Prose - Plot

May 20, 2019 by Abhishek Kumar

Background for this series

I have always liked reading and writing. My grandfather had a library of religious and medical books, with some biographies. I remember reading theology but never medicine and debating with him. But over the years, other things crept in my life, and I didn’t read as much I used to. I used to read an odd recommendation here and there (thanks, Ambika!) but nothing substantial.

In the summer of 2019, I came across the opportunity to become more serious about literature when I heard of ACM’s Summer Mentorship Program on Prose Writing. I was burned out by coding in most of my free time and had planned to use the summer to explore some of my interests. I have a great experience so far!

Now, back to the topic at hand - Plot!

Contents

Plot and Structuring a Story

This article contains details from Gulliver’s Travels, Frankenstein’s Monster, The Star (Arthur C. Clarke), A Thousand Splendid Suns (Khaled Hosseini) and 1984 (George Orwell) to illustrate arguments. It can be helpful knowing the story or a summary to understand this section better. If you were planning to read any of these, turn back as this contains spoilers. (Duh! I am talking about plot)

The plot refers to the sequence of events inside a story. The structure of the plot reveals the author’s intent and focus. A poorly chosen structure comes across as a confused attempt at prose. Such stories are unsure of their point. In a post for Writer’s Digest (in references below), Orson Scott Card proposes the idea about following four main story structures which dominate novels:

Milieu Story

Milieu refers to the world where the story takes place. Characters are used as lenses through which the world is explored. The focus on world building and characters are secondary. For example, in Gulliver’s Travel, Jonathan Swift cared more about the different societies Gulliver came across than whether Gulliver was a likable character. The point of the story was to compare the different societies with the society of England in Swift’s day.

Gulliver's Travels
Gulliver's Travels is a work of political satire, but younger audiences have a particular liking to the tiny people of Lilliput

Milieu stories are a staple of science fiction and fantasy, where a group of explorers comes across new cultures. They begin with the introduction of a new world and ends as soon as the explorers return. The strange and unusual things seen transform the characters.

Idea Story

Idea stories begin with a question and end when the question is answered. They are about solving the question, driven by characters intent on uncovering the truth.

Most mysteries follow this structure. Such stories begin after a crime takes place. Readers are interested in finding the identity and motive of the criminal.

A lot of speculative science fiction also takes on a similar process. In “The Star,” by Arthur C. Clarke, the question posed is Why did a beautiful ancient civilization come to an end? Why couldn’t a wise and brilliant world save itself from doom? The answer is that their sun went nova and destroyed all life. Ironically, this destruction and tragedy were seen by the wise men as the sign of the birth of Christ. The story is told through the view of a Jesuit Priest, shaken by God’s callousness in deliberately destroying a vast world and questioning why any other star wasn’t chosen?.

The Star
The Star won the Hugo Award in 1956

Character Story

A character story focuses on a character’s transformation concerning their communities.

Take an A Thousand Splendid Suns’s Mariam for example. She is isolated terribly, living with her mother away from everyone. The few joys in her life are a nearby Iman who teaches her and her occasional visits from dad. She is driven into silence by shame due to the circumstances of their birth.

But by the end of the story, she becomes brave enough to take on her oppressors. She defies the Taliban’s order and sacrifices her life to save Laila. Her relation with Laila changes throughout the story, where initially resented Laila for the attention she got from Rasheed but bonded over the collective trauma of being married to Rasheed. She grew to become a loving, motherly figure for Laila.

Character stories begin at the point where the characters become unhappy with their lives and end as soon as they settle into their new role or give up the struggle to change. Mariam’s story began with her being unsatisfied with over unfair treatment by Jalil, her father. It ends with her taking on of the last and worst oppressor of her life. As unfortunate it was, due to the circumstances of the story, her act of self-defense led to a heroic death.

A Thousand Splendid Suns
The title of the book comes from the Poem, 'Kabul' by 17th-century Iranian Poet Saib Tabrizi

I will revisit A Thousand Splendid Suns again as I feel it’s a remarkable but near-universal experience of women around the world, which isn’t represented adequately in popular media.

