How To Plot
One of the questions I get asked most by writers is ‘How do I learn how to plot?’ It’s easy to understand why … If screenwriting is structure (and it is), then plot is all-important, no matter the genre or tone of your story.
Authors are not exempt either. Whilst novels can get away with less plot than the average movie or TV show, the convergence between the mediums is very strong. Readers demand a considerable amount more plot as standard, especially from genres and subgenres that get adapted a lot. This means horror, romance, comedy and crime novels in particular NEED more plot to keep up.
Research And Practice
So, if writers want to learn how to plot, they need to research and practice. The good news is, this is easier than ever. As B2W has said multiple times, you can learn plot from watching television.
That’s right, even if you’re writing a novel or movie!
The bad news is, most writers say they are watching something ‘for work’ … THEN DON’T DO ANY WORK. They just let the story wash over them. This is one of the reasons I created the B2W Plotting Worksheet below …
So, with this in mind, I’m going to suggest the following …
- Download the B2W structure and a blank plotting worksheet HERE or by clicking the pics above.
- Fire up Netflix if you have it or find a channel where Friends is playing in your country
Ready? Then let’s go!
Back to Friends
Love it or loathe it, Friends is still big news in 2020. It’s also readily available, easy to source and episodes are only 22 minutes long. This makes the series a great case study for writers when we are learning how to plot.
The One Where No One’s Ready is the second episode of the third season of the American television sitcom Friends and 50th overall. Written by Ira Ungerleider and directed by Gail Mancuso, the plot centres on Ross’ anxiety as his friends take too long getting ready for his museum’s benefit and awards ceremony that evening.
The One Where No One’s Ready takes place almost entirely in Monica’s apartment living room. The episode occurs in real time and is what’s known as a ‘bottle episode’. These are when TV shows are written and filmed using existing sets and cast at last minute.
Bottle episodes usually occur because another script has gone wrong and the makers need to get something done ASAP! The term ‘bottle’ refers to the notion of ‘pulling a genie from a bottle’. This is interesting, as I’d always assumed it was due to the idea of ‘a ship in a bottle’ … ie. An intricate, but contained story!
Somewhat intriguingly, critics at the time never really liked bottle episodes and The One Where No One’s Ready was no different. But the joke was quite literally on said critics! This one is not only my favourite Friends episode of all time, but a looooottt of other people’s. It frequently turns up on ‘Best Ever’ lists too LIKE THIS ONE.
First up, here are my notes …
So first, I downloaded a blank B2W plotting worksheet. Then, as I was watching I made a note of what was going on in each scene. From there, I worked out how each story strand escalated. I also made a judgement call on where I saw the plot points etc happening.
As you can also see, there’s four columns on the worksheet … In the case of Friends, each episode is approximately 22 minutes long, which means in this case, each column here is roughly equivalent to 5 mins’ screentime. (Obviously the columns can be longer screen time for TV dramas, movies or you could even assign page counts for novels if you like).
Did you get the same as me below, or different? Note the idea is NOT to ‘agree’ with me, but rather make your own judgement call on where the ‘important’ bits are, based on your understanding of the craft. It’s like GCSE English in effect … As long as you can back it up with evidence, then your interpretation stands!
Now, on to the detailed analysis of the strands.
The Story Strands
So, first up what happens in the episode? I’ll be colour coding so you can follow each strand in each act, from its beginning to conclusion.
‘Ross Versus Everyone’. Ross wants everyone to get ready for his museum benefit and awards ceremony, but no one is. [GREEN].
‘Chandler Versus Joey’. Chandler and Joey are arguing from the very first frame, which culminates over a chair. It spirals from there. [PINK].
‘Ross Versus Rachel’. Though Ross is against everyone, it’s Rachel who draws his ire the most. In this episode, remember Rachel is his girlfriend! [BLUE].
‘Monica Versus The Phone’. Monica’s neuroses about her break up with Richard surface here [RED].
‘The Fat’. This is more of a running gag than storyline in its own right. That said, it performs an important plotting function AND reveals character [PURPLE].
Wait A Minute … What About Phoebe??
Great question! As you’ll note in the breakdown below, Phoebe is a ‘floating character’. She is obviously included in ‘Ross versus everyone’ and hops on to the other four story strands, including the running gag.
So, Phoebe does not have a strand that is entirely her ‘own’. That said, to make it more obvious I will mark Phoebe’s appearances in orange. Ready? Then let’s go …
Act 1 (including opener & credits)
The episode starts with Chandler and Joey talking at Monica’s. They are in a combative mood. (Beginning ‘Chandler Versus Joey’).
Encouraged by Chandler, Joey ends up drinking the fat, thinking it’s cider. It is not. The running gag begins.
Ross enters. He’s dressed up for a big awards thing at the museum. He’s perturbed Chandler and Joey are not ready yet. This is where ‘Ross versus everyone’ starts.
Rachel enters. Ross is happy to see her and the fact she looks ‘almost’ ready. This is when she drops the bombshell she doesn’t know what she’ll be wearing yet. This is where ‘Ross versus Rachel’ begins.
Joey tries to get Ross to drink the fat. [Credits here].
Phoebe arrives, dressed for the awards ceremony. Ross is very happy with her because she is dressed.
Chandler and Joey’s rivalry over the chair and who sits in it begins.
Monica arrives and asks if someone has been drinking her fat?
Plot Point 1
Monica checks her answering machine messages and hears the (possibly old) message from Richard, her ex boyfriend. This is where the ‘Monica versus the answering machine’ strand kicks off.
