In other blog posts, I’ve argued that the plot formulas and story beat systems out there don’t work. So what is a helpful approach to plot? The best approach I’ve found comes from these screenwriting classes, which teach that there are three main building blocks of plot (or three plot tools if you prefer).
(I should add that I’m not an affiliate of the classes in the link, so I don’t get any compensation if you sign up for a class. I just happened to find the classes helpful, and I don’t want to pass off the instructor’s ideas as my own.)
According to these classes, the three main building blocks of plot are conflicts, questions, and bad news. In this post, I’ll explain each of these building blocks and how they can be used in different combinations to generate unique stories. I’ll also look at these tools in action in three different stories (one novel and two movies).
The Three Building Blocks of Plot
A conflict is the tool that most plot formulas are talking about. A conflict involves a character with an external, specific goal and the opposition that character encounters in trying to achieve that goal. Typically, this goal has stakes attached to it as well: that is, something bad will happen if the goal is not achieved, or the character will miss out on something good if the character fails.
A conflict can serve as the overarching plot of a story, or it can be the plot of an individual scene or sequence.
In Avengers: Infinity War, for example, the overall plot involves a conflict: Thanos has the goal of collecting all the remaining infinity stones, and the opposition he encounters comes from the Avengers.
However, within that overarching conflict are smaller scene- and sequence-level conflicts. For example, in one of the sequences, some of the Avengers have the external, specific goal of removing Thanos’s infinity gauntlet, and they encounter opposition from Thanos in achieving that goal.
My theory as to why this tool works: Battles in which something is at stake are inherently interesting. We like to watch characters struggle to achieve something because each of us does this in our own lives.
The question tool involves provoking a specific question in the reader’s mind and then withholding the answer until later or drip-feeding pieces of the answer. A character can either directly ask this question, or the question can be implied by the circumstances. An example of the former would be the question posed by Charlie at the end of the pilot for Lost: “Guys — where are we?” In other words, what was the island?
Similarly, individual scenes, sequences, and arcs within Lost involved questions: what is the smoke monster and what does it want? Who created the distress message? What’s inside the hatch?
As you’ll see in the examples I discuss later, the question tool is not limited to the mystery genre. The question tool can be used for grounded stories too, such as a story about a couple’s relationship.
I should note that conflicts also naturally provoke questions. For example, will Thanos prevail? However, what distinguishes a question from a conflict is that the payoff to a question is typically information or exposition, whereas after a conflict is set up, we then see the actual conflict. For example, the question of what was in the hatch was answered by later showing us what was going on in the hatch. In contrast, after Thanos’s goal is established, we see various conflicts.
My theory as to why this tool works: The human mind dislikes open questions, and we read on or watch to get the answers we need for closure. We have to know what the island is on Lost, and so we keep watching. Once you introduce a question (such as, “What did Captain Miller do before the war in Saving Private Ryan?”), you in effect whet the audience’s appetite for answers and information. And you can present that answer/information through a scene that provides pure exposition.
“Bad news” in this context refers to something bad happening to the character.
The typical pattern for a bad news event is this: the character tells us that X would be bad, and then X happens. The reason we often need to know that X is bad beforehand is that X could be good for some characters and bad for others.
For example, imagine a son who inherited the family business. That could be great news for a son that wants that and terrible news for a son who wants nothing to do with the business. Therefore, the writer has to find a way for the audience to know beforehand how the character feels about X.
For example, in It’s A Wonderful Life, George Bailey tells his father that he would never want to take over the Building and Loan: “This business of nickels and dimes and spending all your life trying to figure out how to save three cents on a length of pipe . . . I’d go crazy. I want to do something big and something important.”
Then, a few scenes later, after his father dies, George Bailey is told that if he doesn’t take over the Building and Loan, Potter will get it. This is bad news for George. He now has to face either doing the thing he’s already told us he hates or letting Potter get the Building and Loan.
