Friday, June 1, 2012
Fill in the Blanks: A Plot Template to Keep you on Target
Last week I shared some great plotting tips from Southpark creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. I've been using them myself as I revise, but I couldn't stop thinking of other ways to apply this technique. I was also thinking about something a commenter said, and how this applied to the bigger marco issues, not just in the smaller goal-driving aspects. I was working on a blog post for that when it hit me.
This could make a really cool plot template.
The tip works on a micro level to see if your protagonist's actions are driving the plot, but when you pull back, you can also see how the entire scene works on a larger scale. The cause and effect of your scenes doesn't have to be as specific as my examples last week.
Using The Shifter as an example again (sorry, but I do know it best), the first scene is as follows:
Nya is trying to steal eggs for breakfast when she's caught by a night guard. While trying to escape, she uses her pain shifting ability and is seen by wards from the Healers' League. She tries to tell them she didn't do anything, but they don't believe her and know she shifted pain. They're going to tell people about it.
This describes the first scene. The second scene is:
Nya goes to the Healers' League to get rid of the pain she healed the night before. Her sister takes it from her, even though they're not allowed to do this. When Nya's leaving, she's spotted by the two boys and an Elder from the League. He calls her over.
The cause and effect between these scenes:
The boys see her shift pain, therefore/and so they tell the Elders about her. Nya tries to leave the League in secret, but she spotted by the boys and the Elder.
You could even go more general here and say:
Nya uses her powers, but she spotted doing it. (This one is shaky since without more details the conflict for that "but" isn't clear, but hopefully it still works as an example. You'll know the context when you write these for yourself. The conflict here is that she's not supposed to use her powers let alone get caught doing it, and now she's caught)
Nya goes to get rid of her pain in secret, but she's seen leaving the League by the boys, the Elder, and another man she doesn't even knows spots her. (it's okay if there are also later consequences, as long as something that happens in the scene leads to the next scene)
The macro level shows plot movement. It's your call how tight you want to use this technique. Paint the plot with broad strokes or work on it at the action by action level.
Now, this is when it got really interesting for me. Take another look back at my original scene descriptions. Notice a repetition of certain words?
Trying to. When.
Goals, and complications to those goals.
Mix those in with the but, therefore, and so, and you get a pretty solid breakdown of how a scene unfolds. It reminded me of a very common query template many folks use and I started playing with it more.
Trying to: In every scene, your protagonist is trying to do something. Her goal. You can't have a scene without it.
When: In every scene, something is going to be in conflict with that goal in some way.
But: In every scene, something happens that the protagonist doesn't want to have happen.
Therefore: In every scene, something triggers another event to occur.
So: In every scene, the protagonist changes tactics/ideas/plans and a new goal is created.
These are all key words that describe how plot works. If your protagonist isn't trying to do anything, and no buts get in the way, and no whens change things, there's a good chance there's a problem with the plot.
Throw this into a template and you get:
Protagonist is trying to [goal of scene] when [what happens in the scene to create conflict], but [why the protagonist doesn't want that], so [result of what happens in the scene].
How you flesh that out is up to you. Write a line or a page for each bracketed section. Use it on a micro or macro level. Just think about the things that are going to move your plot forward.
Protagonist is trying to [escape from a night guard] when [she's forced to use her secret powers to get away], but [she's seen doing it], so [she knows people are going to learn about her ability and come looking for her].
Protagonist is trying to [get rid of the pain she healed the previous night] when [she's seen at the League by the same boys and a League Elder], but [before she can escape she's called over to answer questions], so [she has to lie to avoid being caught].
There's a lot of leeway with this template, but I think it just might be a useful tool when you're not sure if your plot is working or not. It forces you to think about the goals, conflicts, and how they affect the story moving forward.
Since this is a tip-in-progress, I'd love to hear your thoughts, and see how this works when you plug your story into it.