Category Archives: Plot Structure


A Guest Post by Peter Clampton

As an avid movie goer, I have found myself over the years experiencing a stark range of emotions as I sit down in front of the large silver screen. With the wide array of movies now, you know there are going to be ones you like, others you dislike. Some are complete and utter crapshoots, which most of the time don’t land on 7. However for the first time since I’ve gone to a movie I have to say I was completely and utterly left without words to describe my surprise. When I walked into Zootopia I was expecting another forced “Kid’s movie” with clichés, and silly forced humor. Instead I found the best movie I’ve seen in a long time.

This movie, simply put, is beyond good. If you haven’t watched this movie, stop reading this article, it will spoil the movie, and go buy a ticket to see it today!

For those who have already seen it, stick around because I’m going to talk about one aspect of Zootopia’s excellence that I noticed right away that has separated it from other films. Its story plotting.

RELUCTANT PARTNER -- Fast-talking, con-artist fox Nick Wilde is not really interested in helping rookie officer Judy Hopps crack her first case. Directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore, and produced by Clark Spencer, Walt Disney Animation Studios' "Zootopia" opens in theaters on March 4, 2016. ?2016 Disney. All Rights Reserved.
RELUCTANT PARTNER — Fast-talking, con-artist fox Nick Wilde is not really interested in helping rookie officer Judy Hopps crack her first case. Directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore, and produced by Clark Spencer, Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Zootopia” opens in theaters on March 4, 2016. ?2016 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

Now as writers we know effective scene writing comes in how every scene builds and adds to your story, especially in movies where you have only so much screen time to work with. A scene that pushes the plot while illuminating character, themes and world building will always be preferable over something that just looks cool, but does nothing to add to the overall story movement. It is in this aspect, Zootopia is flawless.

In the beginning we are introduced to Zootopia’s main star, Judy Hops. A determined and stubborn rabbit who dreams of becoming ZPD’s (Zootoopia Police Department), very first bunny cop. The greatness of this scene is not only does it work to endear us to Judy, but it also serves up powerful priming for the stories themes of predator vs. prey. We are shown the first conflict to Judy’s police dreams and see that the odds are stacked against her, and so are her parents. However within the first 7 minutes of the movie we know her motivations and witness that she is capable of reaching her goal when she steals back the carnival tickets. We are also sold on Judy character because “she doesn’t know when to quit.”

Now of course we already know the answer, but it is this presentation of the conflict, with the character arc as well as the theme in the movie that this opening is only the first of many well-conceived scenes throughout the movie. Even the fact it was a school play makes a pseudo effective way of getting around the usually weak voice over narrative trope, (Which is a big break on SHOW vs. Tell), but this movie gets away because the theme is demonstrated again and again, in EVERY SCENE throughout the movie.

From even as simple a scene as when Judy enters the city by train and the song “Try Everything” is playing, Zootopia is already priming the setting for pivotal scenes to occur throughout the movie. As introducing the minor character of Gazzelle and the world of Zootopia, with its diversity.

This diversity then illuminates another theme of “the small town kid enters big city” as Judy goes on to learn that Zootopia is far from a Utopia, and that even though she accomplished her goal there is a lot more she has to prove. I want to note that only one scene, the train scene, has transpired before the plot and conflict is again evolved and presented. From her defunct cramped apartment to her lowly assignment as a meter maid, we now see that Judy has to reconcile with her crumbling expectations of Zootopia, and her dreams to be a “real cop.” Not only do these scenes work to build up to the main story conflict within the movie, but in one seriously slick scene we are introduced to Zootopia’s other star, Nick Wilde the fox, who cons a popsicle out of Judy and some elephants. This is an article about plotting but I just want to mention offhandedly how choosing a fox to star along a rabbit builds wonderfully into the themes of tolerance and diversity. Two natural enemies who have to work together and in the end become friends…way to hit it on the head Disney.

Anyway back to plotting. For the final scene of the first act before the main conflict of the movie, we get a chase scene where Judy chases down a thieving weasel.

bunny1Judy is banging her head while hating life because she is a simple meter maid, and doubts if she is even a “real cop.” Then the opportunity comes where she must chase down the weasel through the mouse district of Zootopia. During the chase she is shown righting the wrongs by correcting toppled houses and saving a small vole from being crushed by a giant donut. Judy eventually catches the weasel, using the giant donut and confiscates his bag of “onions.”

Simple chase scene right? Wrong. This scene is another great example as everything from even the blocking of the action in the scene builds to add to the story world and plays into the plot while also being fun to watch.

Focusing on just pure plotting elements Judy’s little hoorah in “Little Rodentia” sets the stages for three major obstacles in the stories main plot. The first is when we meet the character “Mr. Big,” who we see is simple a tiny vole mob boss in the vein of “the Godfather,” who has no problem “icing” our stars.When all seems lost we learn that the vole that Judy saved earlier is indeed the Mob bosses beloved daughter, who vouched for Judy, and saved both Nick and Judy from a watery grave.

