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Thinking Virtually

#21: Movies: A Structure for Plot, Part One

by Shannon Appelcline
August 13, 2001  

"Plot is, I think, the good writer's last resort and the dullard's first choice."
--On Writing, Stephen King

When you move on from design to development and engineering you can choose any number of routes for expansion. After all, you need to create an entire game. And, to be honest, I'm not really sure where you should begin. Figuring out how your game systems work? Outlining all of your major characters? Determining how you're going to deal with really standard MCRPG problems like trouble players and repetitive quests?

These are all really important issues. But so is the one that I've decided to concentrate on first. Plot. To be honest I think the main reason I've decided to discuss plot first is pure selfishness. I'm an author and plots have always been at the heart of my stories. Thus it interests me a lot, and I think it's important. The esteemed Mr. King thinks differently, as the quote above shows, but I'll get to that in due time, which is to say about nine weeks from now.

In the meantime I hope you'll sit back and join me in a discussion of how to build good plots for MCRPGs.

Prelude: Definitions of Plot

The OED defines plot, in its sixth definition, as "The plan or scheme of any literary creation, as a play, poem, or work of prose fiction." In other words, it's the description of what happens within a story, or, as might be the case in a work like Waiting for Godot, it's the description of nothing happening.

The OED gives sample quotes to show how a word has evolved through the centuries. One quote, from a gentleman called Lewis, writing in 1852, is actually a definition that I like quite a bit: "In every narrative there is a certain connexion of events ... which, in a work of fiction, is called a plot."

In it's simplest form, that's it. You take a set of events and string them together and poof! you have an instant plot.

Though you might have a plot, however, you don't necessarily have a good plot. In order to create a good plot you need to be cunning. And thoughtful. And intelligent. You have to learn how to interelate things throughout a story, how to give your readers high points and low points, how to keep them constantly on the edge of their seats.

And that's what I want to look at in these first three weeks of my plot discussion: how to create a good, singular, self-contained plot for a story.

There are lots of different ways that you can structure plots. Kimberly described quite a few of them in Plot Strategies. She talked about episodic plots and Hero's Journeys and a number of other things that I'm not going to get into. But, she also mentioned the type of plot that I am going to be spending three weeks on.

In her article, Kimberly mentions a "W" plot structure, and says that it is "[c]ommon in popular novels, television, and Hollywood films." I call it movie plot structure, and I think it's an excellent basis to use to create plots for RPGs of any type.

Introduction One: The Reason for Movie Plots

I should probably start off by coming clean about why I've really picked movie plot structure as the type of plot to examine in depth. There are really two main reasons:

First, movie plot structure is incredibly codified and structured. This is mainly due to the constraints of the movie medium. You have to make it exciting and keep people interested. You have to limit it to two hours. Every thing is set out very carefully.

I think one of the few types of storytelling that is even more structured than movies is the plot structure of television shows, where you have to do all the things I've described above and also structure things around commercials. I'll talk about that briefly at the start of September.

In the meantime, movies offer a rigid enough structure that it's easy to lay the "rules" out and thus easy to teach them and learn them.

My Second reason for talking about movie plot structure is that I know about it. I took a class on scriptwriting toward the beginning of this year and since then I've been overflowing with thoughts about how movies work--and even the occasional pseudo-screenplay.

So, movies it is.

Introduction Two: The Structure of Movies

The basic structure for movies is based upon ideas thousands of years old. It uses Aristotle's three-act play as its basis, dividing the story into a beginning, a middle, and and an end. However the structure of movies is considerably more rigid than Aristotle's basic idea--though that doesn't necessarily mean that all movies follow that rigid structure.

As I've already mentioned Hollywood films tend to follow a "W" plot structure: Act I ends on a low; Act II has a high in the middle and ends on a low; and Act III ends on a high (usually). Act I is usually 20-30 minutes long, Act II an hour or so, and Act III 20-30 minutes again. I'll describe the content of these acts a little more as I move through a typical movie.

But, for a start, that's all you need to know. It does get more complex, but not much.

Before I move on, let me offer credit where credit is due. The structure of movies that I'm working with is based on lectures and handouts by Megan Siler, an instructor at UC Berkeley Extension. The excerpts that I'm going to use in this article are from Star Wars IV: A New Hope, by George Lucas.

Act I: Setting the Scene

Act I is the part of the movie that really sets the stage, introducing the main character and the setting and establishing the tone.

A few specific things tend to happen in the first act:

  • An inciting incident
  • The establishment of characters and setting
  • A turning point

The inciting incident is what makes things happen. It answers the question: why does a story occur now? Stories don't just begin; something makes them start, and that something is the inciting incident. In general, inciting incidents tend to happen right at the front of a film; if they get pushed down too far, the audience gets bored.

