Sometimes an agent or producer will tell you that the plot of your screenplay “doesn’t hang together.” What do they mean?

Horror writer H. P. Lovecraft put it this way: ““Plots may be simple or complex; but suspense, and climactic progress from one incident to another, are essential.”

In other words, for each scene there has to be something before it that leads logically to it, and something after it that results logically from it.

Of course exactly what happens depends on the genre of your script, the characters, and your theme. For instance, let’s say that a woman finds a text message on her husband’s phone that convinces her he’s having an affair. There are almost endless options. She could:

  • Pretend she didn’t see it
  • Confront him
  • Start an affair herself to get even
  • Ask for a divorce
  • Shoot him
  • Shoot the other woman
  • Slash all of his clothes and pour paint on his beloved car

Whatever she chooses, we will know she’s done it because of what went before: the discovery of the text message. If it then turns out she was wrong, there are more choices about how to respond to that new development.

Three common plot problems

If a plot isn’t working, often it’s because there is a gap in this series of causal links, or one or more of the links is weak, or the links are predictable.

If there’s a gap, characters seem to be acting with no motive. Naturally you can withhold their motivation and reveal it after they’ve acted but at some point the audience has to feel they understand the actions.

If the action is due to something that happened before your story started, we need to see something in the present that triggers the memory and motivation. For example, someone who was bullied as a child may over-react to being teased as an adult. Even if the mention of his childhood takes place much earlier in the script, the audience will make the connection.

If the links are weak, the script will seem overly episodic. This happens in road movies when the only link between one incident and the next is that the characters have moved on to a new location. That makes it hard to keep the audience’s attention. It’s better to find some way of letting the audience know that what happens in the next location was influenced by what happened in the last one.

If the reactions are too predictable the audience will feel they don’t need to keep watching because they already know what’s coming next anyway. This means you have to try to find character actions and reactions that are logical but unexpected. For instance, a man may be a coward in most situations, but finds courage when the safety of his child is threatened.

How to fix the links

If you didn’t discover these problems in your outline you may spot them as you review your first draft of your screenplay. Here are some useful tips for finding and fixing these kinds of problems:

* For each major scene, ask what went before it that led to it, and what happens within it that leads to a later one.

* If there’s no link, or the link is weak or predictable, ask yourself what else could cause your protagonist to behave the way he or she does, or what other reactions could be more interesting.

* Boring people generally do boring things. If your characters make boring choices it may be that you need to make some changes in your character before you make changes in their choices.

  • Remember that just because you know why a character did something, that doesn’t mean the audience will. Give them enough clues to let them feel they’ve figured it out themselves—don’t use exposition that slows down the action and sounds unnatural.

When the links between scenes work well, the plot flows easily and the audience doesn’t even notice the connections. When there’s no sign of the major effort you’ve put into constructing a tight story, that’s when you’re done!

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About 

Jurgen Wolff is a writer, teacher, and creativity consultant. In the United States, he wrote for sitcoms including Benson and Family Ties. He wrote the feature film, The Real Howard Spitz, starring Kelsey Grammer and directed by Vadim Jean. He was a script doctor on the hit film, Mannequin and others starring Michael Caine, Walter Matthau, and Eddie Murphy. For Germany, he co-created the comedy series, Lukas, which ran for 65 episodes, and an original comedy series called Krista. He also wrote nine episodes of the series, Relic Hunter. He wrote two TV movies for the Olsen Twins, and several the German TV movies including, On Top of the Volcano, starring Maria Schrader and Sebastian Koch (2007). His play, Killing Mother, was produced at the Gorky Theatre in Berlin, and he’s also had plays produced in New York, Los Angeles, and London.

As a writing and creativity teacher, his courses include Beyond Brainstorming, Create Your Future, The Creative Breakthrough Workshop and the ground-breaking Script Coach Series developed exclusively for Raindance. He has presented his courses at the University of Southern California, the University of Barcelona, the Skyros Institute, many films schools, and groups and organisations including The Academy for Chief Executives, Egmont, Grundy-UFA, and Columbia-Tri-Star. For eight years he was a visiting lecturer for the Pilots Program in Sitges.

His books include Your Writing Coach and Your Creative Writing Masterclass (Nicholas Brealey Publishing), Creativity Now (Pearson), Do Something Different (Virgin Business Books), Successful Scriptwriting (Writers Digest Press), Top Secrets: Screenwriting (Lone Eagle Press), and Successful Sitcom Writing (St. Martin’s Press).

He has written for many publications including the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Broadcast Magazine, and he is the editor of Brainstorm, the creativity ebulletin.