Category Archives: Plot

Can I Get a Super Objective?

Super Objective:  “…the main inner content of a play produces a state of inner grasp and power in which actors can develop all the intricacies and then come to a clear conclusion as to its underlying, fundamental purpose” (273)

Constantin Stanislavski – An Actor Prepares

Over the last couple of weeks; as both What a Concept! and Plotting the Plotted Plot have come to the end of their current offering, I’ve had a number of writers dealing with problems concerning their endings/final resolutions, as well as their over all plot “cause and effect” through lines.  We’ve had long discussions regarding the wants and needs of the Main Character, Conflict, Theme and Symbol; and while these have been helpful, there were few people who were still struggling to “connect the dots”, and bring the concept of their story’s ending into focus.

I went home after a rather intense class, trying to get a handle on how I might better communicate the idea; that, the character’s “wants and needs”, their motivation for existing in the story was what drove the plot and revealed the final resolution of their story.

I started thinking about when I was acting and how in breaking down a script, one looks for the character’s Super Objective; their over all motivation for existing in the play.

The theory of the Super Objective comes from the acting system developed by Constantin Stanislavski in the early 20th Century.  Stanislavski; the Artistic Director of the Moscow Art Theater; in his collaboration to mount the plays of Anton Chekov, together brought to Western Theater what some call the revolutionary concept of Emotional Realism.  And, while, at its core, it is a process of bringing an actor’s performance in line with “real life”, I’ve always thought it was best used in conjunction with an analysis of the author’s intention in the text of the play.

In this case, I thought it might be used to simply focus on an author’s plot, applying it directly to a writer’s work at getting to the heart of a story’s emotional through-line…it’s spine.

Let me give you an example:  The Godfather.    The story centers on Michael Corleone and his rise to become the ruthless Godfather.  When Michael fist appears in the story, he’s an uncomfortable outsider to his own family.   He is ambiguous and unclear of his role in this family whom he knows well; he’s had his own experiences and heartbreak from the dangers of being involved in the family business, and he’s not even sure he belongs.   Once the Instigating Action take place; the attempted assassination of Vito Corleone; Michael becomes a force for revenge.

The Super Objective in the story is “obtain revenge.”    It is a clear through-line that everything else hangs on.   And, the brilliance of the story telling is that; while the Super Objective for the story may be Revenge, neither the actor (Al Pacino) nor the writer make that a one note expression of story.   The story explores all the moral pathos and emotional growth needed for that character to come to the place where he’s able to not only kill those who tried to kill his father, but his own brother as well.   In fact, the issue of Revenge is such a driver in that story, that by the end of the third installment, we see Michael as this shell of a human who has continued to live out the effects of that original decision, even to the point of witnessing his own daughter’s murder on the steps of the Opera House.

I’ll give you one further and brief example of how using a Super Objective for your Main Character’s through-line can help focus a story.

I’m working with a writer who is developing a very complex story that involves a character from Cervantes’ Don Quixote.  He’s been working with the idea that the narrator/story teller is the Main Character.  He’s been very diligent at working out the motivations of the Main Character and plot, but he’s had a very difficult time at coming to a solid conceptual understanding of his ending/final resolution.  So, I asked him what he thought the Main Character’s Super Objective might be, and he had a very difficult time coming up with one.  I asked him to play “what if” with me, and flip the Main Character and the Opposition/Conflict Character; a minor character in Don Quixote.   I then asked what that character’s Super Objective might be.  He sat for a moment, and I asked; “could it be, get Cervantes?”  The light bulb when off. and I watched as numerous pieces of puzzle fell into place, and he began to see a very clear though-line for his plot.

Now, “Revenge” and “Get Cervantes” are very strong Super Objectives.  But, both are attached to very strong and complex stories.   I also have had a young woman working on a very sweet and lyrical story about a teacher who loses her job, opens an ice cream story and finds love.   Her Super Objective might be “Find true love.”   The journey that character takes to get back on her feet after being fired, risking it all on an Ice Cream shop and the various mistaken choices and turns she makes along the way to find true love can be complex, lyrical and lovely piece of work.    The exact opposite of Michael Corleone’s rise to power, yet just as interesting.

