One of the many great things I learned during my Screenwriting class this past semester was how to plot things properly. I read and write so many books that I do understand the flow of plot, but I've never labelled or analyzed it in depth.
In Screenwriting, our professor taught us a few different plot structure techniques that helped me to understand so much more clearly how things work. These are all three-act structures, and I recognize three acts isn't the only way to go, but most books and movies (even TV shows) do fall into these patterns.
I will definitely be using these in the future when I revise my books, to ensure that everything's in place--and more importantly, to ensure that I, the eternal pantser, understand what's happening. Even if you've got your plot in great shape, knowing what the pieces are can help you throughout revision to maintain that stability and hold onto your theme. I realized when I looked over these structures that I had, indeed, naturally fallen into the right pattern for IF YOU PRICK US, but having the labels was an incredible help as I rewrote.
So here are a few different ways of plotting out your book so that it flows, using The Hunger Games as an example. *Spoilers ahoy*
SINGLE PARAGRAPH SUMMARY
This fill-in-the-blank paragraph gets the plot down to its essential parts, determining character and theme:
More than anything, [main character] wants [goal or desire]. But [MC] has a flaw: [whatever internal problem keeps the MC from the goal]. When [inciting incident], [MC's] world is turned upside down. Now [what the MC needs to do to overcome the conflict presented by the inciting incident]. Along the way, [MC] learns [something that helps the MC understand their flaw]. When faced with [climactic conflict], [MC] has to [do something that overcomes both the external and internal problems] or [bad thing that could happen otherwise].
With The Hunger Games, it appears like so:
More than anything, Katniss Everdeen wants to keep her little sister, Prim, safe. But Katniss has a flaw: she has trouble putting her faith in others. When Prim is chosen to compete in the Hunger Games, a government-sponsored fight to the death on public television, Katniss's world is turned upside down. Now Katniss must volunteer to take Prim's place and fight her way through the arena. Along the way, she learns to put her trust in fellow tributes Rue and Peeta, as well as her mentor, Haymitch. When faced with killing Peeta in order to become the winner of the Games, Katniss must choose whether to murder the boy who loves her or whether to trust that he will stand by her in rebelling against the Capitol.
THE BEAT SHEET
This is a three-act, plot-centric outline that looks at key moments in the external conflict:
Act One: Opening Image
Act Two: Break into Act Two
Fun and Games
Bad Guys Close In
All is Lost
Dark Night of the Soul
Act Three: Break into Act Three
It's a constant push-pull between hope and loss, with the B story, which is often the romantic line, acting as a secondary influence. With The Hunger Games, it looks like this:
Act One: Opening Image: Katniss wakes to find that Prim, afraid of the upcoming Reaping, has
gone to cuddle with their mother.
Theme Introduced: Katniss lives in a harsh world where she doesn't even trust her mother to
protect her and Prim.
Set-Up: Katniss goes hunting with her friend Gale and then they get ready for the Reaping,
setting up the world of Panem in more detail.
Catalyst: Prim is chosen as the female tribute of their District for the Hunger Games, and
Katniss volunteers in her place.
Debate: Katniss realizes that her fellow tribute Peeta, who saved her and her sister's lives years
ago, will be difficult to kill, since she feels that she owes him . When he admits on live TV that
he loves her, it only makes things worse. However, Haymitch insists that she plays to the "star-
crossed lovers" romance in order to convince viewers to give her supplies. She struggles to
isolate herself emotionally. Haymitch and the others on her team try to get her to trust them,
but almost entirely fail. Right before the Games start, Peeta admits having some thoughts of
rebellion, which further confuses Katniss, since she's always been resigned to the harshness
of her life.
Act Two: Break into Act Two: The Games begin and Katniss runs for her life.
B Story: Peeta confuses Katniss when he joins the ruthless Careers, an action that seems to
contradict his earlier love admission. Katniss makes an alliance with Rue, who reminds her of
Fun and Games: Katniss and Rue set up and enact a plot to destroy the Careers' supplies.
Peeta betrays the Careers to save Katniss, indicating his true loyalty, and is nearly killed.
Midpoint: Rue is murdered. Katniss shows defiance against the Capitol by singing, covering
Rue's body in flowers, and memorializing her with the three-finger salute, thus giving value to
her life, and the lives of all the downtrodden people in Panem.
Bad Guys Close In: The Gamemakers announce that tributes from the same District can be co-
victors of the Games, and thus won't have to kill each other. Katniss has to track down Peeta
and play to the cameras with their "star-crossed romance."
All is Lost: Peeta is dying from a terrible infection in his leg, which the Careers sliced open. He
insists that. Katniss not go out into the open in order to get him the medicine he needs.
Dark Night of the Soul: Katniss chooses to get the medicine despite the risk and is nearly killed..
Act Three: Break into Act Three: Peeta and Katniss are recovering from their injuries. They are
the only District team still intact and are beginning to see hope that they may return home.
Now that Katniss knows she doesn't have to kill Peeta, she starts to open up to him, though
she continues to wonder whether she can trust him. Their 'romance" flourishes.
