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2. Plot and structure
2.1 What is plot?
Plot is essentially the causal sequence of events that move the story from beginning to end. It’s the what of your story (as in ‘what happens’), but it also covers the why that moves your characters from point A to point B.
If an author writes, “The king died and then the queen died,” that’s not a plot – it’s just unfortunate. But “The king died and then the queen died of grief”, now that’s a plot. You’ve got causation: a sequence of events, characters that are affected by those events, emotional stakes, empathy and that certain something that makes you want to know more. So plot powers the story and keeps a reader moving in the story.
2.2 What powers the plot?
How do you find your plot? Well, if you know what your main character desires, then you’ve got your plot. What will she do to get their desire? Who or what stands in her way? How will she act when deprived of her desire? When she gets it, will it be all that she thought it would be? In your plot is the series of actions required and the complications that must be overcome for your character to attain her objective or desire.
If your story seems to be going off-track and losing momentum, then come back to the question: ‘What does my main character want?’ Let that be your guiding light.
2.3 Elements of plot
Exposition: This is the beginning of the story, where the author introduces the everyday – and the essential information the reader needs to understand the story, e.g. setting, main characters, the inciting incident (i.e. the thing that breaks and changes the everyday for the main character and sets them off on their journey).
Rising action: The series of escalations/complications that move the story forward, giving more information to the reader and increasing the tension. This series of complications and conflicts make life difficult for your main character.
Climax: The highest point of tension in the story, where all the problems and complications come to a head – and the characters solve the major issue of conflict. This often leads the reader to wonder ‘What will happen? How is everything going to turn out?’ The climax is an important turning point for the characters or the story.
Falling action: The events leading to the resolution and end of the story. This is where things slow down and all the plot and sub-plots begin to resolve – the murderer is unmasked, the family is reunited, the mysteries are solved. This leads to the end of the story and the resolution.
Denouement: The end of the story and the untangling of all story problems. This is the resolution of the main story question/mystery.
2.4 Activity: The shape of story
This activity will be familiar to those of you who have come from QWC’s Fundamentals of Creative Writing. Stories can be represented as graphs: on the horizontal axis is time and on the vertical is the relative tension of the story.
This exercise will help teach you how to plan the basic frame work of a story, which can be returned to whenever you feel you have lost your way and need a reminder of the overall shape and aim of your work.
WHAT TO DO:
In addition to being one of the most celebrated American authors of the last fifty years, Kurt Vonnegut was also awarded a PhD in anthropology for his work observing universal patterns of storytelling across languages and cultures. In the video in the link below, Vonnegut takes some of that knowledge of shaping stories and applies it to a few narratives you might recognise. He uses a slightly different vertical axis to us, but you get the idea.
Now, taking the basic principle presented in this video, make a plan for a story (write no more than 100 words to correspond to each of the four elements of plot detailed above):
- In the exposition: the protagonist (main character) and objective (desire)
- In the rising action: a confrontation/complication (what is in their way?)
Then, see if you can create your own plot graph like Vonnegut’s. How might your character overcome obstacles and how will it make them feel?
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2.5 Scaling Plot Mountain
Vonnegut placed his story curves on a vertical axis of fortune (bad to good). A more common way to visualise plot is to look at how the tension of a story rises and falls over time.
Each of the five elements of plot (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, denoument) can be placed on a ‘tension’ graph.
The simplest structure is known as a Mountain Plot. Common in literary novels and stories, it can often have a number of mini-climatic moments as well as a consistent rising action.
The mountain plot structure has a long history in narrative and forms the basis of many classics, and can be mapped particularly well to fairy stories. Taking a cue from Vonnegut, let’s consider how this structure applies to Little Red Riding Hood:
Exposition: There’s a little girl who lives with her parents, has a red hood and has a granny living in the woods.
Rising action: Granny is sick, Red is to deliver a basket of goodies. She gets a warning from mum: don’t stray from the path. She strays from path (of course – without this there is no story). She meets the wolf and makes a wager. The wolf gets to granny’s house first and eats poor granny.
Climax: Red arrives and has a confrontation with the wolf: Oh what big ears, etc, you have. He eats her.
