Avengers: Infinity War – Story Structure Analysis

My take on Avengers: Infinity War’s story structure.

Warning: The following text will analyze the three-act structure of Avengers: Infinity War and will, of course, include spoilers galore. If you haven’t seen this movie yet and want to keep the suspense, please stop reading now. Otherwise, please join me in my musings about IW’s structural composition.

As always I’m going to use the story structure elements known to result in a classic three-act structure. If you are not familiar with it, please visit K.M. Weiland’s site for a brilliant overview of the three-act structure and story theory. You’ll find additional possibilities and extensive descriptions for a deeper dive into all related elements.

I’ve toyed with the idea to draw out a story structure that is based on Thanos as the main character. He is the central (albeit antagonistic) force that drives the story forward and his character arc is the most pronounced – however, Thanos as the main character didn’t really add up with the story beats.
But who is it, then?
At first, I couldn’t identify any other character that would fit the role. Everyone finally comes together. The core group from Earth and Black Panther, Thor, Bucky, Spiderman, Dr. Strange, and the Guardians – there are just too many good guys and they all are in different locations, too. So where to start? Who’s the one with the most impact or the highest stakes?

Only after some days of pondering the issue, did I come up with an idea: the clue is in the title. It’s not an Iron Man or Captain America or Guardians of the Galaxy movie – it’s an Avengers movie! I hadn’t done a story structure analysis for any Avengers movie so far, but when I went so far as to treat the Avengers as a group as the protagonistic force, suddenly the story structure beats made sense. (Yes, that might be a controversial approach but it’s my solution to the structural setup.)

Overview of the story arc / structural elements for Infinity War

Inciting moment: (pre-story): Thanos acquires the Infinity Gauntlet
Hook: Thanos attacks the Asgardian refugee ship & acquires the Space Stone
Key moment: Thanos sends his Children to Earth to get the two infinity stones from there
First Plot Point: Cap, Natascha, and Sam return to defend Wanda and Vision (or, more broadly spoken Earth)
First Pinch Point: Thanos abducts Gamora
Midpoint (2nd plot point): Gamora reveals the location of the Soul Stone
Second Pinch Point: Thanos’ forces arrive on Earth and prepare for a fight in Wakanda (and Thanos sacrifices Gamora)
Third Plot Point: Dr. Strange hands over the time stone to save Toni
Climax: Thanos arrives on Earth and joins the (quite lopsided) fight
Faux Climax: Wanda destroys the Mind Stone
Climactic Moment: Thanos reverses the time and claims the Mind Stone and Thor is too late to prevent Thanos from snapping with his fingers
Resolution: Thanos wipes out half the universe, The Avengers have lost the fight and are heavily decimated. Thanos escapes.

Detailed Analysis of the story and the connection of the structural beats

The Inciting Event is usually described as the event that sets the story in motion. In Avengers: Infinity War, the story is about preventing Thanos from killing half the Universe or as he would say “to bring balance to the universe.” In short, the story is about preventing Thanos from controlling all six Infinity Stones. His first actions to achieve this goal happen way before the movie starts when he attacks Nidavellir and forces Eitri to forge the Infinity Gauntlet (gauntlet-shaped device that enables the wearer to wield all six Infinity Stones without getting harmed by their power.) The audience learns about these events only later. Afterwards (also pre-movie), he heads to Xandar where he wipes out half of the population and acquires the first Infinity Stone – the purple Power Stone.

(One could argue that forging of the Infinity Gauntlet is merely a preparation and not the launch of the overall plan of getting the stones. Without the device, however, even Thanos wouldn’t stand a chance to control all stones so the Gauntlet is a vital part of the storyline.)