I’ll admit that the line between conflicts and bad news can be blurry at times, including in this example. George, after all, had a goal: to see the world and do important things. So, couldn’t him having to take over the Building and Loan be seen as opposition? Perhaps. I would argue, though, that conflict is about overcoming opposition, whereas “bad news” is more about something bad happening, and the character is then stuck with it or can’t do anything about it. This is George in the example. He is stuck with the Building and Loan because taking it over is the only reasonable option for someone with his particular values.
Another example may be more clear cut. When Walter White in the pilot of Breaking Bad gets diagnosed with cancer, that is bad news: he is stuck with the condition (at least for the foreseeable future), and now he has to deal with it. It’s not something opposing his goal; he doesn’t have a goal.
My theory as to why this tool works: Seeing something bad happen to another character evokes sympathy and causes the audience to bond with that character and care about their plight. Plus, for a happy ending to have power, the character has to have suffered during at least part of the story, if not most of it (see The Shawshank Redemption).
Consider the recent movie A Star is Born: the transformation of Ally into a star is powerful because she starts out as a put-upon service employee. If she was instead already a somewhat successful singer at the start of the movie who then becomes an even more successful singer, we would have been underwhelmed.
The Russian-Nesting-Dolls Approach to Plotting
These building blocks can be combined in various combinations to create a story’s plot. For example, a story may involve one big question, within which there are several small conflicts, some bad news, and some smaller questions. Or a story might involve one big conflict, within which there are smaller conflicts, some questions, and bad news events.
When you combine the building blocks, you end up with a plot that is akin to a Russian nesting doll, with the outermost nesting doll representing the main question or conflict driving the plot and the inner dolls representing smaller conflicts, questions, and bad news events that make up the main question or conflict.
For example, with the show Lost, the outermost, largest Russian doll is the overarching question of the show: what is the island? Within that large Russian doll are smaller questions/dolls: What is the smoke monster? Who did Kate kill? Why is Sawyer a con-man? What’s in the hatch? Who is Desmond? Etc.
The Russian doll analogy breaks down a little, of course, because often each of the sub-questions/sub-dolls is of equal value or size, rather than progressively smaller, but I still think the analogy has some value because there is often one large conflict or question that contains all of the other ones.
I can’t take credit for this analogy because it was one suggested by one of my instructors. He also suggested that another way to think of a plot is that it is a complex machine, which is a machine made up of several simple machines. In this case, the complex machine is the overall conflict or question, and the simple machines that make it up are smaller conflicts, questions, or bad news events.
Although most stories have a question or conflict as the overarching plot, there are some stories that involve bad news as the overarching plot. The best example that comes to mind is The Shawshank Redemption, which, for most of the story, is bad news event after bad news event. The risk with this approach is that the audience doesn’t know when the story will end and may get bored, asking “where is this going?”. With a goal or question, we know that the story will end once the goal is achieved or not achieved, or the question is answered.
With Shawshank, we don’t really know at the start of the story what will end the movie. Of course, we learn at the end of the story that Andy Dufresne had a goal all along (to escape), and we just didn’t know about it. This approach worked for Shawshank because hiding Andy’s goal causes the audience to experience prison, along with Andy, as something that will never end, and we then get the satisfying surprise of seeing him escape after so much suffering.
Why This Approach is Superior to Most Plot Formulas
Most plot formulas have two major limitations: they focus only on a lone protagonist, and they involve only a handful of plot points, typically 3-7.
But a typical screenplay has 60 to 100 or more scenes, and a typical novel has 25 to 50 or more chapters. The suggestion that you only need seven plot points over the course of so many scenes and chapters is misleading. In each scene or chapter, something plot-related should happen. Moreover, many stories involve multiple main characters or at least multiple characters with their own storylines.
Unlike the traditional plot formulas, the above plot building blocks can easily generate the 60-100 or more scenes you need for a feature screenplay or the 25-50 or more chapters needed for a novel because you can have multiple conflicts, questions, and bad news events. Moreover, each main character can have a conflict or question related to them. For example, in Lost, each character had at least one question related to them: for example, who is the man Jack saw on the beach? Who did Kate kill? Etc.
