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Plotting 101: Top 10 Tips For Crafting Compelling Stories

Plotting Like a Pro

One of the most searched-for terms on this blog is ‘help with plotting’. Plot – aka structure if you’re a screenwriter – can be a tricky beast. Despite it being fashionable to claim plotting is ‘easy’ to fix, this is utter BILGE … which is why it’s a good idea to try and ensure you don’t tie yourself up in knots at foundation level!

So, whether you’re a novelist looking for help plotting your book, or a screenwriter who needs guidance on structuring your script, these quick tips should help. Ready? Let’s go …

1) It’s all about beginning, middle, end (not necessarily in that order!)

We all know this, deep down. Plotting becomes complicated when we forget that even small children know the basics of plotting! This means that deep down, we still do too.

Having a strong beginning, middle and end is the key. Once we have those in place, they can be the ‘tent poles’ of our idea and help us do more advanced techniques like non-linearity (see tip 7 for more).

2) Outlining is a REALLY good idea I’m afraid

Screenwriters have more-or-less got on board with the idea of outlining. It seems like common sense to work out the kinks of the story BEFORE you go to draft … not least because so much £££$$$ is involved. No producer is going to green-light a movie or TV show and just see how it goes! That’s bad business sense.

With authors, the camp is much more divided. Authors tend to call themselves ‘plotters’ (those who write outlines) versus ‘pantsers’ (who don’t … This name is short for ‘by the seat of your pants’).

Look, I’m not saying that pantsers are bad writers. There are lots of them out there who are very good at what they do.

However, pantsed novels tend to take longer – usually because the writer has to ‘carve’ the plot out of the ‘vomit draft’. In addition, pantsed novels often miss opportunities, are less lean and sometimes have more plot holes or other issues that create problems down the road.

Again, this is not because pantsers are worse writers than plotters. It’s just more difficult to see your story holistically!

Think about it: you’re smack bang in the middle of it with zero outline to compare/contrast your ideas and writing with. This is why I recommend authors write outlines, even if it’s just a list of bullet points.

Outlining needn’t be boring either.  There’s lots of ways to outline that suit every type of brain … Myself, I adore the ‘story map’ – check it out!

3) Discernible character role functions are really important

Sometimes when I’m reading a draft of a spec script or unpublished novel, I don’t know who-is-who. It’s not that I don’t get it *at all* … I’m just not sure of the role functions of the characters , eg. what they’re doing in the plot.

Role function refers to the main characters (protagonist and antagonist), then the supporting characters (such as love interest, best friend, villain’s henchman and so on). Peripheral characters are those ‘walk-on’ characters who usually create obstacles for the protagonist (occasionally antagonist, too).

When I don’t know who-is-who, it’s usually because I am not sure what the protagonist wants. Without a discernible goal for the protagonist, this has an adverse effect on the plotting. This is because if the protagonist does not have a goal, this means the antagonist can’t have a counter-goal. The secondaries who orbit those two main roles in order to help or hinder them can’t do what they’re supposed to do … and neither can the peripherals.

4) Character motivation is key

Characterisation and plotting goes hand in hand. It’s very fashionable for writing gurus to say ‘it’s all about the characters’, but this is BS. Plotting is not only not easy, it is inextricably linked to the characters. You literally can’t have one without the other.

Once you’ve nailed the role functions of your characters, each one needs to have a powerful motivation. This is the WHY of your protagonist’s goal … and WHY your antagonist wants to stop them.

Equally, every secondary character has to have a powerful motivation of their own, too. Joss Whedon called this secondary characters’ ‘reason to live’. If yours don’t have this reason to live – and exist solely to orbit the protagonist or antagonist – then they can feel 2D and like cardboard cut-outs.

5) Remember: you can’t pay off what you don’t set up

Lots of writers are writing intuitively, which means it’s hard for them to step back and ‘see’ their plot. That’s why I always recommend outlining, even if that only means writing a few bullet points.

But if you want to write something that’s VERY plot-led – such as something with a twist at the end – it can be almost impossible to do this effectively without an outline. Yes, really!

This is because we can only pay off what we set up … BUT if we don’t know what we’ve set up because we writing ‘by the seat of our pants’, the ending will suffer.

Consider a movie like Home Alone. A crime caper, this film is both a thriller and a comedy – it’s basically Die Hard for kids. Writers learn more about the incredible amount of set ups it has in its Act One! You can do the same for your own screenplay or novel, no matter what the genre or style.

MORE: How Home Alone Nails Set Up / Pay Off And How You Can Too

6) Starting at the end of your story can really help (really!)

Years ago, I went out with a comedian. He constructed jokes backwards … he would find the punchline (aka pay offs), then work backwards to ‘find’ the set up (aka beginning) of the joke.

Now I didn’t go out with him very long because he was a jerk, but this idea stayed with me. I figured that it had to work for stories too, no matter the genre or style. And sure enough, I was right!

I’ve written nearly all my own novels ‘backwards’ and I nearly always start outlining at the end, too. When I’m script editing, I frequently counsel writers who are stuck to start at the end so we can identify what the problem is.

Billy Wilder said that if you have a problem at the end of a script, the issue is Act 1. This has been the case so often in my writing life, I’d wager it’s the norm for most writers. So if you’re having trouble with yours, start at the end!

7) Non-Linearity should serve the story, not ‘be cool’

I read countless spec scripts and novels every year. Very frequently, these stories will be very hard to follow because the plotting is all over the place. When I ask the writers why they have chosen non-linearity, 9/10 they will say: ‘Because it’s cool.’

OI, WRITERS NO!

Look, I adore non-linearity. I have even written two overtly non-linear novels and an interactive film that uses it. But if non-linearity doesn’t serve the story specifically, we should stay away from it.

