Plot assembly

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Lars Eighner

Sep 4, 1998, 3:00:00 AM9/4/98
Note followups to misc.writing.

In our last episode <>,
the lovely and talented Mariane Desautels
broadcast on misc.writing:

|How do you do it?

Well it has been nearly a year, so here is the plot thingee
from the the Austin wrevel. Be sure to view with a
nonproportional font:

Preliminary remarks: This is NOT a formula. It is a plan.
It is not the only way, but it is A way. So if sitting
around waiting for a flash of genius is not working out
for you, perhaps you might consider this (or in other
words RTFM).


Syd Field's Screenplay paradigm

20 mins.
ACT I | ACT II 80 mins. | ACT III
-----------X-|----------------------------------X-|---------- (120 mins.)
20 mins. ^Plot point A ^Plot point B

Revised for the novel

1/6 2/3 1/6
situation | conflict conflict conflict | chase
^the hook ^Plot point A ^Plot point B

Novel Structure Questionnaire

(In the book order, not necessarily the ideal order for
deciding things)

1. What is the hook?

2. What is the situation?

3. What is plot point A? (More than meets the eye)

4. What is the conflict?

5. What is plot point B? (After him men)

6. What is the chase?

7. What is the outcome?

8. Who are the agonists?

9. What are the pegs on the agonists?

10. What are the complications of the conflict? (Keeps the
plot points apart). (More are better.)



1) In most cases, the questionnaire should not be filled in according
to the above order. Probably the situation and the conflict should be
decided first.

2) The conflict is most important. It is also known as the agon
(contest). The parties of the conflict are the agonists (often in
two flavors -- the PROTagonist and the ANTagonists).

3) Express the conflict in one sentence. Usually the protagonist
should be the subject of that sentence. The verb should be very
like one of the following: seeks, strives, struggles, combats,
contests, searches.

4) Situation is NOT conflict. Example: Cowboy Carl who runs Orphans'
Ranch is abusing the children in his care. However much you may expect
every reader to find this deplorable, it is a SITUATION only. Until
there is someone on the scene who is trying to thwart Cowboy Carl, there
is no conflict.

5) THE HOOK is the interesting event that occurs (beginning in paragraph
one) at the beginning. But it has to be related in some way to the
conflict and situation -- sets it up, foreshadows it, etc. If it were
just a matter of being interesting and exciting, every novel would begin
with a train wreck. "Interesting" and "exciting" of course are in terms
of the novel. In some cases it will be a train wreck, but in a romance
or a psychological thriller it won't necessarily be some physical
A common error is to push the hook back several pages. Don't
do it. Delete the first five, ten, or however many pages to get
the hook on page one, in paragraph one. Generally the stuff in
the pages that need to be deleted is stuff that you as the author
may need to know or to consider, but the reader doesn't really
need it. There is another big rant on breaking up expository
lumps; often the problem is not really an expository lump
but excessive throat-clearing noises. Wreck the train. Don't
tell us about the weather unless lightning is going strike the

6) THE SITUATION allows us to meet the characters and to get to like
them. It kind of defines the stage for the conflict.

7) PLOT POINT A is what I call "There's more than meets the eye."
Plot point A is the event that changes the situation into a conflict.

CHINATOWN is a motion picture that illustrates the paradigm really well.
The situation is that Jack Nicholson is a private detective who
is engaged by a woman to determine whether her husband is being unfaithful.
This is not a conflict. It is routine for the private detective and we
can see that from the smooth and practiced way he conducts the interview
with his client, suggesting that maybe she really doesn't want to know
while he himself knows that this suggestion will only make her more anxious
to employ him. There is interesting stuff in the situation. For example
there is the procedural bit of putting a cheap watch under the tire of
a parked car so that the car will crush the watch when it is moved
thereby allowing the detective to know when the car left without having
sit up all night watching it. PLOT POINT A is when the detective is
surprised to learn that his client was not the spouse of the man he
was watching, that he has been used for some purpose he does not
understand at all. He seeks to discover what he has been used for and
why -- that is the conflict.

8) PLOT POINT B I call "There is the culprit, after him men!" It
is the beginning of the end. It is where the tide finally turns in
favor of the protagonist, although the "chase" may involve considerable
mopping up and tying up of loose ends.