The movie itself hooks us in with the attack on the Asgardian refugee ship. Just barely escaped from Hela and the destroyed Asgard, the ship is heavily damaged and corpses cover the floor. Loki and Thor are in a tight spot; even Hulk has no luck in stopping Thanos. This first scene sets up Thanos, his brutality and his goals within minutes. He seeks to give “balance” to the universe. He has been after one or the other Infinity Stone before (in The Avengers he sends Loki to Earth with a Chitauri army for the Tesseract (and the Time Stone?); in The Guardians of the Galaxy he’s after the Power Stone but both Gamora and his Kree puppet Ronan betray him.)
Now, he’s changed tactics and isn’t after one but all Infinity Stones to grant him powers hitherto unknown – godlike, even – and achieve his evil deed with the snap of his fingers. Naturally, Thor, Loki and the rest of the universe beg to disagree that this is the way to go about it, so the conflict/opposition between both sides is instant and unnegotiable.

However, neither Loki nor Thor nor Hulk are a match on their own and after acquiring the blue Space Stone from the center of the Tesseract, Thanos sends his Children off to Earth to bring back the two stones that are currently there. This is the moment where Thanos’ actions draw the rest of the Avengers into the storyline – it is the Key Event.

Earth is forewarned about the pending attack (courtesy of Heimdal who sends home the unconscious Hulk in a last heroic act) but not at all ready or prepared to deal with what’s coming. The aftermath of Avengers: Civil War still looms large and divides the forces of the earthbound Avengers.
The Maw and Cull Obsidian show up in New York. Hulk is a no-show after the severe beating from Thanos and Dr. Banner in his human form isn’t of any help in a fight. That leaves Toni, Wong and Dr. Strange the sole fighting protectors of the Time Stone. Even with Spiderman showing up mid-fight they barely manage to stay alive. They get rid of Cull Obsidian via a wizard portal to Antarctica (?), but can’t prevent the Maw from abducting the stone along with the immobilized Dr. Strange. Toni and Peter follow and make it (unseen) to the Maw’s spaceship last minute. (not so earthbound anymore, eh?)

Thanos’ second crew, namely Proxima Midnight and Corvus Glaive, sets out for Vision’s stone – the yellow Mind Stone – and attack him and Wanda in Scotland. After the fight in New York Dr. Banner has informed Cap (and Natasha & Sam) about the recent events and the dangers ahead. They arrive just in time to help fight back the attackers. Proxima Midnight and Corvus Glaive’s fail to retrieve the Mind Stone. That sets back Thanos’ plan considerably but more important, it serves to reunite the Avengers in one cause. Therefore, I’d identify this moment as the First Plot Point. All our heroes are now engaged in the fight against Thanos, even though they aren’t literally fighting side by side but spread out across the universe.

Thanos, in the meantime, marches on with his original plan. We learn about that plan when Thor recounts the inciting event(s) to the Guardians just prior to the First Plot Point. This sets up a rough roadmap of expectations for the audience and – following the reasoning that there are two tasks for the Guardians and Thor (acquire a weapon able to kill Thanos – and getting to red Reality Stone currently in Knowhere with the Collector ahead of Thanos) they split up.
While Groot, “Sweet Rabbit” Rocket, and Thor are en route to Nidavellir, the rest of the crew makes for Knowhere. On the way there, Gamora goes to some length to make Quill promise to rather kill her then let Thanos take her (foreshadowing.)

When they arrive on Knowhere the place seems deserted and of course, Thanos is there, threatening the Collector. Gamora doesn’t waste any time. She overpowers and kills Thanos in a quick series of battle moves. And when she’s done, she cries over his dead body, anguished by what she did. Promptly, Thanos reveals himself. The audience witnessed nothing more than a twisted version of reality, a fake. Thanos isn’t dead at all and already in possession of the Reality Stone. Even though Quill does, after agonizing moments of indecision, shoot to kill Gamora, Thanos’ reality control thwarts the effort. Thanos disappears with Gamora, leaving Quill, Drax, and Mantis amidst the burning Knowhere. The story has arrived at the First Pinch Point showcasing the (rising) power of the antagonist with actions that confirm the worst fears.

