What is Plot?

Writer plotting out a story in a journal

In screenwriting, the plot refers to the sequence of events that occur in your story. These events are usually presented in a cause-and-effect manner with one sequence creating the circumstances of the next. Therefore, plot is the backbone of your screenplay. It provides structure, coherence, and momentum to the narrative. A well-crafted plot should be engaging, believable, and emotionally satisfying. If your plot checks all three of these boxes, odds are it will keep the audience invested in the story to the very end. 

Digging into it further, plot, at its most basic level, consists of three essential elements: the beginning, the middle, and the end. In the beginning, the writer establishes the setting, the characters, and the conflict or problem that the protagonist must overcome. This is sometimes referred to the exposition or act one. It sets the stage for the rest of the story. The middle is where the bulk of the action takes place. This is where the protagonist encounters obstacles and faces a series of setbacks that gradually raise the stakes. Seeing this struggle is part of what makes the audiences invested in the story’s outcome. Finally, the end is where the conflict is resolved, and the story reaches its conclusion.

However, a good plot is not just a simple sequence of events. A good plot has proper structure, pacing, and creates tension, with each scene building on the previous to create a cohesive and satisfying whole. While there are different models of plot structure that screenwriters use, the most common is three-act structure. In three-act structure, the plot is divided into three parts: the setup, rising action, and the resolution. Sound familiar? The setup is the beginning. Here, the writer establishes the status quo and sets up the conflict that will drive the story forward. The middle of the story is the rising action. The protagonist faces obstacles and challenges that threaten to derail their goals. This tension is how audiences are kept in their seats. Finally, the resolution is where the conflict is resolved, and the protagonist achieves their goal (or not). 

Related: Understanding Three-Act Structure in Screenwriting

Now that you’ve chosen your plot structure (three-act structure), you can further break down each act into smaller plot points. Each of these plot points should continue to push your forward and create rising tension. These individual plot points can include your inciting incident (the event that sets the story in motion), turning points (the moments when the protagonist's goals or circumstances change), and your climax (the moment of highest tension in the story). Each of these plot points should be well-defined and reflect a key moment in your overall narrative. Moving on, another important element of plot is character development. 

A well-crafted plot will not only advance the story but also reveal significant aspects of your characters' personalities, motivations, and relationships. The choices that your characters make in response to the events of the plot must be consistent with their established traits. Furthermore, these decisions should demonstrate growth or change over time. How characters respond to your plot will be dictated by who your character is. That is why it is important for you to fully know and understand your character. If you need help fleshing out your character and working out how they would respond to certain events check out our Character Questionnaire. Knowing these things about your character will help you understand how they would respond to any situation you put them in. 

Another aspect of plot to consider is its close ties with genre conventions. Different genres (such as comedy, drama, action, horror, etc.) actually have their own unique conventions, expectations, and plot structures. For example, a romantic comedy will usually adhere to the following structure:  "boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back.” An action movie on the other hand might be structured based on a series of escalating set pieces (action sequences) leading up to the final showdown. Understanding the conventions of your chosen genre is just one more thing to be aware of when crafting your plot. Because while you want your plot to feel original, you still want to make sure you satisfy your audience’s expectations.

Ultimately, the plot is what will keep your audience engaged with the story, invested in your characters, and eager to find out what happens next. A well-crafted plot is essential to any successful screenplay. Just remember that plot provides the structure, coherence, and momentum that makes a story compelling and emotionally satisfying. Whether you're writing a Hollywood blockbuster or an indie drama, understanding the principles of plot in your screenwriting is essential to crafting a story that will resonate with your audience. 

More: The Difference Between Plot and Story

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