Plot: Strengthen Weak Or Unfocused Plots
Adapted from Writers Workshop Script Doctor
Copyright © 1994, 1997, 1998, Dorian Scott Cole
The plot takes you there
The second most frequent problem I see as a critic is deficient plotting. Imagine you are about to walk through a mountain park. You find a trail, but don't know where it goes. You get on the trail and soon see the trail branch off in three directions, but with no indication which trail is the right one. You explore two and find they are dead ends. You take the third and it brings you back where you started. Big deal, huh? Many stories do the same.
Now, imagine you are in a park and you and a friend pass a refreshment stand and are tantalized by the smell of food. You decide to have a picnic. You set out for the picnic area, following the signs. A well marked trail takes you in the right direction, and several loop trails take you past interesting sights on the way. You get to the picnic area having enjoyed several views. This is the way stories should work.
In a story, as on a trail, you see what propels the story (tantalized by food), you move toward a goal (picnic area), the plot takes you there (well marked trail), and the plot and subplots keep you interested on the way (trail and side trails). When any of these elements is missing, audience attention is missing.
A plot can be weak for many reasons. It could be weak because of a missing element. At the end of this section on structure is a guide to all the elements that go into building a powerful storyline (Five Power Points in Stories). But what happens if you remove one element? The plot becomes weak, unfocused, or wanders. For example, what if the people at the park were never tantalized by food at the refreshment stand? They would have much less desire to go anywhere specific. They might wander through the park, eventually ending up at the picnic area. They might wander the trails until dusk. Their day would have no focus. Something must happen to trigger their motivation to reach the picnic area, propelling the story onto the right trail.
You have begun writing a story about a middle class woman who robs a bank. The story is all about planning the robbery, committing the felony, and spending the money. Will people enjoy the story? Adventure stories work well, but probably not this one. Why? Because several things are missing that gain audience interest. What triggers the robbery? She walked by the bank and smelled money? Very weak plot. She needed a new car? Too weak to make a middle class woman rob a bank. Her house was repossessed? There are better solutions.
A stronger plot might begin with her son in a coma in a hospital. They can't get good medical care without medical insurance, and her husband lost his job two months ago because he is in jail for throwing their son out the window. She has no money to pay a good lawyer, and canít convince the prosecutor that their son was setting their rented home on fire, and her husband was throwing him into the swimming pool to put out the flames. Desperate for money and stung doubly by the system, her mind turns to robbery. She has a goal to reach: saving her husband and son. Add subplots about why her husband lost his job and why her son wants to burn down the house, and you have a promising story.
The strength of the plot is directly tied to character motivation. Smelling money, needing a car, and the threat of having a house repossessed aren't strong enough to make most people rob a bank. Remedy: Make the stakes high enough to motivate the character.
Plots wander when the character doesn't know where she is going. Early in the story she needs to decide exactly what she is after. If she needs money for medical and defense expenses, no one wants to follow a long winding path about the expenses involved and all the possible ways to get the money. She needs to find out right away how much money she needs and that she doesn't have any legal way to get it and get right to planning the bank robbery. Remedy: Move the decision point to the first twenty to thirty pages, make it clear what the character is after, and put her hot on the trail to getting it.
How long can we watch a pleasant walk in the park? Back to the trail analogy, if the goal is to reach the picnic area and it is only a pleasant walk to get there, how interesting is it? But what if the path disappears? What if a sudden shower turns the dirt path to mud? What if the bridge has fallen? Now to reach the goal, you have to conquer these obstacles. A plot might be weak because there are no relevant obstacles to conquer and they don't get harder as you get nearer the goal. Plots are usually devised so that tension rises as things get more and more impossible. Remedy: Arrange your plot so your character is faced with increasing difficulty the closer she gets to the goal.