Why are we so rubbish at plotting?

When I started writing sitcom around 25 years ago there was nothing like the Landfill of Writerly Wisdom currently available, to which I have become a regular contributor. 

Around that time I wrote five screenplays, not one of which made it beyond first draft and few to final draft, let alone Final Draft, if that even existed then. This was the 1990s and one of the few books that offered writing advice was The Foundations of Screenwriting by a man called Syd Field.

Syd’s formula was relatively simple, so simple that I could hear a voice mocking me every time I followed it. It’s a long long time since I owned a copy but from what I remember his approach to screenwriting was mathematical. A screenplay runs between 90 and 120 pages. Anything less is too short, anything more is too long. A big thing has to happen on page 17 (Not 16 or 18 that shows you don’t have a clue). If your lead isn’t fully immersed in their final great quest by page 84 then your script is in big trouble.

I hadn’t thought about that book for ages, his screenplay-by-numbers style has long been out of fashion. But after reading dozens of your scripts in recent months I took away two big notes. The first was that we don’t work hard enough on our initial ideas, the second was that plots were not working.

I wondered if it was a more fundamental problem at the heart of storytelling. How often do you walk out of the cinema swept away by the twists and turns of the story, satisfied as the final credits roll that you have witnessed a magical journey from start to finish?

I recently finished a book by a well-known novelist, a few years ago it was shortlisted for prizes, it’s funny, a bit dark, has patches of brilliance, the writer is clearly great on so many levels. But the story was all over the place.

I find this problem everywhere, people ignoring probably the oldest and soundest piece of writing advice ever, from Aristotle about 2500 years ago, which essentially breaks down to “every story has a beginning, a middle and an end.” Why is this so difficult? I don’t know. Maybe the answer is mathematical. 

Perhaps Syd Field was onto something after all.

Let’s imagine for a moment that your script is represented by a line on a graph. Along the bottom axis we have the duration of your work. Your script can be anything – a non-BBC sitcom coming in at around 20-22 minutes, a BBC one at 27 minutes, 48 minutes for a drama, 90 minutes for a movie and 80,000 words for a novel.

Along the vertical axis we record tension. Or you might want to use a word like stakes. Crisis, opportunity. Whatever word you choose, it’s something that needs to increase as you work through the crucial points in your script.

Step 1 – 0-15%

According to Syd, having set up your characters and established your place, you want your big moment to happen around 15% of the way through. That means, sitcom writers, that you have little more than three or four minutes to set up your characters, establish your world and present your lead character with a big crisis or opportunity. Which we shall call Step 2.

Step 2 – 15-15.001%

This step is getting its own little stair, even though it lasts for barely more than a few seconds. Robert McKee calls it the inciting incident. It’s going to turn your story around.

What this is not: This is not the theme, the premise, the overarching point, the whole reason you want to write it, the leitmotif. This is the moment an opportunity or crisis arises for your main character.

Step 3 – 15.001-30%

This is the playing out of the consequences of that first big moment. It has involved a complication and made things worse for your main character. I don’t want to take Syd too literally, but maybe I should, and if you’re writing a sitcom three to four minutes feels like a good amount of time for this next moment in your story to play out.

Step 4 – 30-45%

The consequence of that complication of the initial consequence has combined to make things even more difficult. If you’re writing a much longer piece you need more complications and consequences, so in your movie I would expect to see steps 4 a), b) and c) happening here.

Step 5 – 45-60%

If you’re writing a sitcom script for anyone other than the BBC you’re now around half way through your story and an advert break is about to happen. But even if not, you want the end of this step to be a moment that leaves vital questions hanging. So vital your audience will want to come back from their toilet break to find out what is going to happen next.

Step 6 – 60-75%

That question you left hanging in the air was a big one for your main character. As big as anything they’ve had to deal with in their lives. And, as we’re heading to some kind of critical point-of-no-return, the next response will have the biggest consequences of all. Everything is lost – or won.

All this time, I hope, the line across your graph has been moving upwards. Not steadily, because each step is caused by a jolt that was a consequence of the previous one. Which doesn’t mean you’re suddenly throwing a plot from nowhere at your main character. These stories are escalating because of the behaviour of your main character. Your characters are, in a phrase I use frequently, the architects of their own demise.

What happens now? How does your character escape? In drama/novel/movie land, they will find some inner resource that we realise was there all the time, and will use that to power their way through to the end of the story, where they will emerge having grown and learned.

In sitcom terms, your character will somehow extricate themselves from this torrid pickle, but only so far as to get them back to the place they started. No growing or learning for them.

How do we engineer this without the audience noticing? All will be revealed after this break…