Tag Archives: Dramatic Structure

Writer, don’t lose the plot!

“The essential foundation of all good storytelling.”

THE first six sessions of Write, Regardless! are about establishing an online social media platform, something all writers need to be doing for ourselves long before we start the process of publishing our books. Think of it this way… once you’ve got the regular selling process in place, it leaves you more time and energy to focus on regularly creating. To that end, we’ll start looking in more detail at the writing process, beginning with what I believe to be the essential foundation of all good storytelling: effective plotting.

Dig away at your plot

Every writer plots differently, but plotting a story is never executed just once or in isolation, it tends to evolve throughout the process of putting a title together. This article is something you’ll probably need to dip into across the writing of your work in order to stay on course with your plot.

Plotting a first draft

I am often asked if it’s possible to plot well in a first draft, and whether writers can keep track of where we are in our unfolding plots. The short answer is that I am a great advocate for belting out a first draft without focussing too much on plot. See where the inspiration takes you. There is a payoff for this rule-free ‘luxury’, however, which is that eventually we have to get tough on our plots in order to shape subsequent drafts. Having said that, the more we write, the more we become capable of shaping a plot in a first draft.

“This is your chance to make your work engaging and entertaining.”

Second draft and beyond

There’s no excuse for neglecting a tough plot analysis while executing your second and subsequent drafts. This is your chance to make your work engaging and entertaining. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that some literary fairy godmother is going to magically appear and make your first draft perfect. Submitting an incomplete, unworked manuscript is the height of writerly laziness and nobody in the publishing trade is paid to make your raw draft into a workable book. That’s your job. Luckily, there are tools to help.

Bite-sized plot structure

Depending on what genre and format you’re writing, there is more than one way to plot a story. The archetypal five-act plot is the classic structure for novels and can be applied to long-form non-fiction. The archetypal three-act plot is commonly applied to screenplays and plays, although it’s really a truncated form of the five-act plot. Remember, these are a plot’s starting points. The rules are not there to break (if you want to entertain readers/viewers) but rather to bend. Your ability to be flexible with the rules is what will make your writing original.

Perfect plot points

Drilling deeper into plot structure will expose more detail on precise moments that heighten the experience for readers/viewers, such as the narrative hook, the call to action, and the point of no return. Don’t complete a second or subsequent draft of your books/scripts without them.

Fighting the ‘formula’

I’ve had many animated discussions with writers who don’t believe in structured plots. I am not here to convince anyone of the need to plot their stories, but I do know that a joke has a formulaic structure (set-up, punchline) and a ghost story by a campfire has one too. Try telling such stories without sticking to tried and true plot structure will leave the teller looking as though they have no sense of humour. We all anticipate a punchline in a joke, and we know a ghost story has a chilling moment ahead, yet we submit to the formula without question. Plotting a novel or screenplay is no different, in fact these writing formats require more conscious plotting, since they are longer and fall further from the formula, especially if we seek to be original.

ALAS, POOR HAMLET Often used as an excuse for missing plots. Laurence Olivier as the Prince of Denmark in the 1948 film.
ALAS, POOR HAMLET Often used as an excuse for missing plots. Laurence Olivier as the Prince of Denmark in the 1948 film.

The Hamlet argument

Many plotting naysayers pull the Hamlet card, suggesting the Prince of Denmark’s “To be, or not to be” speech by William Shakespeare is literature’s greatest example of a character in some fascinating kind of stasis that gives all writers an excuse to avoid plotting better stories. While it’s true Hamlet works himself into a state of not knowing what to do, his famous monologue is actually almost halfway through Shakespeare’s plot. The play opens with the unlikeliest of events – the purported appearance of a ghost on the ramparts of Elsinore, and on the basis of what may be an hallucination, the hero drives the action through several major plot points before he pauses, thinks, and wonders if it might be better to die than go on. Sorry, plotting naysayers, Hamlet is not your trump card, nor is Waiting for Godot. Great stories have plots.

Create battles

When I get into a plot funk, I use a handy device to cut the crap and uncover what needs fixing by finding the ‘battle’ in my story. All journeys of protagonists (‘heroes’) and antagonists (‘villains’) involve conflict between the two. They get in each other’s way. I believe writers’ reticence to structure these conflicts is the greatest obstacle to good plotting. Name your hero and villain, and let them do battle. If you miss this fundamental core, you’ll have no plot.

