The following is a version of the lecture on how to plot a story that I gave versions of every year at Viable Paradise from 2008 to 2013, to one each Clarion and Clarion West classes, and also once at Odyssey.
I’m retiring it now and putting it here, where it can serve both as resource material for future incoming VP classes and as an example of the sort of thing we talk about while we’re there.
This lecture assumes that the reader has some basic competence with narrative, and is familiar with the basic idea of three-act structure and how it works. It then attempts to present some tricks for writing one successfully. And also talks about some other stuff. As one does.
There will be spoilers for the movies Casablanca, Unforgiven, and Die Hard, and for the original Star Wars trilogy. The newest of those is over twenty years old. You’re not allowed to complain.
There will also be badly photographed hand-drawn images scrawled in my notebook. I thought it would be whimsical, but I think the final effect was something more like “duct-tape bodywork.”
By the end of this essay, I expect I will have ruined Hollywood movies for you forever. The good news is, you can have the fun of explaining to your friends exactly how they’re going to end after the first act, and you’ll have pretty good odds of being right.
I will also have taught you how to produce a working plot for a short story every single time, without fail. This is not the only way to structure a plot, and we’ll talk about some of those others in passing.
But it is a tool that will always work, once you know how to apply it, and you can hang all kinds of special effects on it to make it fancy.
1) In the beginning, there was Aristotle.
Aristotle, who made the radical discovery that stories should have protasis, epitasis, and catastrophe. Or as we would say these days: a beginning, a middle, and an end.
I know! It seems self-evident. A matter of common sense, even. But it turns out that like displacement, the heliocentric model, and the idea that the brain is the center of the emotions, some things are only evident once somebody points them out.
Here’s what he had to say, from Poetics: (S. H. Butler translation):
Now, according to our definition Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is complete, and whole, and of a certain magnitude; for there may be a whole that is wanting in magnitude. A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end. A beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be. An end, on the contrary, is that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity, or as a rule, but has nothing following it. A middle is that which follows something as some other thing follows it. A well constructed plot, therefore, must neither begin nor end at haphazard, but conform to these principles.
He also had a heck of a lot of stuff to say about the unity of action and place and time, and other things that only concern us these days when we choose to concern ourselves with them, though they can certainly be used as tools when a writer decides to do so. One radical thing he does say is this, however: Unity of plot does not, as some persons think, consist in the unity of the hero.
In other words, a plot is not the same thing as what we, now, would call a Bildungsroman–that is to say, a fictional biography. It can be a piece of a person’s life, united by action, place, and time. Or what we, with the benefit of an additional 2400 years of dramaturgy, would just call “a story.”
He had a few nasty things to say about Series Of Unfortunate Events as a plot structure, as well. If I may translate into the vernacular, basically: “It ain’t.”
Here’s what Aristotle’s plot looks like, as described by a simple geometric shape.
2) Horace splits hairs.
Aristotle’s plot structure seems to have largely held sway as the dominant Classical modality for some three hundred years**. I’m sure there were slapfights over it. There are always slapfights. It will take someone more educated in the classics than I to tell you if any such slapfights have survived.
Then Horace decided (rather prescriptively, it seems to me) that a play should have five acts, “no more and no less,” and as it was written, well, so it was done.
3) Oh, those wacky Elizabethans
Meanwhile, off in the Germanic-speaking portions of the world (including the bit that would eventually evolve and Creolize into the English-speaking one) other stuff was going on. Romans came and Romans went and as you know if you’ve read period literature, not a whole lot of attention was paid by the indigenes to the conqueror’s narrative formalisms****.
Suddenly, in the 1500’s, the five-act structure suddenly caught on again among Tudor dramatists. You may know their names: Jonson, Marlowe, Nash, Kyd, Shakespeare. That lot.
Well, because it’s a tremendously powerful and flexible tool. It provides tension and resolution, opportunities for character growth, for triumph and tragedy–basically, it keeps your audience interested.
It turns out that’s a valuable property in an entertainment when your competition is bear-baiting across the way, and you’re performing on an open stage in front of a short-tempered audience armed with plenty of rotten fruit and well-lubricated with pottles of ale.
Here’s a picture of how the five-act structure works.
4) Freytag is a little misleading.
In 1863, Gustav Freytag codified the five-act structure with the diagram usually referred to as “Freytag’s Pyramid.” I didn’t draw you one, so here’s a link to Wikipedia.
Kind of makes it look like the falling action is as long as the rising action, doesn’t it? And like exposition is a thing that happens in its own block, set off from the actual story. And like there’s some difference between falling action and denouement….
