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The Tertiary Principles of Plot: Plans, Gaps, Crises

The Tertiary Principles of Plot: Plans, Gaps, Crises

In storytelling, the primary principles of plot include goal, antagonist, conflict, and consequences. You can’t have a great plot without those elements first. The secondary principles of plot build directly off the primary, and they include progress, setbacks, costs, and turning points. As you likely guessed, the tertiary principles build off the prior two sets, and they include plans, gaps, and crises. 

Here is a very brief review of what we’ve covered so far.

Goal–the protagonist has a want that manifests in a concrete goal. (There are different types of goals and the goal may change, but a goal is necessary to create context for the plot.)

Antagonist–the antagonistic force is a form of opposition; and thus it is something in the way of the goal. (While there is often a primary antagonist, most stories will have multiple–and even temporary–antagonistic forces)

Conflict–because the protagonist and antagonist “want” opposing things (to some degree), this leads to conflict.

Consequences–conflict only really matters when it carries consequences. This gives a plot a sense of cause and effect. Stakes appear as potential consequences. Ramifications appear as consequences that actually happen.

Progress–progress is used to measure how close the protagonist is to getting the goal. A sense of progress comes from reaching smaller goals within the larger goal.

Setbacks–setbacks happen when an antagonistic force blocks or pushes back the protagonist from his or her goal. They work as the opposite of progress.

Costs–when the protagonist moves forward and comes into conflict, there is often a sort of cost. This may be their physical or mental well-being, time, money, or any other sort of resource. Costs put responsibility and accountability on the protagonist as they exercise agency.

Turning Points–turning points appear as an action (event) or a revelation (information) that changes the cause-and-effect trajectory of the story (consequences). The plot was going one direction, but a turning point shifts it onto a new path.

Why Are the Tertiary Principles “Plans, Gaps, and Crises”?

Each of these three elements strengthens and reinforces the earlier components:

Plans bridge us from goal to progress.

Gaps take us from expectation to reality (which plays off goals, plans, antagonistic forces, and ramifications).

Crises force the character to consider stakes and choose costs in order to get desired consequences.

Most of the tertiary principles aren’t talked about as much as the primary and secondary elements (and a lot of you may be scratching your head at the term “gaps”), so let’s dig right into each.

Plans Bridge Goals and Progress

At first glance, it may seem silly, straightforward, and even drab to include “plans” as a plotting element, but chances are, you probably haven’t read very many stories where there was no plan.

Let me spare you the experience by simply saying a plot with no plans can weaken the sense of progress.

Think about it. We can have a want that manifests as a concrete goal. An antagonist. And conflicts. And consequences. But if there is no plan on how the character is going to actually get that goal and the desired outcome, it can make the plot feel a little vague. (I personally feel the lack of a clear, specific goal and clear, specific plans (and therefore clear, specific progress) are the main reasons the second and third Fantastic Beasts films lacked the power and punch of the other Wizarding World stories.)

Now in some stories, the plan may be more subtle and implied, while in others, it may be more blatant and spelled out. Regardless, the audience benefits from knowing how the protagonist intends to move forward to get the goal (generally speaking–we must always keep in mind, these are principles and not laws).

Planning is the bridge between the goal and the progress. 

And it not only connects the two, but also reinforces each.

Because if you have a goal, planning will show that you want to actually achieve it. It shows that you are invested in it.

And when there is a plan, it’s easier to measure what is progress, or alternatively, a setback.

Even characters who say they have no plan are actually–more than not–just planning as they go. They have an expectation in mind, and they imagine actions to take to make that expectation a reality.

Plans are also important in laying out the cause-and-effect trajectory of the plot (the consequences). If the plan succeeds, the character gets the desired outcome. Now, admittedly, because the tertiary principles are so closely intertwined with the other elements, it can be tricky to determine exactly where one ends or where one begins. But regardless, don’t neglect a plan altogether.

Sometimes I get the sense that writers think laying out the plan on the page is “boring,” but it lays out a foundation for the upcoming conflict. And if there are strong stakes, planning will be more interesting. 

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With that said, you don’t need to necessarily do a whole scene where the characters sit down and plan everything before a major conflict. One of the mistakes I sometimes see is when the writer has the characters make a whole plan, and then when the conflict hits, everything plays out exactly as they planned. That makes the story feel boring and repetitious. If you make a big show about laying out a whole plan prior, then there better be some unexpected turns that come up when the conflict hits.

A rule of thumb: The more the conflict plays out according to the plan, the fewer details of the plan actually need to be on the page. (But almost always, some of the plan should be communicated to the audience.)

When it comes to conveying the plan to the audience, use good judgment–sometimes implication is enough, other times a line of dialogue, or other times some narration. In some parts of the narrative arc, you may have whole scenes dedicated to the characters working out a plan.

The point is that plans can strengthen the plot.

