Posted in 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.

Posted in writing

Plot: Mistaken Jealousy

Mistaken jealousy takes a little bit to understand as a plot, but becomes a wonderful scenario for character and plot-driven stories once you do. You can check out the other plot scenarios here.

  • A jealous person covets a possession belonging to an accomplice due to the interference of an adversary or mistake.

Role-wise this is a busy and twisted scenario already. Your key elements here are your jealous person, your possession and your adversary or mistake. Some variants of this scenario don’t need a supposed accomplice, depending on what exactly your jealous person is jealous of. The basic conflict here arises however because of that adversary or mistake–remember that in this situation the jealousy is raised in falsehood and erroneous judgement.

Because of the dual conflicts going on here, this is an excellent choice for a main plot. Not only do you have the jealous person’s attempts to gain their coveted possession, but you also have the adversary’s interference and attempts to keep themselves hidden from the accomplice. This gives you plenty of space for character development and the development of the relationship between characters. Alternately, the motivation of jealousy can make this useful for a plot-driven story.

As a minor plot, it may be helpful to keep this particular scenario as simple as possible. Rather than trying to work a double conflict into one subplot, the mistake of judgement or adversary’s interference may need to be as clear as possible. This makes it less appealing as a plot-driven scenario and more inclined towards a character-driven arc.

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Plot: Dishonored Beloved

A dishonored beloved plot can bring a whole new layer of complexity and twists to the story when employed. If you’d like, you can check out all of the plot scenarios here.

  • A wrongdoing is discovered against a loved one.

The roles for the dishonored beloved plot are extremely variable. You must have someone who commits the wrongdoing, you must have the loved one and you must have someone who discovers that wrongdoing. However, there is nothing to say that you can’t pile these roles on top of one another. For instance, having the loved one discover that their spouse has been having an affair (classic adultery). Alternately, have the wrongdoer find out that the person they’ve committed a crime against is in fact someone they care about. There are numerous ways to twist this plot.

Because of it’s great flexibility, as a main plot it works well in both character and plot driven stories. How characters act and react each to each part of the wrongdoing, discovery and resolution gives you ample room for character arcs. Making that wrongdoing a part of a larger crime plays well with plot-driven stories where the end goal is the gain or downfall of a group of people.


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Plot: Sacrifice

Sacrifice as a plot opens up space for a lot of internal conflict and character motivation. If you’d like to check out some other plot scenarios, you can do so here.

  • An object or person is given up to accomplish a goal or an ideal.

Looking at it initially, you might feel limited in the amount of roles you have to play with, but don’t be fooled. Not only do you have the person committing the sacrifice, the one attempting to stop said sacrifice, but you also have the one who takes the person or thing sacrificed. In some instances, the person who is given up is also the one committing the sacrifice, making this a case of self-sacrifice. In these cases, those who are left to complete that goal or ideal also fill out your roles.

Conflict can actually occur as both internal and external forms with a sacrifice plot. Depending on what is being given up and the cost of doing so, whoever commits to it may have reservations about doing so, even in the name of reaching their goal. As an external conflict, another party may want to prevent the sacrifice for varying reasons, either because they are the one to be sacrificed, or because they don’t feel it’s the best solution.

As a main plot, the goal itself needs to be relatively big and have an impact on everyone involved, with the sacrifice itself becoming the final solution and potentially your climax (this obviously may not hold true based on your story’s events and how exactly they take place). As a minor plot, the conflict over whether or not to make that sacrifice may work better in center stage.

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Plot: Familial Competition

Feuding families are often the basis for many other plots as they provide an easy personal conflict and motivation for characters. You can check out the other plot scenarios here.

  • One family wishes to achieve the same goal as another family.

Because you’re dealing with groups of characters, there is plenty of space to work with. This however, does mean that you’re often dealing with larger casts of characters and is something to be aware of when tackling this as a plot scenario.

In regards to the goal remember that familial competition might also include attempting to destroy the other family. Alternately, one family may only be trying to stop the other family from achieving their goal by any means necessary.

Because of the scale of the conflict, this particular scenario works best as a minor plot, working in the background. It can lend flavor to political intrigues, forbidden loves and love triangles, or even just as character backstories to help explain the dynamic between particular characters.