A plot is a crucial element for any story, and I challenge you to think of a great film or book that has a mediocre plot. But plot often seems to get confused or conflated with the characters, setting, and theme of a story.

In this post, we’re going to define plot, explain why it’s important, and then go over how you can build a great plot for your own story.

MOVIE SCRIPT PLOT?

The basics of a plot

People might tell you that a plot needs a tight story structure to actually be a plot, but that is not exactly correct.

I can think of a dozen films that had a poor relationship with story structure while still having a plot…

It’s just that they didn’t have a particularly good plot.

PLOT DEFINITION

What is a plot?

Plot refers to the main events in a story composed as a connected sequence of events. The plot can be made up of several seemingly unconnected threads, but as long as they are presented in a way that communicates to the viewer that these actions and events are connected in some way, you may safely refer to that chain of events as the “plot”.

What makes a good plot?

  • Explains the chain of events in a story. 
  • Shows a causal relationship between each event.
  • Connects the actions and events in a logical manner.

If you take a film like Cloud Atlas by The Wachowskis, you will notice that different eras, characters, and settings can all coalesce into a single plot.

I happen to very much enjoy this film. Others do not. But I don’t believe anyone in their right mind would say the film doesn't have a plot.

A plot of land, for instance, is still a plot no matter how contaminated the nearby groundwater might be, or if the land rests on a rather steep slope.

It is still considered a plot of land.

If it was just a bunch of unconnected dirt that had no ownership or boundaries, you wouldn’t call it a plot...

You’d call it Barstow.

But we don’t just want our story to have a plot.

We want a great plot.

PLOT OF A STORY

How to build a good plot

A great plot is built around logic.

This means that when something happens, there is a consequence.

Whether that consequence is morally acceptable or fair is up to the writer, but the connection between the two events is the rub. It how we as viewers know that was we saw mattered, and that we’re on a narrative ride.

A great plot also needs to be structured correctly.  

What is a Plot - StudioBinder

Classic story structure

You might own a plot of land, but if it doesn’t comply with the law of the land, you might not be able to build anything on that plot.

Structuring your plot will transform your piece of dirt into a real building.

Is it a house?

An apartment complex?

An opulent museum?

Is it a parking lot?

That all depends on how well you structure and assemble your plot.

For this post, we want to use structure so that you can build a good plot for your idea. That way producers and executives can bank on your idea without waking up in the middle of the night drenched in sweat.

We need a film to talk about as our big example for the article, so let’s be basic, and use the classic screenwriting structure example:

Die Hard (1988)

IMDB logline:

“An NYPD officer tries to save his wife and several others taken hostage by German terrorists during a Christmas party at the Nakatomi Plaza in LA.”

STORY PLOT EXAMPLES

Exposition in your story

Exposition is the introduction of information in your story.

Notice I said story and not plot.

Your story is the collection of your plot, setting, characters, and theme.

You might explain things about a character that do not affect the plot, and while that’s a questionable writing method, it is possible nonetheless.

If in Die Hard, our hero John McClane tells another character that he hates onions, and he doesn’t later have to eat a bunch of onions to try and avoid a terrorist or something, the onion thing doesn't really inform the plot.

It does, however, give us a little tidbit on John McClane’s diet.

That’s because a film is a collection of mediums, and is not read from a page or heard over the radio.

You can physically see, hear, and read the story all at once.

Exposition and explanation are essentially the same thing, but the reason we in the film community use the word exposition is that we don’t want writers to explain things, we want them to expose things.

Your exposition can be used to set up characters, settings, plot points and even the theme of your film.

How cleverly you go about these introductions is up to you.

Would you have your hero type his wife’s maiden name into the directory?

Great exposition - Die Hard

That’s a pretty clever way to expose that their marriage is strained, and for that information to come back later during a very important moment.

WHAT IS PLOT?

What are plot holes?

We’ve all heard the term “plot holes”.

This is a helpful point to mention when diving into the concept of story exposition versus plot exposition.

A “plot hole” is where a link in your chain of events happens without proper exposition, or is left completely unresolved. There is a big plot hole in Die Hard, though the story and film have such a strong team that:

  1. The hole occurs in an attempt to plug up another plot hole.
  2. The great plot structure keeps the film logical and entertaining. 

We will go over this plot hole later in the article once we’ve gone over the Die Hard plot a little more.

In order to avoid plot holes, you need to set up the events to come and wrap up important details that you introduced earlier in the story.

Some details you will want to explain right away, others you will want to hold onto until later in the game.

Just don’t forget them, otherwise, you will have a “plot hole”.

WHAT IS PLOT?

What isn’t part of the plot?

This is a good place to explain how exposition can be used to introduce information that is not officially part of your plot.

Story Circle - StudioBinder

Your hero may be an integral part of your plot…

But they themselves are not the plot.

