Plot: Step Two

After you’ve got a clear goal, this is the fun part…

One of the reasons I used Jackie Chan for my opening pictures last post was because his action scenes are well plotted.

Does that sound strange? They’re not just punching and kicking (although the punching and kicking is AMAZING). Jackie always uses the environment he’s in, both to create obstacles and to overcome them.

Count how many elements from a classic wild west bar he interacts with in this scene from Shanghai Noon.

I think I got eleven.

In writing for animation, these kinds of obstacles can be called gags. To build the scene, think about the characters and the setting. What properties are inherent? How can they be turned into obstacles and opportunities?

Check out what Tweety and Sylvester can do with a hotel.

I chose that one because it’s short. Virtually every classic cartoon can be used as an example. Bugs Bunny, Tom & Jerry, Donald Duck, etc.

What if your story is more about feelings than action?

Your plot will follow the same rules. What kind of characters do you have? Are they shy? What could make being shy more difficult? Are your young lovers on a first date at an amusement park? How could that setting enhance and then interrupt romance?

Your choices don’t have to be complex. Watch these kids try to eat their lunch in peace, while the other one tries to entertain himself.

Voila: tension, character development, and plot!

Plot: Step One

Lately I’ve been talking to a lot of writers who say they’re good at writing atmosphere, but don’t know how to write plot. They say they don’t even know where to start.

The basis of most plots is

1) Somebody wants something

2) They have obstacles

Jackie will keep the vases safe!

Oh no! People are trying to break the vases!

There are a lot of ways to make that more complicated (and more fun) but most of the writers I see struggling to make plot are struggling with step one.

In a lot of literary fiction, characters feel lost. They drift without having clear goals. This is intentional. It’s aiming to mirror the way people often feel in life. Most of the time, people don’t really know what they want.

But they at least have an idea. Lost in Translation is often held up as the artsy-feeling movie with no plot, but look at the tag on the poster. It still uses the word “want”: “Everyone wants to be found”.

Even without a clearly stated goal, characters can still have a desire for something. They might not be able to articulate it, and there might be more than one thing, but it’s there. Often it’s helpful to give them symbols.

Paradise Falls, from Up.

This is kind of like a MacGuffin, except according to Hitchcock’s definition a MacGuffin is supposed to have no meaning. I find it a waste to have anything in the book that has no meaning. So I think the MacGuffin should always DO something or at least make people THINK ABOUT something.

The Pulp Fiction suitcase doesn’t exert influence on the plot. Nothing happens because of the suitcase. We don’t even really know what it is. It’s the characters who cause action.

In contrast, the Green Destiny (the sword from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) does change the course of the story.

To reiterate: your character should have something that they’re trying to move towards. Now, to complicate, to mirror life’s uncertainties, maybe they should have another thing they want to move towards that takes them in the opposite direction.

Because, you know, choices.

Carl from Up, choosing between obligations to Russell and Ellie, symbolized by the sash and the chair.

Now that they want something, it’s time to put obstacles in their way! Next post continues onto plot, step two.