Writing Fiction: The Scott Meredith /Algis Budrys’ Plot Skeleton
I’m posting this here as research notes so that anyone can find what I took hours to dig up.
The reason we want to study formulas and “skeletons” is to train our unconscious mind better on what we need in order to crank out decent, salable genre fiction. Once you have this internalized, then your stories will flow more simply.
Scott Meredith (not the author) was an agent who got his claim to fame in finding authors for the pulp fiction magazines. He developed a nice scam of getting newbie authors to pay him to read their stories. He then hired others (James Blish was one of them) to write rejection letters to them, giving “helpful” advice about how to improve their stories. Those writers got about a tenth of the money paid and were paid by their production. Those writers were expected to read (at least skim) the book. His agency is still working today, although I doubt they use this reading system any longer.
I ran into D. W. Smith crediting Meredith for a “plot skeleton”, which had seven points. Unfortunately, and as you’ll see, the versions run from four to five to seven. Aldis Budrys’ plot skeleton that he teaches today is closest to what Smith teaches. I haven’t found the Budrys/Meredith connection (yet.)
Creators of Science Fiction – Brian Stableford, pg 112
“…commonly-quoted versions still to the original four: a sympathetic protagonist; an urgent problem; complications caused by initial failure to solve the problem; and a solution by means of the protagonist’s heroic efforts.”
The Science of Science-fiction Writing – James E. Gunn, pg 19
“Damon Knight, however, worked for Scott Meredith and includes what he calls ‘the plot skeleton’ in his Writer’s Digest book “Creating Short Fiction.” I offer it below:
1. a believable and sympathetic central character;
2. his urgent and difficult problem;
3. his attempts to resolve the problem, which fail and make his situation more desperate;
4. the crisis, his last chance to win;
5. the successful resolution, brought about by means of the central character’s own courage, ingenuity, etc.
Knight continues: ‘The reverse of this plot is the story in which the central character is the villain; the story ends with his defeat rather than with his victory.'”
The Sociology of Science Fiction – Brian M. Stableford, pg 39
“1. A sympathetic and believable lead character;
2. an urgent and vital problem;
3. complications caused by the lead character’s unsuccessful attempts to solve the problem;
4. the crisis;
5. the resolution, in which the lead character solves the problem by means of his own courage and resourcefulness.”
The Seven Point Plot Skeleton www.sffchronicles.com/threads/10092
The Seven Point Plot came up in another thread, where it elicited some interest and questions. I just knew I had it filed away somewhere, and since Kathy has a fair few questions to wade through before she’ll have the time to explain it further, I finally summoned up the energy for a search through my files.
And, in fact, I found three different versions.
The first one seems to be attributed to the late Scott Meredith, a very high- profile literary agent in his time, but there is a question mark after his name, and I have no idea why I put it there. So here is what Scott Meredith (or someone) had to say:
a protagonist (1) has a problem (2) and endeavors to solve it (3)
but meets with difficulties (4) whereupon he learns something (5)
which enables him to make another attempt (6)
leading to a resolution (7)
The second version is from Algis Budrys (and is probably the one recommended here by K. D. Wentworth):
(1) a character (2) in context (3) with a problem
(4)which the character tries to solve
(5) only to experience unexpected failure
(6) followed by either victory or defeat, leaving a need for (7) validation
Version number three is entitled “The Seven Basic Steps of Human Action” by John Truby (according to a quick search at Google, he teaches screenwriting):
1) a problem or need affecting the hero
2) desire (what the hero wants)
3) an opponent (someone competing for the same goal as the protagonist)
4) a plan (for overcoming the opponent and achieving success)
5) battle (a final conflict which determines which of them attains the goal
6) self-revelation (a fundamental understanding the hero gains, which in some way fulfills the original need)
7) a new equilibrium (the conflict resolved, the world goes on, but with the hero at a higher or lower point than before)
Science-fiction Studies, Vol 18, Issue 1, page 38
“The most succinct statement of the Scott Meredith Plot Skeleton I’ve yet seen is Damon Knight’s ‘You gotta have a hero, and the hero’s gotta win.'”
One good model for story structure (taught to me by Bruce Holland Rogers) is Algis Budrys’s seven point story structure. It has:
- a character,
- in a situation,
- with a problem,
- who tries repeatedly to solve his problem,
- but repeatedly fails, (usually making the problem worse),
- then, at the climax of the story, makes a final attempt (which might either succeed or fail, depending on the kind of story it is), after which
- the result is “validated” in a way that makes it clear that what we saw was, in fact, the final result.
