plot (narrative theory) The events of a story as a sequence of connected actions, with the actions motivated by the intentionality of the characters, shaped by conflicts within and between characters and within the physical and environmental circumstances of the story, which includes the historical and social setting.
Plot as the navigational and nautical origin indicates, sets a direction and an intended journey which may or may not proceed according to plan. Plot can be recounted without reference to character, stating what happened, but in a dramatic story, plot is dependent on character, and a story might even be considered as a demonstration, a test, an ordeal of a conception of character. It is the connection to the characters that creates the immersion and drama of the story for the audience. Character makes action purposeful and both speech and external action will be taken to indicate interiority: the character's personality and their identity. Character in a narrative is mimetic, it is not a reality, but it is perceived as a reality.
In his discussion of narrative film in Story (1999) Robert McKee indicates a useful understanding of character and what aspects of character should be articulated in the plot. In McKee’s analysis a character can have three types of conflict: internal psychological conflict, their personality in conflict, inner moral and emotional conflict. They can have interpersonal conflict, which is conflict between characters in their social roles and between their personalities, and then there is conflict between the character and their society: their role and identity as it is socially defined through historical and personal circumstances. What this three part model of character illustrates is how much character can be related to the story, and what should be revealed in the action of the plot.
McKee’s view is that a successful story will show and make use of all three aspects of character. So a story should set an internal conflict in the characters, a conflict between the characters and a conflict between the characters and the society. Conflict is somewhat vague concept, but there is very little conflict in a story where a character can’t decide whether or not to buy cheese sandwich, but far more conflict if the character is at a formal dinner where as a guest they don’t want to insult their hosts, but the food they are offered repels them, and they know that refusing the food will be a public insult and will result in public censure. So, a simple plot point conflict, a character needing to decide something can be about the issue itself, choosing or not choosing a cheese sandwich, or the conflict can involve the character in different ways, raising the drama of the conflict, because what is at stake is important for the character.
Robert McKee also indicates a difference in plot between tightly constructed and loosely structured plot. The loosely constructed plot is episodic, events happen to the characters in different situations, and in plotting a narrative where the main story is a journey story, this journey can be for one specific task, a mission, tightly plotted, or a story can narrate a number of encounters during a journey, so it is loosely plotted. When story events are episodic they will still develop from the initial situation where the characters are established and then move to a related situations, without necessarily progressing the same events. With a character on a journey they meet someone, move on and then meet someone else: the different characters aren’t connected by any specific plot, but they will be important to the character in some way. The loosely plotted story will often be about what is important to the character, rather than resolving a crisis, an external problem.
In terms of unity of action, a tightly plotted story is overall a single action, which can be recognised as a type of story: a heist, a romance, a ghost story, so a central single concern, and a loosely plotted story is a set of small scale stories, where each of these has a unity of action, and they are connected by the central character/s. In a story about a boxer there could be the story about a single boxing match: the preparation for the one fight, the fight with each short round developing events and these boxing rounds continuing until the fight is won or lost: a tightly plotted story. Or a story about a boxer could be about their being matched against a range of opponents at different stages in their career: so a story with separate episodes. What remains in both plots is the story of the boxer and their character. Both need character to be defined in the story, and for character to develop as story event progress.
A point that McKee makes in relation to this conception of plotting is that a story that is tightly plotted will be received as poorly told if it lapses into loosely plotted and vice versa. There’s an expectation from the audience in terms of the story they are being told and the type of plot. This expectation of form is part of the unity of action in terms of the realism of a story. A drama could turn into a musical, but then this would be a change of form: to have an action story, stop and move into a pause for another aspect of the character’s lives, to add episodes unconnected to the main action, would be a change of plotting that might also be rejected: the plot has stepped away from the main story and this is felt as a frustration by the audience.
Two matters can seem to confuse what a story is and why it should be considered to be so dependent on plot. One is that some stories appear to have very little visible plot, not much happens in terms of dynamic external, physical action. A psychological story can set up a dilemma, or a tension that is unresolved, and so there is very little physical, externally dramatic action around this, but there is a tension, a suspense in the story, and this can hold the audience if they are connected to the internal life of the characters. What is key here is signalling what this tension is, it can be comic or dramatic, and it will usually be an internal conflict for a character even when it’s created by social circumstances: how a character will behave when their normal social circumstances change. If there is little action with no plot, and so no sense of tension, then there is just slowness rather than psychological suspense.
