The Key to a Great Story – Driving the Plot Forward


Naomi Watts and Tom Holland star in The Impossible

In previous posts I’ve talked about the different types of plots you can create, the different ways you can combine the basics and use sub-plotting and story arcs. One of the crucial things can you need to do to make any of this work though is to use the plot to drive the story forward.

There are two places that this drive comes from:

  • Events outside of character control (Natural or character created)
  • Character’s themselves (Pro-active and Reactive development).

To explain this properly though, what you need to understand straight away is that I’m talking about how the plot is driven forward from the perspective of the protagonist. Where it gets complicated is when you begin looking at how the plot is driven forward from the perspective of other characters, but I will explain that later on.

I’ll start with how plot can drive forward the story or even be the kick off for the entire tale. What I mean by events that are outside of character control, is that the events that take place are outside of the control of the protagonist. So these can be derived from natural events (for example in the film ‘The Impossible’, the protagonists are dealing with the threat posed by the Indian Ocean Tsunami) or the events can come from other characters.

The first of these two is pretty easy to understand: an earthquake, a hurricane, icy roads etc., basically anything natural, usually weather, that makes it harder for the protagonist to get on with their initial plan for the day or as with the movie example above, changes the plan into something unrecognisable, unexpected and pretty horrific.

Events can come from other characters though and is a little bit more complicated depending on the perspective. From the protagonists’ viewpoint it doesn’t fall under character driven plot but is outside of the main character’s influence. Where the complication lies is events created by characters are technicality character driven plot, when you look from the perspective of the antagonist.

For starters though, please just assume that when you are plotting a story, that you are plotting initially from the perspective of the protagonist. Later on in the development process you can look at how plots fall into different categories in terms of drive, but as the majority of stories are from the perspective of the protagonist, looking at plot from their perspective makes the most sense.

The most basic way to explain plot driven from other character’s actions is to describe it as the villain putting his evil plans into action. So Sauron sending the Nazgul to the Shire; Voldemort beginning his takeover of the world; and the annihilation of the Jedi and the building of the Death Star. These are all good examples of how a villain begins his evil plans to the point that they have a major and noticeable effect. These are however very obvious plots. Sometimes sinister plots can be more subtle.

in time clock

One of my favourite examples is from the film ‘In Time’, where the distribution of time left for people to live is very carefully restricted in poorer areas in order to ensure than the lifespans of the poor are not overlong in order to maintain population levels, but at the sacrifice of their quality of life and their chance to take on the opportunity to be immortal. This example is not an individual plotting an evil takeover, it is more of an organisational driven scenario, where individuals in this scheme are singled out by chance.

The protagonist needs to deal with plot that has been set by the antagonist. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin need to flee the shire in order stop Sauron from being reunited with the one ring. In the book the threat is less immediate than in the film, and the forgotten hero hobbit of Lord of the Rings, Fredegar Bolger, who at great risk to himself stays behind in the shire to keep up the appearance that Frodo is still in residence while the other four secretly leave for Bree, via the Old Forest and Tom Bombadil.

bb ferry

Not quite the same as the film’s tension filled encounter with a Black Rider that ends with the four Hobbits sprinting for Bucklebury Ferry, in the hope they can reach Bree and Gandalf before the Black Rider’s cross the Brandywine Bridge twenty miles away. Whichever example you look at though, book or film, Sauron sets a threat in motion and the characters have to react to that threat. They then have to react to the decision that Elrond makes to not allow the One Ring to remain in Rivendell, and the Fellowship is formed.

These two examples are good examples of how plot is driven forward outside of the control of the protagonists, but equally plot needs to be driven by the protagonists themselves as well. Character driven plot, from the perspective of the protagonist, is linked to plot driven by natural events and other characters, but there are two ways in which character driven plot can work, and it depends on whether the protagonist is pro-active or reactive.

How a character reacts to plot happening around them, depends entirely on your character and the stage of development that they have reached. Now each unique character will react to things differently, so I can’t say for certain what you will need to do only you will know that.

However, there are two basics concepts that a character will undertake, and that is whether they react to an event, or are proactive. Looking at the example above of Frodo leaving the shire, in the book he know he needs to leave and takes months to do so, and while he is reluctant he is being proactive. In the film he doesn’t have the luxury of time and has to be reactive to the situation.


Another good example of a character acting either pro-actively or re-actively, is to look at the difference between Harry Potter in the Philosopher’s Stone (or the Sorcerer’s Stone depending on which side of the Atlantic Ocean you live on) and Harry Potter in the Deathly Hallows. In the first book, while Harry is proactive in trying to figure out what the parcel from Gringott’s actually is but when it comes to the threat the immediate course of action is to just tell Dumbledore. When he isn’t there Harry, Hermione and Ron have to react to a new scenario quickly and deal with the threat themselves.

In the Deathly Hallows though, the three of them are actually being pro-active in trying to stop Voldemort. They don’t just react to the attack on Hogwarts by being there to fight and making sure the Order of the Phoenix are there to help, they are there pro-actively looking for Horcruxes in order to stop Voldemort before anyone else has to die.

So to summarise, plot can be driven forward by events outside of the main character’s control, such as natural disasters and events that are set in motion by antagonists, but it can also be driven forward in different ways depending on how the protagonist handles the events, either proactively or re-actively.


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