Series Info...#23: Movies: A Structure for Plot, Part Two

by Shannon Appelcline

March 1, 2001 - Last week I outlined the three-act structure that tends to be used for plots in Hollywood movies. This week I'm going to expand on that, showing how a three-act structure can be used to create plots in prose interactive fiction games.

A story always starts out with an idea. But, once you get that idea you need to figure out how to build it into a complete plot. Sometimes you'll be able to go from idea to plot without trouble, but other times you might find yourself facing an empty computer screen, unable to determine how to turn that idea into a full-fledged story.

That's where a plot structure comes into play.

By laying out your idea in an existing plot structure you'll be able to expand it bit by bit in predefined ways... until your complete story comes into focus.

But, even if you're not facing empty-screen syndrome there are other good reasons to consider plot structure when planning a story. Plot structures like those used by movies and mythology are tried and tested. Most of them have been used for hundreds of years. The structures exist because they're interesting ways to tell stories. So, even if you don't need help turning your idea into a complete story, plot structures can be useful to make sure you're turning your idea into a good story.

This week I'm going to write a sample (and fake) plot for Castle Marrach using the movie plot structure that I outlined last week; next week I'm going to finish up my trilogy of articles on movie plot structure by describing when it doesn't work for prose interactive fiction games.

Building a Plot

To start building a plot, I need an idea. Sometime between when I wrote last week's article and when I first sat down to write this one, I came up with an idea: "The Fall of the Duelists." It's a story intended to effect an entire organization, and thus a large number of players, and thus a good choice of plot for a multiplayer game.

(Caveat: This is just a hypothetical plot that you won't see in any game any time soon. I'm brainstorming here.)

The best way to lay out a movie plot is to start with the big events and move inward. As you'll recall from last week, there are four major plot points in a movie: the turning point that ends Act I; the high point in the middle of the story; the low point that ends Act II; and the battle scene that ends Act III.

Continuing to brainstorm I come up with the following major events for this story:

  1. Act I / Turning Point. The Duelists are disbanded by order of Lord Chamberlain Launfal due to evidence of a conspiracy within their ranks.
  2. Act II / High Point. The Duelists gain an appointment to see the Lord Chancellor Boreas and present new evidence that they have been framed.
  3. Act II / Low Point. All former members of the Duelists are imprisoned in the New Dungeons after an attempt upon the life of Boreas.
  4. Act III / Battle Scene. The Duelists confront their opponents and have one final opportunity to restore their honor.

Pretty abstract still, but I now have enough of a skeleton that I feel comfortable laying out the rest of the story... or at least to add a little bit of flesh to the bones.

Act I

Looking back at last week's article, I see that Act I should include an inciting incident, the establishment of characters and setting, and a turning point. I just need to figure out how to get to that turning point I've already determined.

The inciting incident is what gets things rolling. A candidate for the duelists is rejected due to his lack of understanding of honor and the ethos of the duelists. Worse, he's not just rejected, he's rejected in a humiliating and public way by Eduoard, who never knew quite when to keep his mouth shut. The candidate now has a grudge and he's approached by a dark, cloaked figure who offers him a way to get even.

The cloaked figure offers the rejected candidate a magical quill which can be used to forge signatures and then begins working with the candidate to compose a number of letters which will be signed with the names of leading Duelists. The letters discuss a conspiracy to blackmail three nobles of the court and force them to sponsor numerous Duelists to be knights – slowly, so as not to attract notice, of course. The cloaked figure also offers the rejected candidate keys to the Duelists' room and the Guest Rooms of Eduoard and Mark. He suggests that a signet ring be stolen from Eduoard's room and that letters be planted in all three places. Afterward, a few letters, along with the signet ring, should somehow make it into the hands of the Winter Watch. Finally, the cloaked figure suggests that any disloyal members of the Duelists should be found and turned... a possibly dangerous proposition.

And so the plot proper begins, with one (or more characters) trying to frame the Duelists. Soon, the Winter Watch will be presented with the evidence via some route and eventually word will make its ways to Lord Chamberlain Launfal. Launfal will speak with prominent members of the Duelists, but will ultimately be forced to take action because of the mass of evidence – both evidence turned over to the Watch and that which was discovered by them during their investigation. Launfal's surety about the case will only be increased if any disloyal Duelists that have been turned lie to him, saying the accusations are true.

