How to Build Your Dramatic Plot With Creative Writing
NaNoWriMo Getting Ready Series 4
This is an excerpt from PLOTTO Genie For Pulp Fiction and Romantic Dramas, by Wycliffe A. Hill, first published 1931. As an aid to writer’s block, this book was originally produced to teach writers the basics of plot formation. Along with Cook’s PLOTTO, this book has been a consistent aid to writers for nearly a century. Enjoy.
The writer should bear in mind that all dramatic plots are composed of combinations of certain elements just as melody or tune is the result of a combination of various notes of the octave and their shadings or variations. It is all a matter of composition. just as is a beautiful picture.
In a dramatic plot there are two elements, i.e., people and dramatic situations. One is involved in the other. The story must always contain one or more problems which affect certain characters, and then the question of whether or not these problems will be solved, and how they are to be solved immediately, affords suspense and entertainment—necessities in a dramatic plot.
There are a number of ways in which a character may set about solving a problem which confronts himself or a loved one. He may use prayer, ruse, or strategy, force, threat, or barter. Resorting to these is likely to precipitate further conﬂict or bring about added complications which must be overcome. Therefore, the plot becomes more complex and the drama more intense.
As outlined above, there are thirty-one basic dramatic situations, and all plots must be composed of two or more of these basic situations. There is no other material in the world with which to build plots, but there is, nevertheless, an almost inﬁnite number of variations of these situations. Furthermore, the combinations of situations can bring about almost innumerable variations of plot. In fact. there are as many variations possible in plot building as there are in melody-making from eight major notes.
Just as no two people look alike or possess the same kind of thumb print, so no two carefully constructed plots need be alike. Thus, it will be easy to understand how the Plotto Genie can assist the author in creating new plots. With it, the novice and the expert alike can build dramatic plots as a mathematician juggles ﬁgures. and such a writer will be able in a short time to create enough plot material to keep him busy writing the rest of his life.
Rounding out the Plot
Having now considered the proposition of where and how to get plot material and that of building the framework. our next step is that of rounding out the plot. In other words, we are to consider the matter of technique.
It makes no difference how good a dramatic plot we have invented, if the story is not told or presented properly. it fails. We must go back over our plot and ask ourselves these questions:
- Is the plot logical?
- Does it sustain interest throughout?
- Are the characters human ?
- Is their motivation correct?
- Does the plot introduce suspense and hold it until the end?
- Have we worked up to a big climax ?
- Does the plot contain any blind alleys?
- Are there any loose ends?
- Any unexplained elements?
- How about the introduction of pathos and heart interest?
- Is there any comedy relief?
- Can the reader foretell the climax?
- Is the plot hackneyed?
- Have we permitted an anti-climax?
Suspense and Climax
In every well developed story we have a number of sub-climaxes in addition to the real climax at or near the end of the story. Generally speaking, climax is the highest dramatic point to which a situation ascends, and then breaks. The real climax of a story or plot is the big situation which comes as a solution to the opening complication. It is the culmination of everything that has gone before in the plot.
Suspense and Climax go hand in hand. One cannot exist without the other. In other words. a climax must be preceded by suspense, otherwise it falls ﬂat. And again, if suspense is present—a climax is bound to follow when the dramatic situation reaches the highest point to which it can go—and breaks. In the most strained and exciting situation, something must happen. Whatever happens is the climax. The terrible uncertainty as to what is going to happen is suspense.
Suspense is therefore the element of profound interest and uncertainty of the outcome which accompanies a dramatic plot or situation. The more intense the dramatic situation, the greater the suspense. In the average popular love story we have two threads of suspense running parallel throughout. One works up to a lesser climax, breaks and starts again immediately, as a situation affecting the life, liberty or happiness of the principal character. In other words. this is the thread which accompanies the progressive series of lesser climaxes that take place throughout the story.
The other, or main thread, is the one which begins with the opening complication. or dramatic situation, as soon as we get acquainted with the principal character in the story. It continues, unbroken, to the main climax near the end of the story which decides his fate.
As a rule, it is desirable to bring all the principal characters in the story as near together as possible for the ﬁnal climax. If this is not done, an anti-climax is likely to result.