Finale: The Gamemakers force the remaining players into the open using monstrous dog
"mutts", and Peeta and Katniss must fight against Cato, the top Career. They manage to kill
Cato after a brutal night, at which point the Gamemakers tell them that only one of them will
be allowed to win. Peeta tells Katniss to kill him. Unable to break the trust they've built, and
furious with the Gamemakers for their trick, Katniss chooses to attempt a double suicide in
the hopes that it'll force the Gamemakers' hand. Peeta goes along with it, and they are both
announced victors just before they can poison themselves. In the aftermath, Katniss has to
play up the "romance" more than ever in order to make the Capitol believe it was an act of
love rather than rebellion.
Final Image: Katniss and Peeta return home, and Katniss admits to Peeta that she's not sure
about her feelings for him. She fears that she and the people she cares for will face
consequences for defying the Capitol.
Keep in mind that The Hunger Games is the first in a series, which means that the ending will not be as resolved as it is in completed stories. There needs to be a bit of a build again to set up the next book.
This structure, also three-act, focuses on the internal conflict and the development of the character, rather than the external conflict.
Act One: Defining Moment
Call to Action
Act Two: Awakening
Push to Breaking Point
Act Three: Descent
So this plays out similarly to the Beat Sheet, but it keeps the lens on the personal and internal:
Act One: Defining Moment: Katniss loves her little sister dearly and wants to protect her from
the Reaping as well as the rest of the struggles they face in Panem. She cannot trust others
to protect them, not even their own mother.
Inciting Incident: When Prim is chosen at the Reaping, Katniss sacrifices herself for her little
sister by volunteering for the Games, and now must murder others in order to return home.
Call to Action: However, Peeta, who once saved both her and her sister, has been chosen as
another tribute. Not only does Katniss feels indebted to him, but he's managed to touch her
heart. Knowing she may have to kill him, she struggles to keep her emotional walls up.
She's pushed by Haymitch and the others to trust her team and open up to the cameras so
that she can get gifts and stay alive. Peeta's public admission of love for her sets up the "star-
crossed lovers" tactic, gaining Katniss and Peeta a great deal of attention but worsening the
push-pull between her affection for him and her distrust of others. Peeta speaks of rebellion,
confusing Katniss. She doesn't have enough trust in others to think that they would support
her in rebelling.
Act Two: Awakening: Katniss breaks trust at the beginning of the Games and refuses all help
for some time, even as Peeta allies himself with the Careers in order to protect her. Not
knowing that this is his tactic, she loses trust in him even further.
Push to Breaking Point: Rue breaks down Katniss's emotional walls and gains her trust,
because she's so much like Prim. Peeta betrays the Careers, showing that his loyalty still lies
with Katniss, and nearly gets killed in the process. Rue and Katniss take on the Careers.
Midpoint: Rue dies, and Katniss creates a memorial for her, showing that Rue's life, and thus the
lives of all the people in Panem, is of value. This is her first true rebellion against the Capitol.
Grace: After the announcement that both of them can survive the Games, Katniss and Peeta
meet up again, and in order to gain supplies, Katniss opens herself up to the romance they're
playing, even though the cameras, and her distrust of others, deeply affects the experience.
Fall: Peeta is dying from the infection in his leg and in order to save him, Katniss will have to
risk her life, going out into the open to get medicine. He tells her not to do it.
Death Experience: Katniss feels like she owes Peeta for saving her earlier, and she also cares
about him. She chooses to go for the medicine and is nearly killed in the process.
Act Three: Descent: The end of the Games is coming, and Katniss and Peeta are healing. Now
that she knows she won't have to kill him, Katniss starts to open up to Peeta. However,
she still wonders whether she can trust him, and particularly questions whether their
romance is real on both sides. They fight Cato to the death in the finale of the Games, both
Transformational Moment: The Gamemakers tell Katniss and Peeta that only one of them can
win. Peeta offers his own life, but Katniss can't bear to break the trust that they have created.
Killing him would also invalidate her previous gesture with Rue, where she showed that she
values the lives of others despite the cruelty of the Capitol. She chooses to risk her own life,
trusting Peeta to do the same, in an act of rebellion that may allow them both to survive: an
attempted double suicide by poison. Katniss believes that the Gamemakers need a victor and
won't let them both die.
Climax: Katniss and Peeta put the nightlock berries in their mouths, and the Gamemakers give
in before they can swallow, allowing them both to become victors.
Resolution: Katniss has to play up the romance more than ever in order to make the Capitol
believe it was an act of love, not defiance. The victors return home, but Katniss fears the
consequences of her actions. She knows that she has put the people she cares about in
danger. Once the cameras are gone, she admits to Peeta that she's not sure about her
feelings for him, which breaks the very trust that she wanted to preserve.
Again, you see the uptick at the end there that sets up the next book.
So there is a handful of ways to look at plot structure in order to outline and summarize the heck out of those stories. You can also do these arcs from the POV of the other central characters in order to get a better idea of their development.
Overall, this seems like it's going to be really helpful for me, and I'm super glad I got to learn about it.
Thanks for reading! I'll see you again Tuesday.
Images via illiteratebooks.com, atlantaladylitwits.wordpress.com, and pop-verse.com.
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