At last, Launfal only has one option: The Duelists must be disbanded. They are told that they may no longer congregate together under threat of imprisonment and all their swords are confiscated.

The Duelists are thrust into a new world ...

Act II, First Half

Looking again at last week's article, I see that the first half of Act II should include the beginning of a journey, a series of challenges, and a high point.

Being honorable yet heroic types, the Duelists will probably obey Launfal's command in part. They can be expected to officially "disband" and turn in their swords... but they'll doubtless keep meeting in private in order to try and clear their names. Trying to clear their names begins a journey, though it isn't a physical one.

In the first half of Act II, the Duelists should face a number of obstacles. Three major ones are suggested here.

First, the Duelists will try to find evidence that they have been framed. This will involve trying to locate witnesses who might have seen the evidence being planted or trying to find how the evidence might have made its way into the Watch's hands. Many people will be interviewed. This may also involve trying to prove that the letters are forged. Word is that the Sorceress or her apprentices might be able to discover the author of a letter, but their aid will require a service of its own. The Duelists might also try and see who is causing continued problems (more on that in a second) by staking out locations and building a network of spies.

Second, the Duelists will face an increasingly hostile environment. Our friend, the disgruntled rejectee, is told to gather his friends and begin building more resentment to the Duelists. (The cloaked figure says, "They must not be just disbanded, but also disgraced.") A few more letters are written, some rumors are suggested, and some swords are offered up – to be given to duelists who were particularly resentful about losing their blades. Hopefully, the Duelists can overcome these problems in an honorable fashion.

Finally, when the Duelists have collected enough evidence to try and present it to Launfal, they are told he will hear no more of the case (Perhaps the cloaked figure has gotten to Launfal in some way? A question for another day.) If the Duelists wish a new hearing, they must speak to the Lord Chancellor himself, Launfal says. At this point, none of the Duelists are welcome in the Inner Bailey (even if some were Honored Guests before) and Boreas will not respond to their scrolls. The Duelists must speak with Honored Guests to convince them to personally petition Boreas on the Duelists' behalf. Only if this is successful will the Duelists be invited to speak with the Chancellor.

In the end, all looks well. Boreas invites the Duelists, heavily laden with evidence, to meet him.

Act II, Second Half

According to my last article, the second half of Act II should include a sudden turnaround, a point of no-return, another series of challenges, and a low point.

After entering the Inner Bailey the Duelists are surprised to discover that they are not alone at the audience. The trio of nobles that the Duelists are alleged to be blackmailing are there as well. Each one of the nobles swears that members of the Duelists have, in person, threatened them with blackmail if they didn't begin sponsoring Duelists for knighthoods. Each of the nobles points to the Duelist who spoke with them (each a player, of course).

"Arrest them", shouts Boreas, and members of the Royal Guard begin moving in.

"Run," someone shouts. (This would be the point of no return.)

The Duelists face more obstacles throughout the second half of Part II, including: a frantic flight through the Castle, trying to avoid the Royal Guards, and a time spent underground trying to gather resources.

They will probably continue investigations during this period, with targets of the investigation including: the three nobles and probably the disgruntled player who set them up (Serista may have given them his name or the Duelists might have figured it out through their own detective work). In their investigations of these four people, the Duelists should gain access to their personal rooms and there the Duelists should find a scroll discussing an attempt to be made upon Boreas' life, at a specific time, in the Royal Gardens.

The threat is a false one, meant to lead the Duelists into a trap. If the Duelists contact officials with the message, they will be arrested at once. Friends might be willing to carry the message, but it should be obvious to the Duelists that nothing is actually being done despite their best attempts to communicate this information.

Most likely, even though they may suspect a trap, the Duelists will feel honor bound to stop the assassination themselves. So, they will descend upon the Royal Gardens when the attack is supposed to occur. It will probably not be a great surprise when they find, instead of Boreas, a full company of Royal Guards who seal off the exits and then capture the Duelists, hauling them down to the New Dungeons.