Event Story

In an event story, there is something wrong with the fabric of the society and the world at large. The forces of evil began to grow unchallenged and destroy the golden age, which has been enjoyed so far.

Such stories begin when the chaos affects the people most crucial in restoring order. They end when a new order is established, the old order is restored, or most rarely when the world descends into such terrible chaos that normality seems impossible.

For example, in George Orwell’s 1984, the story begins with Winston Smith, the protagonist of the novel starts with his intense hatred of Big Brother and The Party. He rebels against the oppressive rules by buying a diary and notes down his criticisms of the party as well as engaging in a forbidden relationship with Julia, a young co-worker. It ends with Winston and Julia being brainwashed, destroying their love, and Winston gives up his resistance to propaganda. He breaks down mentally and realizes, “He loved Big Brother.”

1986
Despite references throught the novel to the Big Brother,
it's entirely possible for him to not even exist.

I have found deciding on a story structure is an essential process of self-discovery. Which matters the most about the story? What should a reader focus on while reading? What feelings do we want to invoke in the reader’s mind? Such questions are essential guides for the processing of writing.

Plot Structures

Aristotle’s Plot Structure

Aristotle believed the plot to be the most crucial part of a drama, even more than character. He argued the story consists of Introduction, Crisis and Resolution. The introduction introduces the characters and the world of theatre. Characters face an insurmountable obstacle and tension peaks in Crisis. The problems get resolved in the resolution. While Aristotle’s idea is a good start, they are too elementary to be of any use.

Freytag’s Pyramid

In the nineteenth century, Gustav Freytag elaborated on Aristotle’s plot structure. He added two new stages in a story: Rising Action and Falling Action. A complete story had the following elements:

  1. Exposition (or Introduction): Introduces characters, their goals, motivations, and personalities. The protagonist learns their main goal and what is at stake
  2. Rising Action: The protagonist discovers obstacles in their pursuit and begins to get frustrated. The reader can sense a rising tension.

  3. Climax: The protagonist confronts obstacles, and everyone changes vividly. The protagonist’s fate depends on whether the drama is a comedy or a tragedy. Stakes are at their highest.

  4. Falling Action: The conflict begins to be resolved. There can be a few final unexpected incidents that can obscure the outcome.

  5. Denouement: This is the end of the story. Conflicts are resolved, and characters get to their ordinary lives.
Freytag's Pyramaid
Freytag's Pyramaid is based on five-act plays

Denouement can be left off, in many cases improving the story dramatically. I liked that The Star had an abrupt ending, mirroring the protagonist’s breakdown.

Analyzing Frankenstein’s Monster using Freytag’s Pyramid

Percy Shelley’s Frankenstein’s Monster brought Science Fiction into prominence and is one of the classics. It has a continually changing frame, with Captain, Victor and the Creature’s first-person perspectives.

  1. Exposition: Dr. Frankenstein is introduced as a brilliant scientist who succeeds in animating a humanoid. We learn about his family and his love for Elizabeth, whom he eventually wants to marry.

  2. Rising Action: The animated humanoid turns out to be hideous, and Victor is repulsed by his work. The creature escapes. Victor falls ill and receives a letter about his brother being murdered. Victor discovers the monster is guilty, and but is unable to save an innocent nanny. Struck by grief, he retreats into the mountains.

  3. Climax: The creature finds Victor and demands Victor create a female companion for him. Victor reluctantly applies out of fear for his family. Working on the female, he convinced the female creature would be just as evil and could create a new race that ends humanity. He destroys his work, and the Creature vows that he will be with Victor on his wedding day.

  4. Falling Action: Victor returns to Geneva and is about to marry Elizabeth. On the wedding day, he asks her to lock the room and stay safe. The creature manages to strangle Elizabeth to death. Victor’s father dies of old age and shock of Elizabeth’s death. Victor seeks revenge and pursues him to the North Pole.