To consider how this type of plot, a story that depends upon internal psychological conflict, appears as a narrative film one can watch part of a film, or a number of different films without the sound being played. In some of the films there will be little on screen action: there will be characters, seen silent, seen talking, where the plot can’t be understood in the visual narration of the story. In other films with no sound playing the external action, chasing, hiding, running, climbing, fighting, can identify the major plot line of the story. For a psychological plot with the sound playing on the film the dialogue and often the music will make the intentions and conflicts of the characters clear, what they want, what challenges they face and the tension that is articulated by the characters can be understood by the audience even when they are in stasis. As McKee notes plot causes conflicts and so plot can be external large scale action or close, intimate, psychological story.
The usual separation here, when dialogue reveals the dramatic situation, is to say that there are character based stories, with little action and plot based stories with external action, but this is deceptive, because if the characters aren’t involved in actions which are related to a plot, then these actions are without purpose, no matter how active they are. Action can be external or internal: plot is not just external large scale action, car chases, escapes, it can be small actions, the actions of people reacting, responding, stating things so that the context of a small action gives it dramatic meaning. If a scene involves two characters playing a game of tennis, this is physical action, but unless the game or what happens during the game develops the plot, it is just two people playing tennis.
Character needs to be established to make the plot purposeful and often this is done so that the audience is not fully, consciously aware, that these facets of personality have been put in place: small actions can set out character and develop a plot. To consider a plot where small actions or even stasis becomes significant: a character decides not tell reveal a secret and holds this in place and problems occur related to this secret. This situation is the basis for a plot, and if there is a story related to the secret, the central character may do and say nothing, but the audience will know that there is a tension in hiding a secret and they will have some sense of what this entails for themselves and for the character in the story: the audience can understand the viewpoint of the secret keeper. Being silent is not a plot, being silent for a reason is part of a plot.
Plots are often summarised by recounting the main action of the story, summarising through climatic events and circumstances , but the story is narrated in a plot through many actions, and this can be an action that indicates interior action, thoughts, decisions, reactions, emotions, it can also be external physical action, hiding, seeking, confronting, rowing, where the visual action has a clearer narrativity than a small gesture: a pause, a look, a fidget, that in fact can carry, in the context of the narrative, as much significance as any other action that is an important part of the narrative. In a mystery story there will often be a tell, a small mistake that reveals the criminal, and this action will have massive significance because this small mistake for the character has been built into the narration of the story and it reveals a major element of the plot.
An issue that can arise in the sound off/sound on test, not playing the audio when watching a film, to consider how a film is being plotted is that this can suggest that in one type of narrative film the story is dialogue driven and so the visual elements, the staging, blocking, direction and physical acting are less significant in a dialogue based plot because the words count more than anything.. The screenplay for this sort of plot may have little or no directions for action so action seems less important. What is true however is that in filming dialogue scenes they can be well staged or badly staged to reveal plot and character, and the visual action, the physical relationship between characters, close, distant, open, closed, their posture, their gestures, looks, statements, reactions, emotions will all add or detract from the success of the scene.
The screenplay gives the dialogue and must set up the characters, establishing the plot and tell the story, but the performance of the actors, the quality of the direction and the blocking articulate the drama of the plot and narrate the story. In a podcast, radio, audio drama there’s a practice of over articulating the speech and declarations of the characters so that their emotions are clear in the voice, but this would seem false as part of an on screen performance, where a look, a gesture, a move towards and a move away signals significant action, giving meaning to what is said: in a film a move, a look, a gesture can indicate acceptance, rejection, hatred, suspicion adoration. Just because the dialogue is needed to ensure that character and plot are understood does not reduce the drama and narrative that can be conveyed in the voice and physical performance and the staging and filming of this. It is just that this interpersonal physical action needs the context of the dialogue to clarify what the interaction conveys in terms of character and this part of the narration of the film is developed by the actors and the director: minimal gestures are not part of a screenplay as this is pre-deciding the direction, which can be unhelpful to performance and directing.
Rather than considering stories to be plot based or character based, depending on the type of action or in terms of having more or less plot it is better to be clear that character always motivates action, action reveals character and a plot makes action meaningful as part of a story: the type of action may differ, it may be highly active physical action or it may be close psychological action, but both need to be in place for a dramatic narration. Often films will have a mix of large scale action where visuals dominate and others scenes where dialogue takes place, the dialogue is carrying the main narrative, but the small scale visual action still reinforces and clarifies what is said.
The second matter that seems to confuse plot, making plot seem less essential, is when the story has a mystery or there is a major plot revelation at the end of the story, so that an important element of the plot is hidden for most of the film. What can be clarified here is that not knowing what is going on is not a plot, but a mystery, wanting to find out the secret is a plot, and following a mystery being investigated is a story.
