Power Your Plot: With These Vital Structural Elements

Power Your Plot: With These Vital Structural Elements

By Jacob Krueger

Today seems like a good day to talk about completions. Not just the kind of completions you make in your life.  The kinds of completions you make in your scenes. Completions are the single most important element in distinguishing a successful scene from an unsuccessful one. No matter how creative you are as a writer, no matter how compelling your characters, no matter how well observed your dialogue may be, if your scenes don’t have completions, they’re not going to drive your story forward.

Completions are the key to making the leap from scene to structure– making your scenes actually DO what you need them to do in order to serve your story. Get them right, and you can screw up a lot of other stuff and still tell a great story. Get them wrong, and all you’ve got is a bunch of smoke and mirrors, no matter how brilliant you may be. So what is a completion?  And how can you use completions in your own work?

Every Scene Begins With A Character

Before you can fully understand what a completion is and how to use it in your movie, it’s important to begin by understanding what a character is. Now, this may seem like an elementary question.  We see characters every day.  Your girlfriend, your brother, your boss, your best friend, they’re all characters.  But as writers, we must understand character on an even deeper level, so that we can begin to discover a structure for a movie that tests your character and forces her to expand or change in a profound way.

Doing this does not require an intricate road map of every psychological nuance of your character.  And it certainly doesn’t require a “paint by numbers” outline of the plot of your movie. All it actually requires is a simple want: what the great acting teacher Stanislavski would describe as an “objective” for the character to pursue in the scene. Objectives can be as big as saving the world, and as small as a drink of water.  But to serve you structurally, a couple of things should be clear about the objective.

1) The Character Had Better Want It BADLY.
2)  It Better Be Hard To Get

When objectives are easily achieved, they don’t mean much structurally.  But when they’re hard to get, and deeply desired, they become the guideposts to understanding a character’s journey. Remember the scene in Trainspotting in which Ewan McGregor climbs into the “worst toilet in Britain” to retrieve his opium suppositories?  Of course you do.  If he’d simply been able to get high in a normal way, you might have been grossed out, but you’d have forgotten the scene long ago.  And more importantly, you’d never really understand the profundity of his addiction.

Every Scene Ends With A Completion

Scenes happen when a character, in his or her own unique way, battles against an obstacle to get what he or she wants.  But no matter how big your obstacles and how strong with your objectives, without completions the structure of your movie can’t take shape. Completions occur when one phase of your character’s journey ends, and another begins.  When a want is either achieved or abandoned, leading to a new objective and a new obstacle.

Because film is a visual medium, these completions should be visual as well:  a series of images, either literal or metaphorical, which if you laid them side by side would capture the entire journey of your character in relation to her most deeply held desires. This string of objectives and completions will ultimately become the fundamental underpinning not only of your character’s journey, but of the organic structure that will lead you there.

Four Kinds Of Completions

I used to classify completions into three categories, however at the recent suggestion of one of my students, I’ve begun to include a fourth more nuanced variation as well.  (Thank you, Jonathan!)

To illustrate each of these ideas, we’re going to riff on the Trainspotting “worst toilet in Britain” scene.  In simple terms, Ewan McGregor’s character Renton has sworn off heroin, and desperately wants his last fix. Unable to get any real heroin, he has procured some opium suppositories, but after an unfortunate series of scatological events, has lost them down the most disgusting toilet in Britain (and possibly the world).

1)  The Character Gets What He Wants

In the film, Renton proceeds to reach, and then ultimately climb into the disgusting toilet in a surrealistic sequence as he searches for his fix.  That’s how bad he wants it, and what he’s willing to do to get it. 

COMPLETION:  Renton returns home with the recovered opium suppositories.  He holds them up and they twinkle in the light. 

Having gotten what he wanted, his last fix, Renton can now set his sights on the next step of his journey, attempting to live a life without heroin.

2)  The Character Doesn’t Get What He Wants

Let’s imagine a different version of the scene.

Renton reaches into the toilet but cannot reach his fix.  He forces his hand deeper and deeper into the toilet and perhaps even undergoes the fantastical underwater journey, but just as he has the suppositories in his grips, his movement causes the automatic sensor to flush the toilet.  In his desperate attempt to get the drugs, he rends the toilet from it’s foundation, spraying water (and worse) everywhere, and even reaches into the sewage plumbing but the drugs are gone forever.

COMPLETION: Renton sits amidst the broken wreckage of the toilet, trembling from withdrawal.

His quest to retrieve the suppositories having proved unsuccessful, he has no choice but to come up with a new objective, which will lead him to the next obstacle and the next completion.

3)  The Character Gets Interrupted

Interruptions occur when a character abandons his original objective for an even more compelling one.

For example:  Renton is searching for the drugs in the toilet when the woman he most loves enters the bathroom and almost vomits with disgust before dashing out of the bathroom.  As much as Renton wants the drugs, at this moment he has a stronger objective– to somehow explain his actions to her and avoid losing her forever.

COMPLETION:  As Renton races after her out of the bar.  The twinkling suppositories dissolve and disappear in the murky toilet water

His previous objective has been replaced by a new one, which leads him to the next phase of his journey, rescuing his relationship with the girl.

And finally the new fourth variation:

4)  The Character Gets Part of What He Wants

Renton has finally caught up with the woman he loves.  By now he is already starting to feel the withdrawal symptoms, but he still pleads for her to understand.   She presses a wad of money into his hand, and tells him to get himself a fix.  Then she turns her back on him, leaving forever.

COMPLETION:  Renton puts the money in his pocket, turns around, and walks back toward the bar, where he can procure his next fix.

Having achieved the drugs, but lost the girl forever, Renton will once again be forced to develop a new objective.

Completions Give Meaning To Scenes

As you can see from the examples above, the visual completion you choose for your scene can vastly change its structural effect on the character’s journey.  Even more importantly, when you build strong completions for your scenes, those completions organically lead you to new wants, new obstacles, and new plot points that can comprise the structure of your character’s transformation. Completions give your scenes the movement you need to drive your story forward, and the visual clarity to track each step of your character’s change, and to force your character to make active choices that drive his experience. And the great thing about completions is that you can adjust them to create the most dramatic journey possible for your character, just as we did with the new versions of “worst toilet in Britain” scene above.

If Your Movie Isn’t Moving, You Probably Need Better Completions

Over the next several weeks, as you go to see movies or read screenplays, pay attention to the completions of each scene.  Notice how filmmakers use these visual completions to lock in the story of the main character, clarify their wants, and track the shape of their change. Then, as you return to your own work, think about the completions of your scenes.  Are they as strong as you would like them to be?  Clear enough?  Visual enough?  What can you do to make them even more powerful? The stronger your completion, the clearer the shape of your character’s journey, and the easier it will become to organically discover the structure you need to power your plot.

What Are The Obstacles To Your Objectives?  And What Will Your Completion Be?

The world is not built for artists, and as writers we all face profound obstacles.  The demands of family, friends and jobs.  The inertia that gets in the way of charting a new course.  The old habits that lead to procrastination when we want to be creating.  And the self doubt that leads us to turn our backs on the creative life we so desperately need. As your 2010 begins, consider the shape you’d like your New Year to take.  What is the creative journey you will create for yourself?  How can you power the plot of your creative life? And what are the steps you will take so that your next year can build to the kind of completion you have always dreamed for yourself?


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