5) Hybrid vigor
How did the modern three-act structure evolve from the Elizabethan five-act structure? I don’t honestly know, and a very cursory examination of Wikipedia fails to enlighten me. My English Criticism classes were a long, long time ago, and it’ll be good for you to Google it.
Maybe it has something to do with commercial breaks.
Suffice it to say, it did evolve. And what we have now is a wonderful hybrid of Aristotelian and Shakespearean models.
Which we’ll come back to in a moment.
5) But I digress.
Now, as I said, modern three-act structure is not the only way to structure a plot. And in many cases, it may not even be the most appropriate.
It’s safe, because once you learn it it’s unlikely to fail, and even if you break it the failure modes are rarely catastrophic and often easily yanked back into shape. Now, safety is not the soul of art, and if you’re not falling off you’re not climbing hard enough (after all, that’s what the ropes are for), but sometimes you want your risks to be somewhere else other than your plot structure.
We learn by experimenting. We learn by failing. I encourage apprentice writers to try out all of these plot structures, and figure out what they’re good for. And then go out and discover all the other ones********, because what I present here is just a sampling.
Dare to suck.
6) Wheels within wheels
One way to establish theme is through repetition, parallels, and situations that reinforce, comment on, and critique each other. This is a plot structure common in literary stories, where the game is different than it is in genre stories*****.
This is often called the “circular” plot structure. I personally prefer the term spiral structure, because “circular” suggests that the same thing happens over and over again exactly, but really, what happens is that there are thematic repetitions of events. It’s almost balladic in a way–we keep coming back to a refrain. And it is common in literary stories.
Doesn’t mean you can’t use it in genre stories, though. The early seasons of the television show Criminal Minds combine four different plot structures: each episode is a discrete five-act structure*********, the character arcs follow an epic structure (see below), the seasons follow an integrated episode structure (also see below), and the thematic structure is this spiral, with repetitions and variations on a theme.
Narrative tension in this form is often generated through personal development or withheld information. There is conflict, but it may not be structured in the familiar rising action to a climax with which we are familiar from television and the pulps.
Adaptation is a movie structured in this fashion, about a guy trying to turn a novel structured in this fashion into a Hollywood blockbuster with a three-act structure.
Heat (the 1995 Michael Mann crime drama with Pacino and De Niro) gets its thematic impact this way. It tells the stories of a number of relationships in parallel, and in every relationship one character is presented with the opportunity to keep or to break faith with the other. The fate of these characters reflects which decision they each make.
Karen Joy Fowler’s brilliant 2013 novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is structured in this fashion.
Unforgiven also gets its thematic imapct in part from this technique. It uses the mythic structure in which every character in it is a reflection of the protagonist (or, more properly, antihero), Clint Eastwood’s character William Muny.**********
It’s often a thematically useful trick to allow the antagonist to reflect or mirror or subvert certain qualities of the protagonist. These may not always be positive ones–a good antagonist has positive qualities as well. If she’s ambitious when the protagonist is feckless, so much the better.
Unforgiven is particularly useful to us because it also gets its thematic impact via a more traditional three-act structure tactic, and we’ll be back to that.
7) The road winds ever on.
Then there are the really long stories. These tend to have the picaresque, episodic, or epic structures.
Picaresque is a series of events which are unconnected to one another, and in which each event does not have any effect on following events. Picture the classic episodic television shows of the era leading up to Hill Street Blues, where at the end of each episode a cosmis reset button has been pushed. The characters do not develop, and previous events are never referred to again. There’s a quality of this as well in certain types of series novels–events are totally resolved at the end of each one, and all change is external to the protagonist. You can read them in any order, basically: think of the Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys books.
The episodic structure is one where each individual story contributes to an ongoing narrative arc, but is complete in itself. Sometimes they escalate in tension as a season progresses, functioning as sort of macro-scale rising and falling action in a larger three-act structure (Buffy: the Vampire Slayer************), and sometimes they just lead one into the next (the aforementioned Hill Street Blues).
The epic form is exemplified by shows like The Wire or Heat or Game of Thrones. They are, essentially, soap operas. Same structure. Same techniques. It’s what we use in those multi-volume epic fantasies, too.
The long running soap opera is the modern equivalent of the newspaper serial or comic book or radio drama, and all of those are progenitors of epic fantasy as we know it today. They’re all addictive as hell. One part of this is because of long-spun plot lines that we come to care about–mysteries we want to know the answers to–and another part is because we become incredibly invested in the characters over time***********.
A story told in western 3 (or 5) act structure has one long peak with a series of quick up-and-down ticks in tension (rising and falling action, always trending upwards to the climax).
