Friday, July 13, 2018

The Plot Clock: The Structure Template that Saved my Career

By Joyce Sweeney

Part of the How They Do It series

JH: I'm a big fan of all things story structure, and how useful they can be to the writing and storytelling process. Today, Joyce Sweeney visits the lecture hall to share her Plot Clock Structure.

I developed The Plot Clock over the course of many years and in concert with another writing teacher, Jamie Morris. Using four acts instead of the usual three, we found a way to really amp up the tension in students’ plots, add more ‘stuff’--meaning get the proper number of external events, twists and turns going-- and most of all, provide a ‘map’ for writers lost in that long, sagging, terrifying middle.

The genesis of it all was me, in the very beginning of my writing career, realizing I could create characters who were memorable enough to launch my career at Delacorte Press, win their annual prize and sell a lot of copies. But somehow, even with undergraduate and graduate training in creative writing, I somehow had not learned how to create a plot that would work for me.

The result was that the follow-up novels to my successful first (Center Line) fell flat and ended up in the trash. But, that first novel was successful enough that I was hired to develop a screenplay and in studying how screenplays were written, I began to get clues. Syd Field’s SCREENPLAY was invaluable to me and at least helped me learned there are standard high and low plot points to aim for. This improved, but did not rescue my career as a fiction writer, however.

I began teaching creative writing in the mid-nineties and continued to develop and refine a kind of plot clock. My map looked like the Jungian symbol of wholeness, a circle intersected with a cross, which I loved because I love Jung, but also because to me, a story has to be a circle (or maybe a spiral) where things somehow return to the place they began, only in a different form. Still, it was not till I partnered with Jamie Morris to create the Next Level Workshops, that the final pieces of the puzzle fell into place.

Jamie loved my template but challenged me about the four acts. No one else did a plot template with four acts. What should really be going on in Act III? We began to pick apart and analyze books and movies and discovered the centerpiece of the current Plot Clock, the third act where things actually should go better for the main character. This template became a favorite teaching topic among our students and when I launched Sweeney Writing Coach five years ago, quickly became everyone’s favorite class, lecture and webinar.

Before a very quick rundown of how my plot points work, here are some caveats I try to include whenever I teach plotting. Yes, plotting is one aspect of craft that can be mathematical and formulaic, like music where the first movement suggests the threads of all the subsequent movements. However, in actual Earth reality, there is no such thing. This is a template, a lens through which to look at a plot and give it a shape and form that is satisfying to readers. Wonderful books can be written with any of the other templates, or with no templates or probably even with no plot. But if, like me, you get lost in your novel’s events very quickly without a roadmap, this is the strongest and surest map I know.

So quickly, here is how the journey goes.

You begin in Act I with a scene or series of scenes which introduce a main character who needs to change. That’s right, I don’t start with what anyone wants I’ve found that in classic storytelling a story happens to a specific character because it is the perfect story to change them for the better. This is a story myth we all believe unconsciously.

So, in the Ordinary World, external events show the reader this relatable main character and where they might need to make a change. This beckons in The Inciting Event, something new and external, which enters the protagonist’s life and offers that change.The Inciting Event can be anywhere in Act I, often happening very quickly in a plot-driven story, and somewhat later in a character-driven story.

Since none of us like to change, the protagonist often spends a lot of Act I resisting or fighting with this ramifications of the Inciting Event. But at the end of Act One, the protagonist agrees to, is kidnapped by, or somehow is brought into line with the Special World of the story in a plot point called, The Binding Point. Writers can either motivate the protagonist to bind themselves to the story (I didn’t want to join the circus till I saw the hot girl who was the ringmaster) or the story itself can overpower the main character and take them forcibly to the Special World (tornado picked up my house and took me to Oz).

Act II is a series of mishaps, failures and losses that occur for the protagonist in the new, special world. Why? Because they haven’t changed yet. They bring their old problems and attitudes to the new situation and this leads to a cause-and- effect chain of losses and failures which ends at the midpoint of the book, end of Act II with a low point. Something that meant the world to the protagonist is lost due to their failure to change and now they are at their emotional low in the story.

Act III begins with the change in attitude that will now lead to an upward movement in the plot. ( I will train for this fight! ) This is then rewarded by a series of upticking successes that make us root for, and respect our main character. It helps us invest in the final outcome of the book. It, in effect, raises the stakes over and over.

Since we don’t want Act III to be a happy picnic for the protagonist, this is usually accompanied by an escalation in power for the antagonist, who may be reacting directly to the protagonist’s new strength or who may simply have more powers than were earlier revealed. Other events also take place in Act III to build up the protagonist’s personal stake in the outcome of the story.

And just when we think the outcome of the battle is known, Act III ends with what we call The Turning Point…a total shocker that changes the game and draws us into Act IV completely gobsmacked and not sure at all Our Hero can now accomplish the task. The most classic movie example is, “Luke, I am your father.”

Act IV we all know and love. It is the battle, the climax, the brawl to settle it all. It is the event that is a win or loss for the protagonist and whose outcome changes her forever. The Climax of a novel is a moveable plot point like the Inciting Event. In a plot-driven story, it comes very close to the end, and typically in a character- driven story it comes earlier, allowing for enough dénouement.

