Rethinking the Plot Diagram
Generally, when we speak of a story’s plot, we mean “the sequence of events” that comprise the tale. Some will quibble about this definition, but it’s the simplest and most common understanding of the term.
And most of us remember being taught the basics of plot structure via a witch’s hat plot diagram like this:
I never liked this diagram. It does a poor job of visually representing how plots really work, particularly in terms of scale. As I review the various parts, I’ll explain what I mean.
I tend to use the more familiar term introduction, but either will work. This is the beginning of every story. It’s normally where the reader gets a sense of time and place and is introduced to at least some of the major characters — including the protagonist in most cases. The exposition is usually brief. Readers want to know soon what the whole thing is about.
The witch’s hat diagram above doesn’t include the term narrative hook, but it’s the point where exposition meets rising action. I like the name narrative hook because this is the point when the story gets interesting. It’s where the main conflict is introduced: the bad guy’s scheme to take over the world is revealed, the boy discovers he’s lost and needs to find his way home, the hero is faced with an impossible choice, etc. It’s the point in the story when the introductions are all over and we realize what the story is really all about.
Rising action reflects the sequence of events that lead from the discovery of the conflict to the conflict’s climax and resolution. What I don’t like is that the diagram doesn’t make it clear that the rising action comprises the majority of most stories. It’s everything that happens between Wilbur’s realization that he’s destined to be bacon and Charlotte’s heartrending demise. The slope should be longer. It also gives the impression that action builds steadily. In most stories there is a rising and falling of the action that builds relentlessly, but not smoothly. It’s more like a stock chart than an even incline.
There are different definitions for climax as well. Often it’s simply considered “the moment of highest interest” or “the most exciting moment” in a story. That always seems a bit too subjective for me (not that there isn’t plenty of subjectivity in all of this). I prefer to think of the climax as the moment you realize how the conflict will resolve. It’s when the photon torpedo hits home and the Death Star explodes, when final bell rings and Rocky is still standing, when the family finally returns to find Kevin has safely defended their home from a pair of dimwit robbers.
But what about Titanic? The climax certainly seems to be the final sinking of the ship, not the moment Rose realizes Jack has frozen to death, right? Which is the real climax? Well, that’s fodder for heated debate maybe, but it doesn’t really matter. There’s no right answer.
What’s certain is that the climax never occurs smack-dab in the middle of a story, like the diagram implies. It is always near the end. Why would a reader want to keep reading if the second half of the book is all downhill?
This is the stuff that happens after the climax. The problem is, most stories don’t have much in the way of falling action. Not much tends to happen after the climax as we’ve defined it. Certainly not enough to be represented by a line equal in length to the rising action.
Sometimes called denouement, from the French word for the untying of a knot, the resolution is when all the details of the story get wrapped into a neat package. Any remaining questions are answered. Plot points are all tidied up. I always think about the scene in a murder mystery when the detective explains how he solved the crime. Like the exposition, the resolution is typically brief.
When I teach plot — a concept both readers of literature and writers of fiction should be familiar with — I normally use a diagram like the one below. Rather than a witch’s hat, mine’s more like an escalator or a staircase. I include narrative hook and skip falling action. I like the idea that a story takes you someplace higher, like stairs. And I like indicating that progress from the narrative hook to the climax isn’t generally smooth and steady.
There’s no right or wrong way to illustrate a story’s plot, and there are plenty of examples of stories that defy this structure. Still, it’s surprising how many stories fit a model almost precisely like this. That’s a lesson for all you writers out there. Write to this plan, especially as you get started. Once you’ve mastered the basic plot structure, you will feel more comfortable playing around with it.
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