The Dual Landscape of Plot and Story (Vision 2)

The Dual Landscape of Plot and Story

by Robin Catesby

©2001, Robin Catesby

When I sat down with script consultant Bill Johnson for last issue’s conversation (The Promise of Premise, Vision, issue #1), we covered a number of topics -- a story’s promise, the three-part premise statement, and a key element to developing the emotional impact of a script, the difference between story and plot.  Plot is the script’s sequence of events; the action of the script.  Story is what’s beneath, defined by the emotional arc and the premise.  In a strong script, plot events contain an emotional resonance because they connect to the script’s story.  In a weak script, there’s no resonance.  “Things happen,” Johnson says, “but no one feels anything about it.” Often this is because the script strayed from its story arc, or it lacked a story to begin with.

After our discussion, I felt a need to explore this further -- to figure out exactly how the connection between plot and story can make or break a script.  I dug back not only into my stacks of earlier screenwriting notes, but into short story workshop notes as well -- there’s much overlap in structural theory between the two.  I looked for clues to story telling with a strong sense of cohesion and balance.

Balance, that was vital: strong scripts maintain a sense of balance between plot and story.  But, to take it a step further, they also employ the craft of symmetry -- a symmetry between the outer and inner landscapes of the script’s journey. 

The dual landscape of a hero’s journey 

Imagine you’re at a lake. It’s a perfect day, not a cloud in the sky.  Across the lake you see a spectacular mountain range.  High jagged peaks, slender valleys; the edge of the world that meets the sky is described in sharp angles.  Now imagine this edge from left to right as a journey -- the path your hero takes up into the heights of action, battling the forces that oppose him, scaling that final climactic summit before his descent to journey’s end.

Below all of this, the lake, and in the lake, a perfect reflection of the heights above.  Here, even in the intangible mirror, you can see your hero, scaling the depths of the reflection -- the echo of the outer world.  Here below, in perfect symmetry to the tangible plot above, is the hero’s inner journey.  The story.  Here is where we find our premise.

The shape of the mountain range is not important.  You can work with Syd Field’s three-act paradigm, Robert McKee’s 5-part narrative structure, John Truby’s seven steps and 22 building blocks, or the stages of the hero’s journey.  All will take you to your destination.  What is important is that the shapes do echo.  That you do not have the Himalayas above and the plains of Kansas below. 

First Steps of the Journey 

To create this isomorphic landscape, it’s essential that you address the needs of your hero on both a plot level and a story level.  For this, think of your hero as having not one, but two goals.  I’ve seen this defined a number of ways - false goal/true goal, want/need, outer problem/inner problem.  Whatever the terminology, the key is, the outer goal (or plot goal) drives the plot of the script, and the inner goal (story goal) drives the story.  Another way to break it down might be that the story goal is reflected in the script’s premise, while the plot goal is often summed up within that catchy one-sentence pitch.  (“It’s Die Hard on a bus” tells us that Jack Traven’s plot goal in Speed is to keep the bus from blowing up.)

Die Hard itself is easy to break down this way.  The promise of the film -- its deeper issue -- has to do with reconciliation; John McClane’s desire to reconcile with his wife.  The three-part premise statement, (as defined in Bill Johnson’s book A Story is a Promise) is Courage to face adversity leads to renewal.  While the plot of the film is hinted at in this premise statement, note that there are no specific references to terrorists or exploding buildings.  Instead, it addresses that broader issue of human need -- the need John McClane has to find renewal.  So, to go back to our dual goal approach:

John McClane’s plot goal is to defeat the terrorists.

John McClane’s story goal is to reconcile with his wife.

This dual approach leads to a much stronger story than say, Die Hard 3, where McClane’s only goal is to defeat the mad bomber.   

Keeping plot and story connected 

Let’s go back to the symmetry of the lake.  Each mountain top above defines a moment of action that drives the plot of your script; each reflected peak below defines a moment of emotional impact along the character arc of your hero.  If the two landscapes don’t match -- Himalayas vs. Kansas -- then obviously physical and emotional events aren’t going to match.  You’ll be left with action that lacks emotional impact, or emotion that isn’t manifested in the plot.

Draw a picture of your landscape and label the peaks.  Sometimes it helps to give a peak more than one label.  Plot point two, for example, might be the same thing as your hero’s Dark Night of the Soul.  Now, each step of the way, think about the connections.  Does this event move my hero emotionally, or does it leave them stagnant?  How can I tie in this plot revelation on page 60 to my hero’s inner journey?  How can I tweak this moment of action to give it a thematic kick?  How can I take this moment of character revelation and connect it to my end of act II car chase?   Use your antagonist’s arc and the arcs of your supporting cast to build upon your premise and tie events together.  Use recurring images, lines that echo through the story, foreshadowing.  Of course the landscapes can’t always mirror each other so perfectly that every emotional realization occurs simultaneously with every peak in action -- sometimes it takes a character a scene or two for an event to sink in -- but if you’ve created a string of major plot events with no connection to the story at all, then chances are your audience will sense that disconnect as well, and leave the film dissatisfied. 

