turns writing into something rewarding.

Then someone points out to you that you’re only writing a certain type of story. That you’re only writing one kind of character. That you’re only making one kind of plot. Sure, in story 3 you’ve got them doing a plot on Mars instead of the Moon, but it’s still the same plot. How many times are you going to put the weary protagonist and her rebellious royal lover into political situations in between sex parties?

We build ourselves comfort zones, where we feel safe while we do something, where we can work without fear of judgment. We shut doors, we sit in coffee shops with headphones on, we silence phones. We limit our distractions, and do our best to give our full attention to what we’re doing, because in this comfort zone it’s okay to make mistakes, it’s okay to be doing this stuff. We’ve set up these boundaries, and we’re the gatekeepers, we have control.

But after a while, you need to either expand that zone, or leave it and go make a new zone elsewhere. Yes, you can have more than one comfort zone, if you don’t want to expand your current one. Think of all the things you do in a day: interact with people, write, relax, read, whatever – these are activities and skills different enough from each other that sometimes their only unifying quality is that you’re involved. And that’s okay. Here’s your permission slip.

Comfort zones can eventually become limitations because we realize how comfortable we’ve become and how scary the not-comfortable appears. We forget that at some point where we are now was scary, and after a while we tamed it. And if we did it once, we could do it again. Maybe the issue isn’t the fear, but the projected time and effort that would take? Does that sound a little lazy and/or fearful to anyone else?

Push yourself. Step out onto that branch and try flapping. You flew before. Do it again. You can always come back to the nest. But try.

Crutch of conformity
Okay, you’ve decided to take the bold move of trying something new. It doesn’t matter if you’re the first ever to do a thing, or if it’s just new to you, it’s new.

When writer decide to try their hand at a new genre (remember our discussion of genre at the start of the month?), they usually go find work in that genre and start reading. They start looking for examples of work, or templates of writers to follow, or anything to get a sense of the ingredients for their new work.

And they look at source after source. Over time, this develops a sense that in genre X you have certain components, because you’re seeing them time and again. Yes, genres have components specific to them, that if you omit them, your story doesn’t work or isn’t satisfying, but the specifics of what those components are need to be varied.

I cite romance for this a lot, that people take a female protagonist and partner her with some kind of supernatural important figure who not only has the power physically (there aren’t many romances with dudes like me in them), but also socially, since these supernatural dudes are princes or kings of the hot-guy-who’s-really-an-animal kingdom.

Sure, each writer picks a different animal, or a different mythology as a baseline, but it’s still pick-an-animal-pick-a-mythology-make-the-guy-super-hot-go-bang-him.

In science fiction, many people grab onto Campbell as the mold for storytelling. Gotta have that mentor, gotta exit the cave, gotta have your transformation. Yes, it works, but how much variation do you have? Oh, your protagonist isn’t a space farmboy, they’re the half-robot orphan in a cyberpunk dystopia? And instead of a leather trenchcoat, they wear a leather Nehru jacket? Wow. Bold moves, intrepid writer.

Just because there exists a group of people and they’re all packaging material the same way does not mean that you need to follow suit. I’m not talking about how your story can skimp on a setting or a plot and that will make your story standout, I mean that as a complete story, there has to be enough differentiate it from all the other stories in it’s field.

The example I learned in school about this was stores at the mall. You can buy clothes at lots of places, but why specifically go to The Gap or Nordstrom’s? They all sell shirts. What’s making each store (your book) in the mall (all the other books in your genre) worth my (the reader) time and energy and money?

Crutch of syntax
Presentation of your plot, of what you’re trying to say, might be the hardest crutch to recognize, but once you do, you see it everywhere. We all use certain patterns of words in regular intervals, as part of our linguistic identity.

Our word choice is a fingerprint, it’s a clue to who made a thing, and a signpost as to what you can expect within that thing.

Here’s one of my crutches in blogging. I use a lot of “So,” especially as a sentence starter. I don’t know where or when I developed the habit, but I do it, and it’s been pretty difficult to make sure I haven’t used “so” until the previous sentence.

