This post on plot structure continues from the one on Writing a Novel: the First and Second Draft where one of the points to check at the 2nd draft stage was how your plot points sat relative to a plot structure template. A template makes sure that your plot points come at the right time to keep the reader interested. I use the 6 points of story structure by Michael Hauge and, using sticky notes for the events, I make changes in the order of events or the time given to some events so that the major changes, challenges and opportunities fall at the best place.
This is the work in progress for the timeline for Dispossessed.
And here’s Mani Moon sitting on the finished template for The Magan Illusionist, a story I laid out several years ago but haven’t actually written – apart from the first few pages, which happen to be great, so maybe I will complete it one day. But moving on to the meat of this post …
The Six Stages of Plot Structure
STAGE I: The Setup
The opening 10% of your story must draw the reader into the story setting, reveal the everyday life your hero has been living, and establish identification with your hero by making her sympathetic, threatened, likable, funny and/or powerful.
TURNING POINT #1: The Opportunity (10%)
Ten percent of the way in, your hero must be presented with an opportunity which will create a new visible desire and will start the character on her journey. The desire created by the opportunity is not the specific goal that defines your story concept, but rather a desire to move into stage 2
STAGE 2: The New Situation
For the next 15% of the story, your hero will react to the new situation that resulted from the opportunity. She gets acclimated to the new surroundings, tries to figure out what’s going on, or formulates a specific plan for accomplishing her overall goal.
Very often story structure follows geography as the opportunity takes your hero to a new location: e.g., boarding the cruise ship in Titanic.
In most movies, the hero enters this new situation willingly, often with a feeling of excitement and anticipation, or at least believing that the new problem she faces can be easily solved. But as the conflict starts to build, she begins to realize she’s up against far greater obstacles than she’d realized, until finally she comes to
TURNING POINT #2: The Change of Plans (25%)
Something must happen to your hero one-fourth of the way through your screenplay that will transform the original desire into a specific, visible goal with a clearly defined end point. This is the scene where your story concept is defined, and your hero’s outer motivation is revealed. That’s the visible finish line the audience is rooting for your hero to achieve by the end of the story.
Don’t confuse outer motivation with the inner journey your hero takes. Because much of what we respond to emotionally grows out of the hero’s longings, wounds, fears, courage and growth, we often focus on these elements as we develop our stories. But these invisible character components can emerge effectively only if they grow out of a simple, visible desire.
STAGE III: Progress
For the next 25% of your story, your hero’s plan seems to be working as she takes action to achieve her goal. This is not to say that this stage is without conflict. But whatever obstacles your hero faces, she is able to avoid or overcome them as she approaches…
TURNING POINT #3: The Point of No Return (50%)
At the exact midpoint of your story, your hero must fully commit to her goal. Up to this point, she had the option of turning back, giving up on her plan, and returning to the life she was living at the beginning of the film. But now your hero must burn her bridges behind her and put both feet in. They are taking a much bigger risk than at any previous time, and as a result of passing this point of no return, they must now face …
STAGE IV: Complications and Higher Stakes
For the next 25% of your story, achieving the visible goal becomes far more difficult, and your hero has much more to lose if she fails.
This conflict continues to build until, just as it seems that success is within your hero’s grasp, she suffers…
TURNING POINT #4: The Major Setback (75%)
Something must happen to your hero that makes it seem to the audience that all is lost: These disastrous events leave your hero with only one option: she must make one, last, all-or-nothing, do-or-die effort as she enters …
STAGE V: The Final Push
Beaten and battered, your hero must now risk everything she has, and give every ounce of strength and courage she possesses, to achieve her ultimate goal: During this stage of your script, the conflict is overwhelming, the pace has accelerated, and everything works against your hero, until she reaches …
TURNING POINT #5: The Climax (90-99%)
Several things must occur at the climax of the story: the hero must face the biggest obstacle of the entire story; she must determine her own fate; and the outer motivation must be resolved once and for all. The climax can occur anywhere from the 90% point to the last few pages of the story. The exact placement will be determined by the amount of time you need for …
STAGE VI: The Aftermath
Here, you reveal the new life your hero is living now that she’s completed her journey. If you want to leave your reader stunned or elated, the climax will occurs near the very end of the manuscript. But in most romantic comedies, mysteries and dramas, the aftermath will include the final five or ten pages.
Authors, do you use a timeline template to lay out your plot? If so is it similar to this one? And at what stage do you do it?
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