But the plot cycle in an epic fantasy or soap opera or serial is a series of overlapping sine waves*******. (One for each character or plot thread.) Each peak in each sine wave is one of those three-act structure peaks in miniature. They overlap, ideally, so that one narrative’s tension is rising while another is reaching a denouement.
This is also why the damned things are so hard to end, by the way. You get into a rhythm, and used to spinning out long plot threads and thematic lines and hooks to carry you from one arc into the next. So the story, after a while, has a momentum. A natural tendency to propagate itself.
Shifting from “middle” to “end” is brutal when you’ve gotten into that habit.
8) Fichtean Curves
Well, that’s the exposition handled. Let’s talk about three-act structure for reals, and how you build your machine.
Here’s a picture of what it looks like:
Three-act structure is the basic modern structure for the goal-oriented plot. In essence, the character has a goal and meets a series of challenges or obstacles of increasing difficulty in order to achieve that goal. The first act is generally introduction, demonstrating what’s at stake, establishing characters and getting the wheels started turning. By the end of the first act, we generally expect a reversal–also called a turning point–where something happens that will change the protagonist’s life forever no matter how they react happens.
Basically, this is where you break something. And generally, the earlier in the narrative that something changes, the better.
At the two-thirds point (this marks the end of the middle of the narrative, or the end of the second act) we find the second turning point–where the conflict has escalated to the point where it looks as if there’s no way the protagonists can prevail. (A really interesting and well-developed antagonist and/or villain–they’re not the same thing exactly–is very useful for this, but that’s a different lecture.)
But the protagonist perserveres, and eventually reaches an ultimate conflict–the climax–and then proceeds to a resolution through the heroic action of said protagonist.
A funny thing about three-act structure. It’s a complete natural for trilogies, and one of the best examples of how it works when it works well is the original Star Wars films.
A New Hope (I will never be able to type that without flinching, which tells you pretty precisely how old I am), while it’s a complete three-act story in itself, is also the first act of the larger story. It’s climax (the destruction of the Death Star) also serves as a turning point for Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewie. (Even though Chewie doesn’t get a medal, and yes, I am still bitter.)
The Empire Strikes Back is also a complete story in itself (people complain about the middles of trilogies often because the writer neglects to structure the escalating action so it has an arc, and then it just kind of sits there–this movie passes that test better than most.) whose climax also serves as the second turning point (sometimes known as the Darkest Hour) where Han is frozen and kidnapped, Luke is maimed, terrible secrets are revealed, Vader finds out about Leia, and it seems as if all is hopeless.
The Return of the Jedi serves as the third act, leading up the biggest climax, the bossfight, and the putative antagonist’s crisis of conscience that leads to the victory. (I say putative antagonist because it’s my contention that there’s a good case for Vader as the protag, but that’s a different argument.)
9) Okay, so how do I build this machine?
First you assemble your bits.
You need a character in a situation with a problem.
That character must want something. (This is incredibly important, and not merely to drive the plot. A character who wants something is a character with whom the reader instantaneously connects. We talk a lot about “audience identification” and “likable protagonists” and while it’s nice if you can get it, in my experience a far more necessary thing is audience engagement. Katniss isn’t particularly likable to many people (hell, for me, part of her charm is that she’s snappish and opinionated), but boy does she engage.
So. Identify your protagonist. Identify their situation. Provide them with a problem–the bigger and more immediate, the better, but anything will do to start. You can (and will) always escalate later.
Now figure out what they want, and also what they need. These things should be in conflict with each other–what they want, in other words, should not be what’s good for them. The difference can be subtle, and one thing can be a precondition for the other–or they can be directly opposed, which gives us a great opportunity for character growth.
The reason for this is because where we get theme, in a three-act story, is from the conflict between want and need.
Now, that thing your protag wants? You wave it under your character’s nose. Let her get a real good sniff. And then you take it away from her. (This is also referred to as “the inciting incident.”)
I’ve said for years that one of the most important tools a novelist can have in a story is a character who runs toward the sound of gunfire. (We all have that friend, right? The one that can’t go around mud? When you can, make your protagonist that guy. He’ll make his own fun.)
But if you’ve just stolen your protag’s emotional and physical security, well, he’ll bloody well move heaven and earth to go and get it, won’t he?
You also have the option of giving your character some sort of flaw that they must overcome in the third act (as part of their heroic action at the climax) in order to complete the victory condition of the story. This needs to be handled very lightly. Because the result when it doesn’t work out is dire.
Once you have those things, you have everything you need to tell a story. And the best part is, the end is implied in the beginning. You’ve set up the problem you have to solve.
