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What is Plot? - Examples & Definition

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  • 0:01 What Is Plot?
  • 0:51 The Structure of…
  • 1:45 Plots in Film
  • 4:43 The Plot in a Children's Story
  • 6:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ann Casano

Ann has taught university level Film classes and has a Master's Degree in Cinema Studies.

Plot is a literary term that refers to how narrative points are arranged to make a story understandable to the reader or observer. This lesson will look at the definition of plot, as well as examples of plot from well-known stories.

What Is Plot?

Say it's a lazy, rainy Sunday afternoon, and you and your friend decide to go to the movies. You scan the movie listings and talk about which film to see. The most important question you will ask in order to make your decision is, 'What's the movie about?' What you're essentially concerned about is the plot of the film.

Plot is what happens in the narrative. Every story, from books, plays and films to newspaper articles and television programs, is based around plot. Without a plot, the characters would have nothing to do. It is what engages us as spectators and keeps us interested; however, plot is not just a series of random events. What turns a story into a plot is how the events unfold in a casual manner.

The Structure of Traditional Plots

Storytelling has been around for thousands of years, but plot structures have generally remained the same. In simple terms, plots usually have a beginning, a middle and an end. Plots typically begin with a main character, a protagonist, and everything is just fine in their story-world (equilibrium) at the beginning. Then, the protagonist has a problem (disequilibrium) and tries to solve it, but complications arise.

The plot moves along, one event causes another event (causality). The tension escalates. Towards the end of the story, it seems like the protagonist is at a point of no return, and there is no possible way that he can solve his problem (climax). By the end of the story, the protagonist usually solves his problem (resolution), and a new equilibrium emerges (denouement).

Plots in Film

Hollywood film plots typically unfold in a 3-act structure. A common way the structure is described to would-be screenwriters: boy meets girl (equilibrium), boy loses girl (disequilibrium), boy gets girl back (resolution or new equilibrium).

Let's take a look at the 3-act plot of one of the most popular Hollywood musicals of all time: Grease (1978). The film opens at the beach with Danny and Sandy saying goodbye to their summer of love. Sandy is supposed to go back home to Australia, while Danny is set to start his senior year at Rydell High School. But plans change, and Sandy's parents decide to stay in the area. Danny is a greaser and the ultimate high school bad boy, while Sandy is a sweet and shy girl. At the beach, without anyone else around and outside their natural environment, their different personalities do not clash.

Danny is shocked to see Sandy attending Rydell and acts like a jerk to her in order to impress his greaser friends. Sandy runs away - she can't believe that this was the same guy that she fell in love with over the summer. However, Danny quickly sees the error of his ways and apologizes to Sandy. The two become boyfriend and girlfriend. This is the end of Act I, the 'boy meets girl' stage. The protagonists are in a state of equilibrium.

Danny and Sandy date for most of their senior year. However, things start to go wrong for the couple at the high school dance. Danny's ex-girlfriend, Cha-Cha, cuts in between Danny and Sandy as they are dancing in a televised dance-off competition. Danny and Cha-Cha wind up winning the dance-off, and Sandy leaves the gym upset that Danny danced with his ex. Danny later apologizes to Sandy once again, which she accepts. However, while the couple is watching a movie at the drive-in, Danny makes an inappropriate pass, and Sandy leaves the car in tears. This is the end of Act II, the 'boy loses girl' stage. The protagonists are now in a state of disequilibrium.

Danny decides to make changes in his life in order to get Sandy back. This includes trying to go from bad boy greaser to jock. Sandy takes note of his effort and in a surprising turn, the sweet Australian shows up at the end of school year carnival dressed in tight leather pants and smoking a cigarette. The couple makes up and confesses their love to each other in song. They reunite with a kiss in front of the whole school. This is the end of Act III, the 'boy gets girl back' stage. The protagonists conclude the film with a happy ending/resolution and return to a new state of equilibrium where the couple accepts each other's differences.

As you can see, one event causes another event. Nothing happens at random, each plot point is sequenced so that the story makes sense to the viewer.

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