The Plot Problem
The plot problem. We're finally here, finally! Up here this is "en medias res" we have made it! (Lisa laughs) We can rest on our laurels, we're here at long last. But, that doesn't mean we're going to step onto page one quite yet. Because there's something else we have to think about. And that is, finally we're at something external, right? "The Plot Problem" right? What is that plot problem going to be? At this point, you might have more than one possible problem that can span from beginning to end. You might not be 100% sure, what I'll tell you now is that, chances are, even if you have two or three that you're going between like, "which one is it?" It's not like you're gonna go "You know what? "It's that one and these other three" "they go into the delete, delete, delete." They're going to be part of it as well. What you're looking for is the driving plot problem. The one that all of the others spin off of and it gives meaning to them. Because, at the end of the day, a plot is that ...
one problem that's gonna grow, escalate, and complicate. One, single problem and it sounds simple but my advice is always start looking at what you're watching and you're reading and you'll see "Wait a minute, I can trace it back." It's a fun thing to do, to say "what is that one problem?" And almost always you can go back, and you can find it. The thing is, it's one problem. And, a problem that writers often have is they'll go "Okay, I have some idea of what the problem is." And then they write forward and somehow the problem gets solved in the third chapter. And it's like "Now what do I do?" And that's where, and I'm sure you've all had that experience you're writing and now all of a sudden you see, I always think of it as a sitting in a big, giant field and you have no idea what comes next, like none. Like, what happens? And at that point what writers tend to do is start writing really pretty. Because it's going to be beautiful and it's going to be lovely. And I don't mean "beautiful and lovely" like only beautiful, lovely things are happening, but I mean suddenly it's very well written it's just that nothing is actually happening. Another problem that writers have is they'll go "Here's the problem" but it remains conceptual and neutral all the way through and doesn't grow, doesn't escalate, or have any kind of concrete effect on your protagonist scene, by scene, by scene. For instance, somebody might write about, "My protagonist "really wants to go to Harvard and this is her senior year" "and she better do well or else she's gonna" "flunk out and not be able to go." And then we kind of watch the year go, and she does well or she doesn't but nobody's talking about the consequence she's not even thinking about it on that level and then finally it gets toward the end and now she failed math and "uh oh" it's gonna be a big thing that's gonna happen. It's gotta manifest, it's gotta be concrete, it's gotta build in every, single scene, it must have the potential to do that. Another problem writers sometimes have is that they'll go, "If one problem is good, two problems "are even better what about three!" And now they start writing forward. And here's the thing, when I say "a plot "is one problem that grows, escalates and complicates" that's not something that writers made up that's how we're wired. We expect it to be one thing. We expect everything to be there moving that story forward and we also expect, this is true of anything you write, We expect that everything that you, the writer, tells us is there on a need-to-know basis. If we didn't need to know it, you wouldn't waste our time telling us, so we're reading meaning into things where there might not be meaning. And whatever meaning we read in, since there isn't any, we're, by definition, wrong. So, when you give us two storylines like, "I got two protagonists they got two different problems" We're reading meaning because we're waiting for those two things to come together. And when becomes clear that they're not going to and now suddenly it's like, "Which one am I supposed to follow?" What happens is we end up falling in the middle and joining all those people that are binge watching "Breaking Bad" on their cell phones. And that is the end of that. So you really want to be sure that you have this one problem that can build. So let's talk now about how to test potential plot problems. There are two tests that you want to run it through. Two layers that you want to figure out. The first is; the literal, external layer. The external thing that's gonna happen. And the question is, "Can it build?" In other words, it doesn't start out one way and it's just gonna stay that way from beginning to end. Can it build? Is there a specific, impending consequence that we are aware of? Do we know where it's going? We need to know, as we'll discuss next when we talk about opening scenes, we need to know from the very beginning where we're going. Is there a consequence? Is it building or do we want it to be open ended? Like, "Well, her goal is to make a million dollars "How long does she have to do it? "Well, I don't know. "Let's say she'll die when she's "so I guess 98 years." I mean, it needs to come toward something where we have some idea of what it's gonna cost her if she doesn't and what is the scope of that novel. And, the last thing is we wanna know is there a clear-cut deadline that we are building toward. So we really do get that scope. And when I say clear-cut deadline that it's building toward, in other words a ticking clock, it doesn't mean it has to be hard and fast like that show "24". Like "24" had the (imitates ticking) and it was 24 hours and every episode was an hour in the life of Jack Bauer. Except it wasn't because it was commercial television so it was 44 minutes masquerading as an hour in Jack Bauer's life. But I mean it would tick down and that last tick would be "Is the bomb gonna go off "and downtown Los Angeles is gonna be blown to smithereens." It doesn't have to be that hard and fast and clear, but we need to have some notion of the direction that we're going and an example that I really like to give is from Elizabeth George's novel, "What Came Before He Shot Her". And the first sentence is, " Joel Campbell, "age 11 at the time, began his "descent toward murder with a bus ride." Now we know what's going on. We've got a notion of that scope. We're going toward this murder. Now, here's the thing, the edition I read, she writes really long books, the edition I read of that book was 732 pages. The