I figure the best example to use in this article is a film that everyone is familiar with, so I've chosen Star Wars IV: A New Hope. The inciting incident here is clear: as the Princess Leia is captured, she sends off her droids, which contain valuable information.

     INT. REBEL BLOCKADE RUNNER - SUBHALLWAY

                         THREEPIO
               Secret mission?  What plans?  What
               are you talking about?  I'm not
               getting in there!

     Artoo isn't happy with Threepio's stubbornness,
     and he beeps and twangs angrily.

     A new explosion, this time very close, sends dust
     and debris through the narrow subhallway. Flames
     lick at Threepio and, after a flurry of electronic
     swearing from Artoo, the lanky robot jumps into the
     lifepod.

                         THREEPIO
               I'm going to regret this.

Despite the fact that we have an inciting incident, it doesn't usually lead immediately to action. Rather, we tend to have a main character who is unhappy with his current life, but isn't quite ready to set out into the dangerous unknown. It's only through the course of Act I that things finally reach a boiling point. Throughout this period of resistance, we tend to learn a lot about the principal characters in our drama: who they are, what they want, and what their world is like.

Finally, though, there's a turning point that forces the main character to leave behind his potentially unhappy but fairly comfortable life. It tends to be something pretty big, and it sends the main character out into the unknown. It marks the end of Act I, and the end of the first quarter of so of a movie.

In Star Wars, Luke doesn't leave home until he has no other choice.

     EXT. TATOOINE - LARS HOMESTEAD

     The speeder roars up to the homestead.  Luke
     jumps out and runs to the smoking holes that
     were once his home.  Debris is scattered
     everywhere and it looks as if a great
     battle has taken place.

                         LUKE
               Uncle Owen!  Aunt Beru!  Uncle
               Owen!

     Luke stumbles around in a daze looking for his
     aunt and uncle.  Suddenly he comes upon their
     smoldering remains.  He is stunned, and cannot
     speak.  Hate replaces fear and a new resolve comes
     over him.

Act II: Beginning the Journey

Act II of a three-act motion picture is what Aristotle so aptly called "The Middle". It tends to take up the central half of a movie, perhaps an hour's worth in a two-hour film.

Because Act II is twice the length of the two other acts, it's actually broken up into two parts. The first part, which is about thirty-minutes long in a two-hour film, is a time of ever-increasing success, as the main character resolves some of the issues that caused him to set out on his journey. He finally reaches a high point at the approximate middle of the film.

Then things start to go wrong ...

The second part of Act II, also about thirty minutes long, is another period of facing challenges, but this one results in a low point.

The specific things that tend to occur in Act II are:

  • The beginning of a journey (or a main character deciding to do something "different" in his life)
  • A series of challenges
  • A high point where all appears well
  • A sudden turnaround, followed by a point of no return
  • Another series of challenges
  • A low point where all seems to have failed

Although I speak of this as a journey, the journey doesn't actually have to be a physical one. It could instead be a change of lifestyle, of occupation, or of philosophy. The real point is that the main character is doing something different in his life.

As the first half of the journey progesses, the hero tends to face a number of challenges which increase in intensity and jeopardy, ultimately raising the stakes for everyone involved. These challenges are overcome, however, and the hero emerges victorious; it appears that he has ultimately succeeded in his goal.

And then, just as the movie edges past its midpoint, defeat is snatched from the jaws of victory, and something goes horribly wrong.

In Star Wars, our heroes think they've made it to Alderaan before things go bad.

     INT. MILLENNIUM FALCON - COCKPIT

                         HAN
               What the...?  Aw, we've come out
               of hyperspace into a meteor shower.
               Some kind of asteroid collision.
               It's not on any of the charts.

     The Wookiee flips off several controls and seems
     very cool in the emergency.  Luke makes his way
     into the bouncing cockpit.

                         LUKE
               What's going on?

                         HAN
               Our position is correct, except...
               no, Alderaan!

My teacher uses the term "Dynamic Acceleration" to describe the second half of Act II. Once you're past that point of no return ("We're caught in a tractor beam," Han shouts), everything begins to speed up. Things tend to get worse and worse for our poor main character until, at the bottom of Act II they reach a low point.

All seems lost, as is the case within the Death Star, just before our heroes break free.

     INT. DEATH STAR - HALLWAY

     Vader brings his sword down, cutting old Ben in
     half. Ben's cloak falls to the floor in two parts,
     but Ben is not in it.  Vader is puzzled at Ben's
     disappearance and pokes at the empty cloak.  As
     the guards are distracted, the adventurers and
     the robots reach the starship.

