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How to Know Where a Plot Event Should Go

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A question I get a lot in my screenwriting workshops and in one-on-one consulting is: where “should” a particular plot event go?

Is this where the kiss should go? Should the protagonist meet his big rival here? Or here? Is this where the big secret should be revealed? Or should that happen earlier? Is this where I have to show the antagonist?

And the answer is almost always, “It depends.” (Which writers don’t like the sound of, but is absolutely true.) So let’s talk about what it depends on.

They want effects

Where something “should” go in your story depends on what you’re trying to achieve with it. It depends on what function you’re trying to fulfill by planting that plot event at a given place in the story.

For example, to answer the question, “Is this where the kiss should go?” we need to know what you’re trying to achieve with that kiss.

  • Are you trying to cement the stakes for the protagonist, the thing that will motivate her to go on this adventure in the first place?
  • Or are you trying to prove that he’s the wrong guy, and she should actually be pursing this other boy-next-door who’s been waiting in the wings for her to notice him?
  • Or something else entirely?

A kiss is just a kiss until it means something. In your story, a kiss might have any number of different purposes. Because of that, it could occur at any number of different places in the plot. It just depends on what you want it to do.

Know the purpose (first, if you can)

When I’m working with writers on their story’s major turning points, I always encourage them to know what they’re trying to achieve first, and then to find the event that accomplishes that purpose.

Of course, a lot of times we come at stories with certain scenes already alive in our minds. We know they go somewhere, we just don’t yet know where. And hey – that’s okay too. Writing isn’t a linear process, you know?

But if you find yourself trying to slot in certain events or scenes, remember to ask yourself what purpose you need to achieve at a given point in the story, and whether your darlings do indeed achieve that effect.

Story structure example: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before

Take, for example, the movie To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.

(Screenplay by Sofia Alvarez, based on the book by Jenny Han.)

In TATBILB, 16-year-old Lara Jean has to deal with the fallout when five love letters she’s secretly written over the years are sent out to the boys she never intended would receive them, including her former-best-friend’s ex, and the boy next door, who happens to be the recent boyfriend of Lara Jean’s own sister.

Things get complicated. But let’s look at just that one plot event: The boys receive LJ’s love letters.

Where “should” this event go?

Could it be an Inciting Incident? Yep. Could it be a “Break into 2”? Yep. Could it be a Midpoint escalation or turn? Yep. Could it be a “low point” at the end of Act 2? Yep.

But at each of these points, it creates a different story. And, in fact, this event doesn’t need to be a major plot point. It just depends on what story we’re telling.

The summary I provided above is totally focused on plot events, but it doesn’t tell you anything about the emotional journey of the character. The transformation she goes through. In other words, as you know, what the story’s really about.

This story is about a young woman who’s been hiding from life in order to avoid the possibility of getting hurt. She stays in her safe comfort zone, and doesn’t openly express herself for fear of rejection. This story forces her to get out of her fantasies and into reality, and — as a result — to deal with all of those feelings she’s been stuffing down.

And the way the story does that is by first removing LJ’s buffer – her big sister and best friend, Margot, leaves for college. This is the Inciting Incident.

After this, LJ is exposed and vulnerable, so she tries to cling to her comfort zone, hanging out with little sister, Kitty, and immersing herself in her collection of bodice-ripper romance novels.

Then LJ’s true feelings are sent out into the world in the form of her secret love letters, and – with no one to hide behind – LJ is launched on the Act 2 Adventure of dealing with real stuff – and everything she’s feeling – whether she wants to or not.

If we’re getting specific about it, I’d say when LJ learns the boys have received her letters and she first tries to deal with this situation by hiding from the truth (kissing Peter in order to avoid facing Josh) — that’s our Break Into Act 2.

Plot isn’t the whole story

When we think about plot, we often think just of external events. But if we try to understand how a story works by looking just at the plot events, we miss the point. The point is the story – the meaning that’s created by the sequence of events and the effect they have on the character(s).

So, “it depends” might be maddening, but it’s the starting point that will force you to look past the surface. You can’t really know where a plot event “should” go, unless you know what purpose you’re trying to achieve with it.

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