To avoid the anti-climax, develop the story to the exact point where the climax takes place,—and then STOP! Do not kill your climax with any further developments.
Here is a good example of an anti-climax which should be easily understood. Let us suppose that two young men with whom we are acquainted are both in love with the same girl. They are college athletes. Both are captains of football squads for their respective universities. There is a test game coming off. The girl thinks she loves them both. and has made up her mind that she will marry the one that wins. Fine! The game is a terrific battle throughout which we are kept in suspense. Perhaps we like one of the fellows better than We do the other. Maybe we have discovered that one of them has planned to “throw” the game. That heightens our interest and the suspense. Now, we are not only interested in seeing the other fellow win because he deserves to do so, but there are high stakes in sight. Again and again it looks as if the villain’s side is going to win. The blacker it looks for our hero, the greater will be the suspense. Finally, the hero’s side wins by a scratch. The girl rushes into his arms as he comes up exhausted. The villain looks on with hatred and disappointment. We are exultant! Here is our climax. It is great! If the story ends there we feel that we have been properly entertained.
But wait! Just as the girl throws her arms about our hero, a secret service man walks up and placing his hand on the boy’s shoulder, announces that he has a warrant for his arrest! Here is the beginning that constitutes a decided anti-climax. The result is that the reader is disgusted. He wanted to read ONE story through to a satisfactory ending. He is not interested in and does not want to be bothered with another.
The ultimate object of every story writer is to create an emotional reaction in the mind of his reader, and he should plan his story with this end in view.
It rests with him whether he shall make his reader laugh or weep, suffer or rejoice. as through the power of his artistry he is able to convey these emotions to his readers through the actions and speech of his characters.
Each action of each character produces a certain effect and the certainty with which this will arouse an emotional response in the reader is governed by the cause behind the effect. This cause and resulting effect in ﬁction and drama is known as motivation and the writer would do well to make a careful study of this element. Unless each effect is the result of a logical cause the actions of the characters in the story will not be convincing.
The art of motivation is not difficult to learn. It might be concisely defined as cause and effect—BECAUSE certain things happen they give rise to other action which creates a certain pre-conceived effect. It has been said that a writer ﬁrst shows the reader that something may happen and then proceeds to have it happen.
Motivation intensifies drama for when the reader realizes the cause underlying the actions of a character, he will react more readily to the situations or predicaments in which that character ﬁnds himself.
If a story is properly motivated it will be convincing because it will have an atmosphere of logic and probability. This illusion of reality will make it seem a fragment of life itself rather than a creation of the author‘s imagination.
Blind alleys lead nowhere. They are just false scents which cause us to stray from the main path and not only lose valuable time, but fall behind the rest of the procession. That is exactly what happens when we open a blind alley in a story.
To open a blind alley in the story means to establish a false premise. It may be in the introduction of a character who for a time occupies the center of the stage and then drops out of the story. The reader is led to believe that such a character will play an important role, only to be disappointed by his disappearance.
Another form of a blind alley is a bit of action on the part of some of the characters which leads the reader to believe that some important development will follow as a consequence.
Straight Line Stones and Those Carrying Sub-Plots
A straight line story is one in which there is a single conﬂict. Someone desires something very much. The manner in which these obstacles oﬂer increasing opposition—how the life, liberty. or happiness of the principal character is placed in jeopardy—and how the obstacle is ﬁnally overcome constitutes a straight line story.
The complex plot is one in which a second conﬂict between the hero or heroine and outside forces—or a conﬂict which exists between two outside elements-—is introduced. In other words, the straight line story embraces a single dramatic triangle, while the complex plot may introduce a double or multiple set of angles. As the writer can understand, more than one dramatic triangle is extremely difficult to handle so as to hold the attention of the audience or reader in a way that is not confusing.
There should he touches of pathos and heart interest in every story—as well as the element of surprise. Pathos is that quality in the story which excites pity. It may be introduced with a bob-tailed puppy which has its leg broken. A rivalry between unequals. the supplication of an unfortunate, or the struggle of any being against overwhelming odds, is pathetic because it excites pity.