I do it because it helps me move thoughts along, and it’s a “word of agreement”, a word where I’m assuming the reader not only sees the point I’m making, but inherently agrees with it, and then I can lead them further down the logic chain. Using it and other words like it suggest a sense of apprehension, a sense that if I don’t get you agreeable first, you’re going to stop reading and stop coming to the blog, which is a lot of my professional insecurity around my usefulness.

When I speak, I tag “, right?” or “, yeah?”  onto sentences for the same reason, I want to make sure people agree with me so that I can keep talking to/at them. So that I’m not alone. Again, more insecurity.

It’s all habit. It’s all attempts to sate thoughts and feelings and worries. It’s all efforts to take control and calm uncertainty. You learned how to do it, you can unlearn it, though it might not be as easy as writing different words. The psychology underneath also warrants examination, and that can uncomfortable. And that perception of possible discomfort sends us right back into our comfort zones, where we can use these crutches without fear of judgment or reprisal. We’re back to where we started.

To find your crutches, rely on other people. Editors are trained in finding these things. Careful readers can see it too, though their varying objectivity might mean they shrug it off. You won’t see your crutches the first time, and you shouldn’t be expected to.

The tricky bit is after you spot it, when you have that moment where you can choose to beat yourself up about it or not. It’s hard to avoid the self-beating, but it’s worth it. Kicking your ass over syntactical issues when there’s still story to produce is a great way to turn yourself off from wanting to write the story. Don’t beat, go write.

Tomorrow we’re going to start the last leg of our FiYoShiMo triangle: world building.

See you then.


Posted by johnadamus

FiYoShiMo Day 17 – Plot Interruption

FoYoShiMo is over 50% complete and it’s my hope you’re feeling better equipped to go forward with your MSes. We’ve looked at storycraft basics, we’ve talked characters, and we’re nearly done with plot. We continue plot today with plot interruption.

As I said a few days ago, plot moves in one direction: forward. Just like time, relationships, armies over the Alps, and progress, plot gains momentum and mass over the course of story, and then gets resolved after a highest moment.

That’s the ideal, anyway.

It doesn’t always work out that way.

We have in our writing toolbox a lot of techniques we can apply to story to make the idea in our head come out as best it can on the page. The recipe for “good story” is far more open-ended than you think of, and therefore the ways to make a “good story” happen are far more numerous as well.

But just like you can’t do as good a job hanging a picture using a banana as you could a screw and some wire, there are certain times to deploy certain tools. Sure you can force the issue and use the technique, but using the technique just to say you’ve used it can rob the technique of its nuance and polish. And worse yet, it can gum up the story.

When I’m editing a manuscript, I don’t have a checklist to tick off when a story does or doesn’t use a flashback, for instance. Sometimes (like in children’s books), you just don’t see them, and they don’t really need to be there. Not having a flashback doesn’t send the book to the scrap heap, it’s just not the right tool for the job.

Today, let’s talk some tools that can hose your plot, even if you think they’re totally great to use. I’m not saying you should never use these, I’m urging that you use them when they do the best good, not just to be arbitrary about it.

The Flashback
A flashback is any interruption of the present to reveal or relay information about the past, usually through memory or recollection. Visually the screen gets all dissolve-y, and somewhere in the late 50s, people added harp sounds to it. The visual and audio cue is to indicate to us that the scene is changing.

In text, we accomplish this through dialogue, as in “I remember …” or some kind of hard break in text to indicated a significant change in the narrative, like an asterisk break or starting a new chapter, or italics (careful with the italics, it gets old fast).

When it works, you reference the past to bring information forward to the present, which you’ve had paused since you started the flashback.

When it doesn’t, you’ve tipped your hand and created a nearly too-perfect solution for the present moment. (See any 80s action movie where the hero flashes back to their mentor teaching them a fighting technique that they’ll use the second they come out of flashback to whoop the bad guy’s ass, or any mystery where the detective pauses and remembers the soon-to-be revealed murderer saying something critical).

