An Approach to Plotting for Interactive Fiction Part II

Scott Jarol

Last time we reviewed the method of dramatic plot analysis developed by Bernard Grebanier. Grebanier created his “Paradigm” as a tool with which to study and to construct plots for stage plays. Another writer and teacher of dramatic writing, Syd Field, has taken an approach to plot analysis and development that reflects his background in the industrial process of filmmaking. Field’s method (as described in his books Screenplay, and The Screenwriter’s Workbook) is even more mechanical and easier to apply than Grebanier’s. While Grebanier’s Proposition centers on the motivational heart of the story, Field maps out the time sequence of the major events that define a well-made movie plot, or more specifically, an American movie plot.

Without condemning less rigidly plotted movies, Field claims that all of the blockbusters, regardless of artistic merit, rely on a simple and easily discernible pattern. He calls his model the “Paradigm” (which of course means “model”).

Field reduces movie plots to primarily three events: Plot Point I, Plot Point II, and the midpoint. He even goes so far in his empirical approach as to graph the Paradigm:

                  Copyright Syd Field

The Plot Points and Midpoint take place at specific times within the first and second Acts. Field uses the term “Act” in its most basic Aristotelian sense. Act I contains the story’s beginning, Act II, its middle and Act III, its end.  

Plot Point I, the culmination of the first act, is the event that sets the story in motion. In movies this is the event that’s usually easiest to identify because it almost always occurs one quarter of the way into the story, at about the end of the first 20 to 30 minutes. The first Plot Point of Star Wars occurs when Luke Skywalker, upon discovering the scorched remains of his Aunt and Uncle, agrees to accompany Obi-Wan Kenobi on his journey to Alderaan. That is the end of Act I. At this point we know what the story is about: a small force of rebels is determined to destroy the evil Empire’s doomsday weapon, and our hero, the son of a mystical warrior, has joined the cause. In the second act we expect to see what he will contribute to the cause of freedom, or more specifically, whether he will successfully help Obi-Wan Kenobi deliver the plans of the Death Star to the rebel forces.

Plot Point I corresponds to the second element of Grebanier’s Proposition, the “cause of the action.” If Grebanier weren’t as concerned that the plot points be expressed as actions performed by the main character upon the second and third characters, he might say that “Luke Skywalker has joined the rebellion.”

In Romeo and Juliet, Plot Point I is the marriage. One problem with Grebanier’s Proposition is that it lumps the remaining seventy-five percent of the story under the ludicrously general label of “The Consequence of the Action.” Of course it is, what else could it be unless it were another story altogether? The only plot element beyond the first act that Grebanier addresses is the Climax. Field’s paradigm, on the other hand, can at least help us identify the events that constitute the larger part of the story.

The writer, director, and editor impose some rigid structural constraints on a modern movie. In a two hour movie, Act I takes up the first thirty minutes, Act II is sixty minutes long, making it half the length of the film, and Act III occupies the last thirty minutes. The last act is usually where the Big Chase takes place because the good guy has already figured out who the bad guy is and now has to catch him. Watch Beverly Hills Cop again and figure out when Eddy Murphy’s character determines that the art dealer is actually a cocaine smuggler, and when he actually begins his assault on his estate.

To account for the action of the play after Plot Point I (we’re going to mix terminology here as we try to synthesize Grebanier’s theories with Field’s) Grebanier introduces the notion of dramatic “Climax.” Syd Field, on the other hand, describes the “turning point” of a screenplay as the “Midpoint.” Grebanier spends a lengthy chapter defining and illustrating the Climax. To paraphrase him: the Climax is what the Main Character does to the Third Character that determines the outcome of the story. Field never refers to the Midpoint as the climax, nor does he define the midpoint in terms of actions of the characters upon each another. Grebanier differentiates between the Climax and the climactic action. Field probably avoids the word “climax” because in the screen industry, climax means frenzied action rather than dramatic importance. So, are Grebanier’s “Climax” and Field’s “Midpoint” synonymous?

In Back to the Future, the event that triggers the main complication falls at a point about one third of the way through the story. That’s when Marty inadvertently rescues George, his father-to-be, from the oncoming car driven by Lorraine’s father. The midpoint is actually where Marty decides that he has to get his parents together at the “Enchantment Under the Sea” dance. In the script, as a matter of fact, he sees the poster announcing the dance on page 69 out of 132. The Midpoint signals the beginning of the unfurling. Field points out that in Chinatown, the Midpoint is when Jack Nicholson’s character, Jake Gittes, figures out the deeper connection between Evelyn Mulwray, Noah Cross, and Hollis Mulwray; from that point on he tries to prove his hunch.

Grebanier wants us to state all the plot points in terms of actions performed by the Main Character on either the Second Character or the Third Character. Back to the Future has five prominent characters: Marty, Doc Brown, George, Lorraine and Biff. The Main Character is easy to identify, but it may be more difficult to pick out the Second and Third Characters.

Doc Brown is the chorus of the story, as in ancient Greek theater. If it weren’t for his presence throughout, Marty’s chief problem would be how to get back to the future. However, in the second act, Marty’s problem is how to repair the historical damage he has done before history rewrites itself without him. The technical problem of re-achieving time travel is left to Doc Brown. Like a fairy-godfather, Doc Brown coaches Marty, explaining to him the consequences of his actions and suggesting solutions.

