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The Basics: Plot
by Sandy Tritt
Before you can start writing, you must have at least a
basic idea of the three major components of a story. Plot is what happens.
Character is to whom it happens. And setting is where and when it happens.
Most stories are either plot-driven or character-driven. A plot-driven
novel is one in which what happens is more important than to whom it
happens. An example of this is an action/adventure novel. A
character-driven novel is one in which a character evolves during the
story, and what happens isn’t as important as how the character reacts to
what happens. An example of this is a romance novel.
A successful plot must have a struggle of some sort—on one hand, something
that a character (or characters) wants very badly, and on the other hand,
something that prevents the character from having it.
There are three fundamental struggles that plots are based upon:
• Man-against-man—this is when another character (the antagonist) is at
odds with the protagonist (the main character) and tries to prevent the
protagonist from accomplishing his goal. An example of this would be a cop
chasing down a serial killer.
• Man-against-nature—this is when nature (or, possibly, machinery) causes
problems for the protagonist. An example of this would be a man left
behind in Antarctica, fighting for survival against the elements of
• Man-against-himself—this is when some character flaw within the
protagonist prevents him from achieving his greatest desire. An example of
this would be a man who wants a happy home life, but who battles
Many novels have a main plot, with several subplots spidering off of it.
However, in order to focus, it is important to have a focus statement to
give your story cohesiveness. A focus statement describes your story’s
basic plot in one sentence. Yes. One sentence. Forcing this focus gives
you a home base to return to and reflect from, and ensures that you don’t
drift too much in other directions. Examples of a focus statement:
• An uneducated man from the slums climbs through the political world in
his quest to become President.
• A teenager hones his acting skills in hopes of making it big on the
• An alcoholic mother struggles to raise her children.
A plot must also have three distinct parts: a beginning, a middle, and an
end. The beginning, of course, is where the story starts. The setting must
be firmly established (both place and time), the main character must be
introduced, and the story question must be presented. The story question
puts the focus statement into a “what if” format:
• Will the uneducated man from the slums be able to achieve his goal to
• Can the teenager make it big on the Silver Screen?
• Will the alcoholic mother be able to successfully raise her children?
The middle of the story is where we build the action and further develop
the characters. The middle of the story is the link between the beginning
and the end, and that which makes the end possible.
The end of the story consists of two parts, the climax and the resolution.
The climax is the turning point in the novel, where the tension is
highest. The climax is where all seems lost, where decisions must be made,
where life and death hangs on the balance. The climax should lead directly
into the resolution, which should answer the story question and resolve
the character statement of the main character (usually, these will be
linked). In a character-driven novel, the main character should be changed
in some way—wiser, more mature, kinder, perhaps even more cynical—but
he/she must have undergone a change. If his character goal has not been
achieved, then it must be resolved (perhaps the uneducated man from the
slums decides that he can make a greater impact on society if he becomes a
teacher than he could make as President or perhaps the teenager’s father
is seriously injured in an accident and the youth realizes that nothing is
more important than his family and he’d prefer to stay close to home).
Plot is accomplished through a series of scenes. A scene is the
dramatization of one snapshot in time—what happens at one specific place
at one specific time. Of course, the action may unwind over a period of
several minutes or longer, but once the action is transferred to a
different setting or to a different character, that scene ends and another
scene begins. (However, the same scene continues if the viewpoint
character himself is moving, say walking down the street from one house to
another). Every scene in a novel must further the plot or develop a
character (preferably both at the same time); otherwise, it is an
extraneous scene and should be cut. Every scene should also have a feeling
of completeness about it. This is accomplished by ending the scene with an
action, thought or dialogue by the viewpoint character, hopefully
resolving or reviewing whatever “mini-crisis” the scene presented.
Most writers divide their novel into chapters. Some give a title to each
chapter; others just use numbers. There are no rules for assigning
chapters, although I’ve read advice that suggests that each chapter should
consist of three scenes or each chapter should consist of twenty pages. I
think this is up to the individual writer.