Act 2, part 1
Ross comforts Monica, but it’s all a ruse to send her off to get dressed for the awards ceremony.
Chandler and Joey continue to argue over the chair. Phoebe gets caught in the crossfire when Joey flicks hummus at Chandler. Peeved, Phoebe goes to the bathroom.
Monica wants to call Richard back, but everyone tries to dissuade her. Monica goes to her room.
Chandler and Joey continue to argue about the chair.
Ross comes up for a solution that means he gets what he wants. Chandler complies.
Rachel arrives out of her room as Phoebe arrives back from the bathroom. Rachel sympathises with Phoebe about the hummus on her dress.
Monica arrives back from her room and tells them she called Richard.
Chandler arrives back in the room and tries to make it to the chair again. Joey pips him to the post.
Monica plays them her message by calling in the code of Richard’s answering machine. Unfortunately, everyone agrees the message is no good. They say it was not ‘breezy’ enough because she said she was breezy.
This is when the mid point drops … Everyone hears another woman’s voice on Richard’s answer machine.
Act 2, part 2
Monica is heartbroken, thinking Richard is seeing another woman already. Chandler suggests it could be Michelle, Richard’s adult daughter. Monica is relieved, yes of course it is Michelle!
Ross is bothered about the rain outside, saying it will make it more difficult to get a cab to the awards ceremony.
Rachel still hasn’t chosen something to wear, so Ross says he will pick something out for her. They go to her room.
Joey and Chandler continue to argue over the chair, but Joey has to get dressed. He takes the cushions from the chair with him, Chandler is outraged.
Ross and Rachel appear again. Rachel tells Ross he wanted her to wear a Halloween costume. Phoebe appears from Monica’s room with a dress. They go to Rachel’s room together.
Joey crashes back into Monica’s apartment. He says Chandler has hidden all his underwear (set up of ‘Going commando’ joke). Ross attempts to mediate with them again.
Phoebe appears with the Christmas ribbon, ‘Fine, I’ll be political’. Rachel appears after her but has no shoes on. Ross loses it and yells at her. She goes back to her room.
Plot Point 2
Monica decides to call Michelle … it is confirmed it IS her. She talks to Michelle about Richard.
Meanwhile, Phoebe and Chandler talk on the sofa. It is the famous (completely irrelevant to the plot) ‘Donald Duck doesn’t wear pants‘ joke. [NO COLOUR].
Ross wrestles the phone off Monica and sends her to her room. He sends Phoebe and Chandler after her to make sure she gets dressed and does not call Michelle again.
This is when Rachel appears in her sweats. She tells Ross she is not going to the awards ceremony. Ross can’t believe it.
Phoebe appears with Monica’s phone, dishevelled after literally fighting with her. Chandler admits he is turned on. This is when Joey crashes back in, dressed in ALL Chandler’s clothes. Iconic scene where he does lunges (‘Commando’ pay off).
Ross goes nuts and tells Joey and Chandler they can’t come. He begs Rachel to go with him. He says he will do anything.
Joey recommends Ross proves himself by drinking the fat. Rachel agrees. Ross decides to do it, but Rachel stops him last minute. All is forgiven. Conclusion of ‘fat’ running gag.
Rachel goes to get dressed.
Ross sends Joey and Chandler to get ready. He goes to get cabs. Conclusion of ‘Ross versus everyone’ storyline.
Phoebe is alone in the living room adjusting her Christmas ribbon. Dressed up, Monica appears from her room. She leaves another highly embarrassing message on Richard’s machine … Even worse, this time it is the outgoing message. Crushed, she leaves with Phoebe. Conclusion of ‘Monica versus the phone’ storyline.
Ross appears back in the apartment for Rachel, who appears fully dressed. They kiss and Rachel drops her last bombshell … She is going ‘commando’ too (second pay off for this joke). Conclusion of ‘Ross versus Rachel’ storyline.
End Credits Scene
We rejoin the gang at the benefit/ awards ceremony. Ross meets a renowned scientist, who joins them at their table. This is where Chandler reappears and accuses the scientist of sitting in his chair, just like he had Joey. This concludes the final strand.
What Writers Can Learn
Sitcoms pack in a LOT in just 22 minutes! In this case, four story strands and a running gag, as well as a ‘floating character’ AND a completely irrelevant Donald Duck gag.
This episode is almost entirely contained, like theatre. It would have been VERY easy for it to become characters standing around, ‘just’ talking. Instead, make a note of the visuals used, plus how and why the characters go in and out of the space available. The writing uses movement to keep the story pushing forwards.
Ross is both the protagonist and antagonist of this episode. It’s his night and him who spurs everyone on to get ready. Like Phoebe, he appears in multiple strands, though rather than ‘floating’ he tries to create solutions and mediate when others are being unreasonable … But Ross also creates problems and is also unreasonable himself.
Though the episode is principally about Ross, the writers use Monica’s storyline to structure the episode. Note how all the main turning points relate to ‘Monica Versus The Phone’.
Chandler and Joey provide the comic relief function. Though every Friends character is a ‘Jester’ archetype (it is a comedy!), these two do the heavy lifting of being comedic characters. This happens generally and is never more obvious in episodes like The One Where No One’s Ready.
Phoebe might be a ‘floating character’ here, but that doesn’t mean she is not important. She appears in EVERY strand of this episode at some point.
More About This On B2W
Good Luck Plotting!
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