Friday, October 23, 2009

Nanowrimo prep: The Plan

I don’t care what the plan is as long as we have one.

-- Kevin Bacon in Tremors

Before we move on to Act Three, which is a three-part discussion, I wanted to backtrack about a crucial plot element that runs through your entire story, and deserves its own post.

You always hear that “Drama is conflict”, but when you think about it – what the hell does that mean, practically?

It’s actually much more true, and specific, to say that drama is the constant clashing of a hero/ine’s PLAN and an antagonist’s, or several antagonist’s, PLANS.

In the first act of a story, the hero/ine is introduced, and that hero/ine either has or quickly develops a DESIRE. She might have a PROBLEM that needs to be solved, or someone or something she WANTS, or a bad situation that she needs to get out of, pronto.

Her reaction to that problem or situation is to formulate a PLAN, even if that plan is vague or even completely subconscious. But somewhere in there, there is a plan, and storytelling is usually easier if you have the hero/ine or someone else (maybe you, the author) state that plan clearly, so the audience or reader knows exactly what the expectation is.

When in JAWS, Sheriff Brody is confronted with the problem of a great white shark eating people in his backyard (ocean), his initial PLAN is to close the beach to swimmers. He throws together some handmade “Beaches Closed” signs and sticks them in the sand. Problem solved, right?

Yeah, right.

If that initial plan had actually worked, JAWS wouldn’t have made a hundred zillion dollars worldwide, not to mention cinematic history. The whole point of drama (including comedy) is that the hero/ine’s plan is constantly being thwarted: by the main antagonist, by any number of secondary and tertiary opponents, by the love interest, by the weather, or by the hero/ine him or herself (because you know we’re all our own worst enemies.).

So almost always, the initial plan fails. Or if it seems to succeed, it’s only to trick us for a moment before we realize how wretchedly the plan has failed. That weak initial effort is because it’s human nature to expend the least effort possible to get what we want, and only take greater and more desperate measures if we are forced to.

Now, in JAWS, the primary antagonist is the shark. The shark’s PLAN is to eat. Not just people, but whatever. (Interestingly, that plan seems to evolve…)

Brody’s initial plan of closing the beaches might actually have solved his problem with the shark, because without a steady supply of food, the beast probably would have moved on to another beach with a better food supply.

But Brody’s initial plan brings out a secondary antagonist: the town fathers, led by the mayor (and with a nice performance by co-screenwriter Carl Gottleib as the newspaper editor). They don’t want the beaches closed, because the summer months, particularly the fourth of July weekend, represent 70 percent of the town’s yearly income. So the town fathers obliquely threaten new sheriff Brody with the loss of his job if he closes the beaches, and Brody capitulates.

This proves disastrous and tragic, as the very next day (as Brody watches the water from the beach, as if that’s going to prevent a shark attack) another swimmer, a little boy, is killed by the shark, practicing its plan.

The town fathers hold a town meeting and decide on a new plan: they will close the beaches for 24 hours. Brody disagrees, but is overruled. Eccentric captain Quint offers his services to kill the shark – for 10 grand. The town fathers are unwilling to pay.

In response, Brody develops a new plan, one we see often in stories: he contacts an expert from afar, oceanographer Matt Hooper, a shark specialist, to come in and give expert advice.

Meanwhile a new antagonist, the mother of the slain little boy, announces a plan of her own: she offers a bounty for any fisherman who kills the shark who killed her son.

The bounty brings on a regatta of fishermen from up and down the eastern seaboard. One of these crews captures a tiger shark, which the mayor is quick to declare the killer shark. Case closed, problem solved, and the beaches can be reopened. Hooper is adamant that the shark is far too little to have caused the damage done to the first victim, and wants to cut the shark open. The mayor refuses, and is equally adamant that there is no more need for Hooper. We see Brody agrees with Hooper, but wants to believe that the nightmare is over. However, when the dead boy’s mother slaps Brody and accuses him of causing her son’s death (by not closing the beaches), Brody agrees to investigate further with Hooper, and they cut the shark open themselves to check for body parts. Of course, it’s the wrong shark.

Brody’s revised plan is to talk the Mayor into closing the beaches, but the Mayor refuses again, and goes on with his plan to reopen the beaches (and highly publicize the capture of the “killer” shark).

The beaches reopen for 4th of July and the town fathers’ failsafe plan is to post the Coast Guard out in the ocean to watch, just in case. While everyone is distracted by a false shark scare, the real shark glides into a supposedly secure cove where Brody’s own son is swimming, and kills a man and nearly kills Brody’s son. (And it’s so diabolical in timing that it almost seems the shark has a new plan of its own – to taunt Brody).

At that point the Mayor’s plan changes – he writes a check for Quint and gives it to Brody, to hire the captain to kill the shark. But that’s not enough for Brody, now. He needs to go out on the boat with Quint and Hooper himself, despite his fear of the water, to make sure this shark gets dead.

This happens at the story’s MIDPOINT, and it’s a radical revamp of Brody’s initial plan (which always included avoiding going in the water himself, at all cost). And it’s very often the case that at the midpoint of a story, the initial PLAN is completely shattered (a great example is in THE UNTOUCHABLES, which I’ve talked about here:

And yet, Brody is still not ultimately committed. For the next half of the second act, he allows first Quint and then Hooper to take the lead on the shark hunt. Quint’s plan is to shoot harpoons connected to floating barrels into the shark and force it to the surface, where they can harpoon it to death. But the shark proves far stronger than anyone expected, and keeps submerging, even with barrel after barrel attached to its hide.

And now a truly interesting thing happens. The shark, supposedly a dumb beast, starts to do crafty things like hide under the boat so the men think they’ve lost it. It seems to have a new, intelligent plan of its own. And when the men’s defenses are down, the shark suddenly batters into the ship and breaks a hole in the hull, causing the boat to take on alarming quantities of water, and making the men vulnerable to attack.

Brody’s plan at that point is to radio for help and get the hell off the boat. But in the midst of the chaos Quint suddenly turns into an opponent himself by smashing the radio – he intends to kill this shark.

Hooper takes over now and proposes a new plan: he wants to go down in a shark cage to fire a poison gun at the shark. But the shark attacks the cage, and then as the boat continues to sink, the shark leaps half onto the deck and eats Quint.

Brody is now on his own against the shark, and in one last, desperate Hail Mary plan (the most exciting kind in a climax), he shoves an oxygen tank into the shark’s jaws and then fires at the shark until the tank explodes, and the shark goes up in bloody bits. As almost always, it is only that last ditch plan, in which the hero/ine faces the antagonist completely on his or her own, that saves the day.

I hope this little exercise gives you an idea of how it can be really enlightening and useful to focus on and track just the plans of all the main characters in a story and how they clash and conflict. If you find your own plot sagging, especially in that long middle section, try identifying and tracking the various plans of your characters. It might be just what you need to pull your story into new and much more exciting alignment.

And of course the question is: any favorite examples of plans for me, today?


I also wanted to post links to story breakdowns of some well-known movies in different genres, so you can see how these story elements we've been talking about function in action:

Romancing the Stone

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Act One

Act Two, Part 1

Act Two, Part 2 and Act Three


Act One

Act Two, Part 1

Act Two, Part 2 and Act Three


All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  Any format, just $3.99 and $2.99.

Amazon US

Amazon UK

Amaxon DE

Amazon FR

Amazon ES

Amazon IT

If you're a romance writer, or have a strong love plot or subplot in your novel or script, then Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks II is an expanded version of the first workbook with a special emphasis on love stories.

Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

Amazon US

Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE


plastic.santa said...

How about Some Like It Hot? – maybe my favorite movie of all time. And packed with plans/barriers to success/new plans. What I find really satisfying about Billy Wilder's script is that all the plan's have the barriers to success built in from the outset.

Jerry and Joe have a plan to take the money they get from playing in the band at the speakeasy to get their coats out of hock. At least that’s Jerry’s plan. Joe's plan is to bet the money on a horse.

Doesn’t matter (as Joe E. Brown playing millionaire Osgood will say later in the film) because the speak is raided before the boys get paid. Plan thwarted. New plan: go to the booking agent. Agent says he has openings for a sax and a bass – the instruments Jerry and Joe play. Good, they’ll take it. No, they have to be girls. Plan thwarted. We’ll take the job in Champaign; we’ll borrow a car. Go to get the car and run into the St. Valentine’s Day massacre. Plan thwarted.

Plan: Take the job in the all-girl band (as Josephine and Geraldine nee Daphne) to get out of town and ditch the disguises once they get to Florida. On the train trip, both fall for Sugar Kane. But they are girls, so falling-in-love-with-Sugar plan thwarted. (As Jack Lemmon as Daphne says, “I’m a girl, I’m a girl, I’m a girl.”)

Plan to ditch the disguises thwarted once they get to Florida thwarted by Joe’s new plan to get Sugar by assuming a second disguise as a millionaire (Junior).

Meanwhile, millionaire Osgood falls for Daphne, planning to take “her” out to his yacht. Which leads Joe to a new plan to use the millionaire’s yacht for a date with Sugar. The plan is for Daphne to keep Osgood busy on shore. Something he does all too well – ending up engaged. (“I’m a man, I’m a man, I’m a man.") Meanwhile, Joe’s real feelings for Sugar have thwarted his plans.

New plan. Joe uses the bracelet Osgood has given Daphne as a way to cushion the breakup with Sugar and Daphne will break it off with Osgood and they’ll resume their life as men.

Plan thwarted as the mobsters responsible for the killings in Chicago show up at the resort just as the “boys” are planning to make their escape from skirts. New plan. Chase scene. Hide under the table. Another mob massacre. New plan. Chase scene. Trapped in an elevator with mobsters. New plan. Chase scene. Escaping to the yacht.

Sugar tells Joe she really loves him, not Junior, the Shell oil heir. New plan, which we – being romantics – assume works out. Daphne tells Osgood she can’t marry him. Every objection (barrier to success) is met with a new plan. (Daphne: “I can’t have children.” Osgood: “We’ll adopt.”)

Finally, Daphne/Jerry pulls off her/his wig: “Osgood, I’m a man.”

And true to the end, Osgood has a new plan: “Well, nobody’s perfect.”

Every plan has a counter plan. Every plan contains the seeds of its own destruction. You could write this over as a noir drama instead of a comedy and it would still work. (No, really, you could.)

plastic santa

Wendy Wagner; said...

Is that quote really from the movie "Tremors"? I don't remember it from reading through the screenplay on-line. But that movie is a great example of plan after plan after plan going awry!