     Luke sees Ben cut in two and starts for him.
     Aghast, he yells out.

                         LUKE
               No!

Interlude: Clarifying my Point

I've been laying out this structure for films as something close to dogma, and I want to take a second to say: not all movies are laid out like this. In fact it might well be that no movies are laid out totally like this structure. However, there's just enough truth to this structure--just enough of it that is used in just enough films--that it's a worthwhile way to look at films (and plots in general).

However, not all people will agree how this exact same structure applies to the exact same films. Perhaps not the writer and the producer; definitely not the author and all his viewers. A film, or really any drama, is a constant set of highs and lows, of successes followed up by failures followed up by points of no return, followed up by successes. Most movies tend to reach the highs and lows described here, but not everyone might see them in the same way.

I like the structure I've laid out for Star Wars because it nicely matches up the changes in actions (marked by the Acts) with the changes in setting. After the prelude, Act I is on the Lars Farm. The first half of Act II spans from Mos Eisley to space. The second half of Act II is all set in the Death Star. Finally, Act III carries the action back into space.

However, when I was talking to Kimberly about this article she offered up a different suggestion for the midpoint of Star Wars. She suggested that the high point of the movie is not where our heroes arrive at Alderaan, as I have it, but rather is where they rescue the Princess.

I had a nice point of no return after my midpoint: the Millennium Falcon is captured by the Death Star's Tractor beam. But, she had a nice point of no return to: everyone getting dumped down the garbage chute.

Kimberly's midpoint even had the benefit of being nearer the middle of the actual film, timewise. I still like mine.

In any case, the point is: no dogma. This structure is a useful way to look at existing stories, and even better ... a useful way to look at stories you're creating. But it'll never be 100% correct.

Now back to the article already in progress.

Act III: Breaking the Rules

After the low point that ends Act II there's only one direction to go: up. The final act of a movie tends to be about how the main character recovers from his low, usually by finding stores of strength within himself that he didn't know existed.

The third act of a film tends to include the following elements:

  • A moment of truth, understanding, or realization
  • Another series of challenges
  • A final battle

During the moment of truth, the main character might form a new understanding of himself and his place in the world. He might discover skills that he had previously refused to acknowledge or he might acknowledge emotions that he had previously ignored.

     INT. MILLENNIUM FALCON - GUNPORTS

     Another TIE fighter moves in on the pirateship
     and Luke, smiling, fires the laser cannon at it,
     scoring a spectacular direct hit.

                         LUKE
               Got him!  I got him!

With the benefit of the new understanding, the main character is able to draw upon a core of strength that he did not know existed, and via this method he is able to face challenges that before would have daunted him. He becomes increasingly successful and, at the end, when he enters the final battle, he is able to emerge victorious.

Usually.

     EXT. SURFACE OF THE DEATH STAR

     Luke's torpedoes shoot toward the port and
     seems to simply disappear into the surface
     and not explode.  But the shots do find their
     mark and have gone into the exhaust port and
     are heading for the main reactor.

After the final battle, it's all over but the shouting. Some movies end right there, but in others there's a need to wrap up other plots and in general see how everyone fared.

     INT. MASSASSI OUTPOST - MAIN HANGAR

                         THREEPIO
               You must repair him!  Sir, if any
               of my circuits or gears will help,
               I'll gladly donate them.

                         LUKE
               He'll be all right.

Credits: Summarizing the Structure

That, in a nutshell, is the structure of a movie, though there are other ways to discribe it. I think my favorite alternative description goes something like this, again reflecting the three-act structure:

  1. Get your main character up a tree
  2. Throw rocks at your main character
  3. Your main character will get himself out of the tree

That's Act I, Act II, Act III, described simply. And that's it for me this week.

Here's the gameplan for the next two weeks, where I'm going to be continuing on this same topic:

  • Next Week: A sample plot using this structure.
  • In Two Weeks: A discussion of how this plot structure must be adapted for use in MCRPGs.

I'll see you in 7!


In this column I always try and be clear about which articles are brand-new and which are reprints from Skotos Tech. Because I want this set of ten articles, on plot, to really cohere the ancestry of each article is a little more complex than usual.

These first three articles on Movie Plots, which will run as #21-#23, did originally run in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities, my own column at Skotos. However, I've done something I don't usually do, which is expand and rewrite them, so that they can flow more seamlessly as part of this complete series. The other seven articles are all going to be new, though #28 & #29, about building for multiple players and working with multiple storyellers, are going to based on some scattered ideas I've written about in the past in my TT&T column.

That's the "Clear Credit" section for the next three months of articles.

Shannon regularly writes the column Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities for Skotos Tech, an online gaming company. TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

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