STORY-inspired plot chart

One of the most importantscratch thatTHE most important book I’ve read about writing is Robert McKee’s Story.

McKee’s book is based on his famous seminars he delivers world-wide and is actually for screenwriters, but his advice is completely relevant for novel writers. On his website, he says his alumni have won 35 Academy Awards (160+ Nominations) and 164 Emmy Awards (500+ Nominations). The dust jacket of my hardcover copy says works written, directed, or produced by his alumni include Batman Forever, Beauty and the Beast, E.R., Forrest Gump, Friends, Law & Order, Saving Private Ryan, Seinfeld, Sesame Street, Toy Story, and the X-Files, and my copy is something like eight years old.

Two important concepts I took from the book are the “gap” and “two goods/two bads.” Essentially, the “gap” opens up when a character takes action they expect to yield a certain result, but the reality turns out differently. Two goods/two bads refers to character choices, which are only meaningful if the choice is between two equally strong goods or two equally strong bads. To really understand these concepts, read the explanations and examples in McKee’s book.

Reading Story led to my creation of a “gap chart” for my first manuscript (science fiction set on a faraway planet). My main character, Aiden Carter, is an ambitious eighteen-year-old on the fast track to the equivalent of the presidency. His skeleton in the closet is his mother, who frequently breaks the law against charity. Here is the very top of the chart:

Plot advances What Aiden expects What happens instead Possible choices/ consequences Decision/new direction What is risked
Aiden Carter cheats in a track meet, next morning called to “principal’s” office. Fears either a punishment for cheating or questions about his collapse on the track. Questioned by the military government about his mother, Hannah Carter.INCITING INCIDENT TWO GOODSTell truth-avoid getting in trouble.

Lie-protect mother from prosecution.

Lies. University honor status.
Aiden walks home.PROGRESSIVE COMPLICATIONS BEGIN Hannah Carter is safe. (because his lies will protect her) Hannah Carter is arrested anyway. TWO GOODSDon’t testify-possibly prevent her conviction.

Testify-save his own career.

Testifies. Hannah Carter’s life.

This chart goes on for twelve more rows with Aiden taking actions and having his world react unexpectedly, which then causes him to take more actions where more and more is risked. It is that far-right column that gives the story it’s drama. My “What is risked” column progresses from “university honor status,” through things like “his identity,” “his secret power,” “his life,” “the entire planet.” As you go further down my risk column the stakes for Aiden get higher and higher until the largest possible thing is at stake.

I made this gap chart after I had written the manuscript. It helped me see my story in a way that was much more useful than a mere outline of the plot. It’s one of the most important writing exercises I’ve ever done.

For me it had to be part of the rewrite, but a different writer might benefit from doing this exercise at the outset. Some entry soon I’ll write a few words on the plotting vs. pantsing question.

15 Responses to “STORY-inspired plot chart”

  1. I have to agree that this is one of the most important writing books in my library. Reading it expanded my understand of plotting within and between scenes, and I especially love the way he takes the concept of “the gap” from the overarcing plot right down into the finite details, such as the gap being present in dialogue.

    I remember, as I was reading it, being almost overwhelmed by how tightly controlled plot was in his understanding. Some concepts were very useful to start out with, especially the large picture ones, but I set it down about mid-way through (on this, my second read) to focus on my rough draft. Some of his advice is definitely second and third draft stuff. I fully intend to go back to the rest of the book once I reach those stages and start really getting a handle on whether or not I’m making the most of my scenes.

    One thing I took away from reading it that really made an impact on me was his encouragement to be subtle, especially in the finer details of dialogue. I felt that he illustrated well how to do so much in a scene by saying very little and utilizing the gap

    Thanks for providing your gap chart! Reminds me to break out the full one you sent me and start drawing one up for EG.

    -Lady Notorious

  2. I really need to get my hands on this beast of a book, but I was always turned off because it’s a big, expensive hardcover. Maybe it’s in trade format now, or perhaps Kindle? I’ll get my hands on it one of these days!

  3. Okay, testing the new comment email system, so you need to respond to this one. ;)

    But I’m totally loving the fact that there’s STAR WARS books in the background of your photo!

  4. Bass says:

    I really like the chart you put up. I’m going to lay out my story like that. It’s a nice way of organizing the intangible world of a story.

    I don’t know if you’re aware, but McKee also has the storylogue website with daily material. And there’s the seminars. I find it helpful.

    • Jen says:

      Glad you found the chart idea helpful.

      I’m aware of the seminars, though I haven’t taken one, and of Storylogue, though I’m not signed up. Have you taken the seminar or registered for Storylogue? If so, in what ways would you say it helped your work?

      • Bass says:

        I was actually the first member on storylogue. I describe the website as like having a personal trainer. Every day there’s something new, so everyday you get McKee in your head, telling you to work. I know I wrote more in the first few months of the website opening than I had in the previous few years. There is also the ability to network, post discussions and outlines for other people to read, but unfortunately, the networking isn’t working as any hoped; people aren’t really taking the plunge. However, McKee has done three (or four, can’t remember) live chats in the chatroom in which you ask a question and he answers it in real time. Nonetheless, there’s almost 20gb of videos (which you can’t download but it’s always available); q&a’s, interviews, and in-depth lessons into character, dialogue, and such forth, already on the site, including excerpts of his genre seminars. There’s just so much information, and they recently halved the price, it’s really worth it.

        As for the seminars; the seminars are (again) unbelievably helpful. You pick up on things that you didn’t necessarily ‘get’ in the book. For example, I never got the triangle of choice until I went to the seminar, most recently, it helped illuminate a huge problem in my story; I got that nothing was really at stake. And the genre days; I found them useful even if you’re not writing in the genre he’s discussing because simply understanding how he breaks down a genre into its conventions is worth seeing first-hand to help you identify and understand the genre you are working in. And you can ask him questions at the break and he’s always happy to answer them. (In fact, it’s these questions that make up the bulk of the Q&As on storylogue.)

        If you go to youtube you can see some examples and I believe you can sign up for a free trial of storylogue for a week to test it out. Here’s a question I asked:

        I really rate it. I’ve been telling anyone who’ll listen to sign up. And if you do, I hope you’ll get as much out of it as I am, if not more.

        And you can always message me on the site if you do. I’m also working in science-fiction.

        • Jen says:

          I checked out your link. Nice Q&A. I do believe that taking the seminar or joining Storylogue could only enhance what I’ve gotten out of the book. I’ll spend a little more time checking out Storylogue.

  5. David says:

    McKee’s book is massively overrated. Kal Bashir’s analysis of journey, transformation and a new world is much, much better.

    • Jen says:

      I checked out your suggestion. It sounds a lot like what I got from Christopher Vogler’s super helpful The Hero’s Journey, which is based on the work of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung. Are you familiar with Vogler’s work? From what I could gather, Bashir’s work is a lot more expensive, and I’m curious about how much more helpful it is than Vogler’s to justify the price.

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Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.

— Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse