This Old House or Plot & Story Structures
Today’s topic of discussion is Plot and Story Structure.
As always, let’s begin at the beginning. What is plot? Well, a plot is what happens in a story, and the story structure is what helps create that framework that holds the plot in place. When I used to teach high school, I would tell my students to think of plot kind of like your house. Now, if I’m going to build a house that you’re going to recognize there are certain things that we both expect to be there – namely, four walls and a roof.
Well, plot is the same way. There are certain elements that have to exist for a plot to be recognizable, and those elements are generally created within a framework of a recognized story structure.
Plot always seems so intimidating, but that’s really all it is. It’s a framework. It’s the house. It’s the basic, rudimentary, recognizable elements that make a story a story. Otherwise, it’s just a series of random events and characters happening in some strange order with no rhyme or reason for existing at all, much less being memorable or even comprehensible. But when you have a plot that employs a story structure of some sort (and
there are several types we will get into in just a moment) that’s when you start to form something recognizable. And that recognizable thing is a story.
So, what types of things do you include in a plot? Well, this is probably familiar to you. This is the section where you dig into your high school brain, and you remember hearing some vague references and words like resolution and climax and denouement. And they all sound so high and mighty and detailed when really, it’s just the fancy way of framing beginning, middle, and end.
The beginning is when you have your exposition. You are setting the stage for your story. Then you move into the problem. Something has to go wrong, otherwise it’s just a happy-go-lucky story of people minding their business. Not really interesting, technically it’s a story, but who wants to read it?
So, from the problem, you eventually arrive at the climax. This is when the tension is at its tightest, the most is at stake, everything is on the line! How will it be resolved? Well, that’s actually the next step, the resolution. This is when you solve that monumental problem that climaxed only a few pages earlier. And then, finally, you have the denouement, or the French fancy term for “the end.”
And that, essentially, is plot. That’s also, essentially, you’re story structure. It is giving you the order of the events that make up the story.
Now, here’s where things get interesting. Most writers, sitting down at their desk or pulling their laptop out on a small table in the back of a coffee shop (though you may not be doing that a lot now with the Covid virus, but you get the idea), when you’re sitting down in your little writer’s corner or whatever space you’ve designated to get this creative work done, the first question you may think to yourself is, “okay, what is my plot? What is my story? What’s going to happen in this tale I’m going to tell?”
Well, you probably want to come up with something original, groundbreaking, maybe award winning, but that doesn’t really exist. Don’t get me wrong, you can still break ground, you can still be award winning, but NEW plots… really don’t happen.
There are several types of basic plots, and all stories fall into one of these categories. And if you can somehow avoid the preestablished plot categories then you’re really dealing with some astonishing work. But for the most part, you can take any novella, novel, short story, children’s book and it will fit into certain characteristics. There are too many of them to go into right now, but I will share some of the more popular ones.
For example, a major type of plot is a tragic plot. That’s the kind of story where your main character goes through a lot of misfortune. Sometimes they preserver and overcome it in the end, other times they don’t, but the basic plot line of the story is all of these major misfortunes the character has to suffer.
The opposite of that? Comedy. Comedic plots. This is when, you know, some improbable, ridiculous circumstance takes place, and the character has to navigate it and maneuver within these things. Sometimes it's painful. Often, it’s destructive, ergo slapstick and why it's so funny, but in the end, it's always going to be fairly lighthearted and have happy endings unlike our tragic one. One that I'm particularly fond of is the hero's journey. In fact, in a later episode we’ll dive into deep detail on the hero's journey, but the short, kind of matchbook version of it is, this is the traditional kind of fantasy. This is the Star Wars when Lucas is first approached and told that, you know, his father was a Jedi, and he could help save the galaxy. This is the lone person unequipped to face this changing and magical and powerful world but stepping up and doing it in anyway and fulfilling his destiny. A couple of others are the overcoming monsters and myth. This is the good versus evil, the battle against werewolves, Dracula, the man, kaiju, all sorts of things. And then last is also a personal favorite, the voyage and the return home. This is the plot of the Odyssey which is essentially a man just spending x number of years trying to get back home.
