The Skills List Project: Plot Units

This is another post in The Skill List Project: an attempt to list all the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. This time around, I promised we’d look at skills related to plotting. This will take several postings to cover; we’ll start with some basic terminology about the units making up a plot.

Actions, Beats, Scenes and Acts

The smallest unit of plot is an action: a single thing a character does. This might be delivering a line of dialogue, picking something up and examining it, or throwing a punch in a fight. Actions don’t take up much space on the page—usually no more than a paragraph. They probably don’t take up much real time either, but that’s not always true. An uneventful journey or a long period spent researching in a library may take days or weeks, yet still be a single action. The important thing is that an action is a single activity, and that (in a particular story) it isn’t broken down into smaller significant sub-activities [1].

A beat is a sequential set of related actions [2]. The actions may be related because they have a unified emotional tone, or because they’re all moving the story in the same direction. For example, two people arguing about something could be a beat: each person’s line of dialogue is a separate action, and the speeches build on each other. The beat ends when the argument ends, or when it veers off in a different direction (which starts a new beat). Similarly, there’s the “getting ready for battle” beat, where one or more people prepare themselves for some imminent conflict, each in his or her own way. (I should note that getting ready for battle may be considered a single action if it’s short, and none of the sub-actions is significant on its own. Similarly, there are plenty of stories where getting ready for battle takes up whole scenes or even multiple scenes—it depends on how minutely the writer breaks things down, and how much significance is given to the component activities.)

A scene consists of one or more beats, almost always occurring sequentially in a single setting, or at least a single conceptual space [3]. Simplistically, a scene starts when the flow of narrative moves into the setting, and ends when the flow of narrative goes somewhere else. For example, if the story has been talking about events on a street corner in Calcutta, and then it shifts to events in Buckingham Palace, the Calcutta scene has ended and the palace scene has begun. However, there should be a lot more to a scene than just a sequence of events that happen in the same place; scenes should have purpose, logic, and cohesion. We’ll talk a lot more about this in future postings.

An act consists of a series of scenes which go together to develop an aspect of the story. The act ends when something occurs that makes further development of that aspect impossible (or at least unproductive). Usually, this means that something important changes, propelling the narrative in a new direction.

One way of looking at this is to compare this to cooking. Actions are the simple ingredients: salt, pepper, peas, onions, flour, and so on. Beats are the first things you make with these ingredients: basic sauces, soup stock, etc. Scenes are completed dishes, and acts are the individual courses that together make up the complete meal. Actions don’t just stand on their own, and neither do beats—they need context to make sense and to be interesting. Scenes are the smallest units that have a dramatic beginning, middle, and end; acts are even more well-rounded [4].

The Three-Act Structure

My definition of “act” may not be very enlightening, so let’s look at an example. These days, the 800-pound gorilla that dominates storytelling is the three-act structure:

  1. In Act I, you set up the characters, their starting situations, and some problem or conflict that they’ll have to confront. The act ends when something drives the characters out of their comfort zones and forces them into uncharted waters. (Steve Rogers is transformed into Captain America.)
  2. Act II develops the new direction, showing the characters trying to cope with their new conditions. Protagonists and antagonists often skirmish, but inconclusively. Conflicts intensify and the stakes are raised. Characters have successes and failures. Often, the protagonist has a particularly crushing failure and plunges into “the dark night of the soul”. Act II ends and Act III begins at the point where the protagonist gets back into the fight and embarks on an all-or-nothing push. (Bucky Barnes dies and Captain America mopes…but then he gets his mojo back and leads the final assault on the bad guys.)
  3. Act III resolves the story, bringing the major characters into new conditions that seem stable. In a happy ending, it seems as if the troubles are over; in an unhappy ending, it seems as if the troubles are here to stay. Often it’s a bit of both…but either way, a new “normal” has been established, at least for a while.

When you see it written out like this, the structure just looks like “Beginning/Middle/End”, so there’s nothing too profound about it. However, screenplay gurus like Syd Field, Robert McKee, and Blake Snyder have laid out more specific requirements for each act…and when people talk about three-act structure, they often mean the more detailed version, as in, say, Snyder’s Save the Cat.

People sometimes accuse this detailed three-act structure of putting a straitjacket on how we tell stories, making it difficult to write (or at least to sell) different approaches. Personally, I think the three-act structure is a useful lens for looking at stories, especially when your gut says a story’s structure isn’t working but you can’t put your finger on the exact weakness. On the other hand, I hate the way it’s sometimes used as a bludgeon to smack down any story that doesn’t stay rigidly within conventions…especially when the bludgeon is wielded by someone who seems to have no other critical criteria except “Does it conform to the formula?”

One way or another, the three-act structure is ubiquitous in modern storytelling. However, it’s not the only approach. Shakespeare used five acts; stage-plays often use two; hour-long TV shows use four, or four plus an opening teaser. Experimental works can use structures which defy simple summations…and I’m all in favor. Literature is big; it should contain multitudes.

Tune in Next Time

Next time, we’ll start looking into the specific skills that are required for constructing plots. In the meantime, have your say in the comments!

[1] Something that takes a single action in one story may take dozens of scenes in another. For example, “I took the red-eye to Los Angeles,” may be a single action in one type of story, but in Snakes on a Plane, it’s the entire movie.

[2] The team “beat” comes from Hollywood screenwriting, and it’s sometimes used inconsistently. For example, I’ve seen it refer to a higher level of story structure, where scenes go together to make “beats” within the story. My version of beats is based on the one in Hamlet’s Hit Points by Robin D. Laws.

[3] Right now, I’m thinking of a key scene in the Captain America movie, where (no spoilers) two characters speak to each other by radio. They’re in two different locations, but conceptually, they’re together in the same “conversational space”.

[4] However, actions and beats often have the strongest impact. When we remember a story, we usually think of memorable moments, not longer sequences. Scenes and acts provide the context that make the actions and beats pay off.

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There are 4 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. Elias McClellan

    Excellent topic and examples. Seems simple until you’re knee deep in it. Thank you, Mr. Gardner.

  2. 2. Mike Barker

    Just wondering — are you going to mention Bickham’s scene-sequel approach? I think his scene and yours match up pretty well, but you don’t seem to have the sequel?

  3. 3. James Alan Gardner

    Yes, future posts are going to say a lot more about scenes and putting them together.

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James Alan Gardner

James Alan Gardner got his M.Math from the University of Waterloo with a thesis on black holes...and then he immediately started writing science fiction instead. He's been a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards, and has won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award as well as the Aurora award (twice). He's published seven novels (beginning with "Expendable"), plus a short story collection and (for street cred) a Lara Croft book. He cares deeply about words and sentences, and is working his way up to paragraphs. Visit site.

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