In the next scenes of the storyline, we return to several different locations where several Avengers make headway with plans to stop Thanos. On Earth, Cap and crew arrive at Avengers HQ and rejoin Rodes and Dr. Banner. They devise a plan to separate Vision and the Mind Stone and make for Wakanda. Toni and Spiderman free Dr. Strange and kill the Maw but, unable (or unwilling) to turn the spaceship around, they are now Titan-bound, ready to fight.

On this happy note we near the Midpoint that brings us back to Thanos’ ship. He is after the Soul Stone but doesn’t know where it is. He suspects Gamora knows (and there have been multiple foreshadowing moments by this time that the audience assumes it’s true.) Thanos now needs to find a way to bring Gamora to disclose its location to him. After playing nice for a short time, explaining his reasoning and still getting dismissed by her, he resorts to torture – of Nebula. Gamora denies, is confronted with indisputable proof; the torture escalates and Nebula’s pain proves too much for Gamora – she eventually reveals the location of the Soul Stone.

The pace picks up now. The audience suspects that Thanos is only moments from acquiring the Soul Stone while the protagonistic forces struggle with different tasks. They do make headway, though: Team Thor is on Nidavellir, setting to work on forging the “Thanos-killing-kind” of weapon (Stormbreaker) with Eitri’s help. Nebula escapes capture and sends a distress signal to Mantis. They are to meet on Titan.
There (after some comic relief) the Guardians join forces with Team Toni only to have Dr. Strange up the stakes with his remark about the 1 in 14 million chance to win this whole fight…

In the following scenes are two events that might qualify as the Second Pinch Point: the landing of Thanos’ forces on Earth and Gamora’s death on Vormir. The latter event follows closely after the Midpoint and while Thanos walks away with yet another Infinity Stone and therefore increased power, I think the scene informs more deeply on Thanos’ character arc and could be seen as an extension of the Midpoint.
Better suited in timing to qualify as the Second Pinch Point is the re-appearance of Proxima Midnight (and Corvus Glaive) on Earth, more precisely on the Wakandan border with an army of beastlike aliens in her wake. Her cold rage and the sneer about the sheer amount of “blood to spare” pose an immediate and serious threat to Wakanda’s defenders even if they show some (misplaced) attitude about it. I suppose, in the end, Cap and the others know that they don’t need to win-win this fight but simply need to give Shuri time to extract the Mind Stone from Vision’s forehead.

With Gamora dead on Vormir we are down to three major locations with protagonists fighting and moving the story forward: Nidavellir, where Thor helps Eitri with the forge in a near-suicidal act that even shakes teenage-Groot out of his video game stupor and prompts him to give an arm to finish Stormbreaker; Earth, where the fight turns ugly fast while Shuri is at work separating Vision from the Mind Stone; and Titan, where Thanos shows up, courtesy of the Space Stone once again, expecting the Maw with the Time Stone ready to be delivered to him.

Instead, he walks into a trap. Dr. Strange, Toni, Spiderman, Nebula and the rest of the Guardians execute a series of attacks. Mantis mind-sedates Thanos but struggles to keep it up. The group fails to get the Infinity Gauntlet off his hand before Quill blows it (moron!). The fight intensifies, Thanos winning ground until only Toni is left standing. They fight but Toni is in trouble – his suit’s capabilities are no match for Thanos and he severely injures Toni.

Now, Dr. Strange intervenes and trades Toni’s life for the Time Stone. Thanos accepts and, true to his word, leaves. Everything just changed – we’ve come to the Third Plot Point. Dr. Strange gave up the Time Stone despite his former assertions to never do such a thing. Thanos is five stones down, one to go. Even Dr. Strange mentions the significance of the event when at the closure of the scene prompted by Toni’s “Why did you do that?” he simply states “We are in the endgame now.”

