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Hole-y Plots, Batman!

Over the course of my musical direction this past year I have had the pleasure of working on shows that I know well, as well as a couple that I didn’t. But one thing is for certain - you never truly know a show well until you have worked on it.

And once you have worked on a show, it becomes ingrained in you somehow. A piece of your life. A window into a specific period of time or a specific mindset. Perhaps it changed you somehow. Perhaps it was just a great time. Or perhaps it was a less positive experience. And all of this is wonderful and valid, but it’s also not what I’m going to be focusing on today.

Today I come bearing a question. At the end of the day what is more important: an airtight plot, or to move the audience?

Several of the musicals I have worked on in my life have brought me to ask this question, but I have been thinking about this yet again this year. Of the three shows I MDed this school year, 2 of them had “hole-y plots,” yet both seemed to give some sort of emotional satisfaction to the audience. And the other was absolutely airtight in plot, but was ultimately more entertaining than moving.

So which is more important? And can we have both?


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I Am The Very Model

There are a few accepted standard models of structure for theatrical storytelling, which can tell you a great deal about the characters, their journeys, and plot movement on the whole. For this reason, I am a firm believer that everyone who works in the theatre should be aware of these models, be able recognize the patterns, and therefore know how to break the rules when necessary.

3 Act Structure

This one is fairly straightforward.

Your play or musical is divided into 3 similar-length acts, where Act I and Act II occur before intermission (or become “Act 1”) and Act III occurs after intermission (“Act 2”).

  • Act I - Introduction to the world, all main characters, and the major “want” of the protagonist. At the end of this act, something changes and the protagonist’s goal shifts or the stakes become raised.

  • Act II - Introduction to B-plot characters (often comic relief) and the protagonist moves toward their main goal with speed and/or great determination. At the end of this act - right before the intermission - the protagonist reaches a point of no return.

  • Act III - After a lighthearted opening (usually from B-plot characters), the protagonist must find a way out of the bind they’ve most assuredly gotten themselves into, and find their way back to a new normal, hopefully with their goals completed. Plus a big closing number or final moment, of course.

Most of the early musical theatre canon follows this model. Sometimes Act III is broken into two “Mini-Acts” with a big comedy moment dividing it in half, but it’s not always necessary or appropriate to the story to do this.

This structure is a very comfortable and satisfying general model, though there is a slightly more specific and nuanced version that exists as well…

5 Act Structure

This time the show is divided into 5 shorter, but still similar-length, acts where Act I, Act II, and Act III take place before intermission (“Act 1”) and Act IV and Act V take place after intermission (“Act 2”).

  • Act I - Introduction to the world, all main characters, and the major “want” of the protagonist. At the end of this act, something changes and the protagonist’s goal shifts or the stakes become raised.

  • Act II - Introduction to B-plot characters (often comic relief) and the protagonist begins making advances toward their new goal. There is often a little more time and calculation than action, but by the end of this act a major decision has been made.

  • Act III - The protagonist now moves toward their main goal with speed and/or great determination. At the end of this act - right before the intermission - the protagonist reaches a point of no return.

  • Act IV - After a lighthearted opening (usually from B-plot characters), the protagonist usually has the opportunity to revel in their successes thus far. Then things begin to go wrong and spiral quickly, leading to the greatest low-point at the end of this act.

  • Act V - This act generally opens with the biggest moment of comedy or fun in the entire show (ie. the gravediggers in Hamlet, or “Officer Krupke” in West Side Story). After this, the protagonist must find a way out of their troubles and make their way back to a new normal, hopefully with their goals completed. Plus that big ‘ole closing number.

Personally, I find this model a little more informational and satisfying (even just to read through), but both of these models create excellent general guidelines for writers as they craft their shows.

Now, of course writers are not bound to these models, but they are extremely useful tools to refer back to, both in the outlining and major editing phases. And more importantly, if you can track every character’s journey through this model, there is a far greater likelihood that major plot holes will be fixed.

Okay, so yes, these models are all about creating an airtight plot. And there are even more specific models that you can use if you really need structural guidelines when writing out a story (aka “The Hero’s Journey”). But what about the emotional arc of the piece?

These models actually lend themselves quite well to inserting a satisfying emotional rollercoaster, but they don’t really specify what those high and low points should be. So…what should they be?