The issue with time and information is that for characters, it’s memory while for readers, it’s discovery. We don’t know until the story tells us something, even if the characters already knew it but haven’t shared it.

I have a memory of being in a youth bible club and going on a hike. There was a chaperone there (F something, I think), who very patiently listened to me tell him about dinosaurs, as I had been to the museum recently, then he told me I was completely wrong, since they didn’t exist in the bible. I wasn’t wrong about going to the museum, he had a problem with my recollection of what I saw. This moment sticks out in my head because it was the first (of many times) adults would doubt things I’d say, until I just learned to not say anything that I was afraid would ruffle feathers. F was an asshole, and dinosaurs happened. Also, that museum is badass. Suck it F.

I tell you that because it’s a memory to me, but you didn’t know about it. I can summarize that memory thematically down to “I learned to stop speaking up so that I couldn’t be doubted”, and then draw a parallel between that moment and whatever moment I’m narrating in the present. Since Fred’s dead (I’m pretty sure anyway), this information gives you more context about me, rather than adding bells and whistles to my battling stupid Fred. I’m pretty sure that even with a bum heart, I could take Fred in a fight if he’s still alive. He’d be pushing 90.

Where a flashback works is in its detail. It can expand your world-building. It can make things seem more grounded, it can give a reader more to invest in or believe in. When applied poorly, the flashback can add nitrous to plot, speeding up things just for a moment, so that we can get ahead. We’re going to reach that same point eventually anyway, so why rush it by having the detective remember something that you take sentences (or paragraphs) to belabor?

The Dream Sequence
Oh boy, here’s one of those incredibly overdone tools in the toolbox. Let’s make one thing clear: dreams are not panacea. They’re not just for future divination, they’re not just for exploring alt-realities or worst case scenarios. They’re dreams, abstract depictions of the unconscious, the brain working shit out. Yeah, you can analyze them to the Nth degree, or you can just leave them alone.

I had a dream the other night where I was on one of those semester at sea cruises, and Clive Owen was teaching me history. He led me, after class to large gymnasium, where he shot me and I bled out in the dark. It was unsettling. I woke up scared and in a sweat, only to fall back asleep and have another dream where I talked about the first dream.

You could extrapolate from that a sense that I hate Clive Owen (I don’t), that I hate guns (I do), that I fear dying alone (I do), or that I have a problem with history teaches and gymnasiums (I don’t). You could also discover from that how earlier in the night I was watching a Clive Owen movie on cable, and how I remembered the Mtv show about a semester at sea because one of the girls was attractive, or how I had read an infographic about gun violence that day.

Now if we’re in the context of a manuscript, and I the protag end up on a cruise ship with Clive Owen teaching me history, then you could say that my dream sequence is actually a supernatural predictive ability. The amount of direct coincidence (how closely the dream matches real life) renders this parallel too on the nose, even if my story features my future-predicting abilities.

If the character’s prediction includes the death, then either they know how they die, which renders the rest of the story pointless to read, or they will act in ways to get them away from that situation. That could be interesting, but that assumes the protag would just need to have a new dream, which renders the first dream pointless too.

Like flashbacks, dream sequences interrupt plot to (when used poorly) give us future not-happened-yet plot, or (when used well) give us some character stuff to invest in.

B-plot Digressions
According to my posting schedule, the new Star Wars movie comes out tomorrow. Presumably there are people already camped out for it. If this is my story we’re reading, then as protagonist, whatever I’m doing is the A-plot. Let’s assume that one of the people camping out is my sidekick, let’s call him Mike. We have to assume that Mike has shown up in my story already in order for this to work, so make up some good anecdotes about Mike before you agree with me that he’s totally the kind of guy who would camp out for Star Wars in full costume in December. Yeah, classic Mike.

When we digress from my story to whatever Mike’s doing, we don’t pause time, we pause story. No longer are you reading about me writing, me worrying about whatever I’m worrying about (hint: everything) or me wanting to do fun stuff, now you’re all on Mike and his adventures in a tent on a sidewalk dressed as man-sized Ewok.

