Saturday, August 1, 2009

Plotting in Storytelling

By Alex Jenson

The screenwriter William Goldman said "Nobody knows anything."

It's a bold and beautiful statement in regard to the writing process. There are no rules. And if there are no rules, why on earth would anyone want to write about the writing process? If there are no rules, what is the point in scripting an article such as this one?

I hope to provide an answer shortly.

What is a plot?

A story is what happened.

A plot tells you how it happened, point by point, twist by turn.


If we have a story then why do we need a plot?

Because the plot is basically part of the structure of the piece you are writing. Imagine you are building a house. The plot is like the points of strength and reinforcement in the construction.

You can't just throw up a load of bricks and timber and expect to have a finished house that will last. You have to organize the structure in a careful, logical way, piece by piece, to ensure there is unity and good weight distribution. This same principle applies to the plot of your story - You need load points and cornerstones in your structure to hold the whole thing together.

In answer to the question I first posed in the article - Yes, there are no rules, but that does not mean you cannot CREATE YOUR OWN.

There are classic examples in literature where the structure and plot is fairly loose - 'On the Road' by Kerouac has, in my opinion, no real plot points or classical structure and it illustrates the fact that you can write without any firm regard to either.

My above points regarding plot and structure illustrate that there are vague principles of storytelling (not rules), but of course you are not bound to abide by them. However in order to bypass them you first have to know about them.

Once you understand what plot and structure is - some writers might disagree with this - I believe they are they same thing. When you understand what plot/structure is all about, the more confidence you will have in your writing.

It will become second nature to you, and after many years of practicing your writing, you will be able to write a story INTUITIVELY, without worrying about whether your story has all the right mixture of elements. You will know, and knowing gives you the power to focus on more important aspects of your work, like the quality of the writing and dialogue.

3. Plot and premise
If you have a strong premise, your plot can still be weak. My favorite film is Blade Runner - it has a great premise and a very loose plot. When your story ideas are strong and engaging, the plot can become a secondary factor. I believe this applies more to literature than screenplay writing - it is far harder to get away with on the big screen, where immediacy is everything and the audience is accustomed to the usual twists and turns of the Hollywood narrative.

4. Execution
The plot is the execution of your original idea, but if that original idea is strong and engaging, then your plot can almost be an afterthought. Think of the worst book you ever read. What was bad about it? It was probably badly written, lifeless and unbelievable. What if it was brilliantly written, three dimensional and still unbelievable? Would its unbelievably matter as much? I doubt it.

People want to experience the joys a vivid imagination. They will suspend their disbelief for you, if you give them something fresh and inventive.


1. Plot and structure are the same thing.
2. Once you know about plot, you are free to do what you want with it.
3. Premise is far more important than plot.
4. Inventive, engaging writing is the priority. Plot is secondary.
5. Practice writing and read about writing. Eventually you will be able to write a story INTUITIVELY.

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