Of all the Pillars of story, Plot is certainly the hardest to master. Knowing what elements to include, and the order in which to put them determines just how engaging your story is.
Will they watch all the way through? Will they press play a second time and come back for more?
Today we'll look at an episode of The Remarkable Ones and break down the plot so you can see exactly what makes the story work.
First, take 7 minutes to watch this short story on Chris Darwin and his journey to settle some unfinished family business.
Try to separate the filmmaker in yourself and just take in the story. When you're done, we'll then break down the story structure into 10 small pieces so you can see how they all connect, and what makes it tick.
This is a far stronger exercise if you can watch first and try not to analyze too much :)
Okay, great. A couple quick points before we take the story apart.
The functional unit of plot is what we call a plot point. A plot point is quite simply a beat, or moment in the story. A plot point could be a few seconds or a couple minutes.
The key is to think about your story in terms of the plot points it contains.
Doing this gives you visibility on how the story moves from one beat to the next. Instead of trying to think about every line or frame within a piece, you can focus on the key things that happen, and look at the arrangement of these plot points as the way of maximizing your story structure.
So our first step in understanding the story of Chris Darwin is to reduce the 7:03 film down into the plot points. What you find is that only 9 things happen in the entire film.
Here are the plot points in the order they happen.
It's powerful to be able to break down your story into just a few key moments that happen.
Ask most filmmakers about what happens in their story and they'll struggle to communicate it in a clear and succinct way. Instead, it becomes a long, rambling, run-on sentence. It's critical to realize that if you can't break down and explain your story in a few key moments, then it's highly likely your audience will feel it's too complex and messy (which means they won't be nearly as engaged).
Regardless of how many plot points your story has, there are just a few key moments that end up making the most difference.
In the infographic above we've colored these critical plot points green. Let's explore what each means and why they matter.
What's critical to realize in looking at a story structure is to remember that the simplest way to break it down is to look at the two opposing forces of Desire and Conflict. Story is all about a person with a strong desire who runs into a conflict.
For Chris Darwin, he clearly has a desire to find his place in the world (as a descendant of Charles Darwin). We hear from the opening frame about him failing biology and then taking a path of 'being peculiar' based on his grandmother's advice. This leads him into advertising with some pretty crazy stunts–the world's highest dinner party, an underwater book signing, and so much more.
When he ultimately finds his advertising to be empty and meaningless, he attempts to end his life.
So here we have a character, Chris Darwin, who has this strong desire to find his place in the world and ultimately ends up attempting suicide, the conflict, when the thing he thought he'd found turns out to be empty.
Your first plot point is what we call the Hook. It's the first couple frames and what needs to hook your audience–pull them into your story. An ineffective hook and you'll loose your viewer.
In looking at the story structure, the first two plot points setup the desire, and then the third brings in the conflict. All together these three points make up the beginning of the story, and setup the journey.
The entire middle of the story is Chris' journey in trying to find his purpose, and how he might live that out. These plots points are about building up the anticipation for the ending. Said another way, the middle of the story is about maximizing the impact of the ending by developing a powerful journey.
Had we just gave away the answer right away, it wouldn't be felt nearly as much. When we see the character work to overcome, we become far more connected and enjoy their victory when it's reached.
And that brings us to the last two critical plot points of the Resolution and the Jab.
The Resolution is quite simply the answer to the conflict, and the Jab is what you leave your audience with, what is commonly thought of as a call to action.
For this film, the resolution is when we learn that Chris was able to best minimize his impact be eating less meat. And the Jab is then his invitation for you, as the viewer, to take one day a week without meat.
What's critical to understand is that this whole story is built out of desire and conflict and that these four main plot points end up making the largest impact in your story.
As you move forward in your filmmaking, try breaking your story down into just a few key plot points before you go into production. Push yourself to try and simplify and remove everything that isn't needed.
If you can develop the 4 main plot points and ensure each is powerful, you're sure to have a story that engages.