Something happens. What happens launches the film (or story). It could be an explosion, a murder, a bet, an accident, an invasion, a strange occurrence, a mystery, two people meet, getting fired, getting hired, divorce, marriage, declaration of war, press conference, award ceremony, a race, a crime, a bust, an accusation, a threat, a natural disaster, a decision.
Phenomenon, with John Travolta, aptly illustrates how "what happens" or "what happens next" does not necessarily have to be logical. The movie is a true test of the suspension of disbelief. Travolta walks out onto the street at night and is suddenly struck by a beam of light that... came out of nowhere. What happens next is that suddenly he finds himself with vast intelligence and a phenomenal power to learn at lightning speed.
It is a life-changing event. Once the event occurs or a choice is made, the next important thing is what happens next. The stakes are raised. Something greater or worse is going to happen. There is no going back. The character(s) will change.
The inciting incident sets the stage for the final climax. Usually the final climax occurs when the protagonist is out of options, beaten down, or even near death. This is a major turning point. It’s when the hero gets or loses the desired goal. The inciting incident placed the protagonist in conflict, the final climax resolves that conflict.
The inciting incident creates tension, stress, anxiety, fear, or suspense. The final climax brings resolution, usually a happy one: boy wins girl (race or war), world gets saved, monster is killed, killer is caught, mystery is solved, lost person is found.
There are several definitions of what a plot is:
- What happens and what happens next.
- A progression of events that lead to a climax.
- An unfolding of events that tell a story.
- A series of events with unexpected twists and turns.
- A series of events that build suspense.
- One thing leads to another.
- A plot is a sequence of events, actions and decisions that happen within a context and within a set period of time.
- A plot lays out a blueprint showing how a character moves from one scene to another.
- A plot can also be viewed as a sequence of scenes, however not every scene is a plot point.
- A plot lays out the obstacles a character must overcome to reach a desired goal.
- A plot builds: Obstacles build, conflict builds, suspense builds, and anticipation builds.
- A plot consists of a series of smaller conflicts that build to a major climax or crisis (the resolution of the main conflict).
In most stories, the plot builds to a final climax, usually where the protagonist is at his/her lowest point. Overcoming the major and final obstacle is what determines the stories outcome and resolution. A character becomes increasingly determined as the plot builds, giving it his/her all at the final moment of win or lose.
A story maintains a focus. It could be a slice of life, a slice of history or a slice of time. For instance, telling the entire story of a person’s life must be captured all within a 2-hour movie. Consequently, choices must be made as to what to leave in and what to leave out, what to condense and what gets left to the imagination.
There is a time lock in many stories: 48 hours to catch a killer before they kill again, destroy the meteorite before it hits earth, stop a lover from marrying the wrong person. And of course, a ticking bomb. The plot lays out what happens and what happens next within a time frame.
A good plot reveals character (characters make choices). The plot builds by the character overcoming obstacles and conflicts leading to a climax followed by a resolution. Tension steadily increases. Suspense builds. The audience is taken on a journey. The journey is a character moving through time and space.
A plot is a series of choices a character makes which ultimately determine the outcome of the story, i.e., reaching a desired goal (or failing to do so if the writer chooses not to have a happy ending).
The structure of a screenplay follows pivotal points in the plot’s development (using the 3-act structure):
- Set up location and tone, let audience know what is currently happening
- Introduce the hero (protagonist), learn about the hero’s goal
- Hero reacts to inciting incident (something new happens producing conflict)
- Introduce the antagonist, learn the antagonist’s goal
- Provide a turning point (change of plans)
- Layout a series of increasingly complex and intense obstacles to overcome (stakes get higher)
- provide a turning point at the end of Act 2--take the hero to the lowest point leading to a crisis
- Solve the crisis in a final climax (the resolution) and show how the character has changed.
- Ask the Expert: The Birth of your First Draft
- The Five Ws
- Storytelling Strategies: Argo and Recapitulation
- More Storytelling Strategies by Paul Joseph Gulino
- Meet the Reader: The Real Rules of Screenwriting
Tools to Help: