The following is a version of the lecture on how to plot a story that I gave versions of every year at Viable Paradise from 2008 to 2013, to one each Clarion and Clarion West classes, and also once at Odyssey.
I’m retiring it now and putting it here, where it can serve both as resource material for future incoming VP classes and as an example of the sort of thing we talk about while we’re there.
This lecture assumes that the reader has some basic competence with narrative, and is familiar with the basic idea of three-act structure and how it works. It then attempts to present some tricks for writing one successfully. And also talks about some other stuff. As one does.
There will be spoilers for the movies Casablanca, Unforgiven, and Die Hard, and for the original Star Wars trilogy. The newest of those is over twenty years old. You’re not allowed to complain.
There will also be badly photographed hand-drawn images scrawled in my notebook. I thought it would be whimsical, but I think the final effect was something more like “duct-tape bodywork.”
THIRTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING AT A NARRATIVE
By the end of this essay, I expect I will have ruined Hollywood movies for you forever. The good news is, you can have the fun of explaining to your friends exactly how they’re going to end after the first act, and you’ll have pretty good odds of being right.
I will also have taught you how to produce a working plot for a short story every single time, without fail. This is not the only way to structure a plot, and we’ll talk about some of those others in passing.
But it is a tool that will always work, once you know how to apply it, and you can hang all kinds of special effects on it to make it fancy.
1) In the beginning, there was Aristotle.
Aristotle, who made the radical discovery that stories should have protasis, epitasis, and catastrophe. Or as we would say these days: a beginning, a middle, and an end.
I know! It seems self-evident. A matter of common sense, even. But it turns out that like displacement, the heliocentric model, and the idea that the brain is the center of the emotions, some things are only evident once somebody points them out.
Here’s what he had to say, from Poetics: (S. H. Butler translation):
Now, according to our definition Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is complete, and whole, and of a certain magnitude; for there may be a whole that is wanting in magnitude. A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end. A beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be. An end, on the contrary, is that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity, or as a rule, but has nothing following it. A middle is that which follows something as some other thing follows it. A well constructed plot, therefore, must neither begin nor end at haphazard, but conform to these principles.
He also had a heck of a lot of stuff to say about the unity of action and place and time, and other things that only concern us these days when we choose to concern ourselves with them, though they can certainly be used as tools when a writer decides to do so. One radical thing he does say is this, however: Unity of plot does not, as some persons think, consist in the unity of the hero.
In other words, a plot is not the same thing as what we, now, would call a Bildungsroman–that is to say, a fictional biography. It can be a piece of a person’s life, united by action, place, and time. Or what we, with the benefit of an additional 2400 years of dramaturgy, would just call “a story.”
He had a few nasty things to say about Series Of Unfortunate Events as a plot structure, as well. If I may translate into the vernacular, basically: “It ain’t.”
Here’s what Aristotle’s plot looks like, as described by a simple geometric shape.
2) Horace splits hairs.
Aristotle’s plot structure seems to have largely held sway as the dominant Classical modality for some three hundred years**. I’m sure there were slapfights over it. There are always slapfights. It will take someone more educated in the classics than I to tell you if any such slapfights have survived.
Then Horace decided (rather prescriptively, it seems to me) that a play should have five acts, “no more and no less,” and as it was written, well, so it was done.
3) Oh, those wacky Elizabethans
Meanwhile, off in the Germanic-speaking portions of the world (including the bit that would eventually evolve and Creolize into the English-speaking one) other stuff was going on. Romans came and Romans went and as you know if you’ve read period literature, not a whole lot of attention was paid by the indigenes to the conqueror’s narrative formalisms****.
Suddenly, in the 1500’s, the five-act structure suddenly caught on again among Tudor dramatists. You may know their names: Jonson, Marlowe, Nash, Kyd, Shakespeare. That lot.
Well, because it’s a tremendously powerful and flexible tool. It provides tension and resolution, opportunities for character growth, for triumph and tragedy–basically, it keeps your audience interested.
It turns out that’s a valuable property in an entertainment when your competition is bear-baiting across the way, and you’re performing on an open stage in front of a short-tempered audience armed with plenty of rotten fruit and well-lubricated with pottles of ale.
Here’s a picture of how the five-act structure works.
4) Freytag is a little misleading.
In 1863, Gustav Freytag codified the five-act structure with the diagram usually referred to as “Freytag’s Pyramid.” I didn’t draw you one, so here’s a link to Wikipedia.
Kind of makes it look like the falling action is as long as the rising action, doesn’t it? And like exposition is a thing that happens in its own block, set off from the actual story. And like there’s some difference between falling action and denouement….
5) Hybrid vigor
How did the modern three-act structure evolve from the Elizabethan five-act structure? I don’t honestly know, and a very cursory examination of Wikipedia fails to enlighten me. My English Criticism classes were a long, long time ago, and it’ll be good for you to Google it.
Maybe it has something to do with commercial breaks.
Suffice it to say, it did evolve. And what we have now is a wonderful hybrid of Aristotelian and Shakespearean models.
Which we’ll come back to in a moment.
5) But I digress.
Now, as I said, modern three-act structure is not the only way to structure a plot. And in many cases, it may not even be the most appropriate.
It’s safe, because once you learn it it’s unlikely to fail, and even if you break it the failure modes are rarely catastrophic and often easily yanked back into shape. Now, safety is not the soul of art, and if you’re not falling off you’re not climbing hard enough (after all, that’s what the ropes are for), but sometimes you want your risks to be somewhere else other than your plot structure.
We learn by experimenting. We learn by failing. I encourage apprentice writers to try out all of these plot structures, and figure out what they’re good for. And then go out and discover all the other ones********, because what I present here is just a sampling.
Dare to suck.
6) Wheels within wheels
One way to establish theme is through repetition, parallels, and situations that reinforce, comment on, and critique each other. This is a plot structure common in literary stories, where the game is different than it is in genre stories*****.
This is often called the “circular” plot structure. I personally prefer the term spiral structure, because “circular” suggests that the same thing happens over and over again exactly, but really, what happens is that there are thematic repetitions of events. It’s almost balladic in a way–we keep coming back to a refrain. And it is common in literary stories.
Doesn’t mean you can’t use it in genre stories, though. The early seasons of the television show Criminal Minds combine four different plot structures: each episode is a discrete five-act structure*********, the character arcs follow an epic structure (see below), the seasons follow an integrated episode structure (also see below), and the thematic structure is this spiral, with repetitions and variations on a theme.
Narrative tension in this form is often generated through personal development or withheld information. There is conflict, but it may not be structured in the familiar rising action to a climax with which we are familiar from television and the pulps.
Adaptation is a movie structured in this fashion, about a guy trying to turn a novel structured in this fashion into a Hollywood blockbuster with a three-act structure.
Heat (the 1995 Michael Mann crime drama with Pacino and De Niro) gets its thematic impact this way. It tells the stories of a number of relationships in parallel, and in every relationship one character is presented with the opportunity to keep or to break faith with the other. The fate of these characters reflects which decision they each make.
Karen Joy Fowler’s brilliant 2013 novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is structured in this fashion.
Unforgiven also gets its thematic imapct in part from this technique. It uses the mythic structure in which every character in it is a reflection of the protagonist (or, more properly, antihero), Clint Eastwood’s character William Muny.**********
It’s often a thematically useful trick to allow the antagonist to reflect or mirror or subvert certain qualities of the protagonist. These may not always be positive ones–a good antagonist has positive qualities as well. If she’s ambitious when the protagonist is feckless, so much the better.
Unforgiven is particularly useful to us because it also gets its thematic impact via a more traditional three-act structure tactic, and we’ll be back to that.
(Livejournal feels that this post is too large, so SEE NEXT ROCK and SEE FINAL ROCK for the remainder of it.)