Easy as 1,2,3 . . . or The Simplest Plot in All of Fiction

Adron J. Smitley
7 min readFeb 6, 2021

A story should only be as long or short as it needs to be to: 1. Introduce the conflict, 2. Complicate the conflict, and 3. Resolve the conflict.

Beginning, Middle, and End.

Act 1, Act 2, and Act 3.

This is The Simplest Plot in all of fiction. It applies to every story ever told, and all other plots are built upon this tried and true story foundation because it’s solid and it works.

There are variations, yes, such as rearranging the provided sequence if a writer employs the technique of telling their story in reverse order or out of sequence for surprising effect, but for 99.9% of stories this most basic plot stands as is.

You have to learn to crawl before you can walk, and mastering The Simplest Plot is that fundamental learning process.

For the moment, forget about intricate subplots and surprising twists and complicated whatnots and instead consider the true beauty of The Simplest Plot. The three-panel comic strip is a shining example because it’s story in its most basic form, and it is built upon this unchanged foundation to perfect comedic effect, providing the joke of three parts.

1. Set-up.

2. Punchline.

3. Response.

Ingenuity flourishes and thrives in its simplicity. This is why Tic Tac Toe has been around for over 3,000 years, or why every child loves playing Tag with their friends, or why Rock-Paper-Scissors has and will continue to persist through the ages.

So what’s my point, and how do you apply it?

Keep your hair on, I’m getting to it.

The easiest way to plot your unwritten story is to use The Simplest Plot.

Three and only three modest yet powerfully descriptive sentences (though I suggest you also read my blog ‘One Simple Statement . . . or why Or Else is a Must!’ then employ its method alongside this one for best results).

If you can summarize your whole story in three concise sentences, each encapsulating what their entire Act is about at its core when everything else of lesser value is removed, then you’ll achieve firmest grasp on what your story is really all about and never be led astray while writing it.

This also provides you an easy way of discovering if your story is worth telling before you spend months (or god forbid years) writing it, as well it requires only minutes of your time to produce.

Do you have a fascinating idea you’re considering turning into an entire novel?

Grab a pen and some paper and write it down, then make it one of the three sentences and muse for a time on the other two, all depending on where you place that first special sentence.

Plant the seed of your idea, water it then allow it to grow.

Make a list of everything that comes to mind, go through it, circle the ones you like, cross out the ones you don’t. Now fill in your remaining two sentences and read them over.

Arrange and rearrange them.

Have fun.

Be creative!

This is one of the most enjoyable parts of writing because it’s your imagination unchained, and with no consequences involved but for minutes of your time and some good ol’ free thinking.

And here’s the real kicker: each of the three sentences serves a specific purpose while also connecting to the other Acts because they play off one another. They are, after all, a part of the same story.

For example, let us say you have a great idea you’ve pared down into one special sentence, and you then place it into Sentence One just to see what happens. Guess what? Sentence Three practically writes itself because story is about change and Sentence One and Sentence Three are mirror opposites to prove that change. If your protagonist starts your story (Act 1 sentence) weak and cowardly, then have them finish it strong and courageous (Act 3 sentence). Same applies if you place your one special sentence into Sentence Three only in reverse.

And if you place it into Sentence Two?

Sentence Two is the tough little bugger, but it also signifies your weak and cowardly protagonist’s slow process of change to strong and brave. Ergo: the Midpoint. Figure out how and why they got there from Sentence One, then figure out where and how they end up (Sentence Three) because of Sentence Two.

As well, what drives your protagonist during Act 1 is their Precious Want . . . or what they believe will make them happy. And this Precious Want is established by the Inciting Incident.

Sentence Two, or the Midpoint, signifies your protagonist’s first glimpse of their Essential Need . . . or what will truly make them happy (though the reader gets a hint of this missing requirement of protagonist character growth sometime during Act 1, usually spoken by another character in an off-handed comment to the protagonist who ignores or grasps zero meaning of it at the time). The conundrum of Act 2 is that their Precious Want and their Essential Need are in conflict, and for the confusing moment they believe they can have both.

Typically the protagonist clings to their Precious Want while also trying to gain their Essential Need (which is why the first half of Act 2 is an upward spiral of progress and fortune, while the second half of Act 2 is a downward spiral of regression and misfortune; the two halves are opposites separated by the defining Midpoint), then during the All Is Lost (or the protagonist’s lowest point thus far in the story, round 75% in) they lose the possibility of both.