Humorous as it may be, this isn’t Mike’s story, this is Mike’s part of my story. Mike isn’t getting top billing along with me, he’s the sidekick. Remember how we talked about character promotions a few days back? Giving Mike more story real estate than his giant Ewok story warrants sends the message that the protagonist (me, in this case) isn’t as critical as an individual.

Worse still, in talking about Mike, you run the risk of creating a story within a story, which doesn’t tie back to the main story line, even I pop in to drop some snark on Ewok-Mike.

If Mike’s having such a great time, and it seems to stand independent of my story, give Mike his own manuscript. Don’t cut Mike out entirely no matter what, because Mike is still a factor in other parts of my story, but the solo adventure of Mike likely doesn’t have a place here.

In all three of these cases (flashbacks, dreams, digressions), you’re pausing the central timeline, which halts the momentum of the story. Stopping that progress means you have to expend some energy to get it back, which can result in some sluggish words to get things back up and moving.

The later that jumpstart happens, the more out of place it feels, and the more jarring it can be to read. The nearer it is to your climax, the harder it will be to make the climax be that biggest point of storytelling, because you fussed with the buildup. Don’t throw the brakes on progress.

Tomorrow, we talk about Plot and something called plot-time. And since Star Wars will be out, you can bet I will be making lightsaber sounds while you read it.

See you then


Posted by johnadamus

FiYoShiMo Day 16 – Plot Padding

Padding. It’s what happens to clothing, taxes, genital length, margins, and -ton Bears.

It also happens to plots. You don’t realize it’s happening until someone else comes along, because padding is insidious – it weaves its way into sentences and paragraphs and concepts at a foundational level, so you can’t just delete certain paragraphs and excise it. You have to go through word-by-word, line-by-line, and scour everything for the bloat.

That doesn’t sound like a fun job, but it’s actually part of the editorial process I like. I see it the way sculptors see the latter stages of their work, you’re fine-tuning the process with expert taps of a hammer to splinter off material.

Today on FiYoShiMo Day 16, we’re talking about padding a plot. Just the plot. There are other types of padding: sentence, chapter, and act, and they’re each deserving of a blogpost or two on their own, but for now, we’re going broad with plot padding.

Write out your plot. Put it at the top of the page. Take as much space as you need, write as much detail as you like.

Then under that, in a column, write out the biggest plot beats. These are the scenes you NEED to have to hold your story together. Not the names of the scenes, we all know you need a climax, I mean what goes on in the scenes.

Like this:

A woman has to save her marriage by taking on a second job – a small-time crook – so she can infiltrate the crime syndicate she believes her husband is a part of. 

The marriage falls apart
She suspects him of infidelity
She follows him
She discovers the Syndicate
She discovers how to join the Syndicate
Her first robbery
The police get involved
Her string of robberies
The Syndicate makes her an offer
The police get closer
She joins the Syndicate
Her husband reveals other secrets
The police and Syndicate square-off
She faces a terrible decision between marriage, police, Syndicate
She decides

You can’t remove any of those elements and leave the story intact. Whether they’re specific scenes or if I could later fold some ideas together is something that can happen later, but for now I want as much clarity as possible.

This is like when you spill all the Legos into a pile then sort them by size before you get frustrated that it’s taking so long, so you just start building. Seriously, take the time to sort your pieces out. The building will happen, just do this first.

What I’ve got above is the main plotline. There aren’t any minor characters here: no kids, no other family or neighbors, no co-workers or anyone like that. I’m only working with the protagonist, her husband, the Syndicate and the cops (it’s unclear who the antagonist is right now, that’s fine), and that’s just so I see the skeleton of the story.

Where could I add things? Well I could add kids. I could make them the B-plot. I could add neighbors or friends who do something tangential to the story, I could give the wife a best friend as a sidekick. I could write a Syndicate goon for a little comic relief. Plenty of room for character-based expansion.

