The Art of Plotting

“The Art of Plotting: Add Emotion, Suspense, and Depth to your Screenplay” by Linda J. Cowgill.

Back Stage Books. New York, New York. 2008. 192 pages.

ISBN-13: 978-58065-070-0 ISBN-10: 1-58065-070-8 Amazon: US $13.57


Linda Cowgill has written films for Paramount, Warner Brothers, Universal, MGM and several small independents. She also has television credits – her first job was junior screenwriter for “The Incredible Hulk”.

Following the birth of her daughter she moved from writing to teaching, running seminars and workshops at the American Film Institute, the Kennedy Centre in Washington, D.C., the Boston Film Institute, Loyola Marymount University, IFP Miami and NALIP. She currently heads the Screenwriting Department at the Los Angeles Film School.

Her first book, “Secrets of Screenplay Structure”, was published in 1999; her second, “Writing Short Films”, in 2005. “The Art of Plotting” is her latest work, and it offers “…insight into key issues in plot design and construction: how to put your information together to make your story more powerful and important to your audience”.


The Oxford Dictionary definition of “plot” is “the interrelationship of the main events in a play, novel, film etc”. To Cowgill, this definition is barely adequate. For her, plotting is all about emotion.

“Emotion,” she says, “has always been a part of the screenwriting lexicon; it just hasn’t been explained well.” It is not as easy to discuss as actions, obstacles and complications. It involves an understanding of human natures and basic psychology. Emotion connects with the audience and makes the audience react. Good writers, according to Cowgill, know how they want their audience to react.

Emotion has always been a part of the screenwriting lexicon;
it just hasn’t been explained well.

Generally we don’t see films for intellectual ideas – we go for the excitement, suspense and laughs. The emotion we generate helps us connect with other people. We may not experience all the protagonist’s highs and lows directly, but with other viewers we share the protagonist’s emotional experiences vicariously. The way the characters react ultimately conveys meaning to the audience.


She begins with the basic definition of drama – a character who wants something and takes action against obstacles to attain this want. This leads to conflict, but conflict is not as important as the meaning of conflict. Scenes that show conflict, but not the result of the conflict, fail to fully connect emotionally with the audience. Therefore plotting must involve the structuring of the action and the reaction of the characters to achieve the intended emotional effect.

Professional scripts are based on strong, simple story lines that feel complex because they are so well developed. Amateur scripts tend to be overplotted in terms of action and underplotted in terms of character.

There is an old cliché that says character is revealed through action. Cowgill extends this idea, suggesting characters are revealed through action and emotional reaction. She gives the example of “Erin Brockovich”, who in Act I is desperate, angry, defensive and alienated. She is a victim and does not like being a victim. In Act II she is vulnerable and depressed as well as angry, but by Act III, when she is needed and validated, she rediscovers her inner confidence and succeeds. The emotional plotting of “Erin Brockovich” is a great example of successful screenwriting.

Many writers don’t truly understand
what conflict means to their stories,
so they don’t use it effectively.

Characters develop through conflict. According to Cowgill, “Many writers don’t truly understand what conflict means to their stories, so they don’t use it effectively. They either dissipate the tension by relegating the conflict to the background or pump it up gratuitously into meaningless violence. Conflict isn’t some arbitrary device used simply to create tension to hook the audience. It is an essential ingredient for a great film.”

Her examination of conflict leads to the principles of action or, more precisely, the principles of action and reaction. This is the basis of plotting – cause and effect. One scene leads to another, dramatising the hero’s pursuit of his goal. The old rule, “show, don’t tell” should be altered to “dramatise, don’t tell”, according to Cowgill.


The relationship between the scenes is intensified by rising conflict, and Cowgill shows a simple way to ensure a plot has rising conflict. She suggests a table that breaks down each scene to show whether the outcome of the scene is positive, negative or neutral (denoted by +, – and 0). She demonstrates her tables using “Jaws” and “American Beauty” and noted there are more failures and setbacks (-) than positive outcomes, particularly in Acts I and II. This simple method of plotting rising conflict and tension is an excellent screenwriting tool and one of the most useful devises in the entire book.

In the chapter, “The Tools of Plotting”, Cowgill examines complications, reversals, revelations and expositional tools. A short chapter on structure, which basically outlines the sequence method, follows. Then “The Real Art of Plotting” takes all Cowgill’s theories to a deeper level.

Finally she offers a chapter on common problems in plot construction, with subheadings including, “Scripts Overplotted in Action”, “Signs of Overplotting”, “The Exposition Isn’t Tracking” and “Understanding When the Audience Knows What”.


“The Art of Plotting” offers something that most other screenwriting books overlook – the role of emotion in the audience’s experience of the film. This is the major point of difference. It is an excellent book and is highly recommended.

– Jack Brislee

Jack Brislee is a business broker and property developer by day and a screenwriter by night.
He has written 12 scripts, one in pre-production in the
UK and one in pre-production in South Africa.

He collects and dissects books on screenwriting.

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