December 4, 2011

All About Plot!

Plots! I love plots. To me, a story is all about the action and tension involved, both emotionally and physically. Yet, a lot of people don't really understand what plot is or what makes a good one. So, I decided to turn my attention to the basic idea of plot, starting with the definition (thank you Webster's!).

"Plot: In fiction, the story of a play, novel, romance, or poem, comprising a complication of incidents which are gradually unfolded, sometimes by unexpected means."

So, what does that mean? Basically, plot is the story - what happens to the characters, how they respond, how that leads to more action and why it is all important. However, plot can get a little bit more complicated than this.

The most common plot format is Freytag's plot structure, which is divided into five sections: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.

The exposition is the section where all the characters are introduced, their relationships to one another are defined and their personal emotions are teased out. Next comes the rising action, where the characters begin to struggle against one another and the protagonist begins to move towards his or her goal while over coming smaller obstacles. During the climax, the turning point of the story is introduced. The main character makes a single huge decision that not only defines his or her character, but also shapes the rest of the action in the story. Usually the protagonist and antagonist have direct, or nearly direct, contact which results in a line being firmly drawn. In the fourth phase, falling action, the line is still drawn, but it almost always seems as though evil is winning. This when a story will have the most tension because the main character is fighting huge odds and falling short. Finally, in the resolution, the protagonist and antagonist meet and the story comes to a decisive end, with either good or evil winning. 

Think of almost every story you've ever read or watched and it will most likely follow this basic format. Take The Lion King for example:
1. Exposition - Scar, Muffasa's rival and brother, decides that he wants to be king.
2. Rising Action - Scar begins to chase down Muffasa and plot to kill him. 
3. Climax - Scar kills Muffasa, but Simba lives on. 
4. Falling Action - Simba decides to face Scar and fight for the throne. 
5. Resolution - Simba successfully defeats Scar and becomes the king. 

While this style is hugely popular, there are some stories that break this mold and play with plot in very interesting ways. Here are two examples:

1. Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett

To be honest, I actually didn't love this play, but the plot is very interesting to study because nothing happens. The entire story is about two character's waiting for a third to appear. While it is sometimes funny, the plot is completely stagnant. There is no action, and that in itself is what I found intriguing about this book. 

2. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

While seemingly a series of short stories, Invisible Cities is really a novel - just one that has been disguised by its unique plot structure. The basic idea is that explorer Marco Polo is describing his travels to Kublai Khan, and the narrative switches between descriptions of the 55 cities and the conversation of Polo and Khan. Calvino is a master of lyrical descriptions and prose poems, which was my favorite aspect of the book. 

I've seen plot played with in other interesting ways too. One format is to start the story with the ending and relive it backwards, totally flipping Freytag's pyramid. Or, you can jump in time so the first chapter is the beginning, the second chapter is the end, until you reach the end of the novel and the two timelines meet in the middle. The sky really is the limit. 

What kinds of crazy plot structures have you read or written? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

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