Plot is certainly one of the most important components in your novel.
There are several ways to go about developing plot. Some people outline,
putting every scene on an index card. Some people allow the plot to
develop on its own, as they write. Some people know the entire plot before
they even write one word, others discover the plot as they write. Section
8 contains a reproducible Chapter Summary Worksheet, should you like to
outline your chapters. Section 8 also contains a reproducible Novel
Summary Worksheet, which helps identify each component of your novel. This
summary can be used with the Character Trait Charts and the other material
available to create a detailed reference of all the components of your
story. If it works for you, use it. If it doesn’t, don’t.
In the meantime, happy plotting!
(from Section 2, Workbook)
Want more great tips and techniques? Our
Inspiration for Writers
Tips and Techniques Workbook is now available. Expanded tips, more
topics, reproducible worksheets, exercises to practice what you learn and
much more--check it out! Free shipping anywhere in the United States.
(c) copyright 2002 by Sandy Tritt. All rights reserved,
except for those listed here. January be reproduced for educational purposes
(such as for writer's workshops), as long as this copyright notice and the url: http://tritt.wirefire.com are distributed with the pages. For use in
conferences or other uses not mentioned here, please contact Sandy Tritt
for permission and additional resources at no or limited charge.
Critiques by Sandy
Unlike most editors, I consider my role
to be a mentor or a coach. Instead of just telling you what is wrong, I
explain how to correct the problem, and I work with you to teach you how
to write effective prose. More than 50% of my business is repeat
business, and I relish establishing long-term relationships with other
Treat you with respect and compassion.
All criticism will be of the "constructive" sort. My purpose is to
improve your writing, not to destroy your confidence.
Mark your manuscript, correcting
grammatical and spelling errors and suggesting alternative wording where
Highlight areas that are especially
well-written, so you will know where your strengths are.
Where appropriate, offer suggestions for
plot development, character development or other areas that could be
Return a two-to-four page written
analysis of your work. This will include evaluation of: plot, setting,
characterization, dialogue, special effects (flash forwards, flashbacks,
etc.), voice, point of view and any other areas particular to your work.
If appropriate, recommend reading or
resources to strengthen your areas of weakness.
Answer any questions you have via
Provide my telephone number for a
personal follow-up, if you desire.
For Sandy's success stories, see
Write Sandy at
(See Sandy's article
An AuthorMe Duet
by Bruce Cook
(Extract from Publisher’s
Christmas Letter to AuthorMe Editors)
Dear AuthorMe Editors:
As we nudge our all-volunteer
website into another year, I want to thank you all for your generous
efforts. When AuthorMe has success, it is entirely because of your
efforts. When a new writer from AuthorMe launches a new career in the
publishing world, we can look on like proud teachers or parents and feel
Last night’s Christmas service
here in the Sleepy Hollow area included a beautiful duet by two sisters -
"What Child is This?" The singers were granddaughters of a
member, so we had never heard them before. The lead singer must have had
professional voice training. Her warmth and technical skill and voice
lifted my heart, and I'll never stop hearing her song. But then, soft in
the background, her sister's voice came in, and finally this new singer -
no training, no experience - tremulously joined that of the professional.
The second singer tortured her way through her solo verse until her
professional sister joined her again and the two voices brought the song
to a glorious close.
Their song did not achieve
perfection in musical terms. But it achieved a greater thing as in
communicated the patience of a leader, the dedicated efforts of a student,
and a combines statement of personal growth and glory.
Within the thrill of the
performance I thought of everyone at AuthorMe. Each of us has patiently
shared our talents gratefully, with professional writers and tender new
writers. And, like the "What Child Is This" performance, we
offer our output on AuthorMe as a series of stories and poems that lead us
all to still more glorious expression.
This year our website has been
honored to carry many new African writers who will compete in a
prestigious writing contest called the Caine Prize. This is important for
the writers. At the same time, it has a special cultural and sometimes
AuthorMe began with the simple
aim of providing a meeting place for new writers. Secondly, we provided
resources for writers. Today, with the continuing support of our authors
and readers, we can say that we bring readers to new writers. And, we are
offering free editorial advice and support for many.