9) The main difficulty of the book is to keep plot point A and
plot point B apart. In a romance for example, the situation is
that the beautiful theoretical physicist just can't seem to meet
the right guy. Plot point A is she makes eye contact with the
dark, handsome stranger. Plot point B is that they decide they
must spend the rest of their lives together. The problem for the
author is: why don't they figure that out after a couple of dates
and elope? That leaves you with a very short book. You have to
figure out what can go wrong, what will keep them apart for most
of the book. You probably won't think of enough of this stuff the
first time you go through the questionnaire.

10) The choices for outcomes are "Happy Ending" and "Unhappy Ending."
If you choose tragedy ("Unhappy Ending") you pretty much are obliged
to start writing tragedy on page one. Also, you have to resolve
the right conflict. "They got married and lived happily ever after"
is the outcome of a romance. It is not the outcome of a mystery.
The outcome of a mystery is whodunit.

11) A character peg is a short phrase that can be used to refer
to the character at various times. Names just don't stick
well enough. Often the character peg is an obvious physical
characteristic. Some lame examples: wears loud cowboy shirts,
has flaming red hair, pops his or her gum, etc. It is a peg
because it is what the reader hangs things he or she learns
about the character on.

12) Beware of the flaw I call "too many dragons." Have
exactly one protagonist (although there may be allies) and
exactly one main conflict. Don't try to write about
child abuse, the Mafia control of the commercial garbage business,
landlord tenant relations, and the situation of Israel all in
the same book. If subordinate issues come into it, be sure
they are subordinate. One dragon per book.

13) To a certain extent, subplots are simply somewhat less grand
versions of the main plot which involve relatively minor characters
and subordinate issues. You can fairly well use the same questionnaire
for subplots, but subplots don't generally begin in chapter one and end
in the last chapter, but are of varying lengths and overlap one another.

For example, in a mystery there may also be a romantic subplot. It
may not develop until chapter 5 and it may be wrapped before the last
chapter (in which we learn whodunit). And of course, the romance doesn't
have to work out--if it involves our detective, he or she may be left
footloose and fancy free for the sequel.

14) Rank beginners in my classes typically can fill out four or
five pretty good questionnaires in an hour. But for some reason,
alleged genius writers can't come up with even one in a week. This,
my friends, is hubris. At this stage, pretty much all ideas suck.
Geniuses who can't be bothered to work with sucky ideas will never
get past this point. Now the "stupid wannabee beginner scum"
who were silly enough to think that their instructor might know
something they didn't, indeed, kind of figured that's what they
were paying him for, do their four or five questionnaires, go
home, sleep on them, polish the questionnaires a bit, go to the
library or Alta Vista to verify their ability to do whatever
research the various ideas might require, pick the questionnaire
that sucks the least, and begin preparing a chapter outline for
class. As the class gathers the pathetic wannabees turn in their
chapter outlines and the geniuses are still looking at the first
blank questionnaire, pencils poised as if they might make a mark
on the paper if the mood struck them. Do the beginners' chapter
outlines suck? Well, yes they do. But generally two or three of
them suck in a remarkably marketable way.

15) Notice when the questionnaire is filled out, you already know
what four of the chapters will be: hook, plot point A, plot point B,
and outcome. If you have developed the complications, you may not
know exactly which chapters they are, but they are some chapters
between plot point A and plot point b. Divide whatever length you
are most comfortable working at into the total number of words in
the book you want to write. This gives you the total number of
chapters--it might be 24, 30, 42 -- obviously this is a tad easier
if you come out with a multiple of 6. Number that many lines and
start filling in working titles for the chapters--the hook in
Chapter 1, the outcome in the last chapter, the plot points a
sixth of the way in from the ends.

That pretty much concludes the plot structure stage and gets you
a leg up on the chapter outlining stage.

Lars Eighner*700 Hearn #101*Austin TX 78703* FreeBSD 2.2.7
(512)474-1920 (FAX answers 6th ring)
Please visit my web bookstore:
Fer sell cheep: IBM spel chekker. Wurks grate.

Harry Claude Cat

Sep 10, 1998, 3:00:00 AM9/10/98
Aspiring authors, if you haven't read the plot assembly plan posted by
Lars Eighner, go to Deja News, select Power Search and enter the
following into their search engine.

From: (Lars Eighner)
Subject: Re: Plot assembly
Date: 04 Sep 1998
Message-ID: <>

He's probably the only Pushcart Prize winner and New York Times Book
Review Critics Choice you'll ever encounter in these newsgroups.

Cartoon CoffeeShop
byoc = bring your own cartoons ;-)

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