And the endgame (AKA the Climax) goes down on Earth. Shuri’s attempt to separate Vision from the Mind Stone have been thwarted when Corvus Glaive raided the lab after Wanda joined the fight in the field. Cap calls everyone to order, but “Heads up, stay sharp!” is of no use. Thanos shows up and works his way through defenders with sickening ease. Vision and Wanda’s time is up and they know it. Vision begs her to end it and she finally sets to work. Holding off Thanos with one hand (You go girl!) she melts the Mind Stone with her other hand and succeeds – blasting Vision and the stone to smithereens. The audience only gets a short moment to enjoy this triumph – it’s a Faux Climax after all – and after Thanos is done commiserating with a heartbroken Wanda, he simply turns back the time and plucks the Mind Stone from Vision’s forehead, casting his dead body aside like a broken puppet.

Now, everything seems lost. Thanos fits the last stone to its socket in the Infinity Gauntlet and…gets Stormbreaker square in the chest. Thor for the rescue! The promise of Stormbreaker’s power seems to be true. The weapon is indeed strong enough to injure Thanos. The only problem is: he can still snap his fingers with the weapon embedded in his chest. And he does – in the true Climatic Moment. The gauntlet crumples, but the deed is done. Thanos won.

The Resolution follows instantly. Everywhere people start dissolving. On Titan, Nebula states the obvious: “He did it.” The audience is left to hope that Dr. Strange’s last words to Toini before crumbling (“There was no other way.”) might hint at the fact that this had to be part of the one chance in 14 million to win, but it’s a weak consolation. Half the Avengers/Guardians are gone while Thanos gets to retire to his hut overlooking a lush landscape, watching the “sun rise on a grateful (?) universe.”

The after credit scene is no ray of sunshine either: Director Fury curses when he sees Maria Hill dissolve and as he starts to go the same way, he at least got time to send out a last distress signal…
The Audience is left to deal with Thanos’ victory and to mourn the dead.

That’s it! Do you have anything to add? If so, please leave a comment.

Please note that this analysis is my personal opinion. I do not suggest my musings to be the absolute truth nor do I claim to know what the scriptwriters had in mind.
I have done similar posts for the movies Black Panther and Wonder Woman. Please head over there and read those, too, if you enjoyed this one.

Black Panther – Part I – Story Structure

Last year I wrote a post about the story structure and character arc of Diana Prince aka  Wonder Woman and thought I go ahead and try the same for Black Panther. Since the post about Wonder Woman turned out quite long, I chose to split the analysis of Black Panther into two parts. First the story structure and later this week the analysis of the corresponding character arc

This post covers my take on the major story structure elements. Please note: all of this is solely my opinion. I neither know what the scriptwriters had in mind nor do I claim to have the ultimate truth on how to interpret this story. This is an exercise in story structure analysis – nothing more and nothing less. 

Attention:
For all who have not yet seen the movie, please be aware of major spoilers in the following text. I obviously have to go into detail when analyzing the story’s structure. I’ll be using the basic Three-Act-Structure to do so. Like most successful stories, Black Panther follows it’s typical outline.

Additionally, and because that’s been one of my chief research topics on the craft, I want to look into the character arc for T’Challa, Black Panther and King of Wakanda. If you are not familiar with the Three-Act-Structure I recommend K.M. Weiland’s blog. It’s a treasure!

Story Structure – Overview:

Hook: old legend/history story about Wakanda
Inciting Event: Young T’Chaka kills his brother N’Jobu, saving Zuri
Key Event: after T’Chaka’s death T’Challa becomes interim King/Black Panther
First Plot Point: T’Challa gains the throne via ritual combat
First Pinch: the capture of Ulysses Klaue fails
Midpoint: Killmonger arrives with dead Klaue and lays claim to the throne
Second Pinch: T’Challa dies (seemingly)
Third Plot Point: T’Challa is resurrected and resumes the fight for his kingdom
Climax: T’Challa and Killmonger fight on the tracks of the Vibranium trains
Climatic Moment: Killmonger chooses death over imprisonment
Resolution: King T’Challa ends the isolation of Wakanda

