Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Classic Plot Structure

The traditional structure of a story begins with an introduction, an inciting event where the protagonist encounters a conflict, followed by the rising action where the conflict builds. This rise leads to the climax of the story and ends with a short denouement and resolution. Sounds easy enough, right? In fact, for experienced writers, it probably sounds so easy that it seems boring and something that should be avoided. After all, modern literature pushes the boundaries of storytelling. Writers jump through time and space. They layer stories over stories. The highest forms of literature are character driven, forcing plot to the backseat. While I agree with all that, I have come to firmly believe that the classic plot structure is something that is ultimately the most engaging form for the reader.

Think about anytime a person tells you a story about anything. Think about what you expect from them in that story. At least for me, I want to be set up. I want to know the situation and the stakes. I want to know how significant the event was. And, I want to be told the best part last, because after I know that, I'll be ready to move on.

My car recently caught on fire. A thirty-two-year-old gangster, who was thankfully arrested, started it by throwing a lit match into the gas tank. It happened on Tuesday around 4 pm. I had just parked in front of a Ralph's grocery store. My refrigerator was empty so I needed some vegetables and salad dressing to make lunch for myself.

Do those last details just sort of fade out into the abyss of insignificance? Or, if you're looking really hard to admire it, maybe it just drips with irony that the beginning of the adventure was so boring, barely even worth mentioning. Either way, there is a feeling that this story has been told in the wrong way.We don't want to be let down at the end.

I should say that the climax of the story doesn't have to be the point when the most dramatic action has to take place. But, it has to be the most moving part of the story, whether that part is grounded in action, insight, or emotion. The story above could still be saved as long as, say, something even more powerful is found at the end. Maybe a line like, "It was the best day of my life." Suddenly, we have the feeling that the teller knows how to tell the story. He has put something interesting at the end for us. He has given us insight into the character, into the (emotional) conflict and into the character's unconscious desire.

I recently taught a short writing class with students who were all very experienced. In my first class, I discussed the classic plot structure and I gave them an assignment that I thought would be simple. Come up with twenty stories in a week. Don't worry about developing characters. Don't worry about details or voice or language or even grammar. Just write twenty stories that follow this classical structure. My goal was to have the students internalize the form. I figured if this way of thinking could be at the forefront of a writer's mind, then and only then will they be successful in using that structure to make something more complex. The results the following week were that almost everyone was mad at me for assigning something so difficult. Only two or three students finished it. But, they all thanked me and said it was a lesson worth learning, something they thought they understood but didn't.

See also this post.


  1. You're right. It's probably easy as pie for experienced writers to follow this classic form, and that it's actually rather difficult for most people.

    This is actually something that I feel my first novel suffers from. I told myself that life doesn't always happen in a rising-action-to-climax-then-resolution fashion, so I didn't write it that way. There are periods of time where my characters are just living life, waiting for an event to drive them back into action. While this is realistic, I will agree with you that it doesn't make for the most appetizing story.

    I have dwelt long and hard on whether I should rewrite my plot and subsequently several chapters in my book just to deal with this lag. It might be worth it. I'm tempted to just set the novel to the side and call it a learning experience, then apply all that I've learned toward a new novel. This plot problem is far from the only reason to set it aside. The real question is: at what point is a novel unsalvageable?

  2. Anette,
    Here's my opinion on whether or not a book is unsalvageable: It's never unsalvageable. BUT, revision is difficult and taxing on us writers. The question I always asked myself whenever I was feeling down on my book was, Is it easier to write a new one or to finish revising this current one? That always reminded me of how hard the beginning of the writing was, and I'd be able to revise. I've made big changes in my book. I cut it down from 80,000 words to 50,000 words and then built it back up a bit. I bet even if you rearranged your book, you would still end up keeping most of it, but maybe just moving scenes from chapter to chapter. Or, you could distill it and just keep what is still working for you and make a story out of that. If you put your heart in it, then it is worth saving in one form or another.

  3. Davin, That sounds like a great assignment you gave your students. I can't imagine doing it well. It would really stretch what is comfortable. I am reading these posts because I am at a point where I need to focus on plot in a new project (I want to do this at the onset this time). Thanks for writing such useful posts! And thanks to Scott for linking to it.


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