Or, in Avengers: Infinity War, the writers split the party into different groups pursuing different goals. Each group in effect is their own conflict-driven story. Thus, this approach to plotting doesn’t limit you to simple one-character-focused stories.
A Look at These Plot Building Blocks in Action
Most plot formulas focus on the conflict tool as the exclusive way to generate narrative drive. But as the three stories I discuss below demonstrate, you can easily build a story that is driven by a question.
Between Me and You by Allison Winn Scotch
This novel tells the story of a couple from the alternating viewpoints of Ben, a screenwriter, and Tatum, an actress. However, there’s a twist on this approach because Ben’s story starts in 2016 and goes backwards in time, while Tatum’s story starts in 1999 and goes forward.
In 2016, Ben is a screenwriter who has faded at the same time that Tatum has achieved stardom, while Tatum at the start of her story (1999) is a struggling actress, and Ben’s career is taking off. In the first chapter, we learn that Ben and Tatum are broken up in 2016, while in the second chapter (from Tatum’s perspective in 1999), we see the promising launch of their relationship.
This novel is built upon the question tool. The first two chapters implicitly raise two questions: 1. what happened to these two who started off so promisingly?; and 2. will they ultimately end up together at the end of the story?
The advantage of this setup is that the author can slowly feed the reader pieces of what happened between 1999 and 2016, and the reader will find it interesting because each chapter contributes another piece of the puzzle we’re trying to work out.
There are some bad news events for both Ben and Tatum. I won’t spoil the details. But the two questions I identified are the outermost Russian doll for this novel.
Wonder (the movie)
I’m referring here to the movie Wonder and not the novel, which I haven’t read. I’m not sure how closely the movie follows the novel’s structure.
Wonder is another story built upon the question tool. The movie also uses the bad news tools. Although Augie is the protagonist of the story, two other main characters, Augie’s sister, Via, and Via’s best friend, have significant arcs involving both questions and bad news.
Here is how I see the structure of the movie: the initial scenes raise an implicit question that constitutes the outermost Russian doll: what is going to happen to Augie, a boy with facial deformities, when he starts attending school after years of being homeschooled?
Thus, this is another story not built on conflict. Augie doesn’t have an external, specific goal, and there is no opposition. Although the plot formulas all suggest your protagonist needs a goal, Augie in fact doesn’t have one.
Bad news also plays a role in the story. In an early scene, Augie’s mother expresses her hope that the kids will be nice to Augie, and we quickly see that hope dashed as various kids mistreat Augie.
As the story of Augie unfolds, the focus shifts to his sister, Via, whose story is part bad news and part question. We learn that Augie’s sister is the neglected child of the family because Augie’s condition requires so much extra attention. This is the bad news part.
We also learn that Via’s best friend has stopped talking to her without explanation. This implicitly raises a question: what happened that her best friend is no longer speaking to her? Thus, the question tool is at play.
As Augie and Via’s stories unfold, we shift focus once again to Miranda, Via’s best friend, and her story takes center stage for a bit. Her story is part payoff of the question raised in Via’s story (why is Miranda not talking to Via anymore?) and part bad news (we see what’s wrong with Miranda’s life).
All three storylines come together in the end to support the story’s theme: be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle. This is a great movie to study for how to effectively execute a theme by using clone characters (an idea discussed in this post, this one, and this one). Via and Miranda are clones of August; that is, all three are characters dealing with the same emotional issue: the hard battle of getting by in life.
Miranda makes a choice in the last third of the film that shows she’s learned the theme/lesson of the movie: Miranda chooses to be kind to Via through a very specific action, allowing Via to be in the spotlight for her family for once in her life.
This is another great movie to check out. It is built upon a series of questions, along with a conflict and some bad news.
The opening sequence shows us Kevin Hart’s character, Dell, and Bryan Cranston’s quadriplegic character, Phillip, racing around in a high-end car, chased by the cops. We then see Dell get nearly arrested before he is let go and allowed to drive with Phillip to a hospital. The sequence then stops, and we then jump back six months. By starting with this opening and then jumping back without explanation, the writer implicitly raises this question: what are these two characters doing? Thus, the movie starts off with the question tool, and we don’t get the answer to this particular question until close to the movie’s end.