The second major plot point set up in this scene is the name and eventual identity of the “nighthowler” flowers which are causing the residents of Zootopia to go crazy. It’s subtle but when Judy is talking to Chief Bogo after the chase she drops the name “Midnicampum holicithias,” priming us to see and recognize this plant when we learn that rabbits and foxes call them by different names.

This also in-turn solves the last conflict of where Judy knows where and how to find the nighthowlers because she tracks down our weasel illegally bootlegging Disney movies solving the problem of finding the location of who exactly is using the flowers in the first place. Not bad for a single chase scene, huh?

Now it should be noted that this is Disney’s longest animated feature film to date with a run time twelve minutes shy of two hours. Easily exceeding traditional limits applied for family films, it is no easy task to tell a crime detective story in that time frame. So the fact they managed that, along with astounding characterizations, as well as the appeal to children boasts significantly to its writing chops.

Zootopia is an amazing movie from top to bottom, and though I don’t want to call it perfect, I’ve been hard pressed to figure out why not. With its presentation of plot, story and its amazing environment and characters Zootopia is a marvel of classic and modern day storytelling wrapped into one. Watch it at least twice, you won’t be sorry.

Onyie 4Peter Clampton is an author, a dreamer and most importantly a man with a vision. It’s a simple vision really. He is working to become a great story teller and hopes to share light through stories and enable others to do the same. He is Author of the Post-apocalyptic Western series “The Girl and The Beast,” which can be viewed, along with his other fiction on his website

Serialization: Pros and Pitfalls

As I work on the sequel to Unwilling Souls, I find myself having to confront the question of serialization versus episodic storytelling. My admission up front: I love serialized stories. Aside from sitcoms, I don’t really watch any television that doesn’t feature at least some element of serialization. While I realize there’s a certain comfort to be had in procedurals or episodic series, they will never be my first choice, precisely for that reason. Very little ever changes.

The idea that each installment of a story builds into something greater has always appealed to me. And in today’s age of serialized TV and prestige series, it’s hard to remember there was ever anything else. But networks used to look down on serialized storytelling. And if you do a little digging, it’s not hard to see why. In this post, I’ll take you through three series’ attempts at serialization across a couple of different timeframes, what worked about it and what didn’t.

The X-Files: You might call this a proto-serialized drama, or at least a drama with a central mystery at its core. For cave-dwellers or young people, the X-Files featured FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully assigned to solve the paranormal cases the FBI normally tried to downplay or ignore. Most episodes fell into a sort of “monster of the week” episodic pattern. But several times each season, including the beginning and the end, the series’ overarching story would come to the forefront: that of Mulder’s obsessive quest to uncover the truth behind alien abductions and the government’s cover-up, including the abduction of his sister when they were both children. Early on the series’ run, I (and most) enjoyed the “monster of the week” episodes but really looked forward to the alien storyline, eagerly awaiting each new installment’s advancement of the central mystery.

As the series aged, however, it became more and more apparent that the showrunners didn’t have an overall plan for the mystery, and were just dragging it out as long as possible, allowing it to grow more and more elaborate and nonsensical. By the time the lead actors were bowing out of the show save for guest appearances, it was the monster of the week episodes that still maintained a semblance of quality, while the serialized overarching story had become a mess that would obviously never reach a satisfactory conclusion. That’s the major advantage episodic TV will always have over serial TV. Each installment has a beginning a middle and an end, all neatly contained in an hour of the viewer’s time. Serialized stories have to work extra hard to give installments the feel of a miniature story arc while simultaneously advancing the overarching plot. It adds a dimension of complexity to the writing.

The X-Files finale was all but incomprehensible, and while the recent short 10th season proved the actors still bring chemistry to their characters, the alien storyline remains as opaque as ever. Ultimately, the X-Files serves as a cautionary tale to future shows about being careful with open-ended mysteries. The lesson of the X-Files: A mysterious series mythos requires, if not exact planning to the last detail, at least some forethought unless you are a virtuoso of retconning.

Lost: Though this isn’t in chronological order, The X-FIles leads us naturally into Lost, the show that learned the most from the X-Files. Lost begins with a plane crash which a seemingly miraculous number of people survive. The tropical island onto which they’ve crashed is filled with all kinds of strange, wondrous and terrifying things, like polar bears, mysterious hatches buried in the jungle, and the eerie people already living on the island, creepily known only as the Others. Like its spiritual predecessor, Lost builds its show around a central mystery: What is the Island? Unlike the X-Files, while there are episodes that don’t advance the main plot, quite a few of them in the first three seasons, nearly every episode takes place on the island itself, so there’s no forgetting the main, serialized plot.

Lost’s first season was utterly captivating, introducing us to the characters by giving each one or more episodes focused on them and their backstory while simultaneously advancing the plot. The problems didn’t really arise until Season 2 and then, even more, Season 3. It turns out that the show-runners (the show was conceived by All-SFF Team Producer J.J. Abrams but he was not involved beyond the pilot episode) did not have any more idea where the story was going than the creator of the X-Files did or, perhaps more importantly, how long they would have to stall giving out answers to their mysteries. But they learned from history.