Another good one (taught to me by Steven Barnes) is Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey:
- The hero is confronted with a challenge,
- rejects it,
- but then is forced (or allowed) to accept it.
- He travels on the road of trials,
- gathering powers and allies, and
- confronts evil—only to be defeated.
- This leads to a dark night of the soul, after which
- the hero makes a leap of faith that allows him to confront evil again and be victorious.
- Finally, the student becomes the teacher.
Flash Fiction Online
Bruce Holland Rogers guest posting:
“(T)he theory first described by Scott Meredith and later taught by Algis Budrys, (goes) something like this: A character in a context has a problem that she tries three time(s) to solve, failing each time, at which point the character either has an insight, changes her approach, and succeeds or refuses the insight, tries the same thing she has tried before, and is destroyed.”
This last description aligns Campbell with Lester Dent, and makes it possible to write short stories with the whole Heroes Journey in it.
D. W. Smith credits mostly Scott Meredith, but you’ll see that he actually uses Aldis Budrys. Smith credits Budrys here with the first three points. (https://www.deanwesleysmith.com/how-to-write-fiction-sales-copy-chapter-three/) and says to use those to hook readers with your sales copy.
As a sidebar: D. W. Smith’s take on how agents and corporate publishers created our current mess, leaving them ripe for disruption – https://www.deanwesleysmith.com/the-new-world-of-publishing-why-bad-agent-information-gets-taught/
Compared to Lester Dent Model, All Together Now…
You have to also compare this to the Lester Dent model. The seven-points are there, with the character-setting-problem in the first section, then three try-fails, with the third winding up as the crisis and resolution. Budreys’ use of the “validation” is given more emphasis by Smith as a way to end stories. You are essentially telling a person that it’s OK to close the book now. See his lectures on Endings for more explanation. (He also has lectures on Lester Dent model.)
Act I: FIRST 1500 WORDS – The hero is confronted with a challenge, rejects it, but then is forced (or allowed) to accept it.
1–First line, or as near thereto as possible, introduce the hero and swat him with a fistful of trouble. Hint at a mystery, a menace or a problem to be solved–something the hero has to cope with.
2–The hero pitches in to cope with his fistful of trouble. (He tries to fathom the mystery, defeat the menace, or solve the problem.)
3–Introduce ALL the other characters as soon as possible. Bring them on in action.
4–Hero’s endeavors land him in an actual physical conflict near the end of the first 1500 words.
5–Near the end of first 1500 words, there is a complete surprise twist in the plot development.
Act IIa: SECOND 1500 WORDS – He travels on the road of trials, gathering powers and allies,
1–Shovel more grief onto the hero.
2–Hero, being heroic, struggles, and his struggles lead up to:
3–Another physical conflict.
4–A surprising plot twist to end the 1500 words.
Act IIb: THIRD 1500 WORDS – …and confronts evil—only to be defeated.
1–Shovel the grief onto the hero.
2–Hero makes some headway, and corners the villain or somebody in:
3–A physical conflict.
4–A surprising plot twist, in which the hero preferably gets it in the neck bad, to end the 1500 words.
Act III: FOURTH 1500 WORDS – This leads to a dark night of the soul, after which the hero makes a leap of faith that allows him to confront evil again and be victorious. Finally, the student becomes the teacher.
1–Shovel the difficulties more thickly upon the hero.
2–Get the hero almost buried in his troubles. (Figuratively, the villain has him prisoner and has him framed for a murder rap; the girl is presumably dead, everything is lost, and the DIFFERENT murder method is about to dispose of the suffering protagonist.)
3–The hero extricates himself using HIS OWN SKILL, training or brawn.
4–The mysteries remaining–one big one held over to this point will help grip interest—are cleared up in course of final conflict as hero takes the situation in hand.
5–Final twist, a big surprise, (This can be the villain turning out to be the unexpected person, having the “Treasure” be a dud, etc.)
6–The snapper, the punch line to end it. (Validation.)
You now can see how Budrys, Dent, and Campbell all align. Dent has three try-fails, as does Campbell, and the last one becoming the climax. During the above, you can see an evolution of the main character having to evolve (learn) through the story.
This is why beginning authors should study plotting until it is coming out of their ears – and then throw it all away. Use what works for you and your readers most appreciate. You’ll be able to tell by the sales.
And if you like what you just read:
Also published on Medium.