Fleshing Out an Idea
© 2005 by Barry D. Frisbee
Barry is an FAA aircraft controller. We're proud of him.
This essay is derived from an educational talk he presented to W2P in July 2005.
First of all, I am in no way an expert on this subject. I am only going to share what has worked for me. My presentation is based on several great articles I've read. The first portion includes the Seven Essential Elements of a Great Story, based on an article by James Bonnet. This and many other great articles can be found at his website, Storymaking.
The second portion of this essay deals with plot devices, and is a culmination
of several different articles, not copying directly from any. The combining of the
two techniques helped me go from a simple idea to plotting an entire novel in a matter
By going through and defining each element as what I saw happening under each point, the story unfolded in front of me, as well as giving me several new twists that I hadn't considered.
I suggest each of you write at least one paragraph or idea under each heading about your own story.
I personally wrote down several for each heading, focusing specifically on that heading at the moment. I later discarded some that did not mesh logically with the others. When you are done, you should have a great Start, Middle, and End.
As I stated, the first part of this lesson includes essential elements of a great story. They cannot be left out. Leave them out and you leave the reader disappointed.
The second part, plot devices, will help move you through your story, from the opening pages to the end. Though great for moving your story forward, they are not essential.
So, pick and choose the device that fit your story, but don't be afraid to experiment with ones you don't think would fit. It may surprise you.
The seven essential elements are:
The Change of Fortune.
The Problem of the story.
And the Threat, which is by far the most important.
These elements constitute the very essence of story -- without them, there would be no story.
The first essential element is, there must be a CHANGE OF FORTUNE.
There is an entity (i.e., an individual, a family, a town, a country, a planet, etc.) and that entity goes from a desirable to an undesirable state or the reverse, undesirable to desirable.
Many stories also go from good --- to bad --- back to good. And with some epics, as in 'Gone With the Wind' it may change several times.
In 'The Exorcist,' a little girl is possessed by the Devil and a state of misfortune exists. Then, the principal action, casting out the Devil, brings about a state of good fortune. In stories that end unhappily, it's the reverse.
In 'Brian's Song' for instance, the Chicago Bears' Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers are at the top of their game, until Piccolo is diagnosed, suffers and dies with cancer. A similar situation exists in 'Love Story'
Yes, I realize I am dating myself with these examples. ;-)
The second element, THE PROBLEM, brings about these changes of fortune. This problem, is a prerequisite in all stories. You have a problem and that problem is resolved. That is your story.
No matter how big or small the story, it will be focusing on, or related to, a problem.
Everyone in that story will somehow be involved in that incident, and everything a principal character does in that story should in some way affect the outcome of that incident.
Revealing how that problem was created and how it can be resolved is at the very heart of a story
In 'Kiss The Girls' and 'The Silence Of The Lambs,' a serial killer is on the loose. That is the problem that brings about the change of fortune and that is the problem that has to be resolved.
The solution to those problems will be the principal actions that give a unity of action to these stories.
In 'Gladiator,' a tyrant has usurped the Roman Empire, preventing the restoration of the Republic.
In 'Independence Day,' aliens have invaded the Earth.
In 'Star Wars,' the Evil Empire has taken possession of the galaxy.
In 'Jaws,' it's a shark problem
In 'The Mummy,' it's . . . well, a mummy problem.
Each of these stories, and hundreds of others, revolve around THE PROBLEM that has to be resolved.
Stories focus on problems for the same reason the news only reports the bad things that are happening in the world -- because problems are where it's at. A Maguffin is a plot device and not exactly the main problem
Next, there's the ultra important element called THE THREAT. The threat is the agent or perpetrator that creates the problem that brings about the negative state.
In 'Kiss the Girls,' the serial killer is the threat, and the act of murder is the inciting action that creates the problem that brings about the change to a state of misfortune
Equally significant in a great story is the fact that this THREAT will become the source of resistance that opposes the action when someone tries to solve this problem and restore a state of good fortune.
