What Is Plot? The Ultimate Guide for Beginners

Of the 4 Pillars of story–People, Place, Purpose, and Plot–there is one single pillar that is by far the most difficult to master.

It’s difficult, but not impossible. Like anything in the universe, breaking it down into much smaller pieces allows for a basic understanding. Once grasping the basics, we can then weave back in some of that complexity, which in this case, is crafting more complex plots.

So then, at a most basic level, what is plot?

What Is Plot? The Ultimate Guide for Beginners

If we recall that story is the retelling of events, then plot is quite simply the arrangement of those events. The goal then of the Plot Pillar is engagement–the plot is what keeps the viewer wrapped tightly in the arms of the story, wanting to know what’ll happen next.

Let’s look at the story of my first Super Bowl experience as an example. We’ll use it to break down the complexity of plot.

"Back in 2011 I had the opportunity to shoot my first-ever Super Bowl–right from the sidelines. I must have showed up to the stadium six hours early that day just to get ready and take it all in. However, when I went to check in and get my media credentials, the person on the other side of the table looked rather confused. She scanned up and down her massive list of names and couldn’t find me anywhere.

"I wasn’t on the list.

"I called our contact at NFL Network to get her opinion on what may have happened and what I should do next. It turns out that there were a couple things to get filed in order to get credentials. One made it in, but the other part did not, hence no credential there waiting for me. She apologized and let me know I could take the day off–and not to worry, I’d still get paid.

"But here I was at the biggest shoot of my life, feet from the field where the Super Bowl was about to be played. There was no way I could go back to the hotel and watch the game from television. I had to find a way to get onto that field—and to film the game with no credentials."

Okay, so there’s a simple story. Within that story a series of things occur. These events, and their order, are what make up the plot.

Now remember, the primary function of your story’s plot is engagement. There are two main factors that determine just how engaging your plot is:

  • Which events are included and which are not included
  • The order of events, or their structure

In sum, the art of creating an engaging plot really comes down to mastering the understanding of the events to include, as well as the best structure for said events.

I’m sure we can all recall a conversation with a friend in which it seemed like he was just going on and on forever without any real point or direction.

That experience of us getting bored while a friend rambles on is a function of having a poor plot. We’re no longer engaged, either because he’s created a weak order of events or, quite commonly, he included far more events than needed.

A great way to explore plot, and its criticalness, is to look at comedy. A strong joke must have a great structure (or plot). Only a few tweaks in the wrong direction can take a joke from being able to bust up a room, to the forced laughter that saves feelings.

Take a look at this simple joke:

A string walks into a bar with a few friends and orders a beer. The bartender says, "I'm sorry, but we don't serve strings here."

The string goes and sits at a table. He ties himself in a loop and messes up the top of his hair. He walks back up to the bar and orders a beer.

The bartender squints at him and says, "Hey, aren't you a string?"

The string says, "Nope, I'm a frayed knot."

Now, within that joke we can see a few simple events that happen...

Walks into bar→ bartender informs him he’s not allowed→ string returns to his table→ frays his hair → returns to the bartender with the quip

But what happens when we remove one of those events?

A string walks into a bar with a few friends and orders a beer. The bartender says, "I'm sorry, but we don't serve strings here."

The bartender squints at him and says, "Hey, aren't you a string?"

The string says, "Nope, I'm a frayed knot."

Not so funny anymore right? The whole impact of the story is lost.

On the other hand, what about if we add in a bunch of other events?

A string walks into a bar with a few friends and orders a beer. One friend orders a vodka-soda. His other friend orders a Blue Parrot.

The bartender says, "I'm sorry, but we don't serve strings here." Then the bartender goes back to performing his normal duties. He cuts some lime wedges. He washes some glasses. One glass contained the lipstick residue of a woman who performed an inadequate blot.

