Exercises, writing

Plot Breakdown

Plot can be kind of tricky at times. There are a number of factors pushing and pulling on it: character motivation, conflict, internal and external goals and in some cases setting elements. It can be the main driving force in a story, pulling characters along relentlessly and adding to their struggles, or plot can be a little less forceful, happening as characters react to conflicts and actions.

When I talked about my revision process, I promised a better look into how I do my plot breakdowns. Since this week also kicks off the start of the conflict series, this is just about the perfect time to talk about that.

To start the breakdown, I take a look at the exposition. That is, where the characters start in the story. Sometimes this covers their ‘normal’ and the inciting incident that directly involves them in the story’s conflict.

For larger stories I break the plot into three conflicts. Shorter stories might only have one or two conflicts.

Primary conflict is the major, overarching problem. The one that every character has a stake in and will be directly affected by. This could be something like Romeo and Juliet being in love despite their family’s feud. It could be that your antagonist has kidnapped your MC’s grandmother. This is the largest problem, and likely the one that won’t be solved until towards the end.

Secondary conflicts are often where I place the events that only impact the Main Character. These are usually the smaller conflicts that add complications to the larger problem. This might be finding out that he is in fact, adopted and his beloved ‘grandmother’ never knew his parents. In the case of Romeo and Juliet, a secondary conflict might be the fact that Juliet’s father tried to force her to marry Paris against her wishes.

Tertiary conflicts act a lot like your secondary conflicts, in that it won’t affect everyone. These conflicts might only impact a few supporting characters, or even just one. They’ll still add complications to your primary conflict, and can still cause problems. Back to Romeo and Juliet, a third conflict might in fact be the illness which eventually prevents the Friar’s letter from reaching Romeo. In the example of the kidnapped grandmother, it could be your MC’s grandmother is also diagnosed with an illness and will die without proper treatment.

Every plot however, has a climax, which in breakdown is the point where all three conflicts come together. This might be a singular event, or the discovery of all the problems which have occurred. For our kidnapped grandmother, the climax could very well be the MC desperately calling an ambulance to wherever she’s been held and hoping he’s made it in time to save her life, and finally learning where she adopted him from. With Romeo and Juliet, the climax is in fact, the death of Romeo in Juliet’s tomb.

Each conflict has a resolution of course. Secondary and Tertiary conflicts might be resolved somewhere closer to the climax—such as your MC finding a medication which can help slow the effects of the illness, buying his grandmother a little more time to live and get to a hospital. Obviously, this isn’t always the case, as Romeo and Juliet die very close to the end of the play and everything there is technically ‘solved’. Each conflict has its own resolution.

This usually works to cover the major events of any plot without necessarily detailing the exact when. It can also help simplify a twisted plot to make it easier to work with.


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