When plotting and marketing combine

Rare is the writer who has not fantasised about our work in its finished form, imagining our books on shop shelves, complete with our ideas for titles and covers. This daydreaming can be an absolute writing killer, but there is a way to spin it into plotting gold… although my advice would be to try this process only when your first draft is done.

Try it on for size

If you can’t tell someone what your story is about, it’s probably not well plotted. When you have a first draft, try writing a blurb of your work. If this is hard work, it will show you where your plot is weak. If you don’t know who to focus the blurb on, it’s likely you don’t yet know who your protagonist is. Not being able to create an interesting blurb for a manuscript is a sure sign it is not well-plotted.

Synopsis vs blurb

When you’re approaching the point of submitting a manuscript to a publisher or a literary agent, or you’re preparing to independently publish your work, you will need to create either a synopsis or a blurb of your title. A common trap for writers at this stage is to conflate a synopsis (an abridged version of a title allowing a quick analysis of its entire contents, including all plot points) and a blurb (a promotional ‘taster’ of the work which holds plot points back to generate interest). Writers need to reveal all plot points in a synopsis sent to prospective publishers and agents – let them in on your story’s mysteries. Independent publishers need to entice readers by holding back some plot points (particularly our story’s outcomes) when creating blurbs.

Case studies

During my research on the plotting process, I put a few well-known plots through their paces. Because the stories were not mine, the once-removed quality of the analysis made it easier, and I advise all writers to analyse the plots of their favourite books and scripts. Here are my plot examinations of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and The Sum of Us, both works of fiction, and A Cry in Dark, a non-fiction screenplay. Try your own plot analysis as a way to grow familiar with the way stories are structured.

WRITE REGARDLESSRecap

Structuring an engaging story by building a great plot is not something that magically happens in the editing process. It takes an understanding of storytelling that should be second nature to good writers. But have no fear, good plotting can be learned if you’re prepared to be tough on yourself.

An extract from Write, Regardless!

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

A dingo took the story

DESERT CHAMELEON Meryl Streep as Lindy Chamberlain in 'A Cry in the Dark' (Photograph by Vivian Zink).
‘DINGO BABY’ Meryl Streep as Lindy Chamberlain in ‘A Cry in the Dark’ (Photos by Vivian Zink).

Can a real-life story be plotted into a dramatic arc?

THE hardest form of plotting is the real-life story. Remember when James Cameron made you forget the Titanic was going to sink? Like or love his movie, Cameron’s masterstroke of ‘real-life’ storytelling created a new benchmark, but his love story also bent the ‘real life rule’ quite a bit by using fictitious characters within a real-life story.

The reason real life is the hardest form of fiction should be obvious – life does not slot easily into a three- or five-act dramatic arc. Producers and publishers don’t like real life – it’s never fast or entertaining enough to put bums on seats, it’s way too random, and it usually needs a bit of tweaking.

Even reality television only feels real – it’s been fictionalised ever since the quiz show hit the small screen.

One of the finest examples of a real-life dramatic arc is Fred Schepisi and Robert Caswell’s adaptation of John Bryson’s long-form work of journalism, Evil Angels, the story of the Chamberlain ‘dingo baby’ case, otherwise known as A Cry in the Dark.

Let’s put the plot through its paces… beware, there are spoilers (yeah I know, you know how the story ends… or do you?).

Exposition – “A dingo’s got the baby”

The exposition must introduce us to the characters and show who is the protagonist (the hero) and the antagonist (the anti-hero, or ‘villain’); and the protagonist must be called to action, posing a question so interesting that we are gripped.

Lindy and Michael Chamberlain (the protagonists) are at their Seventh Day Adventist church in Mount Isa for the christening of their daughter, Azaria, when passing truckers gossip about Adventists over their radios, and the family portrait is showered by their dust, revealing the Australian public’s (the antagonists) wariness of anyone they don’t understand. Michael (Sam Neill) and Lindy (Meryl Streep) leave for a holiday to Uluru (Ayers Rock), and settle in for a barbecue dinner. Lindy puts Azaria to sleep in their tent, and after she returns to the barbecue, another camper, Sally Lowe, hears the baby cry. When Lindy goes to check, she sees a dingo emerge from the tent, finds Azaria missing, and shouts the now infamous line.

