24 September 2010

Plot Points

Many of the traditional, commonly taught screenplay structures involve "plot points." These are basically any moment in a film where a turn of events can be punctuated with the "dun dun DUUNNNNNNN!!!!" musical cue. They are the events that shake things up, that make your characters re-assess their situations and force them into action. When applied well, they make the audience say, "I didn't see that coming! What's going to happen next?!" (Of course, most audiences don't say that these days because if they've seen the trailer, they've seen all the plot points lined up one by one.) Plot points are the foundations for an exciting, fast-paced screenplay.

They're also pretty much bullshit.

I'm currently working on the outline for a script. I don't normally devote too much thought to structure because I believe that if you have good characters and a good story, your script will naturally fall into a rhythm that will pull the audience along - just don't bore them by stretching out a short story to feature-length and, in general, you should be alright. This time, however, I decided that if I ever want one of my screenplays to NOT be tossed out the window for crapping on too many precious "rules," I should write something that kind-of-sort-of adheres to Hollywood's traditional structure. You know: Three easily discernible acts, an inciting incident, the "Everything is awesome!" montage, the "Everything is bad!" montage, the "I'm getting my life back together" montage, and, of course, plot points a-plenty.

It was while I was figuring out the scene-by-scene turn of events that I realized (one reason) why this particular model of screenwriting has never appealed to me. The very existence of a MAJOR PLOT POINT that CHANGES EVERYTHING for your characters suggests, obviously, that certain moments in the plot are more important than others. But when I think about a screenplay, anything that happens that directly affects the narrative is an important plot point, whether it's "major" or not.

For example, let's say our main character, Steve, goes out to buy a gallon of milk. Not a major plot point, is it? But when he gets back, he discovers his girlfriend, Belinda, cheating with the mailman. A-HA! A MAJOR PLOT POINT! But if Steve had never gone out to get that gallon of milk, then Belinda wouldn't have had the opportunity to seduce the mailman. So really, him going out to shop was just as important as him discovering the affair. Everything is of the same piece. One moment leads directly to the next.

Ah, but watching a guy buy milk - BORing! Can't we just cut right to him discovering her having the affair? Maybe. Depends on the rest of your script. But let's assume you need to have that scene in there. Here's the REAL trick they don't tell you in screenwriting classes (BUT I WILL TELL YOU IN MY NEW SEMINAR "SPEND YOUR MONEY ON ME!" ONLY $12,500.00 FOR A TEN MINUTE PITCH PRACTICE SESSION! BUY NOW!): Make the regular scene just as interesting and exciting as the plot point scene.

How? All scenes should do one of two things, but preferably both at the same time: Reveal character and advance the plot. Steve's already buying milk. That's advancing our plot. So let's reveal character. We show the guy reacting poorly to a mishap. A poor, Dickensian street urchin has taken the last gallon of milk, and Steve chest-kicks Oliver Twist to steal it for himself. But he gets caught and has to come up with an intricate lie to extricate himself from the situation. At the end of it, it's the newly asthmatic urchin who is hauled off by the police instead of Steve, and he triumphantly leaves with his gallon of milk only to discover - dun dun DUNNNNNN!!! - his girlfriend sleeping with the mailman!

So now we've taken a mundane plot point - buying milk - and turned it into its own little mini-story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It was funny and entertaining - well, to sick bastards like me - and also showed us that Steve is an enormous asshole. In fact, we've also inadvertently fleshed out Belinda. After seeing Steve act like a prick, we can better understand why she would choose to cheat on him with the mailman. (He's probably just as self-absorbed in bed.) And when Steve sees her getting completely railed and loving it by the postal worker he's never tipped at Christmas, he can now realize that he is not as awesome as he thought, leading to his journey of self-discovery wherein he learns the true meaning of life via the power of--

Well, you know how this one goes already.


  1. Who needs a plot when we have movie gun montages to rule them all!


  2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lHA_-bsRPjs&feature=related

    See, it fixes everything.