Five Stage Plot


The five stage plot is a method of analyzing and planning stories that I’ve mostly developed on my own. The development has come from numerous analyzing of stories and through the study of plotting methods taught by others, like Randy Ingermanson. It is also sort of a reinvention and expansion of the five act structure previously discussed in this series. The five stage plot gets at the story in such a way as to shape the movement of the characters through the story rather than simple defining the major benchmarks. I think once you understand the five stage plot I’m going to lay out, you’ll find it to be a useful tool for planning and developing your own plots.

First, a little definition is in order. As I walk through the five stage plot, you’ll see me talk about “disasters” quite often. These need not be cataclysmic or destructive disasters as we’re used to thinking about the word. But in the context of story telling, these are disasters in relation to the plot development. In other words, these are moments where major development, change, or conflict occur. They are “game changers” that require attention from the main characters. For more character driven stories these disasters may be mental or emotional to the main character. Of course if you’re writing an action story, they might literally be disasters after all.

Stage 1

Stage 1 is the very beginning of the novel. It includes most exposition and most of the setting and character development. It is the portion of the story where the main characters do not yet realize they are part of something fantastic that is about to happen. It ends with the first disaster, effectively propelling the characters into the plot.

Stage 2

The characters make their first attempt to resolve the results of the first disaster. This first attempt is usually a band-aide solution and the characters may not yet realize the extent of what’s happening. Ultimately the attempt is always a failure. Stage 2 ends with the second disaster.

Stage 3

Now things are serious. They have a more thorough understanding of the situation at hand. The characters work hard on what they feel is their biggest and best attempt to resolve the building disasters. This attempt is also a failure. Stage 3 ends with the final disaster.

Stage 4

We must begin stage 4 in a “belly of the whale” state. The characters think all hope is lost and that they’ve done all they can do. It is at this point that the characters undergo their most significant change. They have their epiphany and give themselves over to one final do-or-die attempt to resolve the disasters. Stage 4 ends with the climax.

Stage 5

Everything that follows the climax is considered stage 5 and follows the denouement of the five act structure. Here we have falling action, resolution, and the tying up of loose ends leading up to the conclusion of the story.

Now I want to take a moment and relate this to an iconic text-book story that you should all know, so that you can see these stages at work. Let us now turn to The Princess Bride. Stage 1 sets up the characters and setting. We cannot count Westley’s disappearance as a disaster because it a part of the exposition and not an actual point of the main plot. The first disaster is Buttercup’s kidnapping. Stage 2 is the chase…the attempt to save Buttercup. But the problems are much larger than merely Buttercup being kidnapped. And so stage 2 ends with the second disaster, Westley taken prisoner and Buttercup returning to the castle. In stage 3 the depth of the treachery is known to most of the main characters. A plan is made to rescue Westley so that he can help storm the castle. Stage 3 ends with the final and most devastating disaster…Westley’s death. Stage 4. All is lost. Our heroes need a miracle, so they go to Miracle Max. The epiphany is given in the form of restating the theme of the movie…true love can conquer death. Because of true love a miracle happens and Westley is brought back to life. We go immediately into the climax sequence and stage 4 ends with the rescue of Buttercup and the defeat of Prince Humperdinck. Stage 5 is simple. They escape to live happily ever after. The end.

As you study these five stages, keep in mind that you need not use them all nor are you limited to just five. You can insert an infinite repetition of stage 2, if you wish, until your story is as long as you want. If you want something shorter, just omit stage 2. Try beginning at stage 3 for short stories. Mix it up, play with it, and make it your own. In the end, that’s the best way to plot stories anyway.

——–> Continue to Next Article – The Hero’s Journey

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