Building Your Plot
January 16, 2018 7:20 am
Plot is the most important part of a story in most cases, but can also be one of the most challenging. You may have an idea of how plots work, or you may be totally new to it. No matter your skill level, this overview will help you write and appreciate plots in stories.
The Hero’s Journey
Let’s start first with a concept you may have heard of before: the hero’s journey. Originally described by Joseph Campbell and refined by Christopher Vogler, the hero’s journey describes the main character’s arc through the story. This has a lot of variables, some more classic and some modern, but it can be broken down pretty simply:
- Ordinary life
- Call to adventure
- Crossing the threshold into the extraordinary (point of no return) – plot point #1
- Progressively more difficult challenges, tests, and conflicts (internal and external)
- The “abyss”, or the hero’s darkest moment – plot point #2
- Return to the ordinary
Some versions include more specific tropes, like a mentor figure, initial refusal of the call, and special circumstances surrounding the hero’s birth or existence (chosen one narratives) but this structure is fluid.
The hero’s journey is essentially a trip from the known world to the unknown and back again. The hero starts in their ordinary world, then a call to adventure pulls them out of it. They cross into the unknown world outside their comfort zone – at this stage, they cannot go back to the way things were before and must press forward.
Once in the extraordinary world, the hero is tested by challenges, conflicts, and foes. Through these, the audience discovers more about the hero and the hero discovers more about themself. These conflicts can be either internal or external, but we’ll get to that shortly.
The hero grows through these experiences, but eventually faces a conflict they (seemingly) cannot handle. This is the hero’s lowest point, during which they want to give up. However, they find the strength to overcome this obstacle and come out transformed by their experience. They return victorious to the ordinary world, now changed from how they were before the adventure.
Exploring the Protagonist
“What?” I hear you ask. “We already talked about protagonists last week. I thought this was about plots!” And you’re right! But the most engaging plots are driven by the characters. External conflicts and other elements certainly arise in great stories, but how the hero handles them is what makes things interesting. The protagonist can, and perhaps should, have a huge effect on the plot.
In general, the plot should reveal something about the character and the character should advance the plot. The inciting incident in the beginning of the story gives the hero a goal they must work toward, which is determined in large part by the character’s own values and morals.
Characters have multiple dimensions, or levels:
- The external – what others see, the personality the hero shows outwardly
- The internal – backstory, inner struggles, what motivates the characters
- Moral compass – the heart of the character, their sense of right, wrong, and higher purpose
When the story starts, we mostly only see the external. By the time the hero crosses the threshold though, we begin to see their internal self. This is explored more throughout their struggles. At this time we may also see the character struggling with right and wrong: their morals. Often the hero’s morals seriously come into play when they are at their lowest. When the character’s moral compass or purpose is fully revealed, this can signify that their arc is complete.
In each scene of the story, one or more of these dimensions should come into play. This is how the plot helps reveal the character to the audience. These things can serve as conflicts in themselves, and add to external conflicts or be exacerbated by them. If a scene doesn’t reveal anything about the hero, take another look because you may be able to eliminate it or rewrite it to advance the story better.
So we’ve covered the hero’s journey and details of the protagonist. How, then, do we outline a plot?
Most stories follow the three-act structure. Once you’re aware of this structure, you’ll be able to see it in the movies you watch and books you read. The three act structure works very cleanly with the hero’s journey.
The first act encompasses the first stages of the hero’s journey, ending at plot point #1 when the hero crosses the threshold. This part introduces the hero, establishes the setting, and sets up the main conflict.
This is where the hero faces tests and challenges on their journey. During this act, they must evolve to overcome conflict and confront their internal struggles. Their morals are tested. Eventually, they hit their lowest point – this is plot point #2, the end of the second act.
At the midpoint, the hero may go through an “ordeal” – an unusually difficult challenge – and emerge victorious with a “reward”. This might be new information, or a skill, tool, or ally that helps them and changes what they know or how they approach the main conflict.
The midpoint splits the second act into two parts. This is the point where the hero must become proactive instead of reactive if they hope to accomplish their goal and reach a resolution.
These may appear on each side of the midpoint. A pinch point could be something as simple as a conversation between characters, or a major event. These remind the hero and audience what is at stake.
This is the where the climax takes place. The hero overcomes their struggles (sometimes known as the “resurrection”) and reaches a resolution. They return the ordinary world a changed person.
These acts don’t necessarily have specific lengths. Often second act is the longest, but there is no standard for how long it should be. Additionally, there may be other ways of organizing a plot that do not involve three acts. If you want to explore that, go for it! This is only the most popular method and is easy to apply to most stories.
I want to make it clear that these are guidelines, not rules set in stone. If you see parts of the hero’s journey that you don’t think work for your story, you do not need to follow it exactly! This post is just to help get you started.
Remember to pay attention to the media you consume and watch how they build plots and develop the hero. Also don’t be afraid to experiment and try new things.
Perhaps most importantly, create your story! You can read about characters and plots all day but the only way to perfect your storytelling is to get out there and tell some stories. Good luck on your journey!
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