So, while your story may be unique, your approach to it, your characters, the things that you introduced all can be very unique and personalized to your flavor and style, the plot, end of itself, is going to fall into more conventional categories. And like I said, I didn't mention them all here. There are plenty more. You could hop over to your handy Google search and find tons of them, but the five I’ve given you here tend to be the major players within the ball game of story writing.
So, you’ve picked the plot. You have a basic idea of what you want to happen and what type of story this is going to be, but how do you set up the structure? This is when things get technical. This is when you have to work out the frame for your house. Is it going to be a one story or two story? How many windows will you have? Will it have vaulted ceilings? A flat roof? Will it have gables? No answer is wrong. It's however you choose to design it, but you need to have a plan. You have to have blueprints. So, let's look at some different blueprints you can use to build your story structure.
Tips & Tricks
Here are some different story structures you can use to create a plot outline for your story.
Used primarily for tragic stories, Freytag’s Pyramid follows the basic structure we discussed above with two major differences. Instead of exposition, problem, climax, resolution, and denouement, this design goes exposition, problem, climax, fall, and catastrophe. It rarely ends well in a tragedy.
Three Act Structure
The Three Act story structure can be used on any length of story, but it tends to work best with longer works. Instead of a single rise and fall, this plan utilizes several rises and dips in action or tension before arriving at the apex of climax and the downward slope to the denouement.
The Fichtean Curve
If you’re looking to write some high drama, fast-moving action, then this is the structure for you. The Fichtean Curve is noted for is serial use of character crisis before hitting the main event and winding down to the resolution.
The Seven Point Story Structure
This is Hero’s Journey Diet Edition. This structure is actually designed to be worked backwards in that its creator suggested that writers began at the end and plot their story in reverse. The features of this build include the expository hook, several plot and pinch points, and ends on a high note. Literally. This model is all about the drama!
The Hero’s Journey
This is the structure you use to create your epic adventure tale, but it’s not for the faint of heart. I won’t go into detail in this episode as this structure has 12 separate elements, but I will list them here. A story following this structure will begin with the establishment of the ordinary world followed by the call to adventure and a refusal of the call. Then comes the meeting of the mentor, the crossing the threshold into the new world, trials and tests, approach to the inmost cave, the ordeal, and the reward. From there, the story starts its close with the road home, the resurrection, and the return with the elixir.
Like I said, the Hero’s Journey is a LOT. Come back and we will discuss this in a future episode.
Now, let’s put our pens where are words are and put what we’ve learned into practice!
Here is your bi-weekly Wordsmith Challenge!
Let’s do a simple plot outline. As a series of short sentences and bullet points, identify the narrative arc of your story. Where does the rising action start? What is the climax? What is the falling action? Do you already know the resolution, or is that something you have yet to work out? Once you’ve identified the narrative arc of your story and turned it into an outline, you can email it to email@example.com. The best outlines will be highlighted in a future episode and on the website!
Oh! And before I forget, let’s take a look at one of our past episode superstars! This week’s star writer goes to Chi for his story opening submission.
“No, there were no two ways about it. In two hours’, time, John Talbot was going to die.”
Immediately captivating. It piques our curiosity and leaves us wanting to read more. An excellent opening line. Well done, Chi. This is some A+ work!
Next week, we will highlight the best of the story closings and outlines. To see the best of the Show Don’t Tell entries, check it out on the website, aslewisbooks.com
And remember, if you participate in the challenge and submit your work, you could be our next superstar writer!
And if you don’t want to share your work, that’s okay too. The important thing is that you’re writing and trying something new. That’s how writing gets better! Even if you hate what you wrote, the practice will pay off.
Keep writing and remember… Everything’s All Write!