Falling action/resolution: All seems lost, but yay! A passing huntsman hears the noise, bursts in and kills the wolf, somehow magically rescuing the ladies in the process. And Red learns never to stray from the path ever again.4
The mountain plot is a broad way of thinking about how the tension in your story works. It is the first stage of thinking about your story as a reading experience: what do you want the reader to feel at any given moment?
Now, we begin to break this broader structure into smaller units that will help you pace your story.
2.6 The three-act structure
One common structure, especially in theatre and film, is the three-act structure. It takes the five elements of plot and groups them in a way that helps you determine the pacing and flow of your story.
Act One: Establishes the everyday (exposition), then breaks it (inciting incident) and moves along (rising action) to plot point one (the big pivotal moment where your main character is forced to act).
Act Two: Further rising action via a series of escalations, a midpoint twist, then more complications. This act ends at plot point two (a confrontation), which is very close to the climax. It is often a reversal of fortune for your main character, which gives them a chance to overcome the obstacle through the experiences/lessons they’ve learnt in the first part of the story.
Act Three: Climax and falling action/resolution.
Traditional plays are overtly broken down into three acts and feature films, especially early on, followed suit. Pre-digital feature films that required reel changes divided stories into three roughly even ‘reels’, corresponding to acts in a play.
The below diagram goes into this three act structure in a bit more detail with the elements of plot and the mountain shape overlaid:
We’ve mentioned ‘plot points’ above. Plot points are moments when the story changes irrevocably. The majority of the story is not necessarily about finishing the quest but about restoring the balance the character had, the life the character had before the inciting incident and plots points one and two. The thing is: your character can’t ever go back, either because of internal character changes or changes in the world around them. Even when Bilbo returns to Bag End at the end of The Hobbit, he’s been irrevocably changed by what he’s experienced in his story.
Another way to think about plot points is comparing them to ‘changing gears’: the point at which a story noticeably shifts up or down in intensity is likely a plot point. It may also frequently correspond to a change in act: a major change of scene or gap in the story’s elapsed time.
The point of this structure is that it moves your story forward, to get you thinking about that rising tension. It helps your characters escalate the stakes and take greater risks. It pushes and develops and challenges your characters so we can see them under pressure, develop empathy for them or start to hate them, see them fall and be redeemed. This is what engages a reader and keeps them moving/reading.
2.7 Activity: Identifying plot points
The best way to think about changes between acts is to compare it to a car changing gears. When the intensity of the story noticeably shifts up coinciding with a change of scene, it’s likely the act has also changed.
- Choose a movie or a play you know well
- Choose a novel you know well
- Now start to break down the plot of each. What happens? Make a list of significant events or changes in intensity in the story
- Now look at your list
Do either conform to a standard three-act structure? Can you determine where the story changes gears?
For example: the film version of Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) written by Christine Olsen applies a clean three-act structure to Doris Pilkington’s memoir.
- The girls Molly, Gracie and Daisy try in vain to escape from the police tasked with removing them from their family.
- The girls are taken to a boarding house where they are schooled in the ways of white Australia and discouraged from continuing their traditions and language.
- They escape the boarding house and follow the eponymous fence, using it as a guide to get home.
Depending on your choice of story, this activity may not be such an easy task. Plot points don’t always come neatly labelled and many writers deliberately play around with structures to make their stories more dynamic and unpredictable.
It’s worth remembering that such shifts can be subtle and are often subjective.
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2.7 A fourth act
In prose narratives, especially in long forms such as novels, the three-act structure is not as ‘baked in’ as in plays or films. Novelists and long-form non-fiction writers tend to play a little more with the structure allowing for a more satisfying four-act structure which includes a midpoint twist in act two. This midway point of act two (a big event, which is a plot point of its own) subjects your main character to a new set of changes and makes them learn/develop in a different direction to their original path. While adding in more plot points makes your story a little more complex, it allows you finer control over the pacing and tension so you can avoid that dreaded drop in tension so common in the middle of a novel.