murder in question doesn't happen until about page 600 and it's never mentioned again. So if you redacted that sentence, and you pulled it away I don't think you'd read that novel. And it's wonderfully written and we love Joel. He is this poor kid, he is a mixed-race kid in inner-city London and everything he does, as it is in most stories, everything he does to make things right only makes them wrong. And we just love him, he wants to take care of his family that's what he really wants, he wants to keep the family together and it just blows up in his face. Until, we get to the point of this but we know where it's going. We have an idea of what the scope is. So you really want to be sure that you get that. And as we're gonna discuss, as I said in the opening, you wanna be sure you let us know what that is at the very beginning. So we have some idea of where we're going. So that is the first question. The first set of questions that you want to ask. Now, once you get a plot problem that you're positive "Yes it can build, "it can grow, it can escalate based "on what the protagonist is gonna do. "Yes, it has a ticking clock. "Yes, there's a consequence that the ticking clock "is ticking toward so we have a notion "of where we're going absolutely." You might have more than one potential problem that would do that. So now we come to the next question. Because, all of those things could be "Yes" and it still could be not compelling. For instance, you might have a novel where your protagonist needs to climb Mount Everest. Because if they climb Mount Everest they could get a million dollars. And they're a couch potato and that's hard. So they're gonna go, and they're gonna work out, and they're not gonna eat so many Twinkies, and they're gonna get in shape, and they're gonna win that million dollars. And the reason they want to win the million dollars isn't, "Hey I just told you it's a million dollars" but because they want to go over and save the puppy sanctuary that's gonna get bowled under by the corporate, evil guy. So that's good, we're all for that. But is that a story? No, why would you really care? It's still just a bunch of things that happen. Because the problem has to also be able to force your protagonist to make that inner change that the novel is actually about. It's not enough to just have a plot. That's how you end up with "just a plot". And you need to ask yourself, "Will the problem force your protagonist "to struggle with her misbelief every step of the way?" This is the point in every scene, the way that your protagonist gets to that "Aha" moment at the end is that they earn their way to it scene, by scene, by scene, by scene. In every scene, something is gonna happen that's gonna make your protagonist struggle internally, because they're gonna try to figure out what to do. They're going to do something, it's going to cause a consequence that probably isn't going to be what they want it to be or it's not gonna feel like what they thought it would feel like. And now, they're gonna have to change a little bit. Your protagonist changes a little bit in every scene. They learn something new in every scene that changes something. It need to be capable of forcing them to do that. And again, to be very clear, when I say "they've got to struggle with their misbelief in every scene" it doesn't mean that they're just literally thinking, "Oh my god, the nicer I am to someone the more they'll try to use me" scene, by scene, by scene. It means that the way in which that has been personified in their life, and in the choices that they're making, and in the choice that they're dealing with in the story, it's affecting that. It's very clear, it's part of what they're struggling with in terms of whatever decision they've got to make in that moment and we will get that. And the next question is, if the protagonist can opt out, because hopefully it's a situation where your protagonist can't opt out, they can't decide "Hey you know what, "I don't really want to do this, "I'm just gonna go back." But let's say they can. Let's say the can go, "You know I'm done, "I'm going home with those people "who are binge watching "Breaking Bad." You want it to be that they can't do it without a great emotional cost. In other words, they can't go back to life as normal. Things can't be fine if they just decide not to do it. This is costing something and it's costing something dear to them. This is going to change them, they cannot opt out of this. So, let me give you an example of how to try to figure this out. And the example I am going to give you is from a novel. This is not published, the writer is working on her hopefully last draft and it's called "Ever Green". And Ever is the protagonist, it's a young adult coming-of-age novel and her misbelief, and I love this misbelief, her misbelief is it's safer to believe a lie than to experience a devastating truth. That's what she believes. And the devastating truth that she does not want to experience is when she was six years old her mother killed herself. So here's a bit of Ever's story, now a lot of this the writer uncovered by going back into her backstory. Now, Ever was six, she lived in Cambridge, near Harvard as a matter of fact. We're gonna go right back to Harvard, what we were talking about before! She lived in Harvard, her mother had, I think it's pregnancy onset bipolar so that the minute she had Ever, she was very young and she was a single mom and left by the guy who is the father, she is now very damaged and self medicated, so she is now also a drug addict. And she is slowly descending into, basically, madness. They're homeless, they've always been homeless. They would break into hotels and live in rooms. Ever, her mother is her whole, entire life. As far as she's concerned, as far as her mother has told her she has no other relatives whatsoever and her mother sometimes leaves her alone, but she's learned how to take care of herself she's very smart, never been to school. When she's six years old, her mother says, "There are big things in store for you, "as I've been telling you, and I'm just here "to really serve those big things "and I love you so much and I want you to get all dressed." And when I say "all dressed" I don't mean, "Don't forget to put your socks on" I mean, "Put on every article of clothing you own "and take your favorite book, and we're gonna go "to Harvard Square and I'm gonna "buy you some cupcakes too." Which she doesn't usually do because she's got no money. So they get to Harvard Square and