But while they mire in despair and question all the bad things that happened and all because of them, the enlightening thunderjolt of epiphany strikes them that their Precious Want is nothing compared to their Essential Need so that they abandon their Precious Want for their Essential Need, (finalizing that last moment of inner change before harnessing it outward), then they enter Act 3, or Sentence Three, driven by obtaining their Essential Need at all costs and against impossible odds . . . and then, well, this part is individual to the author and which ending you prefer for your protagonist and their particular story.

1. they obtain their Essential Need, and because of it they also obtain their Precious Want but in a new and surprising though logical way (protagonist wins/antagonist loses).

2. they obtain their Essential Need but not their Precious Want, realizing that Precious Want as nothing by comparison and no longer wanted (protagonist wins/antagonist loses).

3. they fail to achieve either and are doomed in tragedy (antagonist wins/protagonist loses).

You can also think of it this way:

What motivates your protagonist into action (instigated by the Inciting Incident)? This is Act 1, or their Precious Want, and obtaining it is what drives them into and through the first half of Act 2.

During the Midpoint of Act 2 they glimpse their Essential Need, which is in conflict with their Precious Want, but they either don’t know it yet or refuse to admit it and so strive to obtain both, which in turn causes them, as well their allies, all sorts of compounding problems during the second half of Act 2.

And after the antagonist seemingly wins during the All Is Lost, what motivates your protagonist into action at the end of Act 2? The realization that their Essential Need is oh so more important than their Precious Want no longer precious. Obtaining their Essential Need, or dying trying, is what Act 3 is all about.

And understand this: the defining difference between protagonist and antagonist is that the protagonist eventually abandons their Precious Want for their Essential Need through betterment of character change, while the stubborn and steadfast antagonist refuses this same change and overcommits to their Precious Want at the detriment of their Essential Need. This vital difference between them is why the protagonist wins and the antagonist loses. They don’t have to be after the same Precious Want, though sometimes they can be (such as rivals competing for the same prize), because the point is that the protagonist accepts change and reaps the rewards while the antagonist refuses change and suffers the consequences.

It’s not only the hard-learned lesson to your protagonist, but also the moral message of your story to the reader. “Be like my protagonist and you’ll live happily ever after. But be like my antagonist and you’ll pay the price. The proof is in the pudding, and that pudding is my story. Num Num!”

Basically the universal axiom of every story ever told is, “You reap what you sow.” The difference being that as the author you apply your unique twist on it.

But we’re getting well and far ahead of ourselves, so let’s doubleback to The Simplest Plot.

Maybe you discover several versions revolving round your first special sentence and cannot decide which is best.

Perfect!

Now that you’ve worked your one special sentence into several possible stories of three, call up or over some friends and tell them your three-sentence stories then ask them which one intrigues them the most. Or better yet ask them if they had to pick one to watch as a movie, which would it be. Or even better tell them your first two sentences then hold pause overlong . . . and if they edge their seats while gripping their thighs and asking, “Okay, so then what happens? How does it end? Don’t leave us hanging! I’LL KILL YOU!” then you know you’ve got yourself a real humdinger of a story worth writing.

We writers tend to overthink and overcomplicate pretty much everything. It’s in our nature and part of who we are.

So relax, and don’t.

Instead use The Simplest Plot. Toy with it, fondle it, allow it to whisper sweet nothings in your ear, then put a ring on it, promise it a wedding you can’t afford and children you don’t want, lie to it when it gains 30 pounds and asks you if its favorite pants from high school makes it look fat, and eventually master it. Only then should you move on to adding all your intricate subplots and surprising twists and complicated whatnots.

Because a story should only be as long or short as it needs to be to: 1. Introduce the conflict, 2. Complicate the conflict, and 3. Resolve the conflict.

Beginning, Middle, and End.

Act 1: Precious Want

Act 2: Precious Want vs. Essential Need

Act 3: Essential Need

The Simplest Plot in all of fiction.

Wield it well and you’ll never be led astray while writing again.

Happy writing!

How to Make Writing Your Novel as Easy as Punching Babies! Amazon: $2.99 digital, $4.99 paperback, or FREE with Kindle Unlimited!

--

--

Adron J. Smitley

Blog for writers on everything plot, character, and story structure architecture at: adronjsmitley.blogspot.com