Plotline Essentials:  “The 8 C’s”

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Plotlines vs Loglines

As we discussed last week, plotlines and loglines are different.

Loglines are selling tools designed to excite an audience.  Plotlines are designed to help you, the writer, clearly understand the beginning, middle and end of your script.

A good plotline will distill the essential dramatic elements of your script down to their core and express them in a clear, concise and coherent way that articulates your story.  It will take time to choose the best words and phrases.  When it is done write, it shouldn’t be more than 3-4 sentences.

The 8 C’s

There are 8 essential elements that must be included in a good plotline:

  1. The Character – this is your main character.
  2. Catalyst – this is the inciting incident
  3. Clear Want – this is defining motivation of the main character that drives your plot.
  4. Conflict – this includes the Antagonist and other obstacles your main character will face.
  5. Consciousness – this is the midpoint of your script in which your main character has an epiphany about his or her predicament that enables them to take directed action
  6. Crisis – this is the lowest moment in your story.
  7. Climax – this is the final conflict between main character and the antagonist.
  8. Change – this expresses how the main character changes from beginning to end of your story.

What Each C Means

  1. Character

You want to define your main character in the most clear and relevant broad strokes.  That can be gender, age and occupation.  It should also include their defining trait which will change by the end of your script.

  1. Catalyst

This is the inciting incident of your film; the call to adventure.  It is the event that puts your main character in motion and engages him or her in the story to follow.

  1. Clear Want

This is the End of Act One.  It is the moment when your main character has defined what he or she must do and why.  If this is not clear, your readers will not know what they are supposed to be rooting for in your story.

  1. Conflict

This is where you define your antagonist.  Who is the antagonist?  What do they want?  And why is his or her want mutually exclusive of your main character’s want?

  1. Consciousness

This is what I call the “midpoint shift” in your script.  It’s the moment in the middle of your story where your main character has an epiphany of some kind about his or her predicament.  It’s where the main character realizes something about the situation, the antagonist or herself that allows them to take action in a different, more effective way.  In a Four Act structure, this would be the End of Act Two.

  1. Crisis

This is the lowest moment in your script when your main character is the furthest away from achieve his goal.  In a Four Act structure, this would be the End of Act Three.

  1. Climax

This is the culmination of your film.  It’s the final confrontation between your main character and her antagonist.  It also answers the dramatic question of your script: Will your main character achieve his goal?

  1. Change

This is the expression of your main character’s change over the course of your story.  If your character doesn’t change, you haven’t defined him or her correctly.  If they do change, comparing your word choice here against your word choice in #1 can help you refine how you see your character in your script.

Putting It Together

A good plotline should be 3-4 sentences.  They should be simple and clear.  You want to omit all and any information that is not essential to the core of your story.

The first sentence should include character, catalyst and clear want.  It can be constructed any way you like, but the most effective is to begin with the catalyst, then the main character and then what that character wants.  Often, this sentence will end up being the basis for your logline later.

The second sentence defines the conflict and the main character’s dawning consciousness.  This sentence should be constructed something like this:  “But… (antagonist and conflict), which causes the main character to realize… (consciousness).”

The third sentence describes the crisis and the climax.  In some cases, it might include the change as well.   In other cases, the change might be a fourth sentence if needed.


Let’s look at a few examples to see how this is done:

The Wizard of Oz

After a tornado lands Dorothy, a dissatisfied teenage girl, in the Land of Oz, all she wants is to find the wizard who can send her  back to Kansas.  But a wicked witch wants to stop her and steal Dorothy’s ruby slippers, which teaches Dorothy the importance or relying on her friends and her own inner strength.  When Dorothy discovers that the wizard is a fraud, she finds her own way back to Kansas and now appreciates her home.

Star Wars

When Luke Skywalker, a frustrated farm boy, is tasked with finding Obi-Wan-Kenobi, he wants to pursue his dream of becoming a Jedi Knight.  But Darth Vader and his storm troopers want to stop Luke, which forces Luke to learn about The Force in order to survive.  When his pal Han Solo abandons him in the fight against the Empire, Luke must trust The Force and use his skills to defeat Darth Vader.  As a reward for his heroics, Luke becomes the decorated Jedi Knight he always wanted to be.

When Harry Met Sally

When cynical anti-romantic Harry gets a ride to NYC from a total stranger, Sally, he would rather be a single guy in the city then friends with Sally.  After settling down, marrying and divorcing the wrong woman, Harry realizes that he should be with Sally.  Incapable of making a relationship work, he loses Sally until he’s able to grow up and admit how much he loves her.

Plot, not Story

In each of the examples above, notice how much of each movie is excluded.  There’s no mention of Dorothy’s friends or Chewbacca or the interviews in “When Harry Met Sally.”  Why not…?  Because they not part of the plot in each film.

The great story expert Robert McKee says, “Plot is what the character wants; story is what the character needs.”  To make sure your script works, it’s essential that you character follows a logical and dramatic path from beginning to end.

To make sure you’re script is going in the right direction, you must strip away the story, put aside all the fun stuff you want to include in different scenes, and focus solely on the plot.  Once you’re sure that your plot points work, then you’ll be able to find the most effective and dramatic moments to insert all the story beats and ideas that you want to include.

Putting Plotlines to Use

Through the proper distillation and expression of “The 8 C’s,” a good plotline allows you to step back and evaluate your story.

A good way to check your work after you’ve written the plotline for your movie is to make a list of films that are similar to your script; watch as many as you can; break down the 8 C’s in each film; then write a plotline for each.  Try to use as few words as possible.  Try to define each trait and moment as succinctly as you can.

After a while, you’ll get a feel for how to distill the ideas in each film to their core and how to structure them in clear and concise, 3-sentence descriptions.  Then go back to the plotline for you movie.  Do your beginning, middle and end make sense?  Does your story build to a compelling finish?  Does it provide a clear change in your character that will hook an audience?

Once you think you have your plotline figured out, read it out loud.   Listen to how it sounds.  Is it easy to state?  Does it flow logically?  If not, rewrite it until it does.  Once you’re happy with it, memorize it.  Then say it to yourself.  Out loud.  Every day.

Before you know it, it will become part of your creative DNA.  It will become your “true north,” ensuring that your creative and dramatic choices serve your plot and keep your story focused on the journey you want your readers to take with your main character.



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