Building Satisfying Plots

With actress Angela Paton

Angela Paton is an actress with a resume spanning the worlds of theater (including San Francisco's ACT), television (Curb Your Enthusiasm, The X-Files), and film (Groundhog Day, The Wedding Singer).

We asked Angela to lay out the Top Five things that go into creating satisfying screenplay plots. Take it away, Angela!

1) The Hero. The Hero must have a dream or need that he is trying to fulfill, and his or her problem is trying to make that wish come true. He or she should be someone we like, so we want him or her to solve the problem of making that dream come true. Often there is also some lack in his character or life that he is unaware of, but that others might be aware of. In sad scripts, this is called a tragic flaw, sort of a troubling ghost getting in his way. In happy scripts, this is often the schtick that makes us laugh at his problem. The Hero's need is what starts the action of the plot, makes the plot move forward, and its success or failure is what brings the plot to an end. The tragic flaw is what makes it hard for the hero to see his way through the Plot.

2) The Opponent. Also getting in the hero's way is the opponent, who must be as strong or as smart or as interesting as the hero, or the film will be rather boring, like a game between a major league team and a minor league team; you know from the beginning who is going to win. The Opponent also has a dream or desire, and it might even be the same as the Hero's. He also has a gap in his personality that he's unaware of or doesn't much care about.

3) A World or Place or Universe. This world is the context in which the Hero lives and which is the origin of his needs, desires, and problems. It has minor characters that add to or obstruct the Hero's goal.

4) A Struggle. The central part of the Plot, also called the turning point or climax, is the fight, argument, battle, debate or struggle between the Hero and his Opponent, which often takes place in the part of the world in which it looks harder for the hero to escape, like a long hallway or a Ferris wheel or locker room. The struggle often has two or three surprises which show that escape might or might not be possible. The more important the Hero's goal, the better and more exciting the struggle. This part is called the agon. The struggle leads to point 5.

5) A Big Revelation. This is the end of the Plot in which the Hero's problem is solved, and which must answer some big question for the hero. Is his goal right or wrong? And it usually makes him aware of his tragic flaw. In happy scripts it's usually the right goal. In sad ones, it's a case of: "Be careful what you wish for...you might get it." And the answer must make sense to the audience.