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 whose credits include "Family Ties," "Benson," "Love Boat," "Relic Hunter," and the film, "The Real Howard Spitz," starring Kelsey Grammer. I also wrote two TV movies for the Olsen twins back when they were just millionaires instead of billionaires, and the mini-series, "Midnight Man," starring Rob Lowe. Jurgen has been a script doctor on numerous projects.

His books include, "Focus: the power of targeted thinking" (Pearson 2008), "Your Writing Coach" (Nicholas Brealey, 2007) and "Do Something Different" (Virgin Business Books, 2005). He has two more coming out in 2009, "Marketing for Entrepreneurs" and "Creativity Now" (both from Pearson). Previous books also include "Successful Scriptwriting," "Successful Sitcom Writing," and "Top Secrets: Screenwriting." My ebook Time Management for Writers, is available from my website, www.TimetoWrite.com.

Jurgen teachs writing workshops internationally, and divide my time between London and Southern California. He teaches Script Coach at Raindance