Plot and structure in fiction often seem to be talked about interchangeably. Which is understandable enough, since most theories of plot or drama provide, with varying degrees of detail, some kind of a framework of milestones and incidents to hang your story on. Here, though, I’m going to draw a distinction between the two.
As a quick google will confirm, there’s any number of theories of plot and drama in fiction, varying in their degree of monomania or complex expression of obsessive compulsive disorder from things like Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth or Hero’s Journey and Vladimir Propp’s less catchily named “Morphology of the Folk Tale”, through Christopher Booker’s Seven Basic Plots to the OCD granddaddy of them all, George’s Polti’s 36 Dramatic Situations – to which someone has even added a 37th and which are divided into subcategories totaling somewhere over three hundred and fifty situations.
As has been pointed out elsewhere, you can pretty much pick a number between 1 and 100 and you’ll probably find someone arguing for that number of archetypal plots.
So does that mean they’re all bullshit? Of course not. But their value depends on how you approach them.
If you treat any of them as The Rules for plotting stories, then you’re going to put unnecessary strictures around your writing, and it’ll probably be worse off for it. The very fact that there’s so many competing claims is a fairly strong indicator that none of them can claim to be ‘The Rules’.
If, on the other hand, you treat them as tools, then you can use them to analyse your stories and find reasons why things aren’t quite clicking, identify opportunities to add conflict and tension to your stories, or find a story to build around your latest flash of inspiration that you don’t quite know what to do with.
For example,maybe you have an awesome idea for a character, but no story for them to prance about in – flip through Polti’s
36 37 350+ Dramatic Situations (say) until you find something that strikes your interest. Assign your awesome character a role in that situation and get started.
Or, perhaps you have a finished story, with a coherently constructed sequence of events all the way from the beginning to the end, but it’s flat – look up Propp’s Morphology (for instance) and see if any elements jump out at you that would fit into your story and give it that extra bit of excitement or tension or closure that it’s lacking.
Easy peasy. Right?
…and a skeleton to hang it on
Of course, even having a plot for your story won’t necessarily help you to get the pacing and sequence of events right that’ll make your story really work. If that ain’t coming together, what you might need is structure.
Feature films – Hollywood films in particular – tend to have a fairly strict underlying structure. Fellow CSFG member Chris Andrews pointed this out at one our group’s meetings. He’s got it charted at his website – which is worth a look.
If you lay the chart over the top of a big Hollywood movie, like Star Wars, for example (the original cinematic release of the original movie, that is) it comes out something like this:
- The hero is in their normal life (Luke is on the farm. Of course, the movie starts with a humungous spaceship shooting at a little spaceship and Stormtroopers and a princess and robots and Darth Vader and my fragile, impressionable brain exploding when my Dad took me to see it at the cinema for my fifth birthday, but Luke’s story starts on the farm.)
- 10% of running time – someone states the theme of the story (In Star Wars, the theme is evidently spoken in Jawa language after the Jawas shoot R2-D2. Hmm… “Beyza beyza! Oohoo!” as an overarching theme would explain the prequels, anyway.)
- 10-15 mins in – inciting incident that sets in motion the events that will end the hero’s normality (R2D2 runs away)
- 25% of running time – end of normality and end of the Beginning (Luke’s aunt and uncle are murdered)
- ‘Fun and games’ (the Mos Eisley cantina, Han shoots first, escape from Tatooine, blindfold lightsabre practice – because when is that not a good idea?)
- The hero is looking backwards, up until the midpoint, wishing to escape their problems and return to their lost normality.
- 50% of running time – the midpoint, things get serious (The heroes discover the planet Alderaan has been blown up)
- After the midpoint, the hero starts looking forward, and accepts what they must do to confront and overcome the obstacles preventing their return to normality.
- The ‘all is lost’ moment (The heroes are stuck in the Death Star trash compactor)
- ‘The Darkest Hour’ (Obi-Wan is killed)
- 75% – false victory or a defeat for the hero and end of the Middle (The heroes escape the Death Star with a tracking device aboard)
- Planning the final battle (Planning the final battle)
- The final battle (Luke blows up the Death Star)
- 100% – the hero has returned to normality or has achieved a new normality (Luke gets a medal)
This structure maps pretty well, although more loosely, to novels, too. Try overlaying Chris’s chart onto most doorstop fantasy novels, especially Book One in any given series, and see what you find.
Does this mean I’m saying that all fantasy novels are formulaic storytelling? Of course not. That’s not to say that a lot of genre fiction (any genre) isn’t formulaic. It most certainly is. But the best examples make use of the archetypes and structural formulas, and rise above them – they create something amazing on top of those foundations. George RR Martin delights in subverting his readers’ narrative expectations, but he can do so successfully because he understands what the archetypes and formulas are. Neil Gaiman can pull off an apparently rambling novel like American Gods because underneath the surface it has a really strong, meticulously timed act structure.
At first glance, this movie/novel structure doesn’t map so well to short stories. But, if you keep in mind that most plot-driven short stories are going to start – at the earliest – at the inciting incident and often somewhere after the hero’s normality has ended, then the same structure often does start to emerge.
Short stories tend to drop the reader in the middle of the action. They can end pretty much anywhere after that, without necessarily going all the way to the ‘end’. Bits of the structure can be skipped over, or compressed, or combined (an all is lost-darkest hour-false victory, for example). Even if the whole structure is visible, the balance of beginning-middle-end is likely to be something more like 15-70-15 than 25-50-25 – and the story’s still not likely to start before the inciting incident.
But short stories are often built on this kind of structure. More to the point, it’s a structure that works for short stories, as well as for novels and for movies. As with plot archetypes, I don’t think this structure should be treated as The Rule. (Tools, not Rules!)
But whether you want to call it a rule or not, if your story’s not coming together – again, just like with plot archetypes – this structure is a useful analytical tool. At worst, by planning your story around it or laying it over the story you’ve written, you’re likely to find opportunities to make your story tighter and stronger.
Of course, then you need to fill in the structure with the right details. Starting at the Beginning.