By the time the third season was floundering in stall-tactics designed to drag out the mysteries toward an unknown series end date, the producers made the bold decision of approaching the network with a proposal to last three more 16 episode seasons and then end. Given the fact that the show was a ratings juggernaut, give props to ABC for agreeing to the schedule. From that moment on Lost became much more focused and fast-paced. Gone were the stalling episodes of Jack getting a tattoo. Each episode now drove the plot inexorably forward, and though the ending of the series was controversial to many, no one can deny that it was an ending. The lesson? If you’re telling a serialized story, plan for it to have a beginning, middle and end so that you pace correctly.

Battlestar Galactica (2004 Reboot): Speaking of controversial endings, BSG was heavily serialized from beginning to end, almost without exception. Rare was an episode that could be called truly standalone. Like Lost before it, the show was built around a relatively simple premise. The Cylons (human-hating robots, some of which are indistinguishable from humans) have destroyed human civilization in retaliation for decades-old mistreatment, and the entire remains of the human race comprise rag-tag fleet of spacecraft looking for the last habitable world in their records: the mythical colony of Earth.

From the beginning of the show, things like resource conservation, the problem of governance when your entire governmental apparatus is destroyed, and “the enemy within” became staple elements of the show’s plot. Every episode relentlessly drove the main story forward … with one exception. During Season 3, Syfy (then mercifully known as the SciFi Network) tried to make the show more viewer friendly, which translates to more episodic. See, the reason networks used to hate serialized stories is that while they tend to keep early fans watching, they make it difficult for new fans to get into shows because of all the backstory they’ve missed. SciFi wanted Season 3 to be easier to get involved which, resulting in a season which, while it has some major highs (New Caprica and the Adama Maneuver, anyone?) it also resulted in some disjointed episodes that feel unfocused and unconnected to the larger story.

If this had been the series modus operandi from the start, nothing would have seemed amiss. As it was, the change was jarring. Fortunately, the fourth and final season was allowed to close out the show (once, again that this was the final season was planned in advance) on the show-runners terms. For the record, I enjoyed both BSG’s and Lost’s controversial endings. The lesson we can take from this is that whatever precedent you set between installments, it is best to keep to it throughout the run of your series.


A serialized approach to storytelling is a great way to grab viewers (or readers) early and make sure they stay invested. That said, there are pitfalls to the approach as well as benefits to working in some episodic elements as well.

About the Author: Gregory D. LittleHeadshot

Rocket scientist by day, fantasy and science fiction author by night, Gregory D. Little began his writing career in high school when he and his friend wrote Star Wars fanfic before it was cool, passing a notebook around between (sometimes during) classes. His first novel, Unwilling Souls, is available now from ebook retailers and trade paperback through His short fiction can be found in The Colored Lens, A Game of Horns: A Red Unicorn Anthology, and the upcoming Dragon Writers Anthology. He lives in Virginia with his wife and their yellow lab.

You can reach him at his website (, his Twitter handle (@litgreg) or at his Author Page on Facebook.



And Now for Something Completely Different

When it comes to giving advice regarding plot structure, I have found that most everyone seems to focus on the time from the beginning of the book to the climax. In a way, I completely understand. After all, that’s where the majority of your story happens. However, I find that some people seem to forget that after the climax the story must come to a graceful ending, and that this resolution is as essential to the story as any other part. You’ve made the characters struggle and suffer for their triumph, so they deserve a little time off right?

The denouement is more than just sympathy for a cast you’ve spent years torturing. It’s a matter of practicality. The climax of a story is supposed to be the defining challenge of the protagonists’ life and potentially for the entire world they live in. It doesn’t matter if the story takes a single volume or a twenty part series to tell, once the climax is resolved, the story is done. Young authors need to learn to let go even when, or perhaps especially when, you don’t want to.

I really admire a storyteller who knows when to take their bows and move on to the next work. After all, we are writers people! We are not limited to a single story. Sometimes the best endings for an old story is the beginning of a new one. The more one writes, the better the stories get. Often it is best for our career to work on something else for a while and then return to an old project when the time is right.

Over the past couple years, I’ve been pursuing a deal in traditional publishing. For the first time, I’ve had a story that I knew was good, and that friends who I trust to be honest with me say is near publishable. I’ve devoted all my time and attention to this single story. Not just drafting and editing, but also networking and promoting myself in an attempt to secure a traditional publishing contract. I’ve been obsessed with the idea, and in my attachment forgot to move on.Don’t get me wrong, the story’s not dead to me. I still believe in its potential and will continue to shop it until I find a good home for it. Publishing takes a long time. With eight months to a year between submitting the story and hearing back, I just can’t afford to wait for it anymore. It’s like trying to fish with only one line in the water. You might eventually catch something, but you may be waiting a while for that first bite.

So, in 2016 I’m going to work on something completely different. Up until now I’ve written fantasy, both the sword & sorcery and urban varieties. In order to force myself to grow as a writer, I am trying my hand at a bit of science fiction. So far, it’s been a fun ride and has forced me to rethink many of the assumptions and tropes I had grown used to relying on. Even better, once I finish drafting and polishing this new manuscript, I’ll be able to cast a second line into the pool. Then I’ll start again. And again. Eventually, I’ll get a bite.