Having a clear Super Objective for your Main Character can be a little like having  a clothes line for your story; everything hangs dry and clean in the light of day.

Write!  BICHOK!


Reversal of Fortune Can Be a Good Thing

When it can’t get any worse for your Main Character, it does.

Cynthia Whitecomb

If the story itself is the “why” of your Main Character’s super objective in any given story, then the plot is the “how”; the events and actions the Main Character takes to pursue that objective.  Simple enough.

In the last session of Plotting the Plotted Plot we discussed how the Main Character causes these events, or is changed by them (or a combination of both).  Everything that happens in a story is predicated by what motivates the Main Character; what they want, need, and/or desire in pursuit of their objective.

As we’ve discussed, the reader or audience are looking for a “representation of life” when they pick up a book, or attend a movie or play.  They expect to identify with or relate to the Main Character.  This is the emotional connection between the audience and the story.

Now, take a look at your own life a moment.  I suspect that your life has not be a continual and steady movement toward your own needs/wants/desires.  There have been times when it has not worked out the way you wanted on your journey toward your own goals.  Why should it be any different for the Main Character in your story?  These times of challenge, conflict, or reversals of fortune represent times of growth.  It is the same for your Main Character.  A plot progression with no conflict, no opportunity for change, or no reversal is a story offering very little in the way of any kind of emotional connection with the reader/audience.  In the alternative, a life, or a story that is nothing but a constant reversal of fortunes can be pretty depressing.  It could be a legitimate endeavor to create a story in this vein, but I believe the writer would need to make answering the question of “why” a central part of the telling.

The Reversal in a story can be defined as: “A change in something, so that it becomes the opposite of what it was.”

So, how and when is it a good idea to use this concept of the Plot Reversal?

Typically, the initiating action or inciting event of a story is a standard, and common place for a Reversal.  In the mythic hero structure, the “Call” is a kind of Reversal.  The Hero is living his/her life and suddenly the gods present the “Call” and nothing will ever be the same; and, the Journey begins.  In the middle of a story; at the beginning of the Second Act, is another common place to utilize the idea of the Reversal.  The Hero/Main Character has worked out what he needs to get to his/her goal, and…wham, a new problem arises and the story goes in a different direction.  And, finally toward the end of the story, just as we are reaching the climax is another place one commonly finds use of the Reversal.  The Hero/Main Character is just about to lower the boom on the villain and…nope, one more problem to work out.  Now, these examples of the use of the Reversal are rather common to certain kinds of genre stories; and, on their face, are not particularly original.  Nevertheless, the basic idea of the Reversal is extremely helpful in sussing out the cause and effect through-line of a plot, in even the most subtle of novel forms.

Beating the Clock When Beating Out Plot

Essentially and most simply put, plot is what the characters do to deal with the situation they are in. It is a logical sequence of events that grow from an initial incident that alters the status quo of the characters.

Elizabeth George

The use of a “clock” or “time lock” in your story can be very helpful when trying to work out plot issues.

The time lock is great help in focusing the actions of the Main Character, and can be as obvious as a meteor threatening to wipe out all life on earth in 48 hours, or the story taking place in the time it takes to make a pot of tea (3 minutes).  The time lock forces your Main Character toward the point of climax; the Revelation.  Otherwise, your story might go on forever.   The Main character needs to make a decision or arrive at the place they have been moving toward before the clock runs out.  You are giving the Main Character a limited amount of time to solve their problem, reach their heart’s desire, get what they want…win.  By limiting their time you also force yourself to choose.

The alternative to the time-lock (clock) element of a story/plot is the “option lock”.   By using an option lock your Main Character runs out of options in their pursuit of their goal, heart’s desire, need, etc.  When your Main Character runs out of options, they must choose.  Make their choice dramatic.  Make it interesting: the difference between the worst of two evils; difference between two moral choices. or anything that drives the Main Character, even in this final moment to confront something they didn’t want to confront from the beginning.

These two ideas are not mutually exclusive.  You can have elements of both the time-lock and the option-lock in a story.  However, one or  the other will take precedence.

Both these techniques focus your story on the final climax and give you a path way forward to follow in your story.

If you’re stuck in trying to figure out an ending…give the “time-lock” a try, and then continue to turn the Character in on their inner conflict as they approach the end.