Heart interest is that responsive chord in the heart which is struck by witnessing an object or incident, the significance of which is brought home to us. A litter of pigs or puppies; a playful domestic pet; a canary; a mother’s love for her infant; the portrayal of sweet innocence; or the tender affection of an old couple, are beautiful touches which add heart interest. In other words, it is the purer and nobler things in life. devoid of conﬂict or selfish desire which touch the tender chords of the human heart. The touches may be ever so delicate, yet they are the little high-lights which make the pictures perfect. A ragged newsboy leading a blind man across a traffic-jammed street will not fail to touch a tender chord in the most calloused heart. A study of the covers of the front pages of many of the popular magazines will reveal an example of the things which make for heart interest.
Example of Pathetic Situations
A man who has succeeded in mounting to fame with the assistance of a self-sacrificing and devoted wife—who has outstripped her socially, so to speak, becomes cold toward her, critically compares her manner of appearance with other younger and more beautiful women. The lines in her face—those dark rings under her eyes—and the rough texture of her skin—have all come as a result of the sacrifices she has made for him. Now he studies—and compares her with—other younger women who have suffered nothing—who know nothing of privation and sacrifice. Perhaps he is just thoughtless, but it hurts her. Although she remembers how she has stood by his side when he had nothing—was nobody—until she makes another effort to “primp up”—to hide those lines of care—to smooth out those wrinkles, just to please him. He comes in and ﬁnds her hoping for a word of praise. He does not notice her. and talks of his professional accomplishments. Shyly she tries to attract his attention, but still he does not notice her. She groans inwardly and turns away! That is pathos.
Here is another situation which is full of pathos—one which occurs in “The Sign of the Rose,” a well-known starring vehicle in which the late George Beban was featured all over the country. It was also produced on the screen.
A poor Italian, who has not been in America very long. comes home one night from a hard day’s labor and ﬁnds that his only loved one on earth. his little girl. Rosie, has been run over and killed by an automobile. His extreme grief is pathetic. Later, he ﬁnds a youngster who has strayed from home, and his love for the departed Rosie is lavished upon the new-found child. Through circumstances. wholly accidental, it is made to appear that he has kidnapped the child. He is arrested, and learns that the man who has had him arrested is the same one whose big automobile ran over and killed his little Rosie. He protests his innocence, but to no avail.
Here we have an extremely pathetic situation, which gives an opportunity for a good actor to display some wonderful work.
Dramatic Action Not to Be Confused With Physical Action
Dramatic action is one thing and physical action is another. Too many students confuse the two when the term ”action” is used in the description of a plot. Dramatic action does not necessarily mean violent physical movement. It may picture an inward struggle that approaches the superhuman, yet there may be little physical movement.
Sometime ago I read a story in which the hero is captured by the enemy and subjected to torture. The enemy rigged up a stretching machine by fastening ropes to the hero’s head and feet. which are connected with a windlass. The enemy then pulls the hero’s body taut and demands that he disclose the whereabouts of certain valuable maps. As he refuses, the windlass is turned and the ropes tightened. Again he refuses to be a traitor to his country—even to save himself. Again and again the ropes are tightened, until the veins in his face stand out like whipcords. Here we have an illustration of intense dramatic action with very little physical motion, as the face of the hero and his agonized cries tell of the terrible physical torture that he is suffering.
Two men meet in the dark. One is a burglar and the other the intended victim. They cannot recognize one another, and a ﬁght to the death results. When the victor strikes a match, he ﬁnds that the burglar is his own son. He remembers how he has driven the boy away from home for a trivial offense— forced him into starvation—and now he has killed him.
There is great dramatic action as the father contemplates the stiffening form of his own boy. and a remorse that is worse than hell itself takes possession of his soul. He cries out in mental agony—dramatic action of the most powerful kind—with practically no physical movement. There are several of the basic dramatic situations involved in this incident. It would be a useful exercise to pick them out.
Spectacle means spectacular events such as a collision between two locomotives; a battle between armies; mobs in a riot; an earthquake, ﬂood, etc.
