Saturday, December 20, 2014

A Few Notes on the Plot Diagram

For Book a Month (née Book a Week), I review all sorts of books. Some are fictional whereas others are not. Some are deep literary ponders and others are pure escapism. Some are handbooks, field guides, or entire theories. I also post from time to time about my writing, which ranges from fiction to journalism. In the books I read and the stories I write, I do my very best to look at something different every time. One reason I do that is because I like variety. Another is plot. I could read a different fictional storytelling-style novel every month, and write one just like all of them every couple years, but where would that get me?

That isn't a rhetorical question. I'm about to answer it by referencing a very special little picture that's been reproduced millions of times.

A defining feature of elementary school language arts classes in North America is the plot diagram. There's a good chance you've seen it. It looks like this:

There's a good reason it's taught so widely and is such a valuable tool for teaching children how stories work. It's because it's how the vast majority of stories actually do work. There is an opening ("Exposition" here, which I find clunky as a term), a trigger event (the obtuse angle separating "Exposition" and "Conflict"), and then the usual. You can even make your own.

If I were an elementary school English teacher, I would teach this diagram. I would just find it too bad I have to in the first place.

Writing a story? If you can explain it using the plot diagram, it's probably already been done before. It calls to mind the Elizabethan tradition of hanging a red curtain for a comedy or a black curtain for a tragedy. Changing the names of characters or settings only goes so far that way.

Here's a list of questions to ask yourself if you want to write something that can't be easily explained by the plot diagram.
Exposition/Opening: What am I explaining? Why do I need to explain it at the start of the story, or perhaps even at all? When should I reveal which details to the reader?
Trigger Event: Why should this event take place at the beginning of the book, as opposed to the middle or end? Why should it be one event rather than a sequence or a gradual shift?
Rising Action: Why is the plot intensifying? What are my characters and settings doing to encourage this, and should they be doing something else? Can the reader predict how the tension will cease?
Climax: What does an event consist of? Why would it qualify, or not qualify, as the climax? Can I make different events matter more to different characters or readers so that there are, in effect, multiple climaxes? On a riskier level, should I avoid having a climax at all?
Falling Action: Why has the ostensibly highest point of this story passed? What needs to happen in order to direct this story toward the Resolution, or in the absence thereof, the end?
Resolution: Why does this story need to be resolved? Whose story am I resolving? Am I starting or developing a new one without degenerating into flagrant sequel bait?

If there appears to be an abundance of the word "why" in that list, it's intentional. Asking why is something that should be done at every possible opportunity.

Shameless plug: the vast majority of my writing over the past 3-4 years either lacks a set beginning or end in the plot sense, lacks a climax, or even lacks a plot altogether. Amazingly, it's still just as readable, just (hopefully) not very predictable.

With that in mind, do something different. The plot diagram can be used to describe some great works. It doesn't need to be able to describe all of them.

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