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Plot is a Verb

Discussion and handouts from Muse and the Marketplace lectures, May 2013

There's an ongoing argument among writers: how many different stories/plots are there? The span goes from an infinite number to 212 to 37 to just one. You can buy a book by George Polti that outlines his 37 stories, but I wouldn't bother. One is: kinsman kills unrecognized kinsman. Not all that useful if you're not Shakespeare. My contention is that there's only one story, and if you understand how this plot works you'll have the major tool you need to write a successful novel.

Here's the story:

There once was a woman who had a terrible problem enter her life (inciting incident). She decided that she was going to solve/get rid of her problem so she devised a plan (goal). But whenever she put this plan into action, everything around her worked against her (conflicts) until the problem had grown even worse and she seemed even further then ever from reaching her goal. At this darkest moment (crisis), the woman made a decision (with both gains and sacrifices) based on who she was and what she had learned in the story. Through this decision and the resulting action (climax) her problem was resolved (resolution) in either a positive (happy ending) or negative way (unhappy ending).

And here's your skeleton:

  1. the inciting incident
  2. the goal
  3. the conflicts:
    • external
    • internal
    • interpersonal
  4. the crisis
  5. the climax
    • the sacrifice: the price of the choice
    • the gain
    • the unconscious need filled from the back story
  6. the resolution

So how do you make this work for you? First, watch the movie BIG with Tom Hanks. Yes, that's right. It's a wonderful example of story structure. Then download the attachment. It contains three sheets: Josh's Story (with nothing filled in), Your Story (with nothing filled in) and Josh's Story (with all the elements filled in). Without looking at the completed Josh's Story, fill in the blanks on the empty one. Then look at the completed sheet: how well did you do? Now fill in the sheet for Your Story. Whether you haven't written a word or if you're on your tenth draft, I'm sure it will open your eyes and make your novel better.

Good luck.

Download Worksheet [PDF]