Now the problem that remains is to find an interesting way to complicate and then solve it.
10) Now, you may say this sounds formulaic.
That would be because it is a formula. If not used advisedly, it will indeed produce a formulaic result.
And part of the trick here is that while you often know where you will end, you can have a lot of fun with the path you take to get there. I am not alone among writers in having taken an unpublishable early novel, kept the beginning and the denouement almost unchanged, ripped out the majority of the second and third act, replaced it with something better, and produced a much better book.
Don’t be afraid to throw out ideas and look for better ones.
When this formula is it’s used well, after all, the result is Casablanca.
We have our protag, Rick Blaine. We have the thing he wants: initially, it’s to be left alone. “I stick my neck out for nobody.” This want eventually evolves into wanting Ilsa Lund back. But neither of those things is what Rick needs. What he needs is to get his mojo back; to become a man again.
Rick won’t run towards the gunfire. He has to be dragged. (This is actually his character flaw: he’s lost his courage.)
So we present him with the inciting incidents–we take away his alone. He comes into custody of the Macguffin–the thing everyone in the story wants to get their hands on–and his lost love, the person who broke him, comes back into his orbit.
But there’s a complication. She’s married. And her husband is both a hero and a wanted man. (There’s Nazis. The villain in this movie, Strasser, is actually not very interesting–far more intriguing is another antagonist, Renault, who is a Vichy French chief of police.) Ilsa’s husband complicates things further by using Rick’s bar as a staging ground to foment anti-German feeling.
At this point, it’s just a matter of setting up action and reaction, each move building on the next, each character acting in the interest of their own goals and within the limitations of their design. It’s exactly like writing a fight scene or a conversation in macro–action, reaction, ripost, reaction–raising the stakes slightly each time.
At the end–the climax point, we resolve it by bringing Rick’s (evolved) want (Ilsa) into direct conflict with the need that he has now come to recognize–that he will not be himself again unless he fights the Germans. He overcomes his learned cowardice and fights the Germans. He sends Ilsa off with her husband; Renault experiences a crisis of conscience and comes to Rick’s rescue; and the two of them make a pact to help the resistance.
This is a satisfying ending because it offers catharsis in the form of narrative justice. Rick must sacrifice something (his desire for Ilsa) in order to make himself whole and also to do the right thing on a larger scale. (Ilsa has a parallel plot arc, where she too must choose to do the right thing–stay with her husband–over going with Rick. Ilsa’s husband’s crisis comes earlier in the plot, when he urges Rick to save Ilsa and is willing to sacrifice himself to make it happen.)
A satisfying ending for this structure, in other words, is usually one that requires some sort of sacrifice or compromise to get there, and which always requires some growth. (With one exception, explored below.)
None of these choices are easy, but they are ethical, and they exhibit the growth of the characters. Casablanca is a heroic narrative.
11) But what if I want to write a tragedy?
Well then. Let’s look at Unforgiven, shall we? I’m not going to go into the whole damned movie, because this is already four thousand words long. But it serves as a good example of catharsis through the denial of character growth. It’s a tragedy, and it leaves that haunted, achy feeling behind that good tragedies do.
Because Will Muny never manages to do the thing he needs to do, and let go of the ill-advised revenge killing-for-hire that he’s embarked upon. Even when his best friend is dead, even when his protege has repudiated him, he’s dead set on his mission. He does what he wants, not what he needs, and the result is awful for everyone.
He never takes a heroic action. He fails protagonist. Tragedy ensues.
See also: Hamlet.
Sometimes this structure is easier to pick this out when it fails–and it can fail by being heavyhanded and painful. Copycat (1995) is a great example. How is it even possible for a movie starring Holly Hunter and Sigourney Weaver to be that bad?
And yet it is.
The salient bit here is the character flaws, which are agoraphobia (Weaver) and an unwillingness to shoot to kill (Hunter). Because it’s handled in such a heavyhanded fashion, we know from the end of the first reel that at some point in the movie Weaver’s character will be trapped by her fear, and that her heroic action will involve crossing an open space. We also know that Hunter’s character will get somebody killed by refusing to shoot somebody in the head, and that at the end of the movie she’ll have to do that.
On the other hand, take Die Hard (the original from 1988, please) which does almost all of these things well. I’m going to leave the process of deconstructing it as a machine to the reader, because normally at this point I’d make my class do it. But feel free to argue about it in comments.
And the Reginald Veljohnson character (Fondly known to all as Twinkie Cop, though the character’s name is Al) has exactly the same flaw and resolution as the Hunter character.
So why doesn’t it suck when Al shoots somebody in the third reel to save the day? Um. Well, the writing and characterization are much better, for two things. But those are different lectures too.
