Saturday, February 11, 2006

Points On A Map

Some writers prefer to set off to sea without a map, but Syd Field, the author of Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting and The Screenwriter's Workbook, believes it’s essential to know where you’re going.

“You have to have a direction–a line of development leading to the resolution, the ending,” Field writes.

If you don’t know where you’re going, Field warns, you’re going to find yourself in trouble... “lost within the maze of your own creation.”

How do you avoid getting lost?

Field suggests using a sequence of points--plot points--that will give your story direction... much like points on a map... and uniting the sequence with a single idea.

“The sequence is the skeleton of the screenplay because it holds everything in place; you can literally ‘string,’ or ‘hang,’ a series of scenes together to create chunks of dramatic action,” Field explains.

There are a minimum of five points that Field recommends as essential elements for a writer to know before setting sail:

1) The set-up or beginning. In this opening section an author introduces necessary information about the main character to the reader, including what the story's about and the situation in which the character finds himself.

2) The plot point at the end of the set-up. Plot points serve as a means of spinning your story forward in a new direction, building the necessary narrative momentum to carry the story into the next stage.

3) The confrontation. In this section, your protagonist will encounter the obstacles keeping him or her from achieving whatever it is that she or he wants.

4) The plot point at the end of the confrontation. This point will spin the story toward its resolution.

5) The resolution. At this stage, your story resolves itself. “It [resolution] does not mean ending," writes Field. "Resolution means solution. What is the solution...? Does your main character live or die? Succeed or fail? Marry the man or woman, or not? Win the race or not? The ending is the specific scene that ends the script, but it is not the solution of the story.”

Some may see these points as an example of formula writing. But if you look carefully, each story has its own plot points... those moments that create the momentum to boost the story to the next level of tension and suspense.

Take a look at Harry Mazer's new novel, Heroes Don't Run, as an example. It's the concluding volume of a trilogy about a young boy's journey to manhood during World War II.

In Heroes Don't Run, seventeen-year old Adam Pelko wants to enlist after his father, a Naval officer, is killed at Pearl Harbor. His mother feels he needs a man's influence and the story opens with Adam heading from his home in California to his grandfather's farm in upstate NY.

The first plot point occurs early on... after Adam reaches his grandfather's farm and convinces him that he needs to sign up. When his grandfather, an old Army officer from World War I, tries to discourage him, Adam's desire only increases... until finally his grandfather relents and signs the papers.

The day that Adam receives his orders to report for duty is the first plot point... moving the story to the next level of suspense. After bidding his grandfather goodbye, Adam takes a bus to Syracuse, where he joins the other recruits for the train ride to Marine boot camp at Parris Island in South Carolina.

Boot camp's the training ground where Adam and his fellow recruits are molded into soldiers. It's tough, demanding, vigorous training, and there's always the question in the back of the reader's mind whether Adam and his fellow recruits will survive the ordeal.

The next plot point comes at the end of the training when Adam and his buddies are sent for advance training to Camp Lejune in North Carolina... and, following that tour of duty, to San Diego where they board ships for the Pacific.

Each turn of the plot tightens the screws, building the tension inherent in the story. Will Adam endure these tests of manhood with bravery and courage? Will he survive once he and his regiment arrive at Okinawa?

On Okinawa Adam's assigned to Sergent Rosenthal, who helps him learn to endure the nightly shelling and grueling attacks on the fortified Japanese positions in the hills. It's Rosenthal--Rosie to Adam--who saves him from becoming a "brute," a significant turning point in Adam's journey to manhood.

"Rosie saved me. He saved me from getting too hard. I loved the man. I looked up to him. I would have done anything for him."

It's his close bond of friendship with Rosie that saves Adam from despair when another friend is lost in battle... and it's Rosie who saves him--literally saves his life--when a mortar shell explodes on top of their bunker.

Only moments before, Adam and Rosie were discussing the future:

"What are you going to do when this is all over?"
"I'm not thinking about it." What difference did it make?
"I'll tell you what you're going to do. You're going to school," he said. "Promise me."
"Say it like you mean it. Say you promise."
I was just starting to say I promise, when a mortar shell exploded on top of us. There was a moment, maybe less than a second, when I saw it coming and shouted, "Rosie!"

This scene spins us into the novel's resolution... as Adam wakes up in the regimental aid station to learn Rosie lost his life saving his. (The blast's explosion sent fragments of Rosie's bones into him.)

After his operations, Adam's sent home where, surrounded by his family again, and with a girl-friend, he can finally rest in the knowledge that he fought for his country and tried to make the world a better place.

As Field suggests, plot points serve as a model or conceptual scheme for a solid structure. Think of them as providing an overview of the story line as it unfolds from beginning to end.

Some writers may need to know these elements before setting sail, as Field suggests.

Others may prefer to discover them as they go along.

And, still others may use them as checkpoints after finishing a draft to see how the story’s pace and tension succeed or fail to grab the reader’s attention.

Whatever way you work, checking your story for plot points can serve as a helpful exercise to make sure your story rises in tension and suspense.

For more information on Syd Field, check out his website at or read an interview with him online at

To learn more about Harry Mazer, you can read an interview with him online at

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