This resistance will create the classical structure that occurs when a problem-solving action encounters resistance.
In 'Harry Potter,' Voldemort is the threat. His efforts to take possession of the wizard world create the problem that brings about an undesirable state.
And he will be the source of the resistance that creates the classical structure whenever Harry tries to solve these problems and restore a state of good fortune.
In 'The Exorcist,' the Devil is the threat. He takes possession of a young girl and that is the inciting action that creates the problem and brings about the change of fortune.
He is also the source of resistance that creates the complications, crisis, climax and resolution when the priest tries to solve that problem.
In 'Jaws,' the shark is the threat that causes the problem. In 'Dracula,' it's the Count. In 'Braveheart,' it's the British.
In all of these cases, the threat performs the action that creates the problem that brings about the change of fortune.
It also is the source of resistance that creates the classical structure (problem, complications, crisis, climaxes and resolutions) when someone tries to solve the problem and reverse the state of misfortune.
The problem, change of fortune and components of the classical structure constitute the very essence of story.
Without a problem and change of fortune, there is no story. If the story ends in the same place it began, without some significant progress up or down, the audience/reader will wonder what the point of it was.
The next two elements -- COMPLICATIONS and CRISIS, as do the final two CLIMAX and RESOLUTION go hand and hand with the other.
Without complications and a crisis, it would be a very unsatisfactory experience. If Cinderella goes to the ball, falls in love with the prince and marries him without a single hitch, or if Indiana Jones goes after the Holy Grail and finds it without running into any difficulty whatsoever, there is no story. The audience is left muttering: "So what?"
Complications bring on the CRISIS. Crisis is the point when it seems all is lost.
This is when your story is getting good, and you should have your reader glued to the pages by now.
Then comes the CLIMAX, which is a turning point
In 'Silence of the Lambs' that point is where Clarice Starling discovers the basement in the killer, Buffalo Bill's, home. The resolution being when he is killed and the Senator's daughter is saved.
In 'Jaws' the climax is the boat is sinking fast, Chief Brody is almost out of options. The resolution is the exploding of the fire extinguisher in the shark's mouth, to finally kill it.
If there are complications and a crisis, but no climax and no resolution, you will leave your audience feeling completely unfulfilled. They will have the distinct feeling that the story was left unfinished.
In conclusion of this portion, I feel it is worth repeating that THE THREAT is by far the most important of these, and the heart of the story.
It creates the problem that brings about the change of fortune and provides the resistance that creates the complications, crisis, climax, and resolution, all of which make up the very essence of story.
Any one element that does all of that is an element worth thinking about and understanding.
Now that we hopefully understand the seven essential elements of a great story, I will quickly go through several plot devices that can be used to bring about these elements in your story.
I again urge you to consider each of these and write at least a paragraph/idea for each to see if they can be worked into your story. It may surprise you what a little twist could do for a bogged-down story.
These are by no means all of the plot devices, only a few of the most commonly used.
HOW TO GET YOUR STORY FROM POINT 'A' TO POINT 'B' (Plot Devices)
By putting a time limit on your character's actions, it will add tension, and a sense of urgency. A ticking time bomb, a kidnapper's demands that must be met by a certain time, an encroaching winter on stranded settlers, Cinderella's threat of midnight, all of these create a tension that would not otherwise be there.
The next plot device is The MacGUFFIN
This is Alfred Hitchcock's term meaning, 'The item of importance that everyone wants, upon which the plot turns.' The classic example is the 'microfilm' from NORTH BY NORTHWEST.
Does anything ever really happen with the microfilm? Not really. It is truly just a plot device, something to help organize the events of the movie. The microfilm is the MacGuffin.
A slightly different example are the 'letters of transit' in CASABLANCA. There, the MacGuffin had an actual story function. By possessing the papers, you can safely get out of town.
That added function is nice, but it was Hitchcock's idea that the MacGuffin could be just about anything, and it didn't have to have a function other than simply being of value.
Hopefully that answers the previous question on this subject.