Sometimes I’m Down, Sometimes I’m Up

Emotional arc is a bit more nebulous to speak about - there is much less of a “set guideline” to follow.

However! There are some general universal truths that we all seem to acknowledge as human beings who love good storytelling. And if these emotional moments are hit correctly, the satisfaction of the journey can often overshadow a story’s shortcomings.

Here are some general truths that seem fairly well agreed upon:

  1. The stakes must constantly be raised. We all love a good story - successful or tragic - but we have a tendency to lose interest if the stakes don’t get higher the further into the story we go. Often this means that everything gets messier and more complicated, but sometimes it’s more about the personal importance of the goals to the protagonist. Either way, by the time intermission lights come up, the stakes should either be, or feel like, life or death.

  2. Pacing should never slow. Generally, you have the most “playtime” at the beginning of a show to introduce the world and characters before the action really begins to take off. But once it has taken off, the pacing of the main action should never get slower than it was previously. Notice that it’s the main action that doesn’t slow - B-plots and moments of fun/rest are almost always welcome (particularly in musicals). But then immediately - back to the action!

  3. Grab us at the top. The opening of a show should bring the audience directly into the world and lives of the characters, and you don’t have a lot of time to make this happen. I’ve heard a rule said that plays have ~20 minutes to pull us in and musical have ~10 minutes. By the end of that time, you should have us prepped and ready to follow wherever the show may lead.

  4. Benchmarks of conflict. The structural models above build in these moments at the end of each act, but there can certainly be more. The most important thing to note here is that the audience never wants a protagonist’s journey to bee too easy. Stories are all about conflict, and we want to watch people overcome the tremendous obstacles that have been thrown in their way. It’s also a great way to give the audience signposts as to where exactly in the main journey we are, and how far is left to go.

  5. Moments of rest. Audiences need these. Non-stop action can work okay in a movie, but it’s far more taxing in a piece of theatre. These moments of rest should come directly after the largest moments of conflict in the main story, and are generally most satisfying when they involve side characters. Rest moments do not need to be comedic, but audiences do love a good “ha ha”!

  6. The point of no return should force us to come back to our seats for Act 2. This moment in the story must be so compelling that the audience has no choice but to return for the end of the show. Preferably, it’s also a moment that’s energizing and gets a little bit of buzz from the audience as they stretch, run to the restroom, or hit the concessions line.

  7. The biggest rest/laugh moment should be halfway through Act 2. I’m not exactly sure why it’s as satisfying as it is, but it really works. Directly after the protagonist hits their absolute lowest moment in their story, the next moment of rest should be an absolute delight. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but it does tend to work particularly well.

  8. The final moment is everything. Openings are great. Act 1 closers are great. Comedic songs are great. 11 o’clock numbers are great. Everything when well done is great. BUT, the final moment of a show can make it or break it. A perfect final moment can erase a lot of less perfect things from earlier in the show. And an incorrect final moment can leave an audience confused, upset, or downright angry. So…no pressure there, eh?

So why do I even point all of this out?

Well, as I said earlier, 2 of the shows I worked on this year had major plot holes in them. But what I didn’t say is that the audience didn’t seem to care because the emotional journey was satisfying.

Personally, I find this odd. But then again, as a writer and performer, I’m always looking for the airtight plot. I certainly want it as an audience member, but I also look for it because I empathize with the writers and performers as I watch a piece. And I’m sure most theatre professionals do the same.

But many shows seem to prove time and time again that, if the emotional journey is satisfying, then who is to say that the show doesn’t work? After all, at the end of the day, box office is king.


Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off

I think that what I have learned in this journey of analysis is that it all comes down to personal taste.

Sure, an airtight plot and a satisfying emotional journey would be fantastic, but that’s extremely difficult to create time and time again. And we haven’t even mentioned how the other production elements (Direction, Sound, Lights, Orchestration, Cast, Scenery, Choreography, Musical Direction, etc.) can alter the feel and journey of the show. A show may work well in one production, but completely flop in another.

What I do know is that story is conflict and we enjoy watching characters struggle, overcome, and either succeed or fail spectacularly. Isn’t that ultimately why we go to the theatre?

So, my takeaway? Tell stories and make art and, hopefully, you’ll occasionally strike some gold. Go forth!