Then he steps out from behind the bar to clear glass from the tables that lined the walls of the bar. While out on the floor he stops to put some quarters in the juke box. He picks out a few songs by his favorite band, Steppenwolf, including "Born to Be Wild" and "Magic Carpet Ride."

Meanwhile, the string heads back to his table. His friend slides in first, then the string does, then his other friend, sans drinks. The string ties himself in a loop and messes up the top of his hair. He asks his friend how his hair looks. Satisfied, he walks back up to the bar and orders a beer.

The bartender squints at him and says, ‘Hey, aren't you a string?’

Outside, a man pushes a wheelbarrow down the sidewalk.

Then the string says, "Nope, I'm a frayed knot."

Again, not so funny.

We become disengaged and feel like the joke has overstayed its welcome. So we can see just how critical it is to have the right number of events in our plot, as well as ensuring we aren’t missing any critical pieces.

But what about the order of the events within your plot? Let’s take a look at what happens if we take one of the events from the end of the story and bring it to the front.

A string walks into a bar, and says, “I’m a frayed knot.” He orders a beer. The bartender says, "I'm sorry, but we don't serve strings here."

The string says again, "I'm a frayed knot."

In this example it totally falls flat because we know the answer.

And again we can see that we can very easily lose our audience’s engagement if we put just one element in the wrong place.

So we’ve tackled the question, What is plot? and we’ve looked at the two main ways in which our plot can be incredibly engaging or fall flat: which events we include and in which order.

How do we go about crafting a plot that truly engages our audience? Where do we start and what are we looking for?

Let’s start with the idea that plot is about engagement. We want our audience to be so engrossed in our story that they can’t wait to see what happens next. We want them to stick with our story to the very end. So the question then becomes, what can we do to keep them highly engaged? We need to have something to offer them, something waiting at the end of the story that they’re willing to trade their time and attention to be able to get.

I could offer to pay the audience $10 to listen to my whole story. This would certainly work as an incentive.

But there are better (and cheaper) ways. As storytellers, we need to offer the audience an answer. We need to offer them an answer to a question that they care about.

Think about it. The best stories all do one thing really well: they create a question that we’re dying to know the answer to. The only way we get to know the answer to that question is to stick around to the very end.

Our first goal in creating an engaging plot is to create a question that the audience genuinely wants to have answered. The more they care about this question, the more they’ll be wrapped up in our story.


But it’s more than simply asking a question that the viewer cares about. We then also have to structure that question and answer to really maximize its impact. As we saw with the joke above, the structure of events is massively important.

As we look to add structure to the question within our story, we need to start with a simple beginning, middle, and ending. It sounds simple, but there is a lot of complexity in really organizing a solid plot structure.

Let’s take a look at those three parts of the story; the beginning, middle, and ending, and look at each one’s role in the question and answer of our plot:

  • Beginning The start of the story’s role is to bring us into the story and set up the question. This is what we here at Muse call the “Ask.”
  • Middle The role of your story’s center is to take us on a journey from the Ask to the “Answer.” This journey is critical as it raises the stakes to a maximum, at which point the Answer is revealed.
  • Ending The last part of your story works to provide the resolution to the question. The ending starts with the Answer and then shows what happens beyond that.

It’s important at this point not to confuse the idea of beginning, middle, and ending with having to show the events in the order they chronologically occurred. Say you’re a wedding filmmaker and you create a story structure by simply showing the events in the order that they happened. Seems logical but the story very quickly becomes predictable for your audience. And predictability kills engagement.

If curiosity killed the cat, it was predictability that killed the storyteller.

Our second goal in creating an engaging plot is to create a clear beginning, middle, and ending that sets up our question and raises the stakes, before providing the resolution.

We know that plot is all about engagement. That engagement comes from creating a question in a clear beginning, middle, and ending structure. But more than that, we need to better understand the relationship between each of these three pieces of our plot. As Steven Spielberg points out, this is where many of us go wrong.

