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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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).