Let’s use the classic story structure example:

Die Hard (1988)

IMDB has the logline for Die Hard as follows:

“An NYPD officer tries to save his wife and several others taken hostage by German terrorists during a Christmas party at the Nakatomi Plaza in LA.”

Character

John McClane is our hero and NYPD officer.

His wife Holly, others hostages, German terrorists - these are characters.

The only areas in here that truly inform our plot are “tries to save his wife” and “several others taken hostage” because they tell us what actually happens as part of our chain of events.

Not to whom it happens...

Not where it happens...

But the actual chain of events that take place in the story.

The fact that John and his wife Holly are separated in the film is part of the plot, but they could have been happily married. The logline doesn’t tell us the condition of their marriage, just that his wife was taken hostage.

The relationships and characters inform the plot...

But they are not the plot.

If they were brother and sister, or boyfriend and girlfriend it might change the plot a bit, but overall I think the chain of events would still closely resemble the original film, despite the very significant change in character.

What if John was blind and deaf?

I mean, yeah okay, that should inform some significant changes to the plot, but those changes to the character are not, in fact, changes to the plot.

You could still have the exact same chain of events take place, we would just be super amazed at how a guy who cannot hear nor see is able to hold down a marriage… I mean take down a bunch of terrorists.

If you took the chain of events in Die Hard, but instead of a New York Police Officer you changed the hero to a Circus Clown, you’d still have the same basic plot - just a lot creepier and with more balloon animals.

Would it be as good?

Would it basically be Game Over Man?

The fact that John McClane is a New York City cop adds to his character, and I think it makes the plot a lot more logical considering that the actions in the script are being carried out by a trained lawman rather than BoBo.

It definitely enhances the plot of the story, but the overall plot doesn’t disintegrate just because of the character change, even if its the hero.

Setting

The Nakatomi Plaza in Los Angeles is the setting of the film.

Many a film has been pitched as “Die Hard at [BLANK]”.

That’s because the plot of Die Hard was not only generally straightforward but was also fun and marketable as far as films go.

“Die Hard at a Mini-Golf Course” or “Die Hard at a Dog Show” are really helpful examples for understanding how the setting should inform your plot, but that the setting is not itself the plot.

You can still have the NYPD officer at the mini-golf course, or you can have it be the Circus Clown performing at a nearby birthday party.

If the basic plot points are still there, you can say it’s “Die Hard at [BLANK].

Now, there are some possible spoilers we’re about to go over, so if you have yet seen Die Hard... too bad.

It’s been thirty years - that’s on you, dawg.

The fact that the Nakatomi Building has a bank vault in the basement is relevant to the plot, and it would make a lot less sense if that bank vault was located in the basement of, say, the mini-golf course.

If the terrorists were after the lost and found, however, that might make more sense, and would be a much more welcome point in the plot.

Again, good plots are informed by logic, and even more specifically, good plots are informed by the other elements in the story.

Theme

The theme of Die Hard could be “A husband’s love triumphs over evil”, or “A man’s will to survive triumphs over evil”.

Theme is a much larger and a much more complex concept to go over when individually compared to character, setting, or plot.

Your theme should inform these other categories so that these other categories inform your theme.

It’s a vicious cycle.

If the theme of Jurassic Park is “scientific hubris” and the dinosaurs don’t get out and start eating people, can you really claim the film’s theme is “scientific hubris”, can you?

Think about it.

If your theme is “love triumphs over evil” that may inform the resolution of the plot, but the chain of events that lead us there are why writers don’t just get to write a theme on a piece of paper and walk away with a check.

WHAT IS PLOT?

Story structure builds a good plot

Story structure is very helpful to your plot, and it’s somewhat irrelevant to your characters, settings, or themes.

Again, if the climax of your story happens in a weird spot of the story, you still have a plot… just not a particularly good plot.

What is a Plot - Exposition - StudioBinder

What is a Plot - Exposition

The first 10% of a screenplay gives you some time to set up whatever you like, and you should at the very least establish your main character, setting, and theme of your story before you get to your inciting incident.

Inciting Incident

We need to care about to whom, what, and where our inciting incident happens, so make sure we have the table set before we sit down for dinner.

The inciting incident is the catalyst for the plot.

Trailer - Die Hard

It sets things in motion and often happens about 10% of the way into your script - or around page 12 of a 110-page script.

What is a Plot - Inciting Incident - StudioBinder

What is a Plot - Inciting Incident

For Die Hard, the inciting incident is:

German terrorists burst into the building, and take the entire office Christmas party hostage… except for John McClane.

We’re not going to get into how good of an inciting incident this is, but it’s super solid for a number of reasons, and that fact that it happens about 10% of the way into the script helps the plot and film work really well.

We’re in.

We’ve got what we need.

Let’s go.

