By: Britton Perelman
A writer plots, a film can be plotting, and a plot can make or ruin a story.
Plot can be a writer’s best friend or worst enemy. Think about it too much and it ruins your screenplay, but get it right and your story can become one of the very best — those movies where the plot is seemingly non-existent.
That idea is false, of course. All movies have plot. As a writer, you control the plot, and not understanding what plot is and how it functions in your story is like trying to write a screenplay without knowing how to format a script.
But what is plot, actually?
It’s a phrase thrown around a little too often, and whenever I’ve tried to figure out what it really means, I’ve been left a bit dumbfounded.Plot is hard to understand and even harder to do.
The technical definition, as dictionary definitions often do, leaves a lot to be desired. Plot, by definition, refers to the main events of a play, novel, or movie, devised and presented by the writer as an interrelated sequence.
But story expert Robert McKee defines plot as “the writer’s choice of events and their design in time.” Syd Field refers only to “plot points.” Still others talk of plot patterns, some confuse plot with theme, and there are few who use “plot” and “story” interchangeably.
Plot, in actuality, is not that complicated. I like to think of how John August and Craig Mazin explain it:
In a film, there are three things. Character, story, and plot. Each is related, but certainly not the same.
The story is what emerges when your characters move through a plot.
If we dissect that sentence and turn it into a simple math equation, it looks a lot like this:
CHARACTERS + PLOT = STORY
And while screenplays are obviously more nuanced than that simple equation, it helps to see the elements laid out. For it is character that comes first, not plot. That’s essential. The plot and, consequently, the story stem from the character(s) at the heart of your screenplay.
For example, in the 2015 film “Brooklyn,” the story (about a young adult’s struggle with adulthood as an immigrant in America) and the plot (a move from Ireland to the U.S., dealing with homesickness, falling in love, experiencing a tragic loss, returning home, etc.) are the direct result of the main character: Eilis, a shy Irish immigrant.
Take “Avatar,” the 2009 hit. Jake Sully is the center of it all. Because of the actions he takes, we get the plot (first, trying to infiltrate the Na’vi people of Pandora to gather information for the military, then, when he learns their real intentions, to turn against his own people and fight for the Na’vi) and the larger story (about true identity and what it means to have a home somewhere).
Or, look at this year’s “Wonder Woman.” The character (Diana) moves through the plot (meeting Steve, going to London, getting involved with WWI, trying to stop the bad guys and save mankind, etc.), which tells the overall story (about truth and how what we believe in impacts our actions).
These three elements — character, plot, and story — all impact one another implicitly. Change the character and the story is completely different. Tweak the story and see the effects ripple through the plot.
Bottom line, know your character first, then decide what journey they are on, how they will react to various elements of the plot, and what the story will be. Ultimately, understanding plot itself is about understanding character.
Britton Perelman is a writer and storyteller based in Los Angeles, California. When not buried in a book or failing spectacularly at cooking herself a meal, she’s probably talking someone’s ear off about the latest thing she watched. She loves vintage typewriters, the Cincinnati Reds, and her dog, Indy. Find more of her writing on her website, or follow her on Instagram and Twitter.