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, 0 comments

Writing/Gaming – Plot, Choice, & Characters

Over the weekend, I read a rather disappointing book about how to plot stories (I’m always looking for new theory and new ideas to incorporate into meetings, workshops, seminars and client opportunities), which I’m about to go give a one-star review to on Amazon, because not only did it take three chapters for the book to actually talk about HOW to plot something, but it’s basic premise is one I completely disagree with:

Plot is how the events in a story directly impact the main character.”
Danger Will Robinson, danger. This way lies madness. Don’t buy it. 

Here’s what Plot is:
Plot is conflict.
Plot is the problem that causes the character to change (positively or negatively). 
Plot is the evolution of a premise (and premise is the thing that brought people to the story in the first place)

Here’s what Plot isn’t:
Plot IS NOT a series of impacts on a single character. (Plot has consequences far and wide, even if you’re writing about a single character adrift in space)
Plot IS NOT the result of events happening (Plot is far too contiguous, interconnected and interdependent to just be a hodge-podge of “Oh by the way this happened”)
Plot IS NOT passive. (Plot is a very active response to a changing (or possibly changing) environment)

What Plot boils down to is a choice in the face of a test. 

Plot answers the question — “When this problem (we’ll call it X) occurs in a created world, how does the world respond, in ways large and small?”

To this thinking, plot could be on the small scale: the bully in the classroom or it could go large scale: the appearance of malevolent aliens coming to enslave mankind through smartphone apps….or something.

But there’s a problem, and like the song says, yo, I’ll solve it. The “I” in this case are the characters, not just the singular (or possibly titular) protagonist but the whole cast of characters – everyone from the sidekick to the doubters to the assistants to the random people who inject realism in flavor-text paragraphs.

Gamers, I’m looking at you here – Plot is why you’ve got people around your table. What are they doing? How will they respond? Why are they compelled to act in this way or that? How loosely or closely you play potentiality, that is to say how much leeway you give your players, directly ties to the strength of your plot and the potential of that plot.

If it’s a closed loop, or you’re working on a small scale, then the plot’s pretty linear — the party assembles and puts a righteous hurting on the badguy of the week. A wider view shows the problem isn’t just held to one instance of a certain badguy, or that taking out this baddie reveals a power vacuum that other nasties will rush to fill. The point here is — think of the plot’s consequences, both good and bad, and then see if the plot needs tweaks. And try for narrative options, rather than narrative solutions — the players should be the ones patching the holes, not the NPCs.

Writers, this one’s for you — The resolution of the plot WILL/CAN/SHOULD change characters, for better of worse. The problem might be one of internal struggle, or physical injury or whatever (I am loathe to name options here, lest I suggest there can only be certain kinds of plots).

Yes the above quote that started this rant has implications that suggest we’re going to find out what the consequences of decisions are, but that’s not the plot. The plot is a freight train that intersects all the paths of all the characters – the injuries and damage of collisions isn’t the plot, that’s the consequence of plot.

The plot IS the decision AND the reactions, not just the impact. The proverbial explosion had to get there somehow, and that’s part of the story.

When in doubt, give the characters/players/actors/participants choice, and trust their decisions (which is made easier if you’ve given them a core philosophy) to let them show you how they’re responding (yes, it’s an active process) to the challenge of the plot.

Note: I feel like this post got away from me, I may revisit this idea later in the week.

Happy writing.

Posted by johnadamus in story repair, 0 comments