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Plotting Basics

[ Edited ]

We will explore the way you create a plot for a movie. Read Chapter 2 of Writing Movies.

Plotting Basics

People watch movies in real time. That means you need to hold the audience's attention every moment or they will tune out. No time for unnecessary scenes. No chance to let things sag. Every piece of the plot has to be compelling, an essential part of the whole. You've seen movies where your eyes have been glued to the screen every second, and you've seen movies where your attention began to stray early on. So you know what we're talking about.

So, how do you create a great plot?

First, you need a major dramatic question (MDQ). The major dramatic question is what will drive your plot. It's composed of a protagonist and a goal. For example, the MDQ of Raiders of the Lost Ark: Will Indiana Jones obtain the Ark of the Covenant? Indiana is the protagonist and he will spend the entire movie trying to get his hands on the Ark. And to make the plot interesting, you need lots of obstacles blocking the protagonist from achieving the goal. You can probably recall some of the many obstacles Indy faces.

And then you need to arrange your plot into three acts -- beginning, middle, end. The beginning is where you set things up and introduce the MDQ. The middle is where the protagonist fights like hell to achieve the goal. The end is where the plot climaxes and the MDQ is answered.

This may sound formulaic, but the vast majority of movies adhere to these basics. In some movies, typically more mainstream films, the MDQ and breakdown of the three acts are fairly easy to spot. In other movies -- and this often applies to Indie-style films -- the mechanics of the plot are disguised with subtlety, but they are usually there if you look hard enough.

Because plot is so important to a screenplay, screenwriters usually spend time outlining their story before plunging in to write. In fact, it's not uncommon for screenwriters to spend more time outlining than actually writing the script.

The Viewing Assignment

The Writing Exercise

Imagine a character in a short film that begins with going on a date. (You can use the character you started to create in the "Visual Storytelling" topic if you like.)

Outline the plot using only 5 or 6 steps. Each step represents an event in the story, and you should spend no more than one to four sentences describing the broad strokes of each step. This means you will have to focus on the bare-bones events without getting into any kind of character nuance.

Make it so your story falls into one of these genres: romantic comedy, horror, or thriller. In fact, start off by stating the genre.

Your outline might look something like this:


  • Maria is in a restaurant, waiting for her boyfriend of a month, Max. A woman, Selma, comes and asks if she's waiting for Max. When Maria says yes, Selma, claiming to be cop, says that Max is a wanted criminal and she needs to question Maria.
  • Selma drives Maria, saying they are going to the police station. Getting a weird vibe, Maria soon asks to be let out of the car. But she now wonders about Max.
  • Maria returns to restaurant, where she finds Max waiting. When Maria tells what happened, Max says it must have been a crazy person who got his name off the reservation list. Max says they should skip the restaurant and he'll cook them dinner at his place.
  • Maria goes to Max's place, unsure if she can trust him or not. As Max cooks, Maria snoops. She needs to know the truth.
  • She finds Selma in the bedroom, with a gun. She reveals that she is not a cop but Max's wife (whom he lives with somewhere else), and she was trying to cause trouble for Max's tryst. Max admits this is true. Maria disarms Selma and calls the police as Max and Selma yell at each other.

You only get 5-6 steps, so don't get too ambitious with your plot. And don't worry if your story is rather lame (as is our example). The idea is here is to practice plotting, not to create a brilliant plot.

To share your passage with the group, create a New Message and use "(Your Book Club User Name), Plotting Basics -- Writing Exercise" in the subject line.

Message Edited by Jessica on 05-24-2007 01:31 PM

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