Gaps Lead to Escalation

Most of you probably aren’t familiar with this term, because I’ve actually only seen two people talk about it–Robert McKee in Story and Shawn Coyne in The Story Grid (which was influenced by Robert McKee). It’s nonetheless an important tertiary concept that can strengthen a plot.

In Story, McKee talks about the importance of “the gap.” The gap is that space between what the character expects to happen and what actually does happen.

The character has a goal–and a plan–with potential consequences (stakes). “If I get X, then Y happens” or “Once I do X, I’ll get Y” or something of the sort. Because stakes work by projecting consequences forward, they also set up expectations. “If I nail this audition, I can become a lead singer”–the expectation is that nailing the audition will lead to becoming a lead singer. “If my lemonade stand is a success, then I’ll have enough money to pay for my pet’s surgery”–the expectation is that the success of the lemonade stand will lead to the pet getting surgery.

Like most plotting principles, expectations can work on a much smaller level. Whenever we take an action, we are usually taking it because we have an expectation. If I squish my toothpaste bottle, I expect toothpaste to come out. If I set my alarm, I expect it to go off. If I go to a grocery store, I expect to see groceries.

Notice, however, that these would be a stretch to call “stakes.” When I squish my toothpaste bottle, there isn’t any known risk that toothpaste won’t come out of the bottle–there is no significant hope or concern, just expectation.

All stakes contain expectations, but I believe it would be a stretch to say all expectations check out as legitimate “stakes.”

Regardless, the character acts with an expectation.

It’s often very effective to create a gap by delivering something different than what is expected.

Our singing character nails her audition, but doesn’t get the lead part. Little Sally raises enough money from her lemonade stand, only to come home and have her abusive father take the cash. I squeeze my toothpaste bottle, but glue comes out. I go to the grocery store, but there are no groceries.

As a writer, you have a few options on how to do this.

You can deliver exactly what is expected (the singing character nails the audition and gets the lead part)

You can deliver something worse than expected (the character fails the audition and not only doesn’t get the part, but is somehow forbidden from ever auditioning again)

You can deliver something better than expected (she nails the audition, gets the lead part, and gets to go on a world tour)

You can deliver something completely different, and therefore more surprising, than what is expected (she nails the audition, attracting the attention of an abusive stalker)

There are actually a few different ways you can categorize and approach outcomes other than this way, but it’s the same basic idea. I don’t want to overcomplicate things by giving all the comprehensive options. And my examples may not be the best, but hopefully you get the concept. The point is, you can deliver something different than expected, and this creates a gap.

Gaps can lead to significant turning points with ramifications. The character nails the audition, only to attract an abusive stalker–this could change the trajectory of the story, so that for the next act, she’s dealing with a stalker antagonist. A starving character downs a plate of offered food, only to realize it’s poisoned. He’s now on a trajectory to die, and must find a way to avoid that. The following scene is about him trying to get to a hospital in time. Once he’s there, it’s about trying to get treated in time. These gaps change the story at the act or sequence level. Of course, they can also work at the scene level.

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Gaps can be used to escalate the rising action (read: conflict) of any structural unit. Whenever the character takes an action with an expectation, you can create a gap. McKee talks about gaps in this context.

The character has a goal, and first takes the most obvious, conservative approach to getting the goal, but reality delivers something different–he doesn’t get what he wants so easily. This means the character now has to make a riskier attempt, but again, reality delivers something different. So, he has to make an even riskier attempt . . . and this goes on and creates a sort of rising action where reality is delivering antagonistic forces of one type or another, blocking the goal, and pushing the character to take more and more risks–pushing the character into doing something (or considering doing something) he or she would not originally have intended to do. This creates escalation.

As an example, maybe you have a scene where your hungry character is trying to order at the drive-through, but no one is responding (a result different than expected), so then what do they do? They take an escalating action. Maybe they raise their voice at the microphone, once, then twice. Suddenly, someone comes on . . . but seems to be laughing at the character. Escalation. Your character drives straight to the window, expecting to demand to be served, but suddenly hears someone crying from inside. He knocks on the window and yells. Escalation. A man comes and opens the window, and he’s holding a gun. Escalation.

Here, reality delivers more antagonistic forces–forces the character didn’t expect, which pushes him to take bigger risks and actions. These things work together to create a rising conflict.

Gaps are easier to talk about than implement, like anything in writing. And like anything in writing, they get easier to create with practice. You don’t have to create a gap with every single expectation on the page–that could get a little crazy–but I would personally recommend using multiple gaps in each scene. They make the plotting of any structural unit more riveting, because they amplify antagonistic forces, costs, risks, and ramifications. They also help reinforce how committed the character is to getting the goal–if the character gives up with the first gap, then they obviously weren’t very committed. 

Just remember the gaps need to have a sense of logicdon’t use them as simply an empty promise to hook the audience. In our drive-through example, the character may not yet know why he’s not getting served, why someone is laughing, why someone is crying, and why there is a gun. But we should get the answers to that as the story progresses. It’s unfair to leave the audience with no explanation, and they’ll feel tricked and cheated.