In storytelling the mystery can be and often is declared: What has happened to Alice? Who stole the diamonds? And a declared problem sets the path and the plot for a mystery tale. The characters are in pursuit and this pursuit will set them challenges, tests, successes and failures. What is important to mention here is that the off screen events, the mystery that is not revealed, needs to have a plot and needs to have agency in the story: the identity of the mystery character might or might not be openly revealed, but their actions will directly effect the plot of the story which the audience is following. In a poorly written mystery there will be one action to establish the mystery and then the rest is disconnected to it. As an example of mystery without story action: a woman receives a message that her father who she thought was dead is alive, is this true? The mystery plot of this story can’t be developed and resolved over packing a suitcase to travel, getting on plane: these are actions that might accompany this story, but they are not dramatic actions. The plot needs to develop over resolving this mystery, actions that reveals or conceals, or else by changing the narration, dropping the mystery, and having the plot being about the meeting between daughter and father and what happens because of this. In this example it’s possible to see where events in life, what would happen in actuality, packing, travelling are not dramatic events in the story: the daughter receiving the letter is a dramatic event, but the everyday tasks of going somewhere to meet the father are not essential action: ellipsis removes the need to show all the action of a story. In a story like this, the story of a search, a plane journey might be shown as a single two second shot of a plane travelling, which conveys all the necessary plot, or the journey on the plane might be used to have an exposition scene, a dialogue scene, or an event so that the daughter’s internal feelings are made clear. This longer scene does not make the plane journey important, only what happens during the journey Often a story in screenplay form and in the first version of the editing the film will have redundant material and this can be removed to clarify the plot and enhance the drama.
When in a film narrative a mystery is declared then the plot follows this mystery, or in some stories the mystery is completely unknown to the audience and is only revealed at the end: what has really been going on is a complete change of plot: the twist ending revealing a dramatically changed situation. A film with a big reveal at the end, is a plot that relies on misdirection: the audience are led to believe particular events, or even the reality of a story is told through misdirection. To offer examples of some of the kinds of plot twists: the final revelation of the plot is that the characters are only alive inside the mind of a single character so everything that has happened before this has been an illusion. Or a story is told in an order, as a plot that is then re-ordered to reveal a different narrative, what the audience thought was happening in sequence was actually happening at the same time. These different approaches to story are familiar, they can be dramatically effective, but what is crucial is that the misdirection, these event has to have plot and tell an effective story in itself. There can’t be haphazard events, there’s needs to be plot in the misdirection. Misdirection is a trick on the audience, it’s not a story in itself, but a major plot point. If a story were about a person forming a friendship, but the real intention of one of the friends was to harm the other, this plan to harm might be hidden until the very end, but the forming of the friendship would need to be an involving story. What will often happen in this type of story, the big reveal, is that this revelation will often take place before the final part of the story, before the climatic events, and either the audience will learn at this point what has been hidden and some of the characters do not, or both the audience and the characters will know, and then this leads to the climatic events of the narrative. The issue here is narration related to audience knowledge and the character’s knowledge of the story.
Hiding a major plot element is a technique of narration: a choice of how to tell a story, it is not the story. If the big reveal, the plot twist is left to the very end, rather than before the climax of the action, then this will often create an unresolved story, a cliffhanger, the audience will have learned something that will be known or unknown to the characters in the story, and this will create a significant change to how the plot is understood: the killer is caught, but their accomplice who is thought to be an innocent stays free and this killer is unsuspected: a cliffhanger ending, an event that creates a tension that is not resolved in the story. This is narrating the story to be dramatic: leaving off at a certain point, so that the audience aren’t given the story outcome for certain actions, but a story cannot be constructed just to have a cliffhanger or a twist as this makes the plotting up to this point in the narrative redundant: hiding something is not inherently dramatic or involving. The filmmaker will know that there is a big secret to reveal, but this is just one plot point and having incidental events for two hours and then a big plot point is not a successful dramatic structure.
What is clear in the mystery plot is that the main plot, the action of the story, has to have a plot that develops character and action, it can’t just be people not knowing what is going on. Here, again, the difference between life and story plotting for drama comes to the fore. In life we can often be unclear what is happening and we are confused: someone who’s said they have arrived at a meeting point are not at that meeting point. Confusion in life is not the same as narration in a story. A story can set up tensions, unknowns, uncertainty, conflict, but inaction for no reason is not story. Just because the door of a room is closed does not make it a mystery until someone tries to enter the room and they find it locked or they are stopped from entering, then there can be a mystery about why the door is locked and the story is the search for this reason.
The issues of minimal physical events, and of a mystery story hiding a major plot element, can suggest that plot is not necessary for a story, but rather than this stories are told through different forms of narration that sets out character and plot and tell the story in different ways: plot is not lacking in a mystery, but is carefully revealed in relation to different aspects of the story and the audience’s understanding of the characters’ actions in the story.