What if I expanded the world? There’s no world in that list, I could set this in any city on any planet at any time. I just need a place where people are married, there are criminals and there are law enforcement.

It’s okay that I don’t know how many words I’ll devote to each part, who knows how long it would take me to write out the bad marriage opening, because I don’t need that kind of boundary yet. Everything is open and there are no limitations. Those decisions come later. Right now the only decision is whether or not something gets written about at all, not how much gets written about it.

The story does need some B-plot. I like B-plot, it gives the reader a little breathing room, and it gives me more characters and situations to explore in the MS.  In a second column, I’d detail some B-plot. Let’s give her a friend, and make them the suspected paramour. All that info goes into a second column, like this:

You put your B-plot in its own column parallel to your main plot so you can see how things dovetail together. Also, working vertically allows you to see that all the elements in the column form an arc.

So far, there’s not explicit padding, but now I’ve added room for padding. How much detail do you use to cover the consolation and suspicion of her friend? I’d need a transition between suspecting the friend and letting the friend tag along on a crime spree. I’d need to spend some time developing the friend to be well-defined. All of those spots are chances for me to get a little long-winded. (Me? Long-winded? I know, you’re shocked)

Padding happens when you detour, when the boundaries and organization get a little mushy or thin. I don’t think I need a second B-plot, I don’t think there needs to be kids in this story, so there’s no third column. Sure I could write it, but does it really need to be there? What would it add to the story, aside from word count? The story focuses on this woman and her decisions, and the B-plot already reinforces that.

Padding happens when any part of the story could stand to be reinforced, but instead you distract from it. It’s very much stage magic, where you look at one hand while the other is palming the card.

Padding happens for a lot of reasons: a lack of confidence in plot, a want to show off your word skills, a hunt for validation and praise, thinking that writing more words will cover up the fact that you’re not great at wielding words, a lack of decision making, and those are just the common ones I see enough times that I can list them off the top of my head.

The solution is to trust yourself and make some decisions. I’m not saying that all stories need to be slippery smooth with no fat on them. You don’t need to trim everything down in some minimalist fashion, and you shouldn’t. But you do need to give yourself some boundaries.

How far is too far? When you’re multiple scenes and pages removed from plot. When you’re losing yourself to minutiae and extraneous detail. When you’re putting stuff in and telling yourself that you can just cut it out later. Challenge yourself to write stuff for more reasons than “it can just come out later.”

A manuscript is neither gaunt nor obese. There’s quite a range of healthy size between those extremes. It’s such a range that I don’t usually assign broad wordcount to it,  because 75k is as valid as 64k is as valid as 81k, if the words are all working together to deliver the ideas.

There’s a lot to unpack and digest here, and we’re going to get more into it tomorrow, when we talk about Plot Interruption. See you then. Today, keep writing. Keep thinking about your plots. Keep developing, and keep deciding.

Happy writing.


Posted by johnadamus in fiyoshimo, plot development, plot stuff

FiYoShiMo – Day 13 – Plot Intersection

Welcome to FiYoShiMo Day 13. We’ve covered a lot in the last thirteen days, and for the next seven days, we’re talking plot. This might be my favorite section of the month, because I delight in explaining the really technical stuff in simpler palatable terms. And plot can get technical. Did you know there are formulas, like math class formulas, to determine the “best” plot for the number of characters based on how many scenes you want to do? Did you know I had to learn these stupid things, sometimes while sober?

Do we need to explain what plot is? Plot is the series of events led to by cause and effect relationships, from inciting incident all the way through climax to resolution.

It’s A happens, then B happens as a result, so C happens, etc etc all the way to Z. You can break a plot down to basic types like:

a) Man vs. Man
b) Man vs. Nature
c) Man against God
d) Man vs. Society
e) Man in the Middle
f) Man & Woman
g) Man vs. Himself

Or think about it in little blocks, for this, we go straight to my college notebooks (not pictured here are all the marginalia where I doubt that the girl sitting behind me would want to go on a date, or where I list off what TV I want to watch later that day):

Requires: A Persecutor; A Suppliant; a power in authority, whose decision is unknown
The persecutor accuses the suppliant of wrongdoing, and a judgment is made to resolve the issue. One or both sides face significant danger or loss as possible outcomes, like A Time To Kill or any courtroom story

Requires: An unfortunate; A threatener; A rescuer
The unfortunate has caused a conflict, and the threatener is to carry out justice, but the rescuer saves the unfortunate, which puts the threatener and the rescuer at odds.