Rising Action – “A lie goes around the world while the truth is still putting its boots on”

The rising actions are those the antagonist uses to thwart the protagonist and show us who both of them really are.

The Chamberlains wake to news that Azaria’s body has not been found. The media soon picks-up on the disappearance and stories spread across the Australian public’s TV screens, with an edge of eeriness and mystery. The Chamberlains return home to rebuild their lives, but the media continues its push for information, and Lindy attempts to tell her story, but it backfires as the media disseminates rumours about the family. The Australian public starts its own dialogue about the case, mainly convinced of Lindy’s guilt and the dingo’s innocence. An inquest, which clears the Chamberlains of all guilt in Azaria’s death, seems to resolve the case.

MIKL CURDLER Meryl Streep's portrayal of Lindy Chamberlain saw her on the receiving end of similar hatred.
NUT CRACKER Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Lindy Chamberlain saw her on the receiving end of similar hatred.

Climax – “A face that could crack walnuts”

The climax must be the start of a battle between the protagonist and the antagonist, and a turning point after which there is no going back for either.

Disgruntled Northern Territory police consult forensic experts, who find enough evidence to re-open the case. The Chamberlain’s home is raided and items taken for testing. Witnesses are simultaneously interviewed. The media breaks the story and the Australian public devours the new information with hysteria, focussed on perceptions of Lindy’s demeanour. Lindy is heavily pregnant as the ‘trial of the century’ begins in Darwin. The jury, representatives of the Australian public, ultimately ignores eyewitness accounts in favour of forensic evidence and finds Lindy Chamberlain guilty of murder and her husband Michael an accessory. Lindy is sentenced to life imprisonment. The Australian public celebrates.

Falling Action – “I will not have another dinner party ruined by those people” 

The falling action must play out the battle between the protagonist and the antagonist, allowing one of them to win. The winner defines the piece as a comedy or a tragedy.

Lindy is separated from her family in prison, where she gives birth to a daughter whom she is quickly forced to hand over to Michael, and she disappears from the Australian public’s consciousness while the Chamberlain’s legal team begins the long process of appealing her sentence. Despite the Australian public’s deeply-held conviction that she is guilty, cracks start to appear in the wall of opposition to Lindy. When the unexpected death of a tourist at Uluru leads to the chance discovery of Azaria’s matinee jacket (evidence the prosecutors used to paint Lindy as a liar), Lindy’s is swiftly released from prison after three years. She returns home, a stranger to her new daughter Khalia.

Dénouement – “How important innocence is to innocent people”

The dénouement (‘to untie’) must unravel all the conflict and bring everything to a sense of resolution. In a comedy, the protagonist is better off than when they started. In a tragedy, this is reversed. The big question posed in the exposition must be left answered.

At their church, the Chamberlains are welcomed by a cheering crowd of Adventists, and Lindy speaks about the family’s patience and endurance while the truth about Azaria’s disappearance was eventually revealed. During the applause, Khalia comes to her mother’s side, and the family group which was ripped apart is restored, albeit changed. Outside, a media pack launches itself at the Chamberlains, suggesting that their journey to exoneration is far from over, and Michael underlines the importance of the concept do innocence to innocent people.

WITCH HUNT The Chamberlains pursued into Darwin Court by a media pack.
WITCH HUNT The Chamberlains portrayed by Neill and Streep pursued into Darwin Court by a media pack.

The Verdict

The screenwriters’ decision to portray the entire Australian public as the antagonist was not only genius, it was based on the truth of the Chamberlain’s story, and helped rank the movie amongst the American Film Institute’s best courtroom dramas.

The dramatic arc of A Cry in the Dark hits all the right moments, the most subtle of which is the antagonist’s (the public’s) slow realisation that an error of judgement has been made. In the end, they are defeated by the evidence.

But this win for Lindy Chamberlain cannot be defined as a comedy. This is another reason why producers often avoid real-life stories: they’re hard to define and therefore hard to sell.

In 1988, when this film was released, twenty-four years were yet to pass before the true antagonist of the Chamberlain’s story – the dingo who took Azaria – was acknowledged by the Northern Territory legal system. Before this factual milestone was reached, which acknowledged the reason no body was ever found (Azaria having been consumed by dingoes), the screenwriters of A Cry in the Dark acknowledged that the dingo took not only the baby, but also her story.