  5. Denouement: After the Creature vanishes in the North Pole, the ship becomes trapped in pack ice. Multiple crewmen die, but Victor convinces them to continue the search. Walton and his men decide to return home. Victor, although in a weakened state, goes on by himself.

Victor dies shortly afterward, telling Walton to seek “happines in tranquility and avoid ambition.” Walton discovers the creature was onboard, mourning Victor’s death. The creature vows to kill himself out of guilt and loneliness.

Frankenstein
The subtitle of the book refers to Prometheus,
A greek Titan who is credited with the creation of man from clay

Hero’s Journey

Joseph Campbell, in his 1949 book The Hero with a Thousand Faces introduced the hero’s journey. It’s a far more detailed than Pyramid, having 17 stages which are organized into three acts: Departure, Initiation, and Return. I will instead explain the Hero’s circle, which is a distilled version of Journey, devised by Dan Harmon (writer of Community, Rick, and Morty). The circle has the following eight stages instead of seventeenth:

  1. A character is in a zone of comfort.
  2. But they want something.
  3. They enter an unfamiliar situation.
  4. Adapt to the circumstances.
  5. Get what they want.
  6. Pay a heavy price for it.
  7. Return to their ordinary lives.
  8. Be changed.
Hero's Circle
Hero's Circle represents the rhythm of Life

Analysing Siddartha using Hero’s circle

Siddhartha (by Herman Hesse), deals with the fictional journey of a Brahman, named Siddhartha (not be confused by Siddhartha, who later became Buddha) and his spiritual journey of self-discovery.

Siddhartha
Siddartha deals with completeness of the experiences of life necessary for enlightenment.
  1. Siddartha is in his home town with a perfect upbringing. Everyone likes and loves him.
  2. He reads through most of the Brahman’s wisdom but is disillusioned, thinking such ways would never lead to spiritual enlightenment.
  3. Siddartha and his best friend Govinda left their homes and began an ascetic life.
  4. Siddartha and Govind get used to the ascetic life and eventually meet Gautama or the Enlightened One. While Govinda joins the Buddha’s order, Siddartha believes while Buddha’s teachings are elegant, it is not possible to learn without experiencing them first hand.
  5. Siddartha has to leave his best friend behind in his pursuit of Enlightenment.

What we will see here that the above steps would repeat cyclically. That’s because life is cyclical (One of the themes of Siddartha!). We want something, strive, and work hard and eventually achieve it. But achievement cannot keep us happy forever. Happiness lies in the process.

  1. Siddartha wants to experience life.
  2. Siddartha ventures into a city and discovers Kamala, the most beautiful woman he has seen. Kamala tells him to become wealthy to win her affection. He also met a ferryman.
  3. Siddartha wants to become wealthy.
  4. He takes up a job at Kamaswami, a local businessman
  5. His experience as an ascetic and calm temperament helps him succeed.
  6. He becomes a rich man and Kamala’s lover
  7. He realizes his luxurious lifestyle lacks spiritual fulfillment. Returns to the river, contemplating suicide.
  8. It is saved by the intimate experience of the holy word and reconnects with Govinda.
  9. Siddartha has been changed and recognizes the folly with material possessions. He also got to experience pleasures of life.

Siddartha might not have been the best example, with its theme of life being cyclical. This cycle repeats a few more times.

Hero’s circle and journey have been applied to various pieces of contemporary media. Here’s one on 1976 film Rocky.

Conclusion

We have covered quite a few things about plot and story structures. Storytelling is equal parts science and art. Most of the stories will, at times, stray from the formula. But knowing the structures can help us understand why some stories click and others don’t.

There are links below on my references. Do check out them and try applying the above structures to some of the stories you love. You will be pleasantly surprised!

Happy writing :)

References

  1. Orson Scott Card’s post on story structures
  2. An Article on Freytag’s Pyramid
  3. Wikipedia Article on Hero’s Journey
  4. Wired Article on Hero’s Circle
  5. A Series of Articles on Story Structure by Dan Harmon