The award-winning Queensland short story writer and novelist, Angela Slatter, formalised this structure in the following diagram:
|1st Quarter||… something happens that makes protag accept the call||2nd Quarter||… the protag makes significant breakthroughs that contain the seeds of the third act||3rd Quarter||… there is a major setback or significant loss to the protag||4th Quarter||… if you’re writing a sequel you must leave a worrying story thread dangling.|
|Set up the everyday & then the incident that breaks the everyday.Protagonist spends time trying to avoid the‘call to action’.||Learning to navigate the new world and its rules. Protag runs into problems and must deal with consequences.||This chapter sets up new issues but they are solved by the protag’s new knowledge or skills. Maybe she gets cocky and over-confident.||The action here reflects back on how things were at first to show how things have changed.Then they win!|
|But then…||But then…||But then…||But then…|
2.8 Other structures
The Episodic Plot most closely resembles real life, with its endless series of largely unconnected adventures. This is a great way to explore the atmosphere of a particularly era, or the personalities of your characters. Similar to a diary or a series of letters, it cuts out the ‘boring’ bits of life.
An example of an episodic plot is The Family Law by Benjamin Law. A number of chapters from this book are republished from standalone pieces Ben had previously published. These pieces were sequenced and added to in order to create a memoir that has an episodic feel to it. Not surprisingly, the book has now been made into a television series with season two set to air in 2017.
The Hero’s Journey describes a typical adventure of an archetype known as the Hero. This character is thrust from their everyday into a quest. On this quest the hero achieves great deeds and makes many sacrifices on behalf of themselves, the group, or their civilisation. This is an ancient story pattern that can be found in texts depicting myths and legends from thousands of years ago. Closely related to the three-act structure, the hero’s journey is more prescriptive and detailed:
1. The call to adventure: The hero is introduced sympathetically to the reader so they can identify with their situation and their background. Something shakes up the situation (either external or something rising from within the character) so the hero must try to face the change. At first they try to turn away from the adventure (at least for a brief moment) before finally accepting the call.
2. Journey through an unfamiliar world: At the end of the first act the hero commits to leaving the ordinary world and meets with obstacles and creates new allies.
3. Supreme ordeal: Near the middle of the narrative the hero reaches their destination, confronts death or faces their greatest fear. Out of this experiences comes a new beginning or understanding.
4. Reward: The hero takes possession of the treasure won by facing their ordeal, there may be celebration, but there is also danger of losing the treasure again or not making it back in time with the required reward.
5. Return and reintegration: At the climax the hero is severely tested on the threshold of their home (or goal) and is purified by the final sacrifice, finding them on a higher and more complete level. The hero may return home or continue the journey, but in any case they have been irrevocably transformed.
2.9 Activity: Plot and structure
While a solid plot is important, you need to make sure that you are using the best plot for the type of story you are trying to tell. This exercise will help teach you how to play with your stories structure and analyse what type of plot will give you the best fit. This exercise will also give you some practise at the more wily structures.
WHAT TO DO:
Do you have a story you’re working on right now?
Chances are, if you’re doing this course, you’ve already thought of some stories and are likely working on a story right now. It might long or short form, it might be a poem or a screenplay, it might be a complete draft or a vague idea waiting for you to put together.
Whatever its current form or state, make a list of the story’s events: a sentence or a dot point for each event you have planned.
Can you see a structure forming? Does it look like any of the structures we have covered above? If not, can you apply one or another structure? What are the plot points that change the story’s tension? Do you need to consider rearranging your story?
Do you not have a story you’re working on right now?
That’s okay. Not everyone comes at this course with something ready to go. In this case, we’d like you to do a different activity.
Make a list of some of the major events of your past year. I know ‘major event’ is a relative term, but everyone has events that hold meaning for them every year. Make a list of those events, just a sentence or a dot point per event.
If you were to turn that list into a plan for an episodic story, what changes could you make? Which events would make better ‘episodes’? Could you group separate events into one? Could you rearrange events to make a broader story work better?
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The story structures we have already explored are a good way for a writer to get control over how a story should unfold and in particular how to manipulate the tension, excitement, or engagement for the reader over its duration. Another way to think about this is pacing.
A story with constant high points can be exhausting.
A story that intersperses its high points with ‘resting places’ is a better read because it gives the reader (and the main character) places to breathe and reflect. In essence, the lulls in pace for the reader/character draw them into a false sense of security and allows what comes after the ‘resting place’ to have more of an impact.
2.11 What is Pacing?
Pacing is how quickly (or slowly) your story moves. As the creator of a narrative, you get to control time: how quickly it passes and how quickly it seems to pass for your readers. At the macro level, this is affected by your choice of structure and how well it fits the story you want to tell. But pace is also affected by the choices you make for individual scenes.