“People have forgotten how to tell a story. Stories don't have a middle or an end any more. They usually have a beginning that never stops beginning.” -- Steven Speilberg

So the other critical part to understand about plot is that there is an ideal structure. An ideal ration of beginning, middle, and ending most often makes for the strongest plots.

The ideal plot structure is 25/50/25. This ratio is the key to gaining insight into which parts of our plot are critical, and which can be forgotten.


This ratio means that 25% of the story is devoted to the beginning, 50% to the middle, and 25% to the ending. And while this ratio has some wiggle room (even some the best stories don’t strictly adhere to it), the ratio itself is far from arbitrary.

Imagine if we ignored this ratio, and 80% of our story was absorbed by the beginning. What would happen? Well, our audience would wonder where the story’s going and would become disengaged before they even got to the Ask– before they were presented a question.

Or consider if we have a story with 50% devoted to the beginning and 50% to the ending, with little to no middle. In this case, we set up the question and then give the audience the answer right away. This leaves little room in the storytelling to really pull in the audience, raise the stakes, and make them want to answer the question that the story poses. As a result, the audience feels the Answer far less, and the story fails to create an impact.

And of course the same is true of the ending. If it deviates from this ideal structure, and is, say, 70% of our story then we’ll get a question and the answer in the first 30%, and then the story just keeps going.

It would be like Matt Damon in The Martian returning home to Earth, then the movie continuing on for another hour.

Once the audience has the Answer, their appetite for that story quickly becomes sated. As the storyteller, we need to bring the story to a close shortly thereafter the Answer is presented.

So this 25/50/25 ratio, then, is a huge part of understanding plot and building out our story’s question into a strong beginning, middle, and ending. It sounds simple, but one of the greatest challenges for the storyteller is putting this into practice.

So let’s bring it all together. What is plot?

Plot is the arrangement of the events within our story.

The role of plot is to engage the audience. Storytellers do that by creating a question within the plot that the audience wants answered. We then maximize that engagement by embracing a clear beginning, middle, and ending structure with a 25/50/25 ratio.


Here are 4 tips to help you put these ideas to use right away and start crafting more engaging plots.

1. Take all of the possible events for your story and list them out. Each one of these is what we call a potential Plot Point. That means that it might be a part of your finished plot, but it also could be skipped.

If you shoot a documentary, list out all of the events you have or will cover. You can pull these from b-roll you shot and any interviews you’ve done. Or if you shoot weddings, list out all the events you know are happening and what you plan on covering.

*It’s ideal to do this before your shoot so you have room to focus on the things that are essential to your story, making you better able to cover other potential Plot Points you may not have originally thought of. However, this exercise is helpful for building a stronger plot after the shoot as well.

2. From your list of potential Plot Points, identify two critical ones: the Ask and the Answer.

Recall that the Ask is what sets up the question whereas the Answer is the resolution to the Ask.

You can often find this question within a conflict. We have a whole post on that here. For more resources on Conflict click here.

Questions are borne of conflict. Questions make us think about what happens next in the story, as in, Where will the person go from here? In the film Soar, you can see this question comes from the conflict rooted in Dave’s motorcycle accident that left him paralyzed with only 6% of his body function. Or in the Elephant Whisperer, the question comes out of the conflict rooted in Lek’s experience at age 16 in which she saw an elephant being tortured. The elephant’s screams never left her. In both cases this conflict creates a question: What are they going to do?

It’s possible to construct a very simple plot that’s still incredibly effective.

It’s possible to construct a very simple plot that’s still incredibly effective.

For a wedding film, we might be far less willing to embrace conflict. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still pose a question.

For example, the story could show the bride’s amazing reaction to a present as the Ask. That then gives the audience the question, What was this amazing present? From that Ask, we could then build a plot structure that brings us to the Answer: revealing the present. Note here that it’s extremely important to not reveal the present—or Answer—in the Ask.

It’s a simple question but it will offer engagement for your plot. The more the audience cares about the question being asked, the more they’ll be engaged and want to know the answer to the question your story poses.