If we rely on Grebanier, George must be the Second Character. Marty rescues George, the “cause of the action.” This would be a safe bet, since the second act is dominated by Marty’s relationship with George.

Intuitively, we might guess that since this story is essentially a romance, Lorraine must be the Third Character. But Marty doesn’t actually do anything to or with Lorraine until late in the Second Act, when he drives her to the dance. Again, according to Grebanier, the Third Character is someone that the Main Character acts upon in a way that significantly determines the outcome of the story. Character number three must be Biff, who Marty buries beneath a load of manure, which would make that event the Climax. 

Clearly, to make Back to the Future conform to Grebanier’s Proposition, we have to pull some shenanigans — like disregarding most of the first and third acts. Field’s Paradigm doesn’t depend as much on the relationships of the characters to define the plot points.

Field’s complete Paradigm actually enumerates five essential events in a movie script:

                 Copyright Syd Field

Pinch I and Pinch II are the two turning points of the first and second halves of the second act. Another way to look at this is as a recursive definition of plot. Pinches I and II are actually the first and second Plot Points of Act Two. Without Grebanier’s more rigorous character constraints, we can easily express Back to the Future in terms of Field’s Paradigm:

                    Act I

Plot Point I Marty drives to 1955.

                    Act II

Pinch I Marty pushes George out of the  way of the car.

Mid-Point Marty realizes that his deadline is the dance.

Pinch II Marty accepts Lorraine’s  invitation to the dance.

Plot Point II Marty and George make a plan.

Notice the conspicuous flatline in the third act of Field’s graph of the Paradigm. Both authors describe the conclusion of their dramatic models in somewhat ambiguous terms. Obviously, the third act is the portion of the story wherein we should find the resolution to the complication introduced by Plot Point I.

Just like the first two acts, act three needs its own beginning, middle and end. The third act resolves all the problems of this complex story. We could analyze Act III with its own Paradigm:

                   Act III   

Plot Point I George knocks out Biff with a left hook.

Midpoint George kisses Lorraine (accomplishing the objective set by Marty and Doc Brown at the Midpoint of Act II).

Plot Point II Marty, whose birth is now assured, drives the DeLorean  back to the future.

Resolution Thanks to George’s triumph over Biff, Marty finds his family transformed into a clan of loving an accomplished individuals. 

The third act is a mechanism constructed in the first and second acts, and triggered into motion by Plot Point II.

To express the plot of Back to the Future in terms of Grebanier’s Proposition requires some labor: 

1. Condition of the Action: Marty, having traveled to the time of his parents’s adolescence, encounters his father.

2. Cause of the Action: Marty interrupts the event by which his parents met by pushing his father out of the way of an oncoming car.

3. Resulting Action: Will Marty unite George with Lorraine and undo the damage he has caused to history?

The Climax occurs when Marty antagonizes Biff by luring him into the manure truck.

Unfortunately, this approach completely ignores the main story, which is about time travel. The enclosing plot cannot be expressed in terms of the three main characters: No matter how you look at it, Marty’s trip in the DeLorean is a solo flight. So the proposition works for the structure of the second act, the middle hour of the movie, but not for the movie as a whole. A Proposition for the entire movie might look like this:

1. Marty McFly, the son a Milquetoast, realizes that the quality of his life is suffering as a result of his father’s weakness.

2. Marty travels back to 1955 and changes the circumstances of his parents’s first meeting.

3. Will Marty unite his parents, altering his father’s self-esteem in the process?

I doubt that such a contrivance has any value except as an academic exercise with which to prove that the Proposition can be forced to work.

The Midpoint may or may not coincide with the Climax. There are three ways to look for the Midpoint. You can either time it, count pages, or guess. For movies you will need to use the first method, unless you can get a script (which is actually pretty easy). For short stories, page count is not reliable so you’ll have to trust your judgement. The important thing about the Midpoint seems to be that it involves a change in the Main Character’s perspective. In Homer’s Odysseus, the Midpoint occurs when Odysseus forces his way into Hades, anxious to witness the splendor enjoyed by fallen heros. When he arrives there, Agamemnon sets him straight, explaining that death is the great equalizer, and warning him to cherish his life on Earth. From then on, Odysseus seeks safety rather than adventure. Odysseus is a linear plot — Odysseus and his crew face one obstacle after another on their journey home from war — so the Midpoint is also the Climax.

In general, the Midpoint, that is the literal Midpoint as Field describes it, applies only to movies and television — specifically commercial American movies and television. These stories are designed primarily to entertain audiences rather than to enlighten them, and because our tastes are governed largely by our cultural heritage, Hollywood screen productions tend to exhibit a common structure. Also, because screen production in this country is truly an industrial process, requiring the coordinated efforts of hundreds of individuals, standards have emerged which make it possible for each of these people to contribute their expertise according to accepted guidelines and therefore with predictable results.

For either of these methods of plot analysis we could likely find equal numbers of examples and exceptions. Authors usually don’t write from blueprints, so we shouldn’t expect to find neatly spaced studs and rafters in their work. But, though the model may be flawed, each analysis we complete helps us to better understand the mechanics of narrative, which in turn gives us tools by which to judge the quality our own creations. 

In Part 3 of this series, we’ll examine how these models of plot construction can be used to fashion a “virtual personality” for the Player Character of an interactive fiction.  a