But what does ‘serve the story’ mean? Well, that’s one of those annoying piece-of-string questions, but generally speaking it means the ‘past’ thread adds to the ‘present’ thread somehow. Writers need to ensure they keep their readers or viewers anchored by ‘re-structuring their structure’ (aka plotting).

MORE: 10 Quick Tips About Writing Non Linear Stories

8) Don’t forget your hook …

A hook is that ‘thing’ that grabs readers’ or viewers’ attention somehow. Usually, they’re divided into two types of hook:

  • The dramatic hook. This asks the reader or viewer to put themselves in the protagonist’s place, ‘What would YOU do?’  Dilemmas can work especially well here. Your hook can be based on a universal fear (such as ‘what would you do if you were kidnapped? Or attacked by a serial killer?’), especially if it is a Thriller or Horror. If it’s not, then a comedy or drama hook may be linked to something relatable (such as ‘what would you do … in this dating, parenting, everyday life experience?’).
  • The commercial hook. These are usually based on a cultural DESIRE, which means ‘pre-sold’ elements readers and viewers are already familiar with and like a great deal. This means certain elements that have proven to do well year on year, such as serial killers, ghosts, dinosaurs, giant robots, monsters, talking animals and so on.
  • Both! Yes, it’s possible for a story to have a dramatic hook AND a commercial hook. Billion-dollar franchises such as Saw or The Conjuring Universe have proved this. Serial killers like Jigsaw (pre-sold, commercial hook) offer up horrifying dilemmas for his victims (relatable fear, dramatic hook). In The Conjuring universe, parents must face horrifying spectres, demon nuns and possessed dolls (pre-sold, commercial hook) whilst also standing up to evil to protect and save their children (relatable fear, dramatic hook).

Understanding how important your hook is means not only being able to pitch it, but write it. The average writer is not really sure how hooks work and this shows in their plotting. If you can really nail the hook, you’re streets ahead of your competition.

MORE: Pitch Perfect Masterclass for just $7

9) … or your stakes

‘What’s at stake?’ means ‘what happens if your protagonists FAIL?‘ It’s as simple as that.

Yet when it comes to plotting, many writers really struggle with stakes. They will go down all kinds of rabbit holes to do with the ‘reasons’ the characters do certain things instead.

Whilst your characters’ motivations ARE important (as noted in point 4 on this list), it’s rarely compelling when it becomes too cerebral. Compelling = REALLY BAD SHIT …  yet too writers try too hard not to put their characters through the shit.

Basically, we have to really fear for the characters. Whether that means literal life-or-death stakes or a ‘fate worse than death’ (on a metaphorical level, such as divorce or loss of an important relationship), it doesn’t matter.

We should appreciate what the stakes are and how the characters’ lives will be significantly worse as a result somehow. This then enables us to be happy when they overcome those odds and succeed … or feel super-sad when they don’t.

10) It doesn’t matter what structural method you use! (Just make sure you use one)

The Three, Four or Five Acts. The Mini Movie Method. Save The Cat. The Story Circle. The Hero’s Journey. Voyage and Return. Rebirth. Rags to Riches. Boy meets Girl … there are so many plotting archetypes!!!

No one cares which one you use, just use one.

BONUS!

Don’t get lost in the ‘every day’ smaller details!

When it comes to plotting, we don’t want to get lost in the smaller, ‘every day’ details. We don’t care about details that all of us do every day such as wake up, eat, drink, take showers, get dressed, walk around, take journeys, locking, opening and closing doors, using the loo,  etc.

Of course, this changes if those small ‘every day’ details have a direct impact on the characters and plotting somehow. For instance:

  • In Psycho, we see Marion get in the shower … because she DIES in the shower. Norman, dressed as his mother, rips back that shower curtain. With that iconic violin score, he stabs her to death and we watch her die. This then means Norman has to hide what ‘his mother’ has done for the rest of the movie.
  • In Saturday Night Fever, yes we see Tony walking down the street. But as I note in Top 5 Mistakes Writers Make With Character Introductions, he is not ‘just’ walking. He’s not only strutting and dressed in his finery, he’s carrying a paint can. This takes us into the next scene where we discover he works in a DIY store.
  • In Alien, we do indeed watch the crew of the Nostromo spaceship gather for meals. The first time, they’ve just woken up from hypersleep and it’s a very quick introduction to each of the characters. At the same time, it offers a chance for world-building in terms of what they do with their jobs; ‘The Company’ (aka Weyland Yutani); and how they are Space Truckers rather than specialist pro astronauts. The second time, it’s after Kane has been face-hugged and they’re really happy everything seems to have worked out … UH OH! Monster bursts out of Kane’s chest. Oops.

There’s two things great plotting does:

  • Reveals character. Your character needs to do various actions and model various behaviours that tell who they are, what they want and why they want it. Remember, as I always say … We don’t watch or read stories ‘about characters’. We watch or read stories about characters who DO SOMETHING for SOME REASON.
  • Pushes the story forward. At the same time, anything that happens has add to the plotting somehow. Anything that doesn’t do this means everything feels like it is ‘running on the spot’. So every time you have characters doing stuff for ‘no reason’ or for ‘too long’, it slows the pace down and means viewers or readers potentially get bored. This means writers need to make a judgement on ‘every day’ stuff and ensure the read doesn’t get sluggish. As one of my producer friends say, ‘I better not see people on the toilet unless they DIE on the toilet!’ Equally, when it comes to novels and short stories characters may do a little more of the ‘every day’ stuff because we have to paint a picture … but they can’t do so much of it the ‘small’ things overshadow the ‘big’ things! It’s all about balance.

Last Points

So that’s Plotting 101, Bangers … These top 10 tips will stand you in good stead for your novel or screenplay. Remember: plotting and characterisation = a GREAT story!

Good Luck!

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