I love character development but these days I always prioritise plot development, perhaps because it comes less naturally to me. But unlike character development, plot development is a much broader concept. Sometimes a good way to see if your plot is working is to compare it to some of the theories of how stories should be structured.
Back when I was doing my master’s degree, there were four theories I used to prepare my major assessment piece for the Script Adaptation subject. They’re not specific to script adaptation or even screenplays, but these theories are generally known as film theories.
So what? If it works, it works, regardless of whether we’re talking about short stories, novellas, novels, films or documentaries.
It might not work for everyone but if you compare your plot to these structures and find you can’t identify a key act or part in your story that these theories say it should have, perhaps you might have found the missing link.
Syd Field’s Three-Act Structure
Syd Field died in 2013 but was a noted guru of screenwriting and wrote several books on the subject. Although he didn’t invent it, he was an advocate of the three-act structure.
Act 1 – The Beginning
The beginning starts with establishing the characters, their relationships and the world in which they exist. It might not be perfect but it’s normal, to them at least. Then suddenly, life isn’t normal. Something out of the ordinary occurs, something that cannot be ignored, something that must be dealt with.
Plot Point 1
The protagonist’s attempt to deal with that something out of the ordinary leads to an escalation known as plot point 1. It signals the end of Act 1, ensures life will never be the same again and raises the question that will ultimately be answered in the final act.
Act 2 – The Middle
Act 2 sees the protagonist losing the battle on the way to winning the war. The situation they find themselves in gets worse and worse and only with a little character development, aided by secondary characters, will they be able to work their way out of it. If Act 3 is the destination, then Act 2 is the journey.
Plot Point 2
This is the point at which the protagonist finally has the skills, the determination, the motivation, the whole package required to solve the problem.
Act 3 – The End
The final act resolves the story and any subplots, if they exist. The question raised in Act 1 is answered, not always in the way expected, but it is answered nonetheless.
Robert McKee’s Theory of Five Parts to the Story
Robert McKee is a well-known figure in Hollywood, specifically as the author of the book Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting. So much so, in fact, that a fictional version of him was written into Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay of Adaptation (much as Charlie wrote himself in) as fictional Charlie struggled to complete an adaptation of the real book, The Orchid Thief.
McKee holds that his advice and his book “is about principles, not rules. A rule says, ‘You must do it this way.’ A principle says, ‘This works…and has through all remembered time.’ The difference is crucial.”
He identifies five parts to any story: an inciting incident, progressive complications, crisis, climax and resolution.
“The Inciting Incident radically upsets the balance of forces in the protagonist’s life.” And from this point, the protagonist must choose a path. From a simplistic perspective, one will be positive and the other will be negative. More accurately, the two options will be polar opposites.
“The second element of the five-part design is Progressive Complications: that great sweeping body of the story that spans from Inciting Incident to Crisis/Climax of the final act. To complicate means to make like difficult for characters. To complicate progressively means to generate more and more conflict as they face greater and greater forces of antagonism, creating a succession of events that passes points of no return.”
The key phrase here is “points of no return”. The progressive complications must be so great that the protagonist simply does not have the opportunity to retreat, to change their mind and return to the life they were living before the inciting incident. There must be no option but to continue on.
“Crisis with a capital C is the ultimate decision. The Chinese ideogram for Crisis is two terms: Danger/Opportunity – ‘danger’ in that the wrong decision at this moment will lose forever what we want; ‘opportunity’ in that the right choice will achieve our desire.”
The Climax is what happens as a result of the choice made in the Crisis phase. It might not be exactly what the protagonist wanted but it’s usually what they needed. There is a poetic justice in the Climax.
The Resolution is a final chapter or scene in which the protagonist’s normal life resumes. That doesn’t mean it’s the same as their life at the beginning of the story but it’s a return to some sort of normalcy. If you think of The Silence of the Lambs, the Climax shows Clarice Starling tracking and shooting Buffalo Bill through the darkness of his basement. But the Resolution shows her graduating from Quantico and then receiving a phone call from Hannibal Lecter, who assures her he won’t be coming for her. Without this, she would be left to wonder and we would be left to wonder – the story would be missing a satisfying ending.
Use the Resolution to tie up loose ends that would otherwise infuriate readers if left unaddressed.
David Siegel’s Nine-Act Structure
The nine acts begin with Act 0 and end with Act 8. Whatever. It’s still nine acts, no matter how you label them.
Act 0: Someone Toils Long into the Night
The reason this is labelled Act 0 is that it doesn’t really appear in the structure. It’s backstory, it’s prologue, it’s the footage the opening credits roll over. But it sets a mood.
Act 1: Open with an Image
It must be a powerful image. This act establishes location and era but it draws the reader or viewer in and entices them to keep reading or watching, even before the story really gets going.
Act 2: Something Bad Happens
Pretty self-explanatory. It’s the inciting incident from Robert McKee’s structure. And it happens fast. It’s conflict. And the story never looks back from here.
Act 3: Meet the Hero
The hero is revealed. And so are all the other characters, including friends, love interests, relatives, villains, sidekicks and everybody else. As well as revealing the people, it also reveals how they all interact with each other.
Act 4: Commitment
The hero commits to a goal to make right the something bad that happened in Act 2.
Act 5: Go for the Wrong Goal
After committing and making that attempt to set everything right, the hero realises it is the wrong goal. This is the point at which it seems that the villain might actually win and the hero might actually lose.
Act 6: The Reversal
After a rethink, the hero sets a new goal after finding the final pieces of the puzzle that were missing, learning what it was actually going to take to get the job done.
Act 7: Go for the New Goal
The hero does what has to be done and wins but usually at a cost. Not even in Disney stories does anyone actually end up with only a happy ending. Besides, how would we ever learn anything if we didn’t get what we need, rather than what we want?
Act 8: Wrap It Up
Tie up the loose ends and send the reader or audience on their way in a frame of mind that keeps them thinking about the story long after it has ended. Short, sweet and to the point.
The Dramatica Theory
The Dramatica Theory is encapsulated in a 350-page book, which is available online here for free. If you don’t want to commit to such a lengthy book without a little more info, it encompasses five key parts to story as follows.
The Story Mind
The initial concept that infiltrates the entire theory is that every story is a model of the mind’s problem solving process. By exploring all possible solutions to whatever issue the story is presenting and convincing the audience that the chosen solution is best, the story comes together.
If you leave out a part of the argument or get off track, the story will have plot holes or inconsistencies but if you’ve covered all angles, you’ll have a complete story.
The Overall Story Throughline
The rest of the theory is the four throughlines. The overall story throughline is the big picture.
The Main Character Throughline
The main character throughline is the perspective of the main character, someone the readers identify with. In comparison to the overall story throughline, it is the small picture.
The Influence Character Throughline
The influence character has a small picture perspective that is different to the main character. More often than not, the influence character is not the villain, just the annoying character that frequently and persistently tells the main character that it can’t be done or they’re going about it in the wrong way and their way is better.
But the influence character is crucial because as explained in the story mind, all sides of the argument must be presented to have a complete story.
The Relationship Throughline
The relationship throughline is the main character and the influence character closing in on each other in a theatrical game of “chicken”. One insists the other get out of the way. The other refuses to get out of the way and insists on a change of course instead. Eventually, of course, someone gets the upper hand, the big picture is complete and the problem is solved.
I don’t ascribe to any or all of these theories but I have in the past used them as tools when I’m stuck on my latest writing project and wondering if structural models can help explain why.
*First published in Project December: A Book about Writing