Rising Action

If you’ve read a few screenwriting books, you’ll notice that this section varies a lot from book to book. Some are more detailed, and use act breaks to show where other big moments need to happen.

What is a Plot - Rising Action - StudioBinder

What is a Plot - Rising Action

The important thing to remember is that we know most of what we need to know about the characters and setting at this point in our story, and we have a point of conflict illustrated to us through our inciting incident.

An NYPD officer just saw his wife and her co-workers taken hostage by lethal terrorists, and now he can either run away back to New York…

Or try and save his wife and her co-workers… even Ellis.

Rising Action - Die Hard

If the movie was called Live Soft, we would get to watch as John McClane quietly sneaks out of the building, books his flight home, and lands safely in New York just in time for Christmas dinner.

But the movie is called Die Hard, so now we HAVE to watch as John McClane attempts to save everyone without being killed or exposing his identity to the terrorists in fear of retribution visited on his captive wife.

I’ll see anything with Bruce Willis... even Live Soft.

The rising action section should be fun, exciting, and it should deliver on the premise and promise of the film.

John should spy on the terrorists, take a few out, have to run away, and do it again for a little while until we come to our next point.

The Crisis

At this point in your plot, you’ll want to have something that challenges our hero, so that they can overcome this obstacle during the next section.

Move the goalposts on your hero, but do it in a logical way so that the audience isn’t suspect of your intentions.

What is a Plot - Crisis - StudioBinder

What is a Plot - Crisis

Did you do it just to cause trouble, or did the trouble organically present itself in a way that I can appreciate. This is made much easier by setting up possible pitfalls earlier in the film.

In Die Hard, the crisis comes when the villain, Hans Gruber, realisez that Holly is John’s wife. Now Hans has some more leverage over the shoeless cowboy crawling around the ventilation system.

The writer’s made sure Holly’s name change would tell us something about the characters, but that it would also inform the plot.

This is a huge structural payoff that has logical and clever exposition in the setup section of the film, and makes the crisis so much more effective.

They could have exposed Holly earlier in the script, but that would have jumped the gun on their structure and ultimately the film’s success.

Crisis - Die Hard

This is why producers avoid stories with poorly structured plots.

This is also why there are so many tired, unimaginative, and illogical plots despite the writers taking the proper steps to structure their scripts. If you don’t have clever and logical exposition, the Hollywood recipe becomes much more apparent, and your viewer will become bored.  

The Climax

This is where your hero and their problems collide and burst into flames before crashing to the ground, all while remaining logical.

Fantastic imagery, cool fight scenes, catchy one-liners, these are a necessity for the climax, but in all the destruction and chaos make sure not to destroy your plot as well.

What is a Plot - Climax - StudioBinder

What is a Plot - Climax

Most films need third acts reworks, and it is almost always because the crisis was arbitrary, and the climax underwhelming.

Add another explosion?

Didn’t work, and that’s because people craved that feeling of deep comprehension you get from a great film, but instead got something their eyes and ears couldn’t even register.

Climax - Die Hard

In Die Hard, the climax is a roller coaster ride coming to fruition.

I don’t love every part of the Die Hard climax, but the narrative elements adhere to pretty strict logic.

We may question the science of certain parts, but no one is confused as to how we got here, and what everything means.

Falling Action

This is where we return to our normal state, or to the new world order now that everything has changed.

A clever way of doing this is to pick up where we left off when the adventure began, much like the Hobbits in Tolkien’s books.

The Return Journey - The Hobbit

It organically demonstrates the changes in your characters, and gives us a sort of “before” and “after” picture of what has occured.

This is the winding down moment, and often it will present you with an opportunity for an effective resolution.

Resolution

There is an argument to be made about ending a film at an unexpected moment or in a way that challenges the viewer.

What is a Plot - Resolution - StudioBinder

What is a Plot - Resolution

In Die Hard, the resolution comes at the very end when John and Holly leave together, their marriage saved and their lives more intact than they were before… other than all the dead hostages and PTSD.

Maybe that will be in the sequel.

But even in a film with a fun ending like Inception, the hero has in fact returned to a place that we can compare to earlier in the film.

There is some falling action, and then a somewhat abrupt and thoughtful ending that leaves us questioning our experience.

Still curious about that plot hole?

How did John know Bill Clay was actually Hans Gruber?

The answer it his Tag Heuer wrist watch - all the terrorists have them.

Why don’t we know this? They cut a scene short to avoid introducing an ambulance that wasn’t properly set up.

UP NEXT

TV Writing & Development ​Master Class

You just read all about plot, but don’t stop there. StudioBinder has a huge amount of educational information all throughout our blog. Check out our FREE TV Writing & Development Master Class.

This is a great resource that will help keep you on track and organize your thoughts so that you can build your own show idea.

Up Next: FREE TV Writing & Development Master Class →
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