Spectacle is valuable in a story only when it affects the fates of our principal characters. It has been said: “A circus may legitimately have sideshows, but the drama cannot.” There is a danger in substituting spectacle for dramatic action. It may obliterate the ﬁner mechanism of the drama with a realism that satiates, which makes everything that follows seem insipid. The entire plot may be lost in the wreckage of the spectacle.
Spectacle merely assaults the nerves, while true drama appeals to the heart. Romanticism and idealism may be completely overwhelmed by spectacle. The contributive elements to romance or idealism must be delicate, not spectacular. Even melodrama may be spoiled by too much spectacle. This is illustrated in such works as “The Hair-Raising Exploits of Dick the Diamond Robber,” and some of the serial stories we see on the screen and read in the cheaper magazines.
The Dramatic Scale
The scale of dramatic entertainment may be said to run as follows:
(1) Romantic, or Ideal, Drama.
(2) Comedy Drama and Satire.
(4) Burlesque, Straight Comedy and Comedy Melodrama.
(5) Farce and Slapstick.
There is a decided difference between pure drama and melodrama, yet the dividing .line is invisible. There is an overlapping of one into the other. Pronounced melodrama is pure drama exaggerated. We approach melodrama as soon as the dramatic action in our story assumes a sensational nature. The characterization of the principal characters in melodrama, both the good and the bad elements, are somewhat overdrawn. The hero and heroine are shown to be very, very good, while the actions of the opposing factions are extra— ordinarily violent. Murder, abductions, ﬁghts, robberies, and devilish plots have their place in melodrama. Here we have a purely physical conﬂict. In the drama of the romantic. or ideal type. we have more of a spiritual struggle.
In comedy drama, we have a pronounced element of comedy throughout the drama. There are serious or dramatic moments in comedy-drama, but none in straight comedy. Comedy may be injected into melodrama also, making it comedy-melodrama. Satire is witty censure. and a form of comedy-drama. Burlesque is an imitation of drama, done in ridicule. It is clownish, while satire is dignified. Slapstick comedy is melodrama exaggerated to the point where it becomes ridiculous.
One of the most important factors to be considered in writing a story is the selection of a theme. There are many kinds of themes. Some are good and some are bad. Some depend for their popularity on their timeliness, or the existing public frame of mind. There are some themes that are always good, and still others which are at all times questionable, if not to be avoided altogether. Among those which are always good might be listed: self-sacrifice. mother love, patriotism, loyalty, faith. reward of merit, etc.
Among the themes which should be avoided are: the race question—or a story which has a tendency to arouse enmity and antagonism between the races; those which stimulate class hatred. or arouse the ire of one class or sect against the other. A story which casts reﬂection on any religion, as well as those which depend for their chief interest on the sex problem, are always questionable themes.
As stated before, some themes are popular at one time and not at another. For instance, during the World War, patriotism and militarism were rampant. and there was naturally a great demand for stories dealing with military and naval operations. Patriotism and War were chief themes. A short time after peace was declared these themes became very unpopular, and there was no market whatsoever for war stories. We then had a season in which stories dealing with spiritualism and psychic matters were very popular. This probably resulted from the fact that friends of those killed in the war wished to communicate with the spirits of the departed.
One motion picture producer succeeded in popularizing the divorce theme, and there followed a deluge of pictures dealing with the divorce and domestic problem. There have been many other themes, the popularity of which has gone in cycles. The author who is able to reach the market at the proper moment with a story carrying a timely theme is likely to realize high returns for his effort. On the other hand. he risks losing out completely should his story arrive too late. Hence, it is considered the best policy to write on such themes as are always good.
The treatment of any theme requires the delicate exercise of good judgment. While remaining passively impersonal himself. the author conveys powerful personalities to the characters whom he creates. He should therefore remain always on the side of justice, decency, and good citizenship. Embodied in the hero should be the ﬁgure of Justice, which shows no mercy to the wrongdoer, yet whose sympathies are always with that which is pure, noble and good. It is not necessary for the writer to be a prude or preacher. His work should inspire better things rather than to attempt to teach them.
All of this is meant to impress upon the mind of the reader that no story is perfected with one writing. Like everything else, it must be developed gradually, step by step. In other words, we might say that beginning with the plot, which is the mere bud. the story unfolds like a rose until it presents a perfect picture from every angle.