I think it comes down to rhetoric. A story is an argument, and Copycat is a really unconvincing one.
12) A three-act plot is a machine.
If you put the gears and magnets and linkages in the right place, and give it enough juice (in the form of a strong conflict), it will work every single time. It may not be great literature, but it’ll work.
More experimental forms can fail for no good reason except gravity. They’re an art; three-act structure, however, is a science.
This is why it’s used so often by scriptwriters and pulp hacks, who must produce a working story reliably under immense deadline pressure, or they don’t get paid. I don’t mean to denigrate the three-act plot by saying this. I rely on it extensively–under deadline pressure, or because there’s no thematic or narrative need to do anything fancy and exhausting, or simply because it’s elegant and invisible and I can use it to support all kinds of interesting narrative curlicues and whorls.
A three-act is sound engineering, in other words.
I’m a huge proponent of the idea that for any given narrative need, the simplest tool we can field that will do the job elegantly is the best one. Stunt writing is all well and good, and sometimes it’s incredibly useful–sometimes, a really flashy trick is the only trick that will get the job done*. Too often, an apprentice writer will reach for the biggest hammer, so to speak, even when she’s trying to drive a finishing tack. Or she won’t be able to find a hammer at all, and she’ll wind up driving the tack with the side of a pair of dikes.
I’ve done it. We’ve all done it.
And every time I pry the lid off a paint can with a wood chisel, I picture my grandfather the plumber-savant rolling over in his grave.
The good news is that as the writer matures, her tool box fills up with any number of specialized tools, and a lot of good handy general purpose ones.
There are no rules. There are only techniques that work or do not work in any given application.
Three-act structure is just such a robust, elegant, and infinitely flexible tool.
And now you know how every uninspired episode of a network TV show will end.
This counts as a Stupid Writer Trick–one of those great dirty underhanded tricks that writers can pull to make ourselves look smarter than we are.
You can use three-act structure to tell a nonlinear story. And when it’s done well, the result is like a huge kick in the reader’s brain, like a great glorious a-hah! moment. So much of writing is about hacking your readers’ neurology.
How do you do this?
You tell the story using three-act structure. But you tell it out of order, so that the discontinuity supports the story you want to tell. (If you try doing this with a story that doesn’t need it, it just looks pretentious. Be wary.)
**Other parts of the world had and continue to have their own stuff going on, narrative-structure-wise. To quote Kurt Vonnegut: “Here’s what I know about that: bupkiss.”***
*I refer the interested reader to Anthony Burgess’s A Dead Man in Deptford, which uses a hugely flashy POV trick–a first-person omniscient unreliable narrator–without which the book could not work.
***The footnotes are asterisked out of order because they are asterisked in the order in which I wrote them. I am a somewhat nonlinear writer, as it happens.
****The Matter of Britain and Chaucer both tend toward either the One Damned Thing After Another plot that Aristotle so loathed and maligned, or the morality play/just so story. Beowulf, most curiously, consists of three independent and perfectly cromulent three-act structure stories, which is probably why we still read and enjoy it today. The Táin Bó Cúailnge is strikingly modern in structure, too.
*****In genre stories, the game is for the reader to figure out whodunnit (if it’s a mystery) or how the world works (if it’s science fiction or fantasy) or to evoke a specific emotional response in the reader (horror and romance and erotica and humor and thrillers). In satire, the game is social commentary. In travelogues, of which the planetary romance and quest fantasy are subsets, the game is to experience a place. In literary fiction, the game is for the reader to tease out theme and structure and character and experience the personal changes and failures to change of the characters******.
******Please note that none of these are exclusive of any other. It is perfectly possible, if challenging, to write an SFnal travelogue romance murder mystery spy thriller literary novel. That book is Mary Gentle’s Golden Witchbreed, which I recommend.
*******Okay, you got me. It’s really a sawtooth wave. But this way looks prettier.
********Hero’s Journey, Kishōtenketsu, Nodal, Open, Modulated, stuff. Get Googling.
*********Unusually for modern television, not three; count the commercial breaks!
**********This is stated repeatedly in the film–count the number of times somebody says something to the effect of “I ain’t like you,” or “You and me, we’re alike.” The Gene Hackman character is even also named William, for crying out loud.*************
***********Ideally, anyway. In suboptimal cases, we can become profoundly irritated by them.
************However, B:tVS largely handles its character arcs through the epic model.
*************This can also be done with characters who serve as foils for each other. See John McClane and Twinkie Cop************** in Die Hard.
**************Everybody loves Twinkie Cop.