Trouble with Your Story? You Might Remember this Grade School Lesson

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Mark Mainolfi has a Bachelor’s degree in English and Creative Writing, and is currently pursuing his Master’s degree in TV Writing and Producing at Long Island University.

So you want to write a story. Maybe you know the whole thing, or maybe you’ve just been hit by sudden inspiration. Personally, I get excited for a story by writing a scene that I really want to, or making dialogue for a character I’m inspired to create. It used to be the hardest part when I first started writing, and when I asked my beginner writing workshop professor how to go about it, she wasn’t really able to give me an answer.

So, assuming you’re inspired, you now have to turn it into an exciting plot. For this, I’m going to turn to a lesson that’s been rammed into my face during every single year of grade school, middle school, and high school. It’s a plot diagram, and it looks like this:

It’s amazing that for twelve years english teachers have made me create these things, and it took until college for me to figure out for myself how it can be an effective tool for writing a story. Hopefully, this article will make you feel less miserable about the time you’ve been forced to pay attention to this unrelenting English lesson.

At its core, a story is a character overcoming an obstacle, in pursuit of a goal. This is something that my current writing teacher, Bill Rabkin, likes to constantly remind me. So the first thing you need to do is figure out a character, an obstacle, and a goal. You now have an introduction (to your character) to use at the beginning of your diagram (called exposition in this one), an obstacle to put at the diagram’s peak, and a goal to go at the end. We’re off to a good start.

Next thing to do is to add a bunch of points onto the line connecting the introduction to the climax. What should these points be? The easiest way to put it-- they are points of change. Each point on this segment should accomplish at least one of two goals:
1.) Change or add characters, obstacles, or goals to make them more entertaining or important
2.) Create additional stakes to raise the drama of the climax

If we were writing traditional prose stories, I would talk about scene vs. summary. I would say that scenes are the points of change on the upswing of the diagram, and summary are the lines that are connecting them. But we’re writing screenplays, so everything is scene! If you need summary, you can cleverly weave it into the dialogue, or use more overt techniques like narration or montages. In any case, let’s go on to talk about the two purposes of these scenes in more depth.

Some of the most interesting stories are ones that have dramatic changes in their fundamental components (character, obstacle, and goal). The most profound and celebrated example of this that comes to mind is the story for the videogame “Batman: Arkham City” (videogame stories can end up being some of the best ones). SPOILER ALERT for this game! The fundamentals of the beginning are: Bruce Wayne overcoming the establishment of an immoral criminal facility, in pursuit of a way to save Gotham City and safely incarcerate the criminals. By the end it’s : Batman, overcoming an evil genius under the control of a secret global terrorist organization, in pursuit of ending the bombings of criminals and innocent civilians, as well as finding a cure for the terminal disease that has been spread throughout the city. The point is, this game has a few very important points of change in the rising action that change the story’s fundamentals. Scenes for this purpose should change or grow the main character, change the obstacle he’s facing, or give the main character a new goal. Each change makes the fundamentals more exciting and important.

Purpose #2 is about bolstering the climax. You may find that your original obstacle for the story is no longer the most important one. You may look at all your obstacles and decide to make the peak of your diagram somewhere else (and then you’ll have to rework it to balance the story back out). Once you have your climax, you need to make sure it’s important… like REALLY important. This is the thing that your audience is going to walk away remembering. The more important your climax, the more important your story. You do this by adding stakes.

So what are stakes? These are the things that overcoming the obstacle depends on. It can be saving the love of the main character’s life, it can be saving a city from getting bombed, or it can be your character getting rich. Whatever it is, it needs to be something completely dependent on the climax. Make sure you have a healthy handful of stakes, so that your climax is that much more impactful.

We have the introduction of our character (and most likely the exposition of the obstacle and goal soon after), the points of change, and the climax, so all we have left is the conclusion. Honestly, this should basically write itself. My personal writing style is to spend more time on this than most. I feel that I owe it to my audience to allow them to bask in the consequences, whether negative or positive, of the climax. Even if you don’t want to give much time to this part, this is usually a good place to hit home the importance of your story. Show how the character has changed, reflect on the obstacles, and savor the attainment of the goal. Figure out what you want your audience to learn from your story.

So that’s it, the whole plot diagram hopefully explained in a way to be helpful in writing stories. Perhaps you were luckier than me and had an english teacher who could explain this to you. If not, then I hope it makes a lot more sense now.