According to Aristotle, the ability to plot is the most important aspect of writing–even more important than the characters themselves. Michael Tierno, author of Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters (one of my favorite books) says, “Good writers serve their stories; bad writers serve their own agendas.” When writing, I think this quote should be planted in front of our eyes at all times. Within the structure of plot, we should seek to convey truth through the human condition. So, your plot must have a single issue, or as Tierno puts it, “one unified action.” He uses The Godfather as a perfect example of this. It’s easy to think that there are numerous plots weaving this story together, but that is not the case. The single issue in The Godfather is the war against the Corleones. Everything else evolves because of that single action event.
Greek scholars translated Aristotle’s “Mythos” as plot. We get the word “mythology” from mythos, and it’s defined as a story, legend, tale, folklore, fable, etc. Without the plot, we only have characters, scenarios and language, but no story. Aristotle understood plot, and so did other great writers throughout history. Writers like: Homer, Shakespeare, Dante, and Geoffrey Chaucer, and Ovid, to name a few. There is a reason their works have stood the test of time. Writers who understand the importance of creating stories that cause the reader or viewer to respond in an emotional way will create a winning story. Carl Jung said, “They touch the common experiences of life and death that humans undergo.” Sigmund Freud said, “They mirror our neuroses and help to resolve them.” A screenwriter, who understands the power of myth and can recreate these stories in a fresh and present way, will scribe a successful story.
Plot is the framework where the story unfolds, but it is not the story itself. Story is what happens; plot is how those events unfold.
It is much like a seamstress who begins making a piece of clothing with a pattern. The pattern is raw. Without it, the dressmaker cannot sew a single stitch; it is the framework for the dress. So the plot evolves one point at a time. Good plots move chronologically. This is part of the reason that using flashbacks can be tricky. Normally, a film that is written in chronological order works better, but (of course) there’s always the exception to that rule. Citizen Kane and Pulp Fiction are great examples of the exception. The only reason for writing a non-chronological plot is to reveal something about the character that will be better disclosed if not told in a chronological order. That being said, Aristotle, Horace and many other ancient writers advised to begin in medias res, “in the middle of things.” This is an ancient literary technique for manipulating the plot. It’s like hitting the reader or viewer between the eyes with a big club! In other words, begin the story near the heart of the problem. This device was used in films like: Sunset Boulevard, Fight Club and Hangover, and while this technique certainly served these plots well, BE CAREFUL. If you decide to use medias res, you need to understand its function and limitations, and for a novice screenwriter, I would avoid opening that door.
Never forget that plot is connected to action. Michael Tierno calls it the “Action-Idea,” or “mission statement.” So, when we are developing our plot, we must ask ourselves “if” it is an “Action-Idea.” For example, say I want to write a screenplay about a love. That is not an “Action-Idea.” We have to look a little deeper. Since plot and action are connected, how can we change this idea, to reveal a sequence of actions that have a beginning, middle and end? If I create a plot that involves the protagonist overcoming the obstacles to love that keeps him or her from engaging in “true” love, that is a great “Action-Idea.” I can then build central conflict; develop the character and other underlying themes in the story.
What about a quest-driven plot? Raiders of the Lost Ark is a perfect example of this. A plot that is built around a quest always involves the protagonist’s search for a person, place or thing, and that can be tangible or intangible. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Professor Indiana Jones ventures into the jungles of South America searching for a golden statue. From the moment his search begins, conflict arises with every deadly trap that comes his way. The plot thickens when museum curator, Marcus Brody, who tells Jones about a biblical artifact called, “The Ark of the Covenant,” contacts Jones. This artifact holds the key to human existence, and finding it comes with a price. Jones is on the journey of a lifetime as he finds himself in remote places like: Nepal and Egypt, while fighting against Nazi enemies and antagonist, Renee Bellog.
Different plots will result in different paths, but if a plot is properly created, there will always be a chain of events that follows (cause and effect). In the end, a well-crafted plot will drive the story forward with action, and define and enhance the protagonist’s journey. After all, at the end of the day, all good stories reveal a journey.