Let’s talk about Star Wars: A New Hope. Not just because it’s awesome, but because it’s a really straightforward example of general plotting with which about 99% of people in the industrialized world will be familiar.
The very basic plot of Star Wars is this: Luke Skywalker, farm-boy, joins the fight against the evil Galactic Empire and becomes a hero of the Rebellion.
Pretty simple. However, as in real life, it’s not a straight, uninterrupted line between the beginning and the end — there are many, many bumps in the road, helper characters he has to meet, little twists that push him along, etc. I tend to refer to all of these as “plot milestones,” so I’m going to keep that terminology for the sake of consistency. A plot milestone is simply a point that needs to be reached before the next stage of your plot can begin to unfold. Let’s go back to Star Wars for a moment…
PLOT MILESTONE 1: Leia hides plans in R2-D2; droids escape to Tatooine
PM2: droids purchased by Lars family; Luke introduced
PM3: Luke finds message from Leia; R2 escapes looking for Ben Kenobi, with Luke and C3PO in pursuit.
As you can see, plot milestones don’t have to be huge, dramatic events. In many cases, they’re fairly simple events that just enable your main character to continue on their journey — or in the examples above, introduce them to their journey. If you’ve ever gone on a long road trip by car, think of plot milestones as gas stations/petrol stations. If you don’t hit those stops when you need to, you’re going to end up stranded on the side of the road.
Setting up Your Milestones
Some writers outline everything before they even start. They know all of their key milestones and sometimes even how many pages it will take to reach them. There’s really no absolute way to do it — like any creative endeavor, it’s more about personal preference rather than right or wrong.
However, there are also ways to make the writing process easier on yourself and enable you to produce more without spending so much time staring at a blank screen wondering where to go next. I’m speaking from experience here.
Know at least your next three plot milestones. Even if you’re not sure where you’re going after the third one, by the time you’ve actually written enough story to hit all three milestones, you should have a solid idea of what the next step should be. Again, I should stress that these milestones do not have to be major dramatic events. Maybe one milestone is just buying a pair of battered old droids. Maybe another is hiring some scruffy-looking nerf herder to take you to Alderaan. But then maybe one is watching your mentor cut down by an asthmatic space samurai. The important aspect of a plot milestone is that it propels the plot forward. If the next stage of your plot can occur without hitting the milestone you’re working toward, then I’m sorry to say you are not working toward a plot milestone. Let’s return to that galaxy far, far away once more and ask ourselves if the story of A New Hope can actually continue without the following milestones:
Lars family purchases the droids, Luke finds message from Leia
Ben Kenobi talks to Luke about the Force and asks him to go to Alderaan
Owen and Beru Lars killed by Stormtroopers
The answer, of course, is no. Each milestone noted above propels the story of Luke Skywalker forward toward the next. It’s the same later on in the movie, where the capture of the Millenium Falcon propels the heroes toward the milestone of rescuing the Princess, which in turn propels the plot toward the Darth Vader/Obi-Wan Kenobi confrontation.
Applying your Milestones
The ideas discussed here can be applied to essentially any kind of writing — novels, short stories, screenplays, role-playing games, etc.
If you’re writing fiction, you already know how your story starts and, presumably, have a solid idea of how it ends. I would assume you have also mapped out a couple of key turning points or the story’s crisis. So let’s say you have your beginning, one turning point, the crisis and the end. What you have to do now is ask yourself what milestones you need to hit in order to progress from your beginning to your first turning point. There may be two, three, ten, or twenty — it all depends on your plot — but thinking about the steps you need to take to get yourself and your audience to that turning point should help immensely in your plotting.
If you’re writing for a PBEM or forum-based role-playing game, you can approach it a little differently. Since you’re not solely responsible for the plot, you can look at your post as a self-contained unit. How does your post start? How do you want it to end? What two, three or seven milestones need to occur in order for you to get from where you started to where you want to end?
Aside from helping propel your plot forward, using the milestone approach breaks your plot down into easily handled chunks. If you’re working on a long project, it’s easy to get down about how little you’ve written compared to how long you expect the finished product to be, but by setting up your milestones, at the end of the week instead of saying “man, I only wrote twelve pages this week!” you’ll be saying “Awesome, I hit FOUR milestones this week!”
Again, as with any article on creative endeavors, this is just one perspective… but it’s one that has worked quite well for me.
Now go hit some milestones.
(Written by: Lt Colonel David Whale)