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 defines how the audience experiences the story.
An early point of attack gives you the musical Les Mis, where you see the epic story in its totality play out in front of the audience. There is little or no need for exposition, since the audience sees every important moment play out in front of their eyes.
A late point of attack gives you Oedipus Rex or just about any contemporary drama or musical that you can think of.
Plotting Your Story
The “wright” in playwright means “maker.” It is useful to remember that plays are constructed; they have a shape that is chosen for a reason by the author.
A story is a chronological sequence of events: this happens, then that happens, then that happens next.
A plot, by contrast, is carefully constructed by the writer to create meaning out of those sequence of events. A playwright sifts and sorts, edits and rearranges the sequence of events in a story to tell the story in a certain way to create a certain experience for a certain audience.
This is the craft of playwriting . There’s a reason that plot is #1 of Aristotle’s six elements. A writer uses his or her own unique perspective to create a meaning, a message, a takeaway for the audience. A writer is not a historian nor a journalist.
And a weak plot will get the dramatist nowhere fast.
So let’s ask the question again: Where in the story does your plot start?
Early or Late Point of Attack?
It’s a generally accepted saying that in writing a play today you have to “get in late and 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 dramas are built, with a late point of attack. (Classical plays also have a late point of attack,fyi.)
This climactic structure with a late point of attack allows the plot to focus on building the “suspense,” or on engaging the audience’s attention in an entertaining way while playing out the dramatic question that forms the spine of the story. A late point of attack begins in the midst of the conflict, and we find out important details about the past on the way to a much greater conflict in the rising action.
Contrast this structure to the opposite, the early point of attack. In Les Miserables, written by Victor Hugo in the 19th century, the action covers many years, over a vast sequence of events that all play out in front of the audience’s eyes and ears. An episodic structure like this unfolds scene by scene onstage, with little backstory. It too has a dramatic spine, but this plot takes us from the very beginning of a story and allows us to experience each moment leading up to the main climax for ourselves, with little to no exposition needed. Shakespeare also uses an early point of attack, as his average play length was three hours. (You can show quite a bit of history in three hours.)
Plots with early points of attack tend to emphasize the past, and understanding the causes of events that took place. Those with late points of attack seek to make us understand the dynamics that lead up to a conflict and the repercussions that followed.
One is not better than the other. It is simply two ways a playwright can attack a story.
A Writer’s Checklist: Plot
A plot is a roadmap to get you where you want to go, and a blueprint for what you want your audience to experience at the end. A plot builds a definite structure from the story’s sequence of events.
Here’s a quick Writer’s Checklist for Plot:
- Get in late, get out early
- Stasis: start right before the inciting event. Identify the world of the play and start the action quickly.
- Inciting event: generally happens within the first 10-15 minutes of a play or musical.
- The inciting event immediately launches the rising action, the journey the hero undertakes to get what he wants.
- Clarify wants of the main characters early in the play and their obstacles by the first 20 minutes.
- Midpoint reversal
- Surprise twist – end of Act 1 in musical, and halfway through a play
- New goal or intensified goal accelerates the action
- This could be a subtle event, even an internal (psychological) reversal
- “11:00 Number” traditionally occurs right before the climax (in musicals) for fun or theatricality
- Climax, with an anagnorisis (where the hero and others fully understand where the journey has brought them or taught them), and a peripeteia (a reversal of some sort), which brings about an emotional catharsis in the audience.
- Resolution – plot points are resolved logically (no deus ex machina)
- The Finale (in a musical) delivers the theme in a rousing tune that stays with the audience as they leave the theater.
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