Story Structure – Detailed Analysis:

The movie starts with an animated legend-story Hook that is a classic “setup via mythology.” The scene serves several purposes: 1) We get an introduction of the treasure hidden in Wakanda (Vibranium), the origin of the Black Panther (Bast/Bastet and heart-shaped herb) and the political/society setup of the four Wakandan tribes. 2) it showcases the longstanding isolation all former Wakandan kings have enforced on the country. This, in fact, informs about the main conflict of the movie, too: the habit of guarding their secret despite chaos, slavery, and war raging just beyond their borders.

With this information set up, the story resumes directly with the Inciting Moment. We witness an incident in Oakland, CA, in the late 20th century between the late King T’Chaka and his brother Prince N’Jobu. We learn about an attack on Wakanda, a lethal robbery of vibranium and the prime suspect, the criminal Ulysses Klaue. The further revelations lead to N’Jobu losing his life by T’Chaka’s hand. But his life, as we will only learn later, will not be the only thing lost that day. The Inciting Moment deepens the main conflict and adds another layer: part of the royal family is no longer willing to hide Wakanda’s power behind the shield of the carefully crafted illusion of a poor third-world-country but instead use it to help overcome the suffering in black communities all over the world.

Following right after that follows the Key Event. We are back to the present day where we get a “newsreel” summary of the events that took place in the “Avengers: Civil War” movie, to bring all those who haven’t seen it (are there any?) up to speed about the death of T’Chaka in Vienna. T’Challa, T’Chaka’s designated successor, is preparing for the sacred ritual that will make him King of Wakanda. I identify this as the Key Event because T’Chaka’s death is the moment when T’Challa gets personally involved with the main conflict: he is the interim ruler and therefore responsible for protecting Wakanda’s future until a new king is chosen.

Even though T’Chaka’s death seems good enough a “doorway of no return”, it is not the First Plot Point. Just now, T’Challa, acting as an interim king, is not yet officially chosen by his people. At this point he could still walk away, decide the burden of kingship is too much to bear and let others step up – his sister Shuri for example. Only when he proceeds with the ritual and defeats the surprise-contender M’Baku from the Jabari Tribe in ritual combat, does he chose the path of kingship and truly takes up responsibility for Wakanda’s future.

Anointed and made Black Panther again by means of the heart-shaped herb, T’Challa’s first challenge as King comes by way of the discovery of the long-time fugitive and enemy of the state number one – Ulysses Klaue. The mission to extract the man from Busan, South Korea, fails and marks the First Pinch Point. Klaue, who’s unscrupulous methods have been showcased in earlier scenes, wrecks havoc in the underground casino and escapes at first, gets then taken after a wild car-chase through Busan’s streets with the help of CIA agent Everett Ross, but is ultimately broken free from CIA custody by his gangster-crew, severely wounding Ross in the process.

Coming back to Wakanda empty-handed is a bitter setback for T’Challa. He not only falls short of his pledge to W’Kabi to bring back or kill the criminal Klaue, but he’s brought back a stranger/colonizer/white man on the brink of death, who is a CIA agent to boot, choosing to help the man who saved Nakia in favour of going after Klaue right away. Naturally, W’Kabi is upset. The will prove to be important soon after, when the Midpoint comes along in form of Eric Killmonger, disposing of Klaue and his team and delivering Klaue’s body to W’Kabi.

The Midpoint is an excellent plot twist and picks up on a “loose end” of the early setup-scene in Oakland. The audience learns that Eric Stevens aka Killmonger is not only of Wakandan heritage but of royal blood and T’Challa’s cousin. Shaped by his father N’Jobu’s views and later radicalized by his own experiences, first as a young boy left behind and later as a back ops soldier for the US special forces, Killmonger is after the throne and determined to use Wakanda’s technological advancements to strike back against the ongoing white suppression all over the world. This raises the overall tension somewhat. Not only do we know he’s got the means to overthrow T’Challa, he is in a way entitled to claim the throne by ritual combat. Furthermore, his presumed plan to end Wakanda’s reclusion and openly fight white suppression is antithetical to what Wakanda has been standing for centuries. 

