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Step One: Plot

A quick note before we get to Step One.

The first three steps are like the holy trinity of plotting: Plot, Main Character(s), Climax. (Or to put it another way: Road, Traveler(s), Destination.)

I work on any of these three when I’m starting out, or even all three at once. I’m starting with Plot for this experiment because everything else ties into it, but if you would like to go ahead and brainstorm about your main character or the climax (aka the end of your story where cool stuff happens aka the Ultimate Final Showdown of Badassery™), you go right on and have fun playing in your new sandbox.

Now, onward!

For Step One, we’re going to be deciding the private, personal, and public changes that will form the core of your story; determining which of these is your central change; and looking for the supporting changes or subplots that flesh out your story.

In my post Plot = Change, I talked a bit about recognizing the central change of a story and how I diagram changes.


Subject: Beginning → End
Lord of the Rings

One Ring: Discovered → Destroyed

Let’s look at the movie Avatar (the blue aliens one, not the terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad airbender one).

WARNING: HERE THERE BE SPOILERS. You have been warned!

To recap, Avatar is a movie about a paraplegic soldier (Jake) who travels to an alien planet (Pandora) where he gets to mentally ride around in a hybrid human-alien avatar Because DNA That’s Why. He’s mentored by a scientist (Dr. Augustine) studying the local inhabitants (Na’vi). He eventually falls in love with a local (Neytiri) and leads the native inhabitants to rebel and kick the humans off their pretty, psychic planet.

So, from the beginning of the movie to the end of the movie, what are the main things that change?

Pandora has been invaded and colonized by humans. → Pandora is freed from the humans.

Jake Sully is human, soldier, loyal, follower. → Jake Sully is Na’vi, Toruk Makto, rebel, leader.

Neytiri distrusts/hates Jake. → Neytiri trusts/loves Jake.

Dr. Augustine dislikes Jake. → Dr. Augustine is friends with Jake.

Tsu’tey dislikes Jake.→ Tstu’tey and Jake call one another “brother”.

There are others. These are just the first few that come to mind.

When I’m creating plots, I look for three changes to start with: private, personal, and public. (This comes from Plot & Structure  by James Scott Bell, who is pretty much the guru of storycraft. I highly recommend his books if you’re looking for more references on plotting.)

You know that saying “change starts within”? That’s what we’re going for here. The private change that occurs inside your main character enables the personal change that affects your main character’s personal life which leads to the public change that affects your character’s world.*

Let’s look at Avatar again. If you diagramed personal/public/private changes, you might wind up with something like this:


Pandora: colonized by humans → freed from humans

Jake: human → Na'vi

Jake: loyal to humans → loyal to Na'vi

This is a pretty simplistic summary. Plotting is definitely more art than science. There will always be multiple ways of looking at the same story, but you get the idea here.

Now, can you spot the central change? Remember that the central change is what kicks off the story and what closes the story (usually, but that’s a post for another day). Avatar has a pretty clear central change.

The movie begins with Jake leaving Earth, alone, after the death of his twin brother.

The movie ends the moment that Jake is permanently transferred into his avatar body, surrounded by the Na’vi and with Neytiri at his side.

Central Change

Jake: human → Navi

You could even diagram it as:

Jake: alone → family

Again, you may perceive the changes differently. That’s okay. When you analyze a completed work, there are so many different layers that work together that it’s hard to narrow a change down to a summary of just a few words. When you’re writing a story, however, coming up with ideas in this style gives you a jumping off point to build your own layers.

So this week for Step One, look for those three main changes in your story, public, personal, and private. One of those changes will be the central change.

(Hint: it’s usually the public change, but it could be the personal change, as you can see in Avatar. I won’t say it’s impossible for it to be the inner change, but it’s unlikely—the inner change is the catalyst that allows the personal and public changes to happen, and usually it’s complete before the story’s climax.)

Also look for supporting changes: characters who change their attitudes or beliefs, who become friends or enemies or lovers.


  1. Public, personal, and private changes
  2. Which is your central change? Think about how your story begins and ends.
  3. Subplots

I’ll see you on Friday for the WWM Weekly Wrap-Up! And maybe we’ll finally have a definitive answer from our concept poll. Until then!


*This does not mean that the public change has to affect Life, The Universe, and Everything, to quote Douglas Adams. It just means that the public change has ramifications for people or places that the main character has no personal attachment to. In The Lion King, Simba’s reclamation of Pride Rock is a victory for him (private), for his pride (personal), and for all of the animals who were suffering because of Scar’s greed (public).


2 thoughts on “Step One: Plot”

  1. I like to add a subnote to the holy trinity of plotting. A quote from Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (Terrible example at storytelling I know), when Agent Simmons told Jetfire: ‘Let’s not episodic, okay, old timer? Beginning, middle, end. Facts, details. Condense. Plot. Tell it!’
    Beginning. The Middle. The End.

    1. That is actually pretty good advice! And yes, the other holy trinity of plotting is definitely Beginning, Middle, and End. (Maybe it should be the Holy Hexad of plotting?)

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