TO PLOT OR NOT TO PLOT: Part 7 – Defining Plot Structure

Be sure to read the first six parts of this essay:

Defining Plot Structure:

If story structure is a form of organization for a story that may or may not have a plot, what is plot structure? It’s important to note that plot structure is a type of story structure, but the two terms are not interchangeable. The most common story shape for plot structure is the Fichtean Curve (see figure 4). Talked about at length in Gardner’s book The Art of Fiction, this plot structure reflects the goal-oriented plot. In essence, the character has a goal and follows a series of three or more obstacles of increasing intensity in order to achieve that goal. The protagonist reaches an ultimate conflict called the climax and then proceeds to a resolution. This common story shape is often called the Aristotelian Story Shape. However, this may be a falsehood. Aristotle only mentioned that stories should have beginnings, middles, and ends (hence the three act structure). Aristotle had very little to say about plot structure according to author M.T. Anderson:

Structurally in terms of abstract story shape, Aristotle doesn’t really give us much of a pointer. He says ‘for every tragedy there is a complication and a denouement. By complication I mean everything from the beginning, as far as the part that immediately precedes the transformation to prosperity or affliction. And by denouement, I mean the start of the transformation to the end.’ So, it is really more of a two part thing, and he gives you no real sense of the proportion those two things should be in. It’s not actually tremendously useful.

Thus the story shape (the Fichtean curve) came later as others developed new theories of plot structure.

Another common shape is Freytag’s Pyramid, (also called Freytag’s Triangle) which many illustrate with close similarity to the Fichtean curve (see figure 5A). However, this is a distortion, and Freytag’s pyramid is actually symmetrical in its triangular form (see figure 5B), and reflects a Germanic idea of story shape (Anderson). Despite the name, this common plot-structure includes the elements of: Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and a Denouncement. It’s also very popular as Klien points out:

You can see this structure everywhere. It’s Aristotle’s Greek tragedies. It’s all six Jane Austen novels. It’s in all six Harry Potters. It’s mystery novels, romance novels, most every pop song ever written, U2, Stevie Wonder. And the reason for that is, again, catharsis: all the emotion building up through your interest in the characters and their actions, exploding at the climax, leaving you drained but renewed. (Klein, 10)

The emphasis on increasing tension and emotional involvement is perhaps why this is the most popular plot structure around, but it’s not the only option. Author, An Na comments that the possibilities for plot and story structure “are about as plentiful as ways to cook food.” Taking a look at figure 6, which shows a plethora of alternative plot structures, one will begin to see she is indeed quite right.

Alternative plot structures can be applied to both novels and stories, but they may become more popular as interactive storytelling is developed using video games, internet, and digital interfaces.

Up Next: Part 8 – Defining Narrative Structure and Conclusion

** Full Bibliography will be provided at end of blog-post series.

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3 responses to “TO PLOT OR NOT TO PLOT: Part 7 – Defining Plot Structure”

  1. authorguy says:

    How many characters are making the decisions at these decision points? Is the linearity of the story derived from the story following one character tracing one path through these nodes?

  2. Jake says:

    This is a really good series. I hereby give you positive feedback. Also, have you ever read Apathy and Other Small Victories ? Woud you please put up an analysis of that book? Either way, I really appreciate this information, I’m going to read some Virgina Woolf right away and think about her structure.

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