T’Challa, having learned about the events leading up to the abandonment of Eric Stevens as a young boy, agrees to a ritual combat for the crown. The Second Pinch Point arrives when this fight takes a turn for the worst possible outcome. T’Challa struggles to fight the experienced Killmonger, Zuri tries to intervene and is killed, which in turn upsets T’Challa in such a way that he can’t win the fight against Killmonger. He is overpowered and thrown into the river.

With T’Challa presumably dead and Killmonger anointed as king, Nakia rushes to bring the rest of the royal family and Agent Ross to safety and elicit help from whatever sources possible. Okoye declines to turn against the throne, her sense of duty does not allow it. Short of allies and just in time before Killmonger orders the whole stock to be burnt, Nakia manages to steal one heart-shaped herb, hoping to coax M’Baku of the Jabari Tribe into taking it, fighting to free Wakanda from the rule of a war-crazy outsider. The story arrives at the Third Plot Point, when Nakia, T’Challa’s mother, his sister, and Agent Ross arrive at the M’Baku’s seat and offer the herb to him, he leads them to a not-yet-but-almost-dead T’Challa who is then revived and restored to full health and the power of the Black Panther with the help of the heart-shaped herb. The prominent death that’s usually featured with the Third Plot Point is inverted here. The presumed death took place at the 2nd  Pinch Point and now we witness a resurrection instead. 

T’Challa’s revival wraps up the 2nd half of the 2nd act neatly by pitching the two main characters against each other in open fight. Their views regarding the main conflict are diametrically opposed. With both of them clad in Black Panther suits and enhanced by the heart-shaped herb, this fight is quite balanced. Nakia, Shuri, and Agent Ross join in the fight on T’Challa’s side, as does Okoye as soon as she realizes the ritual combat is not finished.

We near the Climax, when the Jabari Tribe joins the melee while T’Challa and Killmonger duel on the train tracks in the vibranium mine. There’s a side-climatic moment when W’Kabi yields to Okoye, ending the fighting between Wakanda’s citizens. But T’Challa and Killmonger are still hacking away at each other in the train tracks. The sonic disruptors mess with both their suits, exposing vulnerable spots. Exploiting Killmongers arrogance and certainty to win, T’Challa manages to stab him.   

Critically wounded, Killmonger reveals a shred of humanness as he remembers his father and all the broken promises and lost opportunities. We get a glimpse of a deeply troubled and lonely person. T’Challa, recognizing at last part of Eric’s state of mind as a direct consequence of T’Chaka’s actions, shows compassion and leads Eric, the deadly weapon still embedded in his chest, up to the mouth of the Black Panther cave/mine to witness the fabled and longed for sunset in Wakanda. This leads directly to the climatic moment. Eric/Killmonger isn’t dead yet. When T’Challa offers to heal Eric, he declines, choosing death over life in prison, forced to witness the ongoing suppression of his people. He pulls out the lance, sealing his fate and leaving T’Challa the rightful king and sole Black Panther once more.

The Resolution of the story wraps up several story strands. We see M’Baku join the tribal council, uniting all Wakandan tribes for the first time. T’Challa, changed by the events, reconsiders Wakanda’s stance on secrecy, rejects the isolationism of all the past kings, and moves to set up the first outreach-center in Oakland. In the first post-credit scene, the movie comes full circle, wrapping up the sincerity of T’Challa’s plans by showing him back in Vienna, announcing Wakanda’s new stance in front of the United Nations council.   