3. When you have your question built out with the Ask and Answer, start adding other Plot Points to build out the 25/50/25 ratio.

Recall that the goal of the beginning is to bring us into the story and set up the question. Therefore, look for Plot Points that will bring us into the world in which this story lives. Show us Plot Points that introduce us to these characters and their surroundings.

For the middle, look for Plot Points that help the viewer go on a journey towards the Answer. The strongest Plot Points for the middle are ones that bring us closer to the Answer or set the character back. In other words, Plot Points that show challenges that the character encountered on the way to the Answer.

And for the ending, we need to start with the Answer, and then add in any Plot Points that bring us out of the story and provide a resolution.

4. Realize that you, as the storyteller, know the Answer and have the power to reveal how your audience learns it.

As storytellers, often our responsibility is to retell events that have already happened. This presents a huge challenge as the Answer is already revealed to us. We must then work to create an engaging plot that doesn’t reveal the Answer to the audience until the very end.

To really tell a strong story with events that have already happened, we have to go back and understand all of the potential Plot Points that led up the present. If you’re a commercial filmmaker, that means understanding everything that happened in the process of the product or service being created.

From there, create a plot structure that takes your audience on the journey that the person or business went on, bringing the audience to the Answer: the product.

Take a look at this Emmy-nominated short film we did for CBS for the Super Bowl last year. It’s the story of Aunt Jane, a woman from a small town who has made footballs for nearly 50 years.

Watch The Final Stitch. Add your email to join our community or just hit "Skip."

To really see these concepts in action, let’s break down the plot of The Final Stitch.

In the beginning, we bring the audience into Aunt Jane’s world by introducing you to her town and who she is. We show you what she does and give you a sense of her passion for her work. But then we hear about her big dream, the dream of wanting to go on the field one day, but why it can likely never happen.

And that’s our question, Will Aunt Jane get on the Super Bowl field? It’s rooted in her conflict of having this big but unlikely dream. She’s retiring, and has no clear way of getting on the field.

That then takes us into the middle of the story, where we learn more about the work that Aunt Jane does. As we’re brought deeper into her world we have the Plot Point that shows her coworkers having a last celebration for her at the factory. This serves the story by bringing us closer to the transition of her retirement, and the idea that her career, along with her dream, will be all over.

From here we transition from the photo taken in the factory (photos that were earlier set up as a big part of who Jane is) to her putting the photo into her album and packing to head to Arizona where the Super Bowl was to be played.

Now it’s at this point that we omitted a few potential Plot Points. Jane was going to Arizona for Wilson where she’d demonstrate how their footballs are made. This was all happening far from the stadium and was something that Jane had done several times before. We chose not to include this as a Plot Point as it felt like something the audience didn’t have to know to understand the story. And if it’s not essential, remove it. Use only Plot Points that are needed in the story.

The ending of the story is when Aunt Jane is told she’ll get to go on the field. The experience unfolds before the audience. The moment Wilson tells her this is the Answer, but the whole ending also includes her walking out onto the field and her reaction to that.

Now Jane had no idea that she was about to go on the field. Wilson had told her that she was simply being asked to do a media interview near the stadium–something that was not uncommon for her to do.

In this Ultimate Guide, we’ve learned that the primary role of plot is engagement. To create maximum engagement, we employ some best practices. Among them, we craft a simple plot structure with a beginning, middle, and ending, with a 25/50/25 ratio, respectively.

We fill out the beginning, middle, and ending of our story with Plot Points. We make sure that these Plot Points lead us on a journey from the Ask to the Answer, making sure that we only include the Plot Points that are essential to the story.

Our storytelling process, Muse, goes into all of this in greater depth, with tutorials, case studies, and practical applications. If you're curious, you can check that out here.

What have been your biggest hurdles in embracing plot in your documentary, wedding, or commercial work? Would love to hear your thoughts.