Crime Pursued by Vengeance
Requires: a criminal; an avenger
The criminal commits a crime that will not see justice, so the avenger seeks justice by punishing the criminal. Like The Count of Monte Cristo or Batman.

Vengeance Taken For Kin Upon Kin
Requires: Guilty Kinsman; an Avenging Kinsman; remembrance of the Victim, a relative of both.
Two entities, the Guilty and the Avenging Kinsmen, are put into conflict over wrongdoing to the Victim, who is allied to both. Like Hamlet. The tension is in the actions of the avenger.

Requires: punishment; a fugitive
The fugitive flees punishment for a misunderstood conflict. Like The Fugitive, or Les Miserables, or the A-Team

Requires: A vanquished power; a victorious enemy or a messenger
The power falls from their place after being defeated by the victorious enemy or being informed of such a defeat by the messenger. Note: This one doesn’t happen so much anymore, since it boils down to a lot of reacting to news and not much direct action. English teachers love this one, see the play Agamemnon.

Falling prey to cruelty/misfortune
Requires: An unfortunate; A master or a misfortune
The unfortunate suffers from misfortune and/or at the hands of the master. See Twelve Years A Slave

Requires: A tyrant; A conspirator
The tyrant, a cruel power, is plotted against by the conspirator. Like JFK or Valkyrie. It’s all about the plot, and culminates in the possibly successful deposing of the leader.

Daring Enterprise
Requires: A bold leader; An object; An adversary
The bold leader takes the object from the adversary by overpowering the adversary. This is any underdog sports movie.

Requires: An abductor; The abducted; A guardian
the abductor takes the abducted from the guardian. See how Helen of Troy gets kidnapped and people go fight because OMG you guys, she’s like totes hot and stuff.

The Enigma
Requires: A problem; An interrogator; A seeker
The interrogator poses a problem to the seeker and gives a seeker better ability to reach the seeker’s goals. In miniature, this is “Speak Friend and enter”, or whenever The Riddler shows up in Batman.

Requires: (a Solicitor & an adversary who is refusing) or (an arbitrator & opposing parties)
The solicitor is at odds with the adversary who refuses to give the solicitor what they object in the possession of the adversary, or an arbitrator decides who gets the object desired by opposing parties (the solicitor and the adversary). The issue here is over the object, and often the parties involved have differing views on its use or application. Like Kramer vs Kramer, or “this belongs in a museum” from Indiana Jones

Enmity of Kin
Requires: A Malevolent Kinsman; a Hated or a reciprocally-hating Kinsman
The Malevolent Kinsman and the Hated or a second Malevolent Kinsman conspire together. This is also called the “Angry brother story”, where a family is split due to schism (real or imagined, actionable or political) and people take sides then act. (Modern reference: This is Marvel’s Civil War)

Rivalry of Kin
Requires: A Preferred Kinsman; the Rejected Kinsman; the Object of Rivalry
The Object of Rivalry chooses the Preferred Kinsman over the Rejected Kinsman. This is played for comedy in RomComs, where a owman has to choose between the jock and the loser, and each side fights the other while keeping the girl out of the way.

Murderous Adultery
Requires: two Adulterers; a Betrayed Spouse
Two Adulterers conspire to kill the Betrayed Spouse. This is Double Indemnity. and all the movies that wish they were Double Indemnity

Requires: A Madman; a Victim
The Madman goes insane and wrongs the Victim. When done in a crime genre, this is serial killer versus cop. When done in comics, it’s Joker vs Batman.