The Royal Guards are already certain that the Duelists were trying to assassinate Boreas, for they were warned that such an attempt would be made by the Duelists in the Garden this eve. Hopefully a few Duelists will be carrying the swords quietly distributed in Act I. If any of the Duelists is carrying the (unsigned and unaddressed) note about the assassination, the Duelists' fate will truly be sealed, as the Guards will find it.

With proof of the Duelists' attempted assassination, a general round-up of Duelists in the Outer Bailey will occur.

Huddled into a few cells in the New Dungeon, the Duelists feel that all is lost.


In Act III we should have a moment of truth, a final set of challenges, and a battle scene.

The last echoing footsteps of the Royal Guard disappear just as a shimmering image appears simultaneously in each of the cells where the Duelists are held. It is Serista (or perhaps another magician who the Duelists might have asked for aid). She tells the Duelists that she has detected a new magic in the Castle – enchantment – and that she suspects its at the center of their recent troubles. She says that she has seen emerald brooches in her dreams and believes that the enchantments are centered there (Duelists may recall that each of the three nobles wore an emerald brooch). Only by destroying them may the enchantments be ended.

Finally, Serista says that the Duelists must find power within their triads, for only through their organized power can they release themselves.

By acting in unity, though their triads, the Duelists should be able to get out of the Dungeons, knocking down the doors with strength they thought impossible. They'll still need to stay undercover once they're back above ground, but this time they'll have a solid goal. They need to get into the quarters of the three nobles and find their brooches. Afterward, Serista can destroy them.

The action of the third act is taken up by three main goals: getting into the nobles' quarters; taking the brooches; and destroying them. The first action will require gaining the trust of any one member of the Royal Guard, who can requisition such a key. The second action will require getting across the Castle. Destroying the brooches will turn out to be harder than thought, for as the Duelists make away with the brooches, taking them to Serista to be destroyed, they are suddenly accosted by a cloaked figure and a number of men-at-arms. And worse, anyone carrying a brooch (preferably the elder duelists, to give the players the limelight of the duel to come) switches sides, leaving the remaining Duelists greatly outnumbered.

"It shall be duel," the mysterious figure says. "A duel against me and winner takes all. Who shall fight for the Duelists?" He steps forward, pulling a rusty two-handed sword from beneath the folds of his cloak and sweeping back his hood to reveal the face of... Victor Savary.

And I'll leave the story there, at that final battle scene, with the outcome up the air.

If Victor loses he will shrug and limp away with his fellow ne'er-do-wells, disappearing into the catacombs beneath the Castle. The enchanted Duelists are left behind. They will return to normal after the brooches are destroyed, as will the three nobles, who will attest to the innocence of the Duelists.

If Victor wins... then life will be difficult for the Duelists for a while, as Victor will make away with the brooches (and the three nobles, and perhaps the three enchanted Duelists as well). The last opportunity for the Duelists to prove their innocence is gone. Players might be forced to disappear into the catacombs themselves, but that will be a story for another day.


Let me say, that was a single brainstorm from start to end, with just a tiny bit of editing on my second draft. With more work I could tighten things up, probably better foreshadowing a few things, such as the possibility of enchantment. The main point is this: I used the structure of movie plots that I laid out last week to develop a fairly simple idea (five words worth of idea in fact) into a fairly complex story with depths and heights that should make it interesting.

Along the way I fairly instinctively did a number of things to make my story not just into a good movie plot, but into a good multiplayer interactive plot. Next week I want to look at that a little more, discussing what things I made sure to do when building my story and what things I still need to be careful of ...

We'll get to that in 7 days.

In the meantime I'd like to suggest you take a look at the other column I've just started writing, for the fine folks over at It's called "Thinking Virtually" and will offer up reprints from the columns here at Skotos intermixed with new pieces written by myself. The thrust of the column is going to be storytelling and roleplaying in the Internet age. It appears on Mondays.

The first column is a new one. It's called Introduction to Twenty-First Century Roleplaying and is mostly a memoir about how I got started in roleplaying, but it's leading up to another new piece next week where I talk about the differences between tabletop and computer RPGs.

I hope I'll see you over there on, and then back here in 7 for the final part of my discussion of movie plots.

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