The Playwright’s (unofficial) Guide: Plot

Every story begins differently.

Sometimes it’s an image. Sometimes you’re led by a character.
Sometimes, if you’re really lucky, you might already have a plot from start to finish (this is the rarest, so consider it the holographic Charizard of the literary world: not many people have it, and those that do won’t let you look at it bastards).

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You’ve returned! So, do you have a story that is dying to get out of you? Or perhaps, like the large swathes of writers out there, your plot-making skills are a bit…shoddy. Not to worry, because:

Everyone has a weak spot.

I said it last week and I’ll say it again! Feeling like a failure as a writer is more common than feeling like a success. So own it. Knowing your weak points better informs your practice, your story, and ultimately sets you above the rest. Why? Because it takes a lot to admit you’re not good at everything.

Identify the drive of the scene/play, then take it away from your players.

Sometimes a story’s theme is the same as the characters’ motivation, and other times it’s entirely different for one particular scene. I’ll come back to this in the final post, but be very clear on what drives each scene and the overall play. Say you have a character who is desperate for fame, and you have several ideas for situations where this could be achieved. Put them in one, and dangle that prospect in front of them. What are they willing to do to get it? Now that you know, take that goal away from them. What do they do? As a former tutor loved to reminding us, this giving and taking away is conflict, and conflict is what drives a story. If everything is easy, that’s not a story, that’s a documentary.

Plan it out in full.

First, the set up. Where in the world is it (or isn’t it) set? What are the rules of this world?
Next, the big three. How does the story open, what is the big ‘aha!’ moment, and how does the story end?
Finally, chart your character(s) development in full. How do they change from the beginning to the end? What/who are their obstacles, and how can they be overcome?
You can do this process scene by scene, event by event, or in big chunks: beginning, middle and end.
It doesn’t have to be pretty, but it does have to make sense to you.

Sing it with me: follow the plan.

Stuck on how to approach a scene? Follow the plan. Not sure why a character is behaving a certain way? Reread and then follow the plan. Gone off piste with 3 more love scenes and an unscheduled dance number? Go back to the plan. Were any of those things in there? Of course they weren’t – stick to the plan! It sounds easier than it is, but think of the plan as an encyclopedia about your specific play. Anything you can’t answer should be in there, that way you can’t go wrong – and if you do? Hey, it’s your plan. If you don’t like it, change it. Just bloody stick to it, ok?

Tips of your own?

Share them below!

Disclaimer: I’m a theatremaker and playwright grad, so these tips are a mixture of other people’s advice and my own.

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