Fatal Imprudence
Requires: the Imprudent; a Victim or an Object Lost
The Imprudent, by neglect or ignorance, loses the Object Lost or wrongs the Victim. Someone does or doesn’t do something, there’s a loss, and drama unfolds. How many movies involve a neglected then dead child breaking up a marriage?)

Involuntary Crimes of Love
Requires: a Lover; a Beloved; a Revealer
The Revealer betrays the trust of either the Lover or the Beloved. If you remove the love, or make it non-romantic, this is what drives political thrillers.

Slaying of kin Unrecognized
Requires: the Slayer; an Unrecognized Victim
The Slayer kills the Unrecognized Victim. If you swap sex for murder, this is Oldboy.

Self-Sacrifice for an Ideal
Requires: a Hero; an Ideal; a Creditor or a Person/Thing sacrificed
The Hero sacrifices the Person or Thing for their Ideal, which is then taken by the Creditor. This doesn’t really come up anymore. Was really a big deal in the 1800s. (Modern note: I spent three lines of paper speculating as to why, and concluding that people were super bored)

Self-sacrifice for Kin
Requires: a Hero; a Kinsman; a Creditor or a Person/Thing sacrificed
The Hero sacrifices a Person or Thing for their Kinsman, which is then taken by the Creditor. As in “I’ve give you my secret formula for free energy if you let my sister go!”

All Sacrificed for Passion
Requires: a Lover; an Object of fatal Passion; the Person/Thing sacrificed
A Lover sacrifices a Person or Thing for the Object of their Passion, which is then lost forever. On the elementary, it’s giving up smoking for your girlfriend. On the larger scale, this is walking away from a philosophy to please someone else, and the drama exists in where the person is happiest.

Necessity of Sacrificing Loved Ones
Requires: a Hero; a Beloved Victim; the Necessity for the Sacrifice
The Hero wrongs the Beloved Victim because of the Necessity for their Sacrifice. There’s often a prophecy involved here that the loved one grows up to be a bad thing, and so they need to be stopped earlier. This is also present in time travel stories.

Rivalry of superior vs. inferior
Requires: a Superior Rival; an Inferior Rival; the Object of Rivalry
A Superior Rival bests an Inferior Rival and wins the Object of Rivalry. If the object in question was “hope”, then this is Empire Strikes Back. The object doesn’t have to be a physical thing.

Requires: Two Adulterers; a Deceived Spouse
Two Adulterers conspire against the Deceived Spouse. They don’t kill the spouse, they just hump a lot and the deceived doesn’t know. Or do they? The tension is in the possible discovery.

Crimes of love
Requires: a Lover; the Beloved
A Lover and the Beloved enter a conflict. If they cause the conflict, it’s Bonnie and Clyde.

Discovery of the dishonour of a loved one
Requires: a Discoverer; the Guilty One
The Discoverer discovers the wrongdoing committed by the Guilty One. Like finding out your husband murders people and eats their faces. Or that their wife is an infamous jewel thief using their marriage as a sham to prepare her best heist ever.

Obstacles to love
Requires: two Lovers; an Obstacle
Two Lovers face an Obstacle together. Like Romeo and Juliet. The Obstacle is always external to their feelings.

An Enemy Loved
Requires: a Lover; the Beloved Enemy; the Hater
The allied Lover and Hater have diametrically opposed attitudes towards the Beloved Enemy. This is a team-up, where two opposing sides have to join up to help a third side out.

Requires: an Ambitious Person; a Thing Coveted; an Adversary
The Ambitious Person seeks the Thing Coveted and is opposed by the Adversary. This is Raiders of the Lost Ark, where the Thing is important to each person involved, but for different reasons

Conflict with a god
Requires: a Mortal; an Immortal
The Mortal and the Immortal enter a conflict. Like the Odyssey, where Odysseus goes around pissing everyone off until he has to get his wife back.

