Literature 101: Plot

Literature 101
Literature 101 is a ten-part course based on 10 Literary Concepts Every Reader Should Know.

WEEK 2: PLOT

Plot is, at its most basic level, what happens in a story. More specifically, it is the causal sequence of events in a story.

RELATED TERMS

Aristotle described plot as “that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end.” Accordingly, plots are often divided into three main sections or “acts” as illustrated in the chart below.

I. BEGINNING – The first act contains both the exposition, or the set-up, as well as the rising action, in which complication introduces some sort of conflict for the main character.

II. MIDDLE – The second act consists largely of the development of the conflict and concludes with the climax, the moment of greatest emotional tension in a narrative, usually marking a turning point in the plot at which the rising action reverses to become the falling action.

III. END – The third act is the falling action (or denouement), which is characterized by diminishing tensions and the resolution of the plot’s conflicts and complications.

Of course, though many plots have a general structure similar to that outlined above, there are many, many different plot structures.

DISCUSSION

Okay, great. Every story has a plot structure, but how can a better understanding of plot positively affect our reading?

I believe that identifying plot structure can effectively allow the reader to see “the big picture” of a book or story. When I try to identify plot elements, say the conflict in a story or the climax, I can then better evaluate whether those elements “worked” in the larger context of the story – whether those elements served to move the plot forward or to simply confuse me and the characters. Generally speaking, working through plot structure is not a necessary reading activity. However, it can allow us, as readers, to evaluate how the story and structure worked together, and, if necessary, identify areas where the story didn’t work.

Do you think plot structure should matter to readers?

EXAMPLES

FINNY, by Justin Kramon (Spoiler Lite)
I just finished Finny, by Justin Kramon. Helpfully, the book is self-divided into three sections:

I. “Growing Up” in which we meet Finny, our protagonist, and she meets Earl, the conflict.

II. “Reunions and New Friends” in which Finny faces many minor conflicts as she faces the major conflict – namely who she is and how Earl fits into her life. This section concludes with a climatic event that changes how Finny sees herself.

III. “From Here On Out” in which Finny “finds herself” and things are resolved.

PRIDE & PREJUDICE, by Jane Austen (Spoiler Ridden)
I struggled with placing this story into neat acts. Where do you think the acts begin and end?

I. The first act here is the set up. We meet Elizabeth and her circle and Mr. Darcy and his circle. The first act ends, in my opinion, at the ball when Mr. Darcy criticizes Elizabeth. (Or do you think it ends with Mr. Darcy’s first proposal to Elizabeth?)

II. The second act proceeds in a number of small conflicts: Jane and Mr. Bingley, Mr. Collins and Charlotte Lucas, and the first proposal of Mr. Darcy. The climax of the story occurs when Lydia runs off Wickham. (Or do you think it ends with the second proposal to Elizabeth?)

III. The third act wraps up the story with Mr. Darcy’s help with the Wickham situation coming to light and with the second (and final) proposal to Elizabeth. There is then some epilogue material about how Elizabeth and her sisters faired thereafter. (Or is this epilogue material the entire third act?)

HOMEWORK

First, how did your homework on genre go? Did you have a hard time fitting the books you’ve been reading into genres? Did identifying genres affect your reading or your reviews in any way?

Your assignment on plot is as follows:

1. Pick a book or two from your recently read pile.
2. Using the charts above, try and identify the plot elements in the book.
3. Did the book follow a traditional plot chart with three acts in sequence? If so, why do you think the author choose the traditional organization? If not, what deviations did the author make and how did those changes suit the story?
4. Did this activity help you to better identify what worked and what didn’t in the story?

Feel free to post your thoughts on the homework in the comments below. I’d be curious to hear which books or stories you used.

_________________________________

That concludes our study of plot. Make sure to check in next Wednesday for Week 3: Setting. But first, chime in with your thoughts on plot in the comments.


5 Responses to Literature 101: Plot

  1. softdrink says:

    I’m loving this series!

  2. Jessica says:

    Softdrink – I’m glad you’re enjoying the series. It looks like “plot” isn’t nearly as controversial as “genre.” :)

  3. leslie says:

    I, too, am enjoying the series.

    So, I am reading that “Today I Wrote Nothing” by Daniil Kharms, and he purposefully denies the reader a plot, among other things (including sense). Is what he writes a story, or is it just a few paragraphs of rambling, because it doesn’t feel “thin” or “weak”–to me. I know he is challenging structure and convention. I am curious how he would have done it with something novel-length. (I will have to hunt up examples from book).

    One of the lovely things about the short story, and especially the short short story is that there is an argument as to whether a plot is necessarily basic to the definition of a story.–especially the Aristotelian definition. I know that it appears to be essential, but some would argue it