Crises Consider Costs and Consequences

In the writing community, a crisis is also called a “dilemma.” Two terms for the same concept.

A crisis is when the character has to make a choice between two opposing paths (cause-and-effect trajectories). She can’t have both.

Months ago, I talked about how Shawn Coyne breaks this down into two types:

a. The Best Bad Choice

The character has to choose between two negative options.

b. Irreconcilable Goods

The character has to choose between two positive options.

This is helpful when teaching and talking about things simplistically, but I think it’s important to note that in a story, this may not be so obviously one type or another.

For example, in a typical Hero’s Journey, the protagonist receives the Call to Adventure (the inciting incident). This often leads to a crisis. If he goes on the Adventure, it could cost him his literal life. If he stays behind, it could cost him his figurative life (he’ll never grow and reach his potential). From the audience’s perspective, we may say that answering the Call is a positive choice, while Refusing it is a negative choice. But that’s not what it looks like to the character. If he goes on the Adventure, he could grow into something greater, but also die. If he stays, he would remain stagnant in his Ordinary World, but be safe.

Notice that each option has something positive and negative attached to it. Answer the Call: growth and death, possibly. Refuse the Call: stagnation and safety, possibly.

Rather than get hung up on whether the choice is between two bad things or two good things, it can be helpful to simply see the crisis as a choice between two trajectories that each have significant stakes, and are therefore difficult for the character.

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The crisis is a moment where we lay out the stakes (either implied or directly on the page) and pathways the story could go, depending on what the character chooses.

This reinforces the concept of the character’s agency, which means reinforcing the sense of responsibility and accountibility. Their choice sends the story on a path that will require one form of a cost or another. In the Hero’s Journey example, if the protagonist Answers the Call, his physical well-being will become a cost of his growth. If he Refuses the Call, his mental well-being will become a cost of his stagnation. (This is a simplified example to illustrate the point. In a real story, it might be more complex than that). Whichever he chooses, there is a cost.

Crises are key to revealing character, because the choice made will reveal what matters to that character most. A protagonist who Answers, ultimately cares more about growth. A protagonist who Refuses, ultimately cares more about safety.

Typically a crisis will come out of a rising action (read: conflict). The character takes action toward the goal, but reality keeps handing out antagonistic forces (gaps), which leads to escalation as the character takes bigger risks to get the goal, and reality hands out even bigger antagonistic forces. The escalation and risks and antagonists eventually force the character “into a corner,” where they face a crisis. Do they carefully leave the fast-food drive-through and retreat? Or do they confront the man with a gun who is hurting someone inside? A character who picks the first has very different values than a character who picks the second. They each have to live with different costs. Because of this, a crisis may be a good time to weigh out the paths and options–however, not every crisis needs this on the page. It can simply be implied. And the choice a character makes may simply be implied by the action they take next.

It’s worth noting that in some situations, not making a choice is a choice–but it must have significant consequences itself (otherwise it’s not a true crisis). If our character at the drive-through decides to just stare, he risks getting shot in the face, being taken advantage of, or something else. It’s an option, but it’s a bad one.

And in some situations, there may be more than two trajectories to choose from.

The point is, the choice is difficult because it has significant stakes. Generally speaking, the character should not have an easy way out, an easy option, an easy trajectory. The character can’t get out of this risk free. Because of this, whatever the character chooses, he can’t fully go back to how things used to be. Even the character who Refuses the Call has to live with that fact: He turned down the opportunity for growth and damned himself to stagnation. He may think he can go back to how things were, but finds he can’t because he’s haunted by the fact he could have chosen differently.

Like other plot elements, a crisis can be big, such as on the act level, or smaller, such as on a scene level. The bigger the crisis and further into a story a crisis happens, the greater the stakes and trajectories should be, and the more difficult it should be try to “go back to normal.”

(All generally speaking, of course. Principles, not laws, remember.)

The crisis will be tied to a goal, or at least a want. Really, it’s a moment to illustrate the character’s competing wants, which implies internal conflict. The character both wants to grow on the Adventure and wants to stay safe. What he chooses will often draw him closer to one and further from the other (in this case, choosing the Adventure draws him to growth and away from safety).

The character’s choice will create a turning point–because the choice will be shown by either the character taking an action or revealing information, and this changes the trajectory. This is a turning point that comes from the character. It reinforces agency and keeps the character active (and not passive). Read more about crises.

Interestingly, all three tertiary principles emphasize the character’s agency, in a sense: Plans are how the character intends to move forward to the goal. Gaps further test their commitment to the goal and ask them to take bigger risks as they take escalating actions. A crisis emphasizes a critical choice as the character selects significant costs to obtain desired consequences.

And there you have it: plans, gaps, and crises.

But believe it or not, there is still more!

Until then, get plotting!

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