Mistaken jealousy
Requires: a Jealous One; an Object of whose Possession He is Jealous; a Supposed Accomplice; a Cause or an Author of the Mistake
The Jealous One falls victim to the Cause or the Author of the Mistake and becomes jealous of the Object and becomes conflicted with the Supposed Accomplice. “I believe you’ve done something, and I hate you for it!” “It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, because I’m going to act on it and cause tension by holding a grudge based on mistake!”

Erroneous judgment
Requires: a Mistaken One; a Victim of the Mistake; a Cause or Author of the Mistake; the Guilty One
The Mistaken One falls victim to the Cause or the Author of the Mistake and passes judgment against the Victim of the Mistake when it should be passed against the Guilty One instead. Like when A blames B, but C was really the one who deserves the blame.

Requires: a Culprit; a Victim or the Sin; an Interrogator
The Culprit wrongs the Victim or commits the Sin, and is at odds with the Interrogator who seeks to understand the situation. Like when A blames B, but C was really the one to blame, so A goes out to prove C was guilty the whole time.

Recovery of a Lost One
a Seeker; the One Found
The Seeker finds the One Found. Is Neo the chosen one?

Loss of Loved Ones
a Kinsman Slain; a Kinsman Spectator; an Executioner
The killing of the Kinsman Slain by the Executioner is witnessed by the Kinsman Spectator. “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die…”


Those “boxes” are from a book written in 1916, by a guy named Polti. Which is why some of these setups are really complicated and I couldn’t easily tie them to pop culture, both now and fifteen years ago.

People love to be able to organize their story based on a classification. It gives structure, it offers comfort, it helps organize ideas and help eliminate elements that don’t fit. There are no wrong categories, everything can be fit into some kind of morphology, given a little trimming or shaping.

No matter what plot you choose, it needs to be one your characters can intersect with. They have to have skills to be challenged, they have to have motivations and philosophies that lead to arcs being developed and paid off. For me, plot intersection is the critical but under-discussed part of making a plot. How do the characters fit in?

For many people they feel they have to focus on either plot OR character, then let the other one kind of pick up the scraps. This leads to stories that are really interesting, but the characters are flat, or rich characters completely underused. This is not a one-or-the-other choice. Intersection can save you.

Where a character comes into contact with the plot is based on where their actions (what they do) interacts with the conflict of the plot. And since their actions are based on motivations and philosophies, a character intersects with plot-action based on character-belief.

Like where a character who doesn’t care about collateral damage isn’t going to try and defuse the bomb when he has a chance to chase the killer to the roof. The motivation “killers have to get caught at all costs” (which is an aspect of character development) trumps the immediate danger, even if that danger could have been a cool scene. It may then get relegated to a secondary character and then cut between it and his chase to heighten the tension of the story’s climax.

It might be tempting to look at a plot, and then tack on a character’s motivation so they can be involved in it. I’d caution you against the newest addition to your character being the reason they’re in the story, it often comes out rushed and forced. If the motivation isn’t so central to the character, before you change that motivation, consider reshaping the plot. You’ll be less starved for ideas, you’ll find an easier road to having an engaging character on the page. It won’t matter how nifty the plot is when then character doing it comes across as bored or barely troubled by it.

It may also be appealing to look at character motivations and then choose a plot. The danger there is that you’ll pick a plot where there’s minimal room for character growth. Character growth is represented in arcs, which are the progression and evolution (positive or negative) of a character over the course of actions. Sure you can just use your giant eagles to drop the ring into the volcano, but we come to the story to see the arc, not just the completion of the task. Besides, when the task is over so quickly, how important could it have been?

A protagonist should find the plot resonates with them and compels them to action at multiple points, not just because of situational inconvenience. Yes, I guess our sadsack hero has to save the hostages because they’re holed up at his favorite restaurant, but if the hero was also acting for more than just a single reason, we’d feel a greater sense of risk and urgency to have him succeed. The more diverse the reasons for acting, the less cliche the character becomes.

After 2500 words, I think we’ll stop there for the day. See you tomorrow when we look at plot negligence (and more arcs).

Posted by johnadamus in fiyoshimo, plot development, plot stuff