The next sequence is a bad news sequence: Dell’s parole officer tells him he needs to get signatures for bona fide job interviews, or he’ll go back to jail.
This results in a conflict sequence: Dell now has the external, specific goal of getting signatures for his job interviews. He encounters opposition from Phillip, who refuses to sign the paperwork unless Dell takes the job of life auxiliary for Phillip.
Dell takes time to think about this offer and visits with the mother of his child, where we get a bad news scene that shows just how inadequate Dell is as a dad, particularly in paying child support.
This bad news pushes him to accept Phillip’s offer, thereby concluding the conflict sequence.
We then launch a new question sequence. Phillip’s assistant, played by Nicole Kidman, tells Dell that she doesn’t approve of his hiring, and she will fire him if he gets “three strikes.” This raises the question in the audience’s mind: will Dell be able to keep the job?
I suppose one could also look at this sequence as a conflict sequence with the goal being to keep the job. However, given Dell’s ambivalence about the job and general unprofessionalism, he is not a character who appears to be strongly pursuing that goal. Conflict sequences typically require a character who is committed to the goal. So, I think this is more of a question sequence.
But however one characterizes the sequence, the sequence has stakes and tension.
Despite Dell getting three strikes, Phillip intervenes to keep Dell on, and the tension from that sequence ends. A new sequence then begins that focuses on Phillip’s interest in dating a particular woman. This is a bad news sequence in which Phillip gets his hopes up for the date, the date starts off well, and then the date ends very badly.
The bad date puts Phillip in such a bad mood that he fires Dell and begins a general downward spiral. This sequence is part bad news/part question with the question being this: what is going to happen to Phillip?
We then eventually catch up in time to the sequence from the very start of the film and the question it raised: what were Dell and Phillip doing as they raced to the hospital? The answer is that Dell was acting to pull Phillip out of his malaise.
As the story wraps up, there are a few more scenes that then show how these characters will end up now that Dell has pulled Phillip out of his depression.
There are some other small question and bad news scenes that I left out, but the above are the broad plot strokes of the movie.
Plot Matters, But It Isn’t Everything
Using the three essential building blocks of plot helps the writer keep the audience engaged, but what you color within the plot lines matters as much, if not more. For example, a lot of what is so charming and memorable about The Upside is the great, funny dialogue, the contrast and chemistry between Phillip and Dell, and the small things we learn about the two characters. Those are the elements that people respond to, rather than the plot mechanics.
Nevertheless, if you have funny dialogue and fascinating characters but an aimless plot, the audience may lose interest. So, both plot and the other elements matter.
Another caveat about these plot tools is that not all scenes must involve a conflict, a question, or bad news. There will be scenes, such as moments of happiness or other breaks in the action, that don’t fit the paradigm. As with any craft suggestion, these plot tools shouldn’t be viewed as an ironclad rule.
Although none of the examples I discussed had a conflict as the outermost Russian doll, if you want to see such a story, check out either Avengers: Infinity War or Saving Mr. Banks, two very different movies that have a conflict as their overarching plot.
In the case of Saving Mr. Banks, that conflict involves Walt Disney’s external, specific goal of getting P.L. Travers to sign the rights contract for Mary Poppins and her opposition in the form of her repeated refusals to do so. You can read more about that movie in 5 Story Design Lessons in Saving Mr. Banks.
If you want to see two other examples of the question tool, check out How to Set Up and Pay Off a Mystery Subplot for Maximum Emotional Impact.
If you want an approach to story design, which is different than plot, check out the below Holy Grail of Story Design.
If you’re interested in reading more about the online classes that teach these plot tools, you can follow this link. The classes cover these ideas in greater detail and offer students the opportunity to practice each of these tools and receive feedback via live video.
I particularly like what the instructor writes on his website about his approach: “The single most important skill required for success is the ability to write original, powerful, and compelling scenes. If a writer can’t consistently do that, all the story structure in the world won’t save them.”