So if robots attack from Mars, and we blow them up, the story is pretty much over. If a girl defies her mother at the climax and starts a new life, we need to see that new life underway. Any wrap-up or final scenes show the completion of the character arc and can even mirror the first scenes of the book with different outcomes.( Before I was afraid to ask the girl out, now that I’ve slain the dragon, I’m not.)

This was a fast and furious summation, but as you can see the acts are even and satisfying in the way they make a circular character arc. For a series character, the same flaw repeats in the main character due to new circumstances. For a story with a tragic ending, Acts II and III tend to reverse, with unearned successes due to bad behavior, then a failure to change and things beginning to crumble.

In addition to being a great teaching tool, I now use The Plot Clock myself to test my own writing – not when drafting but when I have a substantial amount of scenes written and want to begin to see if I am moving in a productive direction. My own writing career did much better after developing and implementing The Plot Clock in my stories and I find it has given me the clarity to take those characters I always knew how to write and give them real purpose in a story. And I hear the same from my students.

Joyce Sweeney is the author of fourteen novels for young adults and two chapbooks of poetry. Her first novel, Center Line, won the First Annual Delacorte Press Prize for an Outstanding Young Adult Novel. Many of her books appear on the American Library Association's Best Books List and Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers. Her novel Shadow won the Nevada State Reading Award in 1997. Her novel Players was chosen by Booklist as a Top Ten Sports Book and by Working Mother magazine as a Top Ten for Tweens. Her novel, Headlock (Holt 2006), won a Silver Medal in the 2006 Florida Book Awards and was chosen by the American Library Association as a Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers.

Her first chapbook of poems, IMPERMANENCE , was published in 2008 by Finishing Line Press, her second, entitled WAKE UP will be released by the same publisher this spring. She has had numerous poems, short stories, articles and interviews published; and her play, FIRST PAGE CRITIQUES was produced in 2011.

Joyce has also been a writing teacher and coach for 25 years, beginning with teaching five week classes for the Florida Center for the Book, moving to ongoing invitation only workshops and finally to online classes which reach students nationally and internationally. Developing strong bonds with the students she critiques and instructs is her hallmark. She believes that writers need emotional support as well as strong, craft-based teaching if they are to make the long, arduous, but very worthwhile journey to traditional publication. At this writing, 59 of Joyce’s students have successfully made this journey and obtained traditional publishing contracts.

Joyce lives in Coral Springs with her husband, Jay and caffeine-addicted cat, Nitro.


  1. Clever!

    I've always thought "three acts" was an arbitrary concept. Of course a story really has four quarters, and saying the middle two are one double-sized act is a way of insisting that nothing that happens between the story's 25% and 75% marks can be as important as those transitions. It might be true, but it can lead to "mushy middle" problems.

    Does a character start with a need to change, rather than a goal? Maybe, but I think they lead to each other; the character starts with some basic wish that might not be a true goal yet, and circumstances show he has to evolve to hold onto that. Barry Longyear says "the being wanted to achieve a goal, but did everything to avoid facing that being's weakness until the end." It's all connected... starting with a clearer goal (that may change) gives the character a stronger start, but beginning with a need to change is more Hero's Journey.

  2. I found Tick Tock Plot by Jacqueline Garlick very similar to what Joyce Sweeney shares here. Tick Tock Plot was such a turning point to plotting that overwhelming middle book (Act II leading to Midpoint, and Act III after Midpoint but before the Climax) and it was a tremendous help for my last two novels. I look forward to exploring Joyce's Plot Clock Structure! Thank you, Joyce!

  3. This may have just changed my life. I've been struggling for so long with plot structure, and after reading this, I suddenly feel like I know exactly what to fix in my completed MS, and exactly how to plot my next one. Incredible. Thank you so much for sharing this!!

  4. Joyce, this is great, and perfect timing as I plot out my current WIP. It calls for the death of a supporting character that causes the hero to make a radical change. My gut's been telling me to put it at the halfway mark - a definite low! I think it just might work.

    I've always struggled with three-act structure, and I, too, like to think of a story in four parts. That third quarter, the 50%-75% part, gives me the most trouble. I can never come up with enough external events for it. I used to see the midpoint as a high point, and what follows as an unraveling until the 75% "crisis," but thinking of it in terms of the character (and antagonist) growing stronger, passing challenges, maybe even going too far and crossing the line, gives me new perspective. That, and thinking of the midpoint as a LOW point vs. high is a mind-blower.

    Thanks so much for the webinar. I just went and watched the whole thing. I love structure and look forward to hearing more about your approach!

  5. Fabulous post. I'm plotting my new thriller and this is really going to help with the structure. Off to watch the webinar...

  6. Thank you. I too have struggled with the three act structure. This makes a lot more sense to my brain. I am looking forward to catching the webinar and checking out the other other sources on your website!

  7. Her link doesn't exist anymore to watch her webinar about this.

    1. Thanks for letting me know. I didn't see it anywhere else, so I suspect she's taken it down now. I'll remove the link.