Next .... The Meet Cute
This is a chance meeting of the two main characters, often comical. A good example of this is the first meeting between Rhett and Scarlet in 'Gone With the Wind.' When, unbeknownst to Scarlet, Rhett is resting out of sight in the Parlor when she bares her soul to Ashley. After Ashley leaves, Rhett makes his presence known, with a bit of comedy thrown in.
Next a very important one in most situations and I feel almost essential FORESHADOWING or PLATFORMING.
This involves laying hints of things to come. Clues, prophecies, signs or suggestions of the story's future events with some information being withheld which helps to build suspense
In the 'Sixth Sense' no one except the boy ever speaks to Bruce Willis' character, but the movie is so well done, that it usually goes unnoticed until a second viewing when you know the ending.Yet, it is great foreshadowing, planting a seed, even if you don't know it is being planted
In Steven Spielberg's film "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," Roy Neary and Jillian Guiler are haunted by a shared obsession involving mountain imagery. This obsession serves a dual purpose.
The imagery foreshadows the characters' eventual arrival at Devils Tower in Wyoming, the place of first contact between humans and extraterrestrials that is revealed late in the picture. The various instances of mountain imagery early in the picture serve as a narrative road map of sorts for the characters as well as the audience, leading both to the film's logical resolution.
Okay, next is DEUS EX MACHINA.
Deus ex Machina - is Latin for "God from the machine" and represents a sudden event that causes the crisis in your story, the earthquake, flood, murder, invasion.
The Titanic striking the iceberg, the plague in 'The Stand,' the machines taking over in 'Terminator,' or the 'Matrix,' all are examples of Deus ex Machina.
And next, PARALLEL ACTION, also known as the Meanwhile Scene, it tells what the other side of the equation is doing. For example, what is the bad guy doing. This is pretty self-explanatory.
I personally like to know more about the bad guy than the good ones
Another almost essential device is THE PENNY DROP.
This is the moment of realization, when something significant is revealed to your characters. In mysteries it is usually the piece of the puzzle that clinches it for the sleuth.
In 'The Usual Suspects' the penny drop happens when US Customs Agent Dave Kujan has finished interrogating Verbal and has released him. He looks at the bulletin board behind his desk, and realizes that all the names in the elaborate story that Verbal has told him came from the posters on the board.
In 'A Beautiful Mind' it's where John Nash realizes that Agent Parcher, Charles, and Marcee existed only in his mind.
Next is one of my favorites, REVERSALS.
Sometimes your convictions are the greatest stumbling blocks to fixing a story problem.
It's that one thing that you're certain of, that you don't challenge -- that you just know is right about a scene, that stops you from finding the inventive solution.
It's a good idea to have this general rule: CHALLENGE EVERYTHING. Go through the problem scene step by step and consider the effect of doing the exact opposite of all your story decisions.
The audience will come to 'know' the character through their actions. When characters can make decisions that run counter to expectations, bringing reversals into the story, that's of immediate interest.
Look at 'Raiders of the Lost Arc.' When Indiana Jones ties up Marion instead of rescuing her, it's a marvelous reversal, and we gain huge insight into Indy's character by that one action.
In 'The Last of the Mohicans' when the selfish Major Duncan Ward gives himself up to be burned alive, saving the others, it is a total reversal of what is expected of him, adding a great twist to the story.
Can you think of any other examples where a character has done something totally opposite of what you expected, and how did that make you feel? It should, if nothing else, catch your attention. I know it does mine
Last is COINCIDENCE.
This is something to use sparingly, but the chance news clip where someone sees and recognizes a long lost family member, or when the kidwho comes to your door to ask do you need your grass cut turns out to be your son that was lost as a toddler, does occasionally happen.
Like I said, there are thousands of plot devices. These are just a few that helped me get a handle on a difficult story.
And that is it. I hope this has been helpful to you all, and I truly think if you will take an hour or two and really go through this, you will find out a lot about your own story that you didn't know.
Top of Page