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Plot

Introduction

This page describes checklists and other tables that I use to flesh out and refine plot-based elements of my stories. For an overview of these and other resources, including general usage and warnings, see here.

Usage

I distinguish between a plot and a story. A story almost always contains multiple plots; ie, plot and sub-plots, action line and relationship line (Aronson 2001), etc. The checklists in this section pertain to a single plot line. Separate checklists need to be completed for every plot line in the story (you can abbreviate the detail for minor plots). The pages on Timeline and Story Structure describe how to interweave the plots.

Structurally, these checklists assume the classical three-act form. Variations and alternatives to that structure are described in Aronson 2001.

Consider having a sub-plot for each main character.

Treat each flash-back (or series of flash-backs) as a (sub-)plot in its own right.

General

Plot ID
Plot Title
Genre
Lead character
Question: ‘What if…?’
Theme (literal)
Conflict (briefly; details in Basis of Conflict)
Main crisis:
  • description
  • Is crisis appropriate for genre?
  • Does crisis stuff up char’s life?
  • Does crisis capture reader’s imagination?
Theme (underlying). To facilitate action and hence plot, try to express in active terms; eg, ‘judging a book by its cover leads to…’.
Theme applicability to readers
Key value change in character
Cause of key value change
Crucible?
What does the problem/situation reveal about character?
What does the way that the problem/situation is dealt with reveal about character?

Basis Of Conflict

ProtagonistAntagonist
Character
Initial unsatisfied desire/need
Goal
Is goal about possession or relief?
Are consequences substantial if unattained?
Goal deadline (if a ‘crisis’)
Is goal voluntary (ie, a ‘challenge’)?
Motivation for char to pursue this goal?
Is motivation laudable?
Is motivation too clichéd?
Problem in achieving goal
Is failure a distinct possibility?
If romance:
  • internal conflict:
  • external conflict:

Relationship with Main Plot

(Applicable to sub-plots only.)

How sub-plot supports main plot by echoing it: variations on a theme
How sub-plot complicates main plot (eg, adding antagonism/tension/conflict)
How sub-plot contradicts main plot (ie, sends opposite message)
Sub-plot is not over-emphasised, such that its protagonist eclipses main plot’s protagonist

Act I: The Problem

Content

EventSynposisCharactersSettingNarrative TensionPacing
Action (hook). May be inciting/precipitating incident. Usually involves a character, but may be a situation.
Char (protagonist + ?) background
Establish ordinary world
Protagonist meets other characters, probably including antagonist and mentor
Introduce main problem, and why it belongs to protagonist. Provide only essential info initially; flesh out when required subsequently.
Climax (incl. surprise): use confrontation tables for details

Checklist

Action (hook):
  • piques curiosity (ie, poses narrative tension question)
  • engages emotions
  • foreshadows story ending
Climax:
  • represents a major value change; ie, major reversal, unbalances protagonist’s life
  • should be inciting incident for plot (if not used as the initial hook)
Settings are consistent with atmosphere
All relevant character attribute revelation/development events have been included (and back-referenced to here).
Character attributes required to make this work have been identified and included here (back-referenced to this plot-act-stage).

Act II: Development

Content

Act II basically consists of a series of ‘stages’. Each stage represents an attempt by the protagonist to achieve something related to the plot goal. There should be complications; eg, due to the machinations of the antagonist(s).

For each stage, complete a set of the confrontation tables.

Checklist

This checklist is for Act II overall. Each stage has its own checklist in the corresponding confrontation table.

Motivation may be revealed progressively; ie, after some events they’ve motivated
Problem is resolved slowly; ie, there are sufficient complications
Problem becomes progressively more difficult (ie, more/harder complications)
Plot complications are non-linear (eg, not a case of find this then this then this; or, go here then here then here, etc)
There is an underlying logic linking all plot complications, which is exposed at the right time
Protagonist’s solution to original problem progressively unravels
Each stage moves plot/sub-plot closer to resolution
Final complication (stage) results in apparent destruction of protagonist’s plan (and possibly protagonist as well)

Act III: Resolution

Content

Complete a set of the confrontation tables for the confrontation that finally resolves the conflict and achieves the plot’s goal (to the extent that it is achieved).

Checklist

This checklist is in addition to the checklist in Act III’s confrontation tables.