she says, "I want you to wait for me, big things "are in store for you, I'm making that happen "I love you more than anything. "I've got to go make that happen, I'll be back." And as you can imagine, she doesn't come back. And Ever waits, and she waits, and she waits. Social Services show up and Social Services very quickly finds her aunt, who she did not know she had. In fact as far as she's concerned from some of the rantings of her mother, something Social Services is trying to sell her to somebody because her aunt is single and doesn't have any kids and lives all the way out in Desert Hot Springs in California which is far. Ever thinks, "This is not my aunt, I don't believe you." And soon after that they discover that her mother has killed herself, she does not believe that either. She is positive that her mother is alive and that if she gets back to Harvard where she should have waited, her mother will be there. That is what she tells herself. Now, that is what drives her life from that moment until 16. Now with kid logic, that's something you could believe. Because you're desperate, and you could believe. "I've just got to get back there "and then everything will be okay." At 16, if you came up with that, not so much. So because she had that misbelief and because that's how she lived, she rejected her aunt all the way through. Because she does not believe her and is really her aunt. She didn't make any friends because she was so different and was really afraid that if she told them about her mother compared to their mothers they would start saying things and she wasn't gonna go there. So now the novel opens and, in fact, she goes to school the minute she gets to Desert Hot Springs, she's very smart, she skipped a couple grades and her goal has been to get into Harvard from six and she's actually done it. Novel opens, and it is second semester, what do they call it, "second semester slump"? Isn't that what they call it with seniors? Where they've already been accepted to some school and now if they could just keep their grades up they go. And that's where the novel is going to open. So the question is what is the plot problem that is going to drive it forward, what is that going to be? And here were the choices that she had. Is it that her grades begin to fail because she's having trouble studying? Is that the plot problem? Because if she wants to get into Harvard and her grades fail she's not going to be able to go. But that doesn't really sound like a convincing plot problem because, so what? What's the answer, study more? Like, how would you even personify that or make that happen? Yeah, probably not, definitely not something that could move it forward. Second, B, has more potential. Her boyfriend's mother is a druggie, who reminds her of her own mom, and tries to get Ever to move into a life of crime. Now something's gonna happen there. You can start to see a plot with that one, absolutely. But does that force Ever to really deal with that inner issue that she's got? And with the inner issue is when you think about that, as we said, the plot is what makes the unconscious conscious. The unconscious in her case has been the realization that her mother's not gonna be there. And probably for a long amount of time she's been fighting that realization off, as we do. We sublimate when people go "Oh, my character's in denial." They'll always say, "My character "doesn't know it's in denial." And I always look and say, "It takes a lot of work to be in denial." It takes a lot of work to be in denial because something is always telling you that you're wrong and you have to fight that down. So probably not only is she thinking, "Is my mom really gonna be there?" But, "Why the hell didn't my mom try "to find me in all of these ten years?" In other words, all this stuff that she's keeping inside. Is this gonna make her realize that? Probably not, probably not gonna touch that. Although, certainly, and this is where writers often make mistakes it parallels that story enough where you might think "Yeah, maybe it does" and there might be some parallels but, no, it's not enough to dig deep. C: Kate, the aunt who raised her, thinks that Ever isn't stable enough in order to go off to school. And that's obviously true, of course that's gonna happen. But is that enough to really drive the story forward? To make her dive down and really question about her mom? Yeah, probably not, probably not gonna make her ask that. Plus, it's a YA and you don't want a back and forth. It's not like a stage play where it's like her and her aunt. We don't want her aunt in it that much. So no. So obviously, the answer is: D. D is the answer her panic attacks, she starts having panic attacks at the very beginning, her panic attacks happen with growing regularity and she's doing things that could get her committed. Now when you think about that that directly stems from her misbelief. That directly stems from the amount of emotional energy she has spent trying to deny what anyone else, what any one of us is looking at that going, "Dude, are you kidding me?" Of course your mother's dead, of course she's not waiting for you. And if she was alive... I mean, we would be seeing all of that. But her whole heart and soul is in denying that. So, here's the thing. When we're trying to build toward something like getting into Harvard, she didn't have to face that so much. Because she was focused on "Am I gonna get in "or am I not gonna get in?" She got in, now she's gonna have to actually go to Cambridge. And that means that little voice that she's been trying to shut up all that time is now yelling loud and clear, "Are you sure, look out" It's trying to protect her and it's manifesting in the form of panic attacks. And that, is what that driving plot problem's gonna be. But if you look at it you can see that, going back for a second, is that gonna make her grades fall? Yeah, definitely, it's gonna spin off of that. The boyfriend's mom? Yeah, you can totally see that. She's like, "Oh my god my mom might be there "I'm just gonna go and give myself over "to what's happening in the moment because "it could also get me in trouble "and I have to go to Harvard "and I'm reliving a bit and it's traumatic." So it's really got something going on. And then that her aunt Kate, who raised her, fears that she's not stable enough, by definition that's gonna happen. So, as you can see, it's not like she had to through away A, B, C. She just had to find the driving problem. And the driving problem was the panic attacks.