Where in the Story Does Your Plot Start?
A discussion about the difference between plot vs. story is anything but an academic question. Instead, like most talks about structure, how a plot is designed from the ground up defines how the audience experiences the story later in the theater. The point of attack is that first thing the audience will see or hear as the curtain goes up.
It’s the first decision that can make or break a great idea for a play, and frankly, I’ve seen too many playwrights who are confused at what point their show should begin in the story.
What’s the difference between plot and story?
Story is a chronological sequence of events: this happens, then that happens, then that happened next.
However, a plot is carefully constructed by the writer to create a meaning out of those events. A writer sorts and sifts, edits and rearranges the sequence of events in a story to tell the story in a certain way to a certain audience, to create a certain effect on that audience.
This is the craft of writing. A writer uses his own unique perspective to create meaning. A writer is not a historian nor a journalist. There’s a reason that Plot is #1 of Aristotle’s Six Elements. A weak plot will get the dramatist nowhere fast.
Early or Late Point of Attack?
It’s a generally accepted saying that in writing a play you have to “get in late, get out early.” In other words, start the plot or scene as late in the action as you can, show the action, and then get out of the plot or scene as quickly as possible. This is how most contemporary shows are built, with a late point of attack. This climactic structure allows the story to focus on building the suspense, on engaging the audience in an entertaining way while posing the dramatic question that forms the spine of the story.
Contrast this structure to its opposite, the early point of attack. Look at Les Miserables, written by Victor Hugo in the 19th century, that journeys over many years, over a vast sequence of events that all play out in front of the audience’s eyes and ears. An episodic structure unfolds episode by episode onstage, with little exposition needed. It too has a dramatic spine, but is built to explain causes – why something happened.
A climactic structure is interested in effects – what happened as a result of the inciting event.
In thinking about where the point of attack should be, keep in mind that every story and every character has a history. The problem is to decide where in that history to begin telling the tale.
Plays typically begin at a point just before the primary conflict erupts out of the world of the story. Successful musicals have a variety of both early and late points of attack.
Plays need conflict to fuel their dramatic action, so from a technical standpoint this “fuel” needs to catch fire a few pages after the point of attack – and this tells you where the point of attack should be. Let’s just say for a point of reference, for a full length play try to have the inciting event happen before page 15, on average.
Since many contemporary playwrights use a very late point of attack, their plays cover only the last few hours or days of the story’s history prior to the climax of the major conflict logically generated by that story.
Climatic vs. Episodic
In general, for plays using a Climactic Story Structure,
- Plot begins late in story, closer to the very end or to the climax
- Covers a short space of time, perhaps a few hours, or at most a few days
- Often occurs on one set
- Casts are smaller, usually not more than six or eight
- Plot is linear with few subplots
- Dramatic action occurs in a logical cause and effect chain.
By contrast, in plays using an Episodic Structure,
- Plot begins relatively early in the story and moves in a series of episodes
- Generally covers a longer period of time: weeks, months, sometimes years
- Travels to many locales, often exotic
- Often employs theatricality (flashbacks, dreams, visions, etc)
- Sometimes uses a non-linear plot structure to tell the story
- Larger casts with many actors playing multiple roles
- Frequently marked by several threads of action juxtaposed together to create a web of circumstances
How to Start the Play You Want to Write
The opening of your play needs to grab the audience’s attention, otherwise the battle is lost before it begins no matter which point of attach you’re using. In general, think about having these elements in your openings:
- Start your play as far into the story as possible. Begin well into the story, just before the inciting incident.
- Be sure that something happens early on (the inciting incident) to upset the world of the play and cause your protagonist to take action (no one likes a passive protagonist)
- Give your protagonist a critical want and make it clear to the audience. Make the stakes high.
- Be sure that the antagonist provides strong obstacles. The more even the battle, the greater the suspense.
- Get the backstory in throughout the play, when it’s necessary to do so, by gradually weaving into the dialogue the backstory exposition that happened before the start of the play.
So to sum up, a plot is a roadmap to get you where you want to go, and what you want your audience to experience at the end of the play. A plot builds a definite structure from the story’s sequence of events as determined by you, the writer..
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