As with previous years, our
visitorship, is on the increase. Presently I read our visitor logs and
find that our numbers are hovering at the 2,000-2,500 per-day levels for a
total number of individual visitors (adding the fiction and poetry sites
together). For the fist time, our poetry site – led by our new Poetry
Editor JonaKarina Whisenant - crossed the 1,000 visitor line the other day
and we are starting to see a balance - almost as many visitors to the
poetry side as the fiction side, each day. This has been an unheard of
possibility in the past.
Next year we will concentrate on
promoting our manuscripts via syndication technology and e-mail
notifications. Also, we now have a blog and Winona Rasheed’s very
successful "Great Read" web syndication service featuring titles from our
backlist. These efforts are not "moneymakers" (for we continue
operating at a monthly loss, but they do bring our
manuscripts to the attention of a growing audience of readers.
I especially want to thank Kathy
Hartwell, our Editorial Director, who has just earned her M.A. in
Interdisciplinary Studies with a Concentration in Creative Writing and an
Emphasis in English and graduated unofficially Summa Cum Laude with a
perfect 4.0 GPA! And, Kathy is now officially registered in the Ph.D. in
Education program at Capella University. This is a tremendous effort and
we are honored to have Kathy continue service as our Editorial Director.
Please encourage her along the way, for her student/teaching schedule is
challenging to say the least. And, in many ways, Kathy can be the lead
singer in our chorus when we sing "What Child Is This" and other
Also, I want to recognize the
dedication of Adam Smith, Managing Editor, who has organized our
submission and editorial review procedures and made it possible to track
manuscripts and produce status reports on demand. (And Adam has done
plenty of editing - and revising of his epic Legend of Taarna –
along the way.)
I can't omit the undying efforts
of Ken Mulholland and his colleague Hollywood (Lyn Fox) - and the robot
Robbie - who keep producing fiction and even content for our newsletter.
And, to his credit, Ken's patience and dedication is finally resulting in
commercial publication by Loranda Press.
Now, with tiptoes on the stairs,
my family is awakening for Christmas Day, so I must sign off and regret
that I cannot chronicle the achievement of each individual AuthorMe
editor. Let’s just say that my professional relationship with each of
you means everything to me. No matter what happens, I always know you are
there, and hundreds of new writers who come to us, learn to trust us, and
grow in their writing careers.
Blessings to all,
Created You: A Guide to Temperament Therapy
AuthorMe Paperback... (Released 2005)
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Publishing New Writers,
January, 2005 (no. 601)
Publisher: Bruce L. Cook, P.O. Box 451, Dundee, IL 60118.
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Novel to Screenplay: The Challenges
Pembroke and Jim Kalergis
Some basic steps when adapting a novel
to the screenplay form.
with confidence, you've just signed
the check purchasing the rights to
adapt John Doe's fabulous, but little
known novel, Lawrence of Monrovia, to
screenplay form. Suddenly, panic
sets in. "What was I
thinking? How the devil am I
going to convert this 400-page novel
to a 110-page
answer is: "The same way you
transport six elephants in a
Hyundai... three in the front seat and
three in the back!"
and very bad jokes aside, how does one
pour ten gallons of story into a
this article, we'll take a look at
this challenge and a few others that a
writer may encounter when adapting a
novel to screenplay form.
NUMBER ONE - LENGTH
rarely run longer than 120
pages. Figuring one page of a
screenplay equals one minute of film,
a 120-page screenplay translates into
a two-hour motion picture. Much
longer than that and exhibitors lose a
showing, which translates to fewer
six-cent boxes of popcorn sold for
$5.99 at the refreshment stand.
It took the author of your source
material 400 pages to tell the
story. How can you possibly tell
the same story in 110 pages, the ideal
length for a screenplay by today's
the answer to this question is no
joke. "You can't!