2.12 Description and sentence length
As a rule of thumb, too much description will slow things down, as will too many words. Long sentences slow the pace, but shorter, sharper sentences pick up the pace and make it easier to establish a rhythm for the reader.
Remember, the whole point of your story is to move the reader to the end, so everything needs to be essential to the telling of the tale.
If you’re writing a novel, you will need to craft your words to create the lulls between the storms (by the addition of descriptions etc). These lulls are a great place for characters to discover information that is important for them to move onto the next stage of their journey.
We’ll talk more about it later, but dialogue can be a great way of manipulating the pace of your story, breaking out of the heads of your characters and having them interact with each other.
It is a double-edged sword, though. Not just any old dialogue will do.
For dialogue to lift the pace and tension of your work, it should get to the point immediately. No introductions or explanations. That’s what you narrator is for, if they’re necessary at all.
Dialogue can similarly provide a breather from the action, giving you an opportunity to demonstrate your character’s nature in their own voice.
Watch out for any dialogue that turns introspective or drifts into waffly explanation. Your characters are talking to each other, not to your reader.
That’s not to say long-winded character navel-gazing can’t work, but keeping your reader engaged and interested in long-winded character navel-gazing is a tricky thing to pull off, even for the most experienced writer, and even then it must be balanced with a close eye on the story’s pace.
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2.14 Finding the starting point
Now you have several different structures to play with, the next skill to turn your attention to is how to start your story.
Without a strong hook to draw the reader in, you are lost. How to start a story depends in part on its length:
- Short-form stories tend to start in media res (in the middle of the action). Start in the middle of the action (at a point of crisis, choice, or consequence). Because short stories are short, you don’t have the luxury of a big lead up or giving the character’s back story in its entirety. When starting a shorter story it is not about starting at the beginning of the character’s journey, but at the most accessible, immediate and exciting point in the sequence of events. This grabs the reader’s attention, keeps the pace moving, and focuses on the most important part of the story.
- Long-form stories are better suited to start ab ovo (from the egg). Starting with the everyday means that, when you break it with the inciting incident, we have a frame of reference for what life was like before. The right approach for starting long-form stories, though, depends on the overall structure that ensues.
These are not hard and fast rules, of course. Finding the right opening scene, paragraph, sentence, and words will be unique to the story you want to tell and the voice through which you tell it.
Those first lines and first paragraphs are some of the most important sentences you will write in your story. They are what set the tone for the rest of your piece, and are the reader hook. If your introduction does not ignite interest, then your readers are lost before you’ve have had a chance. This is your one shot at captivating a reader, to spark their interest, so it’s worth investing some time.
A first line may introduce a character; it can drop you in the middle of action and excitement; it can be a grand observation that frames the narrative; it can be a hint of what’s to come in the story.
It’s not, however, something that will necessarily be obvious in your first draft, or maybe even your second, third or fourth. Writers frequently experiment with different approaches to their stories’ opening over the course of writing and re-writing.
If you’re unsatisfied with your opening lines, don’t let them bog you down. Sometimes they might be the last thing you write before your story is finished.
2.9 Example: great opening lines
“Have you anything more to confess, my son?”
–Michael Noonan, The December Boys
Harry Joy was to die three times, but it was his first death which was to have the greatest effect on him, and it is this death which we shall now witness.
–Peter Carey, Bliss
Aristotle said that if you hold your farts in you die.
–John Birmingham, The Tasmanian Babes Fiasco
2.10 Example: great opening paragraphs
It was drowsy in school that afternoon. We woke up only when the teacher stopped talking and went out on to the verandah to speak to a boy who had ridden up on a bicycle. Those who could see from the back seats said it was young Paton, who worked in the brickfields near the station. Young Paton, Josie’s brother! There was a buzz of whispering, a scuffle among the class standing round the blackboard, all wanting to get a look out the window. No one was tall enough without standing on the teacher’s chair.
–Vance Palmer, Josie
(Note: example of foreboding, as Josie is dead)
2.11 Activity: But first
The aim of this activity is to give you practise at creating a specific atmosphere and igniting interest in a minimal number of words.
WHAT TO DO
- Write five first sentences that give the reader a main character, an action, a seed of conflict and a hint of emotion. (50 words or less for each)
- Write one first paragraph that gives the reader a main character, an action, a seed of conflict and a hint of emotion based on your best first sentence. (150 words or less)
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