WRITE REGARDLESSThat the filmmakers found a way to capture this true tale long before it was over makes A Cry in the Dark one of the best lessons in real-life storytelling.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

An extract from Write, Regardless!

Great stories come in threes

THREE'S A CROWD The climactic scene of Thelma & Louise (Production stills: Roland Neveu).
THREE’S A CROWD The climactic scene of Thelma & Louise (Production stills: Roland Neveu).

THE three-act structure is essential to the toolkit for that great misunderstood 20th century phenomenon: the Screenwriter.

Truncated to suit a 90- 120-minute session at a cineplex, the three-act storyline is undoubtedly the one most people are most accustomed to, so it’s probably in a writer’s interests to know how it works.

The good news is that it’s simpler in one way, because there is less to it. The bad news is that it’s reportedly much harder to get right, but we’ll look at why.

Act One

Broadly, this act must encompass an exposition (explaining who is who, particularly the relationship between the protagonist, or ‘hero’, and the antagonist, or ‘villain’), remembering that with screenwriting, dialogue must work effectively alongside onscreen action. Film is a visual and aural medium, so screenwriters must write what the viewer will see and hear.

This act generally also contains a point of no return, which propels the characters forward on their journey. Here’s where the 3-act structure differs from the five-act structure more commonly employed in novels, where the point of no return is generally in the second half of the story.

TURNING POINT Things escalate quickly in Thelma & Louise.
TURNING POINT Things escalate quickly in Thelma & Louise.

You can see where this difference arose – producers sitting in screening rooms, shouting: “Get to the point faster!”. Think Louise (played by Susan Sarandon) gunning down the rapist in the car park in Callie Kouri’s screenplay for Thelma and Louise, around 15 minutes into the movie.

Act Two

This act is the longest in the three-act structure, akin to the rising action of the five-act structure, where the protagonist struggles to rise above the point of no return, but often digs their way deeper into challenges set up by the antagonist.

Around the halfway point, or ‘midpoint’, something significant happens to the protagonist, which might be so sudden as to change the course of the story. In Thelma and Louise, this occurs with the appearance of Louise’s boyfriend, who might just convince her to give herself up, especially when he asks her to marry him. The protagonist’s response to the midpoint decides what happens for the rest of the story.

WHERE TO FROM HERE? One of the finest movie examples of a surprise ending.
WHERE TO FROM HERE? One of the finest screen examples of a surprise ending.

Act Three

Purportedly the hardest-fought scenes of every successful Hollywood screenplay, and the most difficult for writers to get right, this act contains the climax of the storyline, at a point significantly later than the five-act structure, where the tension comes to a head.

In Thelma and Louise, the climax is the most visually and emotionally dramatic scene of the movie, and the one where the protagonists commit their first willful crime – blowing up the truck driven by a hapless and offensive driver who has bothered them along their journey. Previously, they had committed crimes out of self defence or need. The climactic truck explosion signals their graduation into true outlaws.

No movie executive wants much time between the climax and the end of the film – everything has been said, seen and felt, and so the storyline must wrap up pronto. True criminals by then, Thelma and Louise drive to a speedy conclusion which could never be defined as a denouement, but rather a surprise ending.

The Verdict

Screenwriter Callie Khouri, who won an Oscar for her first screenplay, got it so right that the studio: “Didn’t come in and re-shoot four times” (Susan Sarandon, in a 1991 interview).

Khouri set this up with a coincidental moment, when Louise waits for Thelma to rob another gas station, and sees an old woman sitting at a window, a bundle of contained compromise and regret. In that fleeting moment, the writer foreshadows her ending without the need for a single word of dialogue. Another reading of the dramatic structure might place this moment as the climax.

Thelma and Louise works in three acts, and it works in five, depending on how deeply you want to analyse it. The three-act structure is, to me, just nifty shorthand for non-writers (e.g. producers) to define the ‘big moments’ they feel all scripts need.

WRITE REGARDLESSIf a writer can craft a five-act storyline, which hits these ‘big moments’ of the three-act structure, they’ll probably have an excellent script.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

An extract from Write, Regardless!