Don't even try!"
look to capture the essence and spirit
of the story. Determine the
through-line and major sub-plot of the
story and viciously cut everything
"through-line" I mean, WHO
(protagonist) wants WHAT (goal), and
WHO (antagonist) or WHAT (some other
force) opposes him or her? It
helps to pose the through-line as a
Dorothy find her way back to Kansas
despite the evil Wicked Witch of the
West's efforts to stop her?"
same needs to be done for the major
Dorothy's allies achieve their goals
despite the danger they face as a
result of their alliance?"
workable technique is to read the
book, set it aside for a few weeks,
and then see what you still remember
of the story's through-line.
After all, your goal is to excerpt the
most memorable parts of the novel, and
what you remember best certainly meets
most cases, everything off the
through-line or not essential to the
major sub-plot has to go.
Develop your outline, treatment or
NUMBER TWO - VOICE
novels are written in the first
person. The temptation to adapt
such, using tons of voiceovers, should
be resisted. While limited
voiceovers can be effective when
properly done, remember that audiences
pay the price of admission to watch a
MOTION (things moving about) PICTURE
(stuff you can SEE). If they
wanted to HEAR a story they'd visit
their Uncle Elmer who drones on for
hour upon hour about the adventures of
slogging through the snow, uphill,
both ways, to get to and from school
when he was a kid, or perhaps they'd
buy a book on tape.
old screenwriting adage, "Show,
don't tell!" applies more than
ever when writing an adaptation.
NUMBER THREE -
tribes of American Indians had a word
to describe those of their brethren
who sat around thinking deep
thoughts. Literally the word
translated to, "THE DISEASE OF
often, lead characters in novels
suffer from this disease.
knew in his heart that Judith was no
good. Yet she caused such a
stirring in his loins, he could think
of nothing else. He feared
someday he would give in to this
temptation named Judith, and his
surrender would surely bring about the
end of his marriage!"
adapted directly, how on Earth would a
director film the above? All we
would SEE is Mike sitting there,
is not very exciting to say the
least. And as mentioned
previously, voiceovers are rarely the
essential plot information is
presented only in a character's
thought or in the character's internal
world, one solution is to give this
character a sounding board, another
character, to which his thoughts can
be voiced aloud. Either adapt an
existing character from the novel or
create a new one. Of course as
always, you should avoid overly
obvious exposition by cloaking such
dialogue in conflict, or through some
other technique. Even better,
figure out a way to express the
character's dilemma or internal world
through action in the external
NUMBER FOUR - WHAT
Twain is quoted as saying about
Oakland, California, "There's no
there, there". Similarly,
some novels, even successful ones, are
very shy on story and rely for the
most part on style and character to
create an effect. Some prose
writers are so good at what they do,
that their artful command of the
language alone is enough to maintain
reader interest. Such is never
the case in screenwriting.
adapting a "no-story-there"
novel to screenplay form is a daunting
task. One approach is to move
away from direct adaptation
toward, "story based
upon". Use the
brilliant background and characters
created by the original author as a
platform from which to launch a screen
story. In fact, if for any
reason a screenplay doesn't lend
itself to screenplay form, consider
moving toward a "based upon"
approach, rather than attempting a
You're now an expert on adapting
novels to screenplay form! Well
maybe not an expert, but hopefully you
have a better understanding of how to
approach the subject than you did ten
minutes ago. And if the subject
still seems too daunting, you can
always get professional help as
outlined on our web page
(c) 2004 Lynne Pembroke and Jim
Pembroke and Jim Kalergis
About the Authors:
Pembroke is a writer, poet,
screenwriter and owner of
Coverscript.com, with over 18 years of
experience in screenwriting and
screenplay analysis helping individual
writers, screenwriting competitions,
agents, studios, producers and script
consulting companies. Services
include screenplay, TV script and
treatment analysis, ghostwriting,
rewriting and adaptation of novel to
screenplay. Jim Kalergis
is a working screenwriter experienced
in the art of adaptation. Visit