Design Story Arcs
- Monday, August 8, 2016
- 8 min. read (1608 words)
- Plot Twist
- Cliff Hanger
- Contrast of Plot Points
Writing is an old art. People have noticed story arcs are typically composed of 5 basic elements: exposition, actions, plot twists, cliff hangers, and climax. These elements are called plot points or devices. Plot points indicate intensity. Exposition is the least intense and the climax is the most intense.
A scene is a group of 1 or more plot points. A scene's intensity level can be summarized by its highest level plot point. The above image shows 4 scenes. Scene 1 has two exposition plot points. Scene 2 has one action and one exposition plot point. Scene 3 has one action, one plot twist, and one exposition plot point. If they were summarized, scene 1 is an exposition scene, scene 2 is an action scene, and scene 3 is a plot twist scene.
Exposition is when two or more character speak to each other. There are two purposes for exposition: give the audience insight into the characters speaking or reveal information that will set up a future scene. It is advisable to do both character building and scene set ups.
Conversations can be about anything as long as they reveal the characters' contradictory personality or set up a future scene. A contradictory personality is important because it shows the characters are not monotone. If the characters are predictable, why would the audience care about what happened to them? It's like watching paint dry. Relating topics to moral dilemmas is an easy way to generate ideas.
- interpersonal = life goals, politics, economics, morality
- injustice in the world
- local, global, or niche news
- entertainment = board games, video games, movies, TV shows, comics, sports, hobbies
- family updates
- plans for week, month, day, etc.
- dreams from sleeping
- gossip about environment = teacher, friends, coworkers, management
- dating life and preference in partners
Set ups are very important and does two things: prevent the audience from getting confused, and propel future action. Imagine in one scene, the main character is flying a plane, talking to the copilot about family, then the next scene shows the main character robbing a bank. This would cause the story to seem random and poorly executed. Instead, we could have an identical scene, but have 1 line hint or foreshadowed about living on the edge, then the next bank robbery scene would make sense.
Action confirms the work done in exposition. If the exposition built the character's contradictory personality, then action confirms that character's belief system by showing they are willing to follow through on their words.
- being alone = eating, dreaming, working, studying, exercising, planning
- fight = gun battle, hand to hand fighting
- flight = driving or running away
- being with a group = lectures, debates, sports
Exposition sets up an action, and action sets up plot twits. Writers almost never conclude an action with the obvious result. There is always a,
but something unexpected happened. Like a monotone personality, predictable scenes bore people. A plot twist sets up a scene with one obvious interpretation, then subverts expectation by picking an inobvious interpetation. The writing prompt subreddit has many plot twist ideas.
Plot twist techniques
- red herring = audience accepts a false conclusion
- Chekhov's gun = a minor detail becomes very important
- flashback = looking into a character's past
- anagnorisis = discovery of some secret truth
- unreliable narrator = an unreliable person who retells a past event
Scenes that are not immediately resolved are called cliff hangers. Cliff hangers are mini-climaxes. Many TV shows apply cliff hangers at the end of each episode to keep viewers interested for when the next episode is released next week. There are a few types of cliff hangers.
The crisis cliffhanger is when a TV episode or a book's chapter ends with a character in grave danger. For example, the villain learns about a super hero's true identity.
The plot twist cliffhanger is when a TV episode or a book's chapter ends with a surprise reveal. For example, a priest finds out his wife cheated on him, and so has sex with a prostitute in anger. He forgives his wife eventually and the two go on with their lives for a couple of months, but the episode ends with the prostitute calling the priest to say she is pregnant with his baby.
The multiple arc cliffhanger alternates between multiple story arcs. For example, imagine a TV show about two business men who work in competing companies. One episode focuses on one business man, then the next episode switches to the next businessman. This switching of point of views alternates until the end of the season. Master storytellers will often have more than 2 story arcs going at the same time.
The filler cliff hanger separates the main character from another important character. Imagine a montage of the main character being adopted by a martial artist. One day, the master goes missing, and the story simply continues. The characters may never reunite or only until much later into the story.
The climax is the most intense the main story will ever get. Usually a climax occurs when the main crisis is confronted and resolved.
Contrast of Plot Points
The purpose of contrast is to make an idea or lesson memorable. We can use contrast to make sure the audience remembers key events in the story. Remember, a scene is defined by it's highest intensity plot point. An action scene will never contain a plot twist, cliffhanger, or climax, but it can have exposition. When increasing intensity, plot points naturally flow from exposition to action to plot twist to cliffhanger. When decreasing intensity, climax tends to resolve to exposition, cliff hanger to action, plot twist to action, and action to exposition.
Of course plot points can jump up or down multiple to any point. A good rule of thumb is increasing intensity should feel suspenseful and decreasing intensity should lead to anticipation. Suspense is when the audience feels something is about to happen. Anticipation is when the audience knows something is about to happen.
The reason this is true is because before the climax the characters does not know anything, so suspense is naturally created. After the climax, most stories strive to tie lose ends, so the audience already knows about said lose ends.
There are two cases where 4 level jumps are possible, 1) from exposition to climax or 2) climax to exposition. Four level jumps offer the highest level of contrast which can be applied to make sure the audience clearly understands or remembers the message of a scene. The audience should be in suspense when the climax approaches, so they will listen more carefully to exposition in this period.
Climax to exposition provides an immediate relief, a moment of reflection, allowing the weight of the climax's events to sink in without any distractions. It is also the natural way a climax ends, because the audience wants to know how the characters feel. Not much needs to be said to satisfy the audience. This jump feels like sudden silence.
Three level jumps occur from action to climax, climax to action, exposition to cliff hanger, cliff hanger to exposition.
Action to climax is a very common jump. The protagonist and villain fight to the death. Climax to action is more interesting. After a climax, the audience wants to know how the main characters feel, but blocking this desire with action makes the audience wait. Waiting could be annoying or further build anticipation.
Exposition to cliff hanger has two or more characters are talking, then jumps to another story arc. The original conversation may reveal something relevant in the next story arc. Cliff hangers want to resolve into actio. By jumping towards exposition instead, we delay the action. Again, a delay can be annoying or build anticipation.
Two level jumps occur from exposition to plot twist, plot twist to exposition (delay), action to cliff hanger, cliff hanger to action, plot twist to climax, and climax to plot twist (delay).
Exposition to plot twist is a common jump, especially in soap operas. Two or more characters are having a seemingly normal conversation, then a plot twist drops in to blow their minds. Make sure the one dropping the plot twist has reasonable motivation to do so or it will feel unrealistic. Get around this by having someone call the person to drop the plot twist bomb. Plot twists to exposition, delays the action, which helps build anticipation.
Action to plot twist and action to cliffhanger are similar. Cliffhanger to action is the normal tendency of decreasing intensity.
Plot twist to climax, "Luke, I am your father" (intentional misquote). Climax to plot twist delays the exposition. Once again, that can be frustrating or build up anticipation.
One level jumps are mostly restricted to increasing intensity. Due to the slow ramp up, the audience will less likely be confused. This property is use for slowly building up complicated ideas. A story that mandates knowledge of technical jargon may also need a slow build up.
A scene with no jumps maintains it's intensity level. Once again, like a constant personality or predictable scene, no change will bore the audience.