Confrontation (see Act III confrontation tables): (maybe) this is the first time that the protagonist has confronted the problem directly
Act III crisis (ie, dilemma in Act III confrontation tables):
  • must be protagonist’s ultimate dilemma (for this plot); ie, has highest stakes; involves most important value
  • must reflect inciting incident
Decision(s) (see Act III confrontation tables):
  • (Maybe) an event/person (eg, mentor) triggers protagonist’s realisation of what needs to be done
  • (Maybe) protagonist realises that he/she is the problem, and therefore the solution (cf. protagonist’s change, below)
Outcomes (Act III confrontation tables):
  • (Maybe) surprise/twist; eg, protagonist wins, but not in the expected way
  • protagonist learns/achieves/obtains something
  • (Maybe) irony (eg, something gained, something lost)
  • Protagonist’s change is absolute and irreversible; transformational
  • Protagonist’s change was meaningful (ie, earnt through conflict rather than coincidence), and hence emotional
  • Consequences include broader changes; eg, how other characters are affected
  • Consequences could include test of lesson learnt
Understanding (in Act III confrontation tables) may include moral lesson

Confrontation

One set of these tables should be used for the main confrontations in each act (typically, Act I climax, Act II developments, and Act III climax).

Content

Act and stage ID
Synopsis
Characters
Character(s) goal(s)
Setting (refer to relevant setting ID)
What causes this development? State reason and/or character, and link to predecessor changes.
Narrative tension question dealt with during this act/stage
Relationships
Misunderstanding (optional)
Tension
Crucible (optional)
Prior to confrontation:
  • characters’ conflicting motivations/desires
  • characters’ feelings/emotions
  • characters’ conscious thoughts
  • characters’ subconscious thoughts
Confrontation
Post-confrontation emotions
Dilemma options
Dilemma emotions
Decision(s)—or indecision. Also those of adversaries. Predictability gap (ie, protagonist tries to reach goal assuming world is predictable, whereas antagonist tries to make protagonist’s world unpredictable).
Action(s)/revelation(s). A scene can only be ‘turned’ via action or revelation.
Outcomes:
  • character(s) goal(s) achieved or not
  • responses
  • consequences
  • value/attribute changes (on all relevant characters). Can let (foreshadowed) surprising things happen (eg, comedy).
Bigger problem noticed (essential if goal achieved, unless at end of plot)
Surprise (if any). Consider surprises at end of Act I, middle and end of Act II, and Act III. A surprise is an unexpected failure, event, info or action that makes things much worse.
After confrontation:
Understanding
Narrative tension question posed at end of this act/stage (except for final confrontation)

Style

What pacing is appropriate? Consider:
  • level of conflict/relaxation
  • level of plot twist

Checklist

Setting is consistent with atmosphere
Use of ways to make victim and tormentor more memorable, and create emotion:
  • suffering (emotional/physical) (warning: can make victim seem weak, hence disdained; show effects, not gore)
  • sacrifice (arises from accidental imposition of suffering)
  • jeopardy (emphasises stalker, saviour and prey; to be credible, may need to demonstrate)
  • sexual tension
Saviour (if used) can appear to be meddling, especially with emotional suffering. Saviour should be reluctant or asked to intervene.
Decision(s) are consistent with character’s nature), or are motivated and explained (cf. foreshadowing for Decision(s) and Action(s))
Decisions balance risk and benefit
Decisions don’t make character Too Stupid To Live
Character(s) attribute(s) revealed (especially by decision(s))? Link to character attribute tables.
Are changes (ie, outcomes) the result of conflict (ie, meaningful) or coincidence (ie, futility)?
Are changes (ie, outcomes) sometimes bad for characters?
Character(s)’ development is progressed (probably via change(s); ie, outcomes)?
How is character(s)’ development (above) achieved?
Required foreshadowing: describe, and specify plot and stage ID in which the foreshadowing is provided. Consider:
  • background to situation
  • people’s/world’s responses (ie, outcomes), if surprising
  • other
Sequencing issues regarding dovetailing with other plots (eg, prerequisites, pacing)
Character attributes required to make this work have been identified and included in character attribute tables (back-referenced to this plot stage)
All relevant character attribute revelation/development events have been included (and cross-referenced to the character attribute tables)

Sources

The list of sources from which the information in these tables was derived is here.