Conclusion:

Black Panther is a well structured and expertly crafted movie. The story hits the major structural points just right. Any variations made, add to the overall tension and enjoyment. 

Do you agree? Please comment!

And here’s the link to Part II – Character Arc again.

Idea development

Reflecting on the lessons I learned this year, one stands out: A better grip on the meaning of terms like premise, concept and plot and their respective purpose helps to solidify an idea. It also helps to judge if the idea is viable as a story worth telling.

Looking back to Dire Tidings, I now realise that I had no clear concept for the series, I had only a murky premise for the first book and don’t get me started on plot… After three month with my new WIP I can proudly say: I am doing better. So I thought I share with you my take on the subject, perhaps someone will find it helpful.

The basic ideas are collected and combined from what I read in (or heard about) not only but primarily works and ideas from K.M. Weiland, James Scott Bell, Jo Nassise & Nick Stephenson, Karl Iglesias and countless blogposts and online articles.

IDEA DEVELOPMENT

I think it all comes down to these beats: 1) find a concept, 2) conceive a character, 3) spin it both into a premise, 4) build the plot starting at the ending.

Between concept vs premise, premise vs plot, premise vs story, and some more comparisons along that line, it often get muddy. Some use concept and premise synonymously, some have another take on it. So for the safe of clarity, I’ll elaborate on my take on the terms concept, premise and plot. (I don’t think I need to talk about what a character is…:-) )

Concept:

I think of the concept as an idea that can be advanced from a simple “low” form to a more advanced “high” form by giving it an original spin. It states the general topic.

The “low concept” can be a statement like “The ruling class exploits everyone else” (Hunger Games) or “Magic is real” (Harry Potter) or “Mankind has found a way to do manned Mars missions” (The Martian) or “Evil tries to rule the world” (LotR)
There are not yet any characters in the low concept but there’s a landscape, a stage or setting of sorts. It’s a basic idea, sometimes even a common or well know sentiment.

To get from there to the “high concept” you then ask a what-if-question, that adds a unique spin it. What-if the ruling class forces everyone else into submission by having children fight to the death on live TV each year (Hunger Games)? What-if real witches and wizards live among us undetected (Harry Potter)? What-if there is a botched Mars mission turning into a rescue operation (The Martian)? What-if the power to rule is tied to a piece of jewellery (LotR)?

There’s still no character here, but the simple idea gets a fresh twist, or an unfamiliar take or an individual spin.

It can even be “just” a new setting. The Martians low concept could very well be “A member of a research team is accidently abandoned and has to be rescued” taken a step “higher” with an individual spin on the setting: “What if that happened on effing Mars?”

The concept pins down the seed of the idea.

Premise:

The premise is the story. Take the high concept and populate it with one or more characters who happen to have a goal. We all have goals. And wishes. And dreams. And motives. So do our characters and et voila – we have a story.

Without a character, the concept is nothing but an empty world. The character adds depths and focus. Imagine a pizza. Pizza is a well know concept. But plain dough? The character equals the toppings. She brings in backstory and goals and flaws and assets that enrich the formerly plain idea.

There are several takes on how to formulate a premise. Jo Nassise+Nick Stephenson describe it as a simple X must to Y in order to Z. The peace and freedom loving inhabitants of Middle Earth must destroy the Ring of Power in order to banish the dangers of enslavement. Or an abandoned astronaut has to survive alone on Mars for a time in order to get rescued.

That _is_ essentially the whole story. But it is not the plot. The plot is, how that comes to pass, all the obstacles the cast of characters has to face in order to succeed (or utterly fail).

I like K.M. Weiland’s approach on the premise sentence best. She first defines several key components a premise sentence might include, like the setup situation, the lead, the lead’s key objective, the conflict and the opponent. As soon as these items are determined, you can use different templates to mould it into a viable premise.