A test for a successfully narrated story, to consider its plotting is to see if events can be removed and make no difference to the coherence of the plot: if they can then they are not necessary to the story, and this is why there is a process of editing in screenwriting and also in the editing of the film: the screenwriting shapes the story and the editing refines it, developing the plot through several ‘cuts’ versions of the film. The filming produces material to narrate the story and film editing structures and refines the narration and the plot. This editing process happens in prose writing as well. In terms of format a story can be long or short in terms of running time for the narrative, but within this format, a two hour film, a four part series with, four one hour episodes, the story can be well told or badly told. Having redundant events, events that have not clear connection to a main plot just overload and undermine the story. There’s a difference between a storyteller who adds telling details and the over-telling of a story so that’s baggy, repetitive and unstructured.
One particular issue in screenwriting is that there are often screenplays that don’t have enough plot, its padded out with inessentials, here more events, incidents are needed, there needs to be other significant events created for the story. This is not quite the same issue as having a very confused telling of a story. Everything in a thinly plotted story may be clear, but so little happens that there are only a few moments of drama in the film. An inexperienced writer can find it hard to bring plot elements together, to leave out what is not essential and also they can have difficulty creating enough plot. Assessing the success or failure of a plot and creating enough plot for a dramatic story are skills that needs to be developed in terms of storytelling and being a screenwriter. The idea of rescuing a weak story, hoping that a poorly plotted script or thinly plotted script can be delivered through the film making is a falsehood. Many films are made on the basis of a weak script, and this tells in the final film.
In relation to plotting in prose writing and plotting in narrative film there are differences related to story narration in these two mediums. Will Turco in The Book of Literary Terms (1999) sets out three types of narration for prose fiction: The are plotted stories based on complications and problems, so external and internal challenges, conflicts, ordeals, as in dramatic narrative film plotting. There are also in prose writing stories of character, character sketches long or short, and there are stories of atmosphere. In writing the character based prose story, setting out how a character reacts, thinks, feels, understands, every situation relates to an interiority and this is action in prose, it’s not mimetic action, its internal narration and focalisation. Film can have internal narration, internal focalisation, but this is the exception in realist drama. In a written story, a novel about hunger, the narration can be from the focalisation of the starving character and convey each thought of the character, but in a mimetic film there would need to be the external showing of this character and to present internal life the narration might offer a prose-style voice over narration or else the internal life would need to be dramatised, with the character given articulation through dialogue and external action. Prose narration is not film narration.
A prose story of atmosphere, is quite unusual in itself, and a film, the medium of film can certainly convey atmosphere, but this is not a plot. Prose writing and film narration both uses complications, but it is rare for a film to have just atmosphere, or be narrated throughout. So, the forms of narration in prose are not mirrored in realist mimetic film narrative. These differences are not always understood and carefully considered effectively by filmmakers when they want to narrate a story in film and what will occur is that there will be a film where what a character is doing can be seen on screen, but its not part of a plot. A character drinks a glass of water: if the story is plotted then this will have a dramatic meaning, if a story is not plotted it will be a person having a glass of water, and trying to make this have an atmosphere to make a successful story is not going to be effective. One can’t use camera angles, lighting and music to convey emotions, unless this is connected to plot.
Plotting is often related to plot structure: three-action structure, five-act structure and a variety of structures are offered in screenwriting manuals. Structure contributes significantly to form through control of plotting to match the format, but story structure is not plot. The connection and meaning of events through and understanding of character is the primary dynamic of plotting and storytelling. Returning to the general usage of the term ‘plot’: a plot sets an intention to do something, to go somewhere and action follows from this, and these actions, directly related to the character's intentions are plot of the story. A story structure can and often will have a beginning, middle and end, and one can relate this to how a plot will be established, how complications will develop and then the narrative reaching the end of this plot, but a story, will develop into a plot which has a story structure, because of the events of the story and the skills of storytelling are to craft plot coherently: structure can’t replace a well told plot. The notion that in a feature film screenplay by page 15 certain things must have happened is a simplistic guide and while these sort of rules are used to consider a screenplay they are not necessarily assessing the plot in relation to the articulation of character motivating plot. Structure can seem like a solution to storytelling in film, but it is not. It’s one aspect of the story narration.
Plot can seem to be a set of events, what happens, but the events happen to characters in the story, and character needs to be narrated so that the audience can understand events in personal, psychological terms. The experience of someone telling an exciting story, events that the teller finds exciting, often does not work for the listener because all they are hearing is a stream of events, there's no underlying sense of purpose to the story as there is no sense of purpose defined by character.
Copyright: Eugene Doyen 2019