Sunday, June 16, 2013

Plotting Game - Movie-of-the-Week Plot Structure

A reminder -- this week the blog is on hiatus.  The Case of the Misplaced Baroness blogstory will continue June 24th.

In the meantime, Tanja asked for more info about my Potting Game project, in particular the Movie-of-the-Week plotting structure.

Since I decided to give you more info on the various parts of the game and theory behind in my Sunday updates anyway, I decided to start now in answer to her question;

Where I Got This Movie-of-the-Week Structure

Back in the day, a movie-of-the-week had a pretty rigid structure.  It's exactly two hours long, it's split up into seven parts by standard two-minute ad breaks.  The ad breaks and credits take up about 15 minutes of the two hours.  That leaves a 105 minute script.  The average length of a scene in that kind of writing is about a minute and a half.  That's about 70 scenes per story, split up into seven acts -- or 10 scenes per act.

Oy, that's a lot of math, but it's also convenient for developing a production.  A TV production HAS to fit its time slot, so you need to develop it with the criteria in mind from the start.  It's not really meant for anything else.  However....

One of my mentors, who worked for a MOW producer, found that the company's scene breakdown sheet was a really great tool to use to study other movies.

Note, I didn't say it was a great for writing from.  It is great for writing Movies of the Week, but it's too restrictive for writing much else.  But those tiny, micromanaging restrictions (in particular the tiny 1.5 minute increments) are great to use as a ruler to study any kind of movie.

So she made copies of the 70-line scene breakdown form and gave it to us, and told us to go watch movies and write down what happens every 1.5 minutes.  Circle the important things, like character entrances and major revelations and plot turns.

Now, in the form she gave us, there were seven defined plot points -- one for the end of each act.  I don't know if she got these from the producer, or added them herself. They are mostly variations on well-known plot theory in the industry. (Everything from Syd Field to The Hero's Journey.)

In studying films against the beat sheet herself, she found that no matter what kind of story it was, those seven plot points seemed to apply.  And I have found she is right.  You can find something like these points even in the weirdest art house film.  It applies to books if you are flexible about the timing.

But that's for studying a plot.

If you're going to use it to help write something, it works best for your more commercial type story.  (However, it is a good springboard to develop tools for other kinds of stories. I may get to that later on.)

The 7-Plot Points of a MOW Story

NOTE: I have seriously adapted this for myself. I found a couple of the spots to be vague or unhelpful, so I filled in with some great information from Blake Snyder's excellent Save the Cat book.  I still haven't finished my version to my complete satisfaction.

Act 1 - The Protagonist's life is thrown out of balance.
Set up the character and setting -- end the act with the Inciting Incident, where things go wrong.

Act 2 - The Protagonist commits to the Quest
The Protagonist reacts to the Inciting Incident, realizes it's an ongoing problem, and commits to dealing with it.  (NOTE: this "quest" is the central idea of the story -- it's what you describe in the logline or blurb.  It's The Premise.)

Act 3 - The Promise of the Premise
This is a Blake Snyder thing. He also calls it "Fun and Games" -- this is where the central idea of your story first blossoms. (The old MOW form called this "A Hint of Things To Come" -- and dictated that at the end of this section, the Protagonist would show a hint of the transormation he or she would make by the end.)

Act 4 - The Point of No Return
While the fun and games continue, the stakes start to rise until at the end of this section it's no longer fun and games.  Something greater is at stake.  Something more important. (Note, if the whole world is at stake up to now, here is where it becomes personal. Or if it's been personal, it becomes global.)  Blake Snyder points out that this moment that ends the sequence can be a major triumph or a major failure for the character. Both can be a point of no return.

Act 5 - The Secret is Revealed
The character is mopping up after the Act 4 finale.  Whatever happened there it's big enough to need follow up.  There's some chaos, a mess, reversals. But at the end of this sequence is a major revelation, which will throw the Protagonist for a loop.

Act 6 - Dark Night of the Soul
Another Snyder plot point.  This is where the protagonist questions what he is doing, what he can do about the problem.  But he pulls it together, and realizes that he has the tools or knowledge now to go after the source of the problem.

Act 7 - Confrontation
The Protagonist takes the conflict to the source, and stays on it until it is settled.

I should pause here to point out that, even though you can hold up this structure to just about any story and it fits, I don't use this structure for most of my writing.  With most things I might think in terms of four acts -- four different directions for the story to take --and scatter the plot points where they are most useful.

The serial deviates even further: it's not meant to be experienced as a whole, but rather one bit at a time.  So all of those plot points end up happening all the time, all the way through.  I don't really plan them so much as let one spring from the other, with some idea of bigger changes of direction later on.  In the end, the story will probably resemble this structure in some way or other, but I seldom see it or think of it.

This game is for doing things quickly and easily.  It's an exercise.  Therefore the more detailed and proscribed it is, the better. (Especially since I make the rules and I can decide to ditch any of them at any time.)

I'll cover the MOW plot in more detail in a series of posts later. (Also talk about variations on it, and how to write your own structure.)  But for next week, I'll start talking about what comes before this.  The plot structure is not the story.  It's useless without your Situation -- the characters, setting, premise/problem.

See you in the funny papers.


Tanja said...

Thank you so much for sharing this info! :D It's an exciting challenge/exercise that you've created for yourself. I look forward to reading more about this.

ajs said...

You have the structure wrong, but that's okay, I'll help you fix it. Act 3 is actually the Midpoint, not the Fun & Games. The Fun & Games is in Act 2 and is combined with The New World. You accidentally "adapted" Blake Snyder's formula to the point that you just made the MOW structure changed into Blake's, and his is NOT a MOW structure, but it's close. The Midpoint is Act 3 because at the end of Act 3 it's the Hour Break, and they don't want anyone changing that channel, which is also why they end each part with a Cliffhanger. If i remember right, the first Act is 20 minutes, and each after is around 12, with the Resolution after the Climax being only the last or last 2 scenes at most, usually just the last scene. Here's a detailed example from a MOW called Shadows of Obsession:

7 Act Structure

ACT 1 (1-12) –approx. 20 min. long, the rest 12 min.-
1. Getting to know or becoming interested in Protagonist.
2. Inciting Incident that cranks plot into Action.
3. Progressive Complications start HERE.
12. Cliffhanger.

ACT 2 (13-18)
18. Cliffhanger.

(MIDPOINT) ACT 3 (19-24)
24. Biggest Cliffhanger.


ACT 4 (25-30)
30. Cliffhanger.

ACT 5 (31-36)
36. Cliffhanger.

ACT 6 (37-42) –CRISIS-
41. Crisis.
42. Decision (Crisis Cliffhanger)

ACT 7 (43-48) –CLIMAX-
47/48. Resolution.

The Daring Novelist said...

Hi, Willie:

No, I didn't get it wrong, nor did I "accidentally" borrow from Snyder (I credited him right there in the text). There are thousands of different versions of this structure. Generally, each production company (or network) has its own version. They change from year to year too.

I picked this one because it is most suited to story-telling in general, and not just the particular form of the MOV. That's part of the reason I pulled in some Snyder -- because it's about the underlying universal structure, not a particular genre.

Thanks, however, for the long, detailed post. I want my readers to be exposed to as many options as possible, and every model helps a reader find his or her own.