For example:
(LEAD) is in (situation) and wants change. To have (objective) would be great if accomplished but (opponent) stands in the way leading to (disaster).
OR
(LEAD) is in (situation) and forms (objective) relating to it. But (opponent) stirs up (conflict) that might lead to (disaster).

These are still simple statements with you might consider lacking in depth. But of course you can elaborate. Take for example this extended lineup of components: Situation and/or Setup: launching point or main plot threat, sometimes the hook; Lead: the main character and your hero; specifics of the Lead: details about your hero, heroic quality or promising character trait; Objective: what the Lead wants badly (from the start OR after the story’s launch); Obstacle or conflict: is holding back the Lead from winning objective; Opponent: who is trying to prevent the Lead from success?; Disaster: what will happen as worst outcome?

These components form a longer and more detailed kind of template:
After (setup) a (specifics) (Lead) is in (situation). In order to (objective) (Lead) must (Conflict) against (opponent) before (disaster).
Or if you have an important support character or a sub-goal, you could add those like this:
After (setup) a (specifics) (Lead) is in (situation). In order to (objective) (Lead) must (Conflict) with (supporting character) to (subgoal) before (opponent’s) action lead to (disaster).

Lets try the simpler version with The Martian: the components Lead: Mark Whatney; situation: thought dead and abandoned on Mars; objective: survive till rescue; opponent: Mars and disaster: death, take us to the following possible premise sentence:
After being thought dead, Mark Whatney is all alone and abandoned on Mars. To survive until he can be rescued would be great, but Mars is quite the harsh environment and will surely kill him.

And the more elaborate version for Hunger Games: setup: volunteered for sister Prim to take part in the hunger Games, Lead: Katniss Everdeen; specifics of the Lead: Seventeen year old survival expert; Objective: survive the Hunger Games; obstacle or conflict: evade her pursuers, navigate the arena, kill the other Tributes; Opponent: other competing tributes; Disaster: get killed:
After volunteering for her sister Prim, 17 year old Katniss Everdeen must compete in the Hunger Games. In order to survive, she must evade her pursuers, navigate the arena and if possible kill the other Tributes before the get her instead.

Plot:

Note, that the premise does only state the overall goal, not all the subgoals, that will emerge due to event-driven conflicts and obstacles. Therefore I would define the term plot here in accordance with Karl Iglesias’ definition of a story: A series of events that result in the Lead achieving or failing his main goal.

The character starts out at some point (or something happens to kick it of) with a goal, a mission, an objective. The plot is then the logically following events that lead up to the climax where success or failure of said goal is determined.

To achieve a logical progression from setup to climax, I find it helpful to know what the ending will be. Otherwise it is hard to set up convincing events that lead up to it. Furthermore stories are chiefly about change. The character or the situation at the end of the story is expected to be different from the outset. No change = boring story. If my Lead is as sad and miserable at the end of the book as she was in the beginning, my reader would disappointed and rightly so.

So what I think can work well, is to flip either the intended setup to have a contrary ending, or flip the desired ending to start from an opposing setup.

Andy Weir wanted Mark Whatney to survive in the end, so he made sure the outset was less than promising. Same goes for Suzanne Collins and Hunger Games. The ending of the book is in direct contrast to Katniss’ assessment of her situation at the beginning, too: “In District 12, where the word tribute is pretty much synonymous with the corpse,…”

Summary:

If you have a concept and an idea for population the landscape of this concept with interesting characters with a viable opposition, you should be able to construct a striking premise. With that condensed information about your story, you can go ahead and construct a series of events and have a fitting plot at hand that will lead you from setup to resolution in a logical way.

Easy, right?

If only. 🙂

Bonus: the Main Dramatic Question (MDQ):

From the premise you can derive the MDQ: will the Lead succeed in his pursuit of his objective?

This, the overall goal of the Lead will be solved at the climax, more specifically at the climatic moment. At this point, the MDQ will be answered and the story is finished. The plot should bring up this question as early as possible, but at least with the end of Act I.

But more on this in another post.