Growing your characters 

Remember, too, that in order to create that inner landscape of story, your hero must grow.  She must have an arc, an inner journey to make.  You can use the dual-goal approach to emphasize this journey and develop a complex and engaging protagonist.   Choose your hero’s goals carefully.  Don’t give her a story goal and a plot goal that are both easily obtainable.  She should have to work hard for them and -- here’s the fun part -- she shouldn’t be able to get both of them at once, not without some sacrifice.  The growth comes in the choice your hero faces.  Perhaps she has a clear plot goal at the start of the script, but her inner story goal is unspoken.  She may not recognize it in herself yet, because a character flaw prevents her from seeing past her outer desires.  As she grows on her journey, she comes to recognize that the story goal is important too.  In fact, it might be just as important as the plot goal.  Perhaps even more important.  Perhaps she eventually has to make a choice between the two.  In My Best Friend’s Wedding, Julia Roberts’ character follows this exact progression.  Her plot goal is to break up the wedding at any cost.  She is ruthless, conniving and manipulative.  Her opponent is sweet and charming and perfect in almost every way.  Can she possibly succeed?  Well, in a word, no, because what she does instead is grow.  She learns that there are more important things in life than stealing a husband-to-be.  In the end, she moves past her flaws and instead takes the path that leads to story fulfillment.

Another recent film that serves as a good example is David O. Russell’s Three Kings.  Major Archie Gates (George Clooney) begins the film with a clear story goal -- a search for reason.   “I don’t even know what we did over here,” he remarks [since the quote isn't strictly a question], early in the film.  He’s a seasoned and cynical soldier, and he’s come to question the entire action of Desert Storm.  Once the plot kicks in, his plot goal is clear: Get the Kuwaiti gold.  His inner drive never leaves him, though, and manifests itself through his actions and his relations with his fellow soldiers.  As both plot and story progress, it becomes clear to Archie that there are far more important things to do in the desert than steal gold.  Iraqi rebels are in desperate need of help, and the U.S. Army is doing nothing to aid them.  The story goal becomes clear: make a difference, save these people.  At the climax of Russell’s excellent script, Archie and his two companions are faced with a choice -- save the rebels or keep the gold. 

 Why do the “three kings” of the film’s title choose story goal over plot goal?  Character growth.  They begin the film with major character flaws -- selfish, cynical, willing to put on blinders to the horrible aftermath of war -- but by the end, each character has grown in his own way.  Each has moved far enough along his inner journey that the choice is clear: give up the gold. 

Here are a few more examples of films that contain the dual goal/dual landscape of story and plot.  Notice how often the hero either is faced with a choice between goals, or must sacrifice something of value to accomplish both.  Also, remember that your hero need not even be aware of her inner goal at the start of the film, and that the outer goal may not become apparent until the plot kicks in.    

In Titanic, 

Rose’s plot goal is to survive the sinking of the ship.

Rose’s story goal is to break free from the bonds that society and her impending marriage have placed on her. 


In Star Wars,

Luke’s plot goal is to aid the rebels in destroying the Death Star

Luke’s story goal is to discover his true identity and become a Jedi like his father. 


In Lethal Weapon,

Riggs’ plot goal is to work with Murtaugh in defeating the drug smuggling ring.

Riggs’ story goal is to resolve the grief he feels over the death of his wife.


In Galaxy Quest,

Jason Nesmith’s plot goal is to save the Thermians from destruction.

Jason Nesmith’s story goal is to regain his self-respect and the trust of his fellow actors.


If we take each one of these films back to our mountain lake and follow the dual paths of inner and outer landscape, we’ll discover how symmetry manifests itself all along the journey.  How in Lethal Weapon, the plot begins with an apparent suicide of a young woman -- an event that has a clear impact on our suicidal hero.  How in Star Wars, Luke’s final shot to destroy the Death Star coincides with the climactic moment in his character arc where he chooses to trust in himself and in the Force.  How in Titanic, Rose’s leap of faith, to trust Jack implicitly and follow his path to freedom, is a literal leap of faith off the stern of the sinking ship.

In each instance, the scriptwriters chose plot events that had a deeper resonance, and created moments -- even at the height of action -- that touched upon the story’s premise and upon that basic issue of human need that drives the hero forward.  This symmetry of landscape, this reflection of the inner world upon the actions, deeds and reversals of the hero’s fortunes, can elevate a script above the endless stream of action clones and empty bits of fluff, and turn it into something with emotional impact, and (as is clear from the examples above) box office staying power.

Spend some time at your lake, give each of your major characters a story goal as well as a plot goal, explore the mountains above and below, and see where those dual journeys take you.  



Further reading:

A Story is a Promise, Bill Johnson, c.2000, Blue Heron Press, ISBN 0-93085-61-4.  For more information, visit Bill’s website at 

The Writer’s Journey, 2nd Edition, Mythic Structure for Writers, Christopher Vogler, c.1998, Michael Weise Productions, ISBN 0-941188-70-1