Simplify Your Plot With Four Basic Questions

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I had an extremely frustrating experience with the very first playwriting class I took. There are many reasons for this, but that’s a subject for another blog post (or a novel… either way). However, just because I didn’t have a great experience does not mean that I didn’t learn anything.

No matter how much you dislike a particular teacher’s style of teaching, there is always something that you can take from the class. In fact, that’s really the way life is in general. It’s often the people and situations we find the most challenging that have the most to teach us.

One of the best thing that I learned in this class, though, was something that was taught on the first or second day. This professor had a very simple way of breaking down the plot that has since helped me, especially when I’m in the drafting stages and I’m still trying to figure out what my play/story is actually about.

When you are in the first draft stage, take a look at these four questions and see how simply you can answer them.

1. Who’s my main guy? (This was the way my prof phrased this question, but he was also a little sexist so let’s change it to “Who’s my main girl,” shall we?)

2. What does she want?

3. What gets in the way?

4. How does she overcome this?

Obviously, you are going to have subplots and supporting characters. Sometimes you may be writing a story with six or more characters who are all equally important (like in the television show, Friends, or in the film, Love Actually). However, even in Friends, you could always take the mini-stories of each episode and answer those questions.

Sometimes, it’s really easy to get caught up in all of the complicated details of plot. You can get so bogged down figuring out what the story is, that you can often lose sight of the main plot that threads the whole story together. (“And then there’s time travel and this other awesome ninja character – oh but he hates his father – oh but the father used to be an assassin and he doesn’t know…”)

One thing that really works for me is to start out with interesting characters and see where they lead me. But usually around page 50 or so, I have to stop and answer these four questions to figure out what the actual plot of the story is going to be. Everyone has different systems that work for them when writing the first draft, but sometimes it can help to take a step back, ask some basic questions, and try to answer them in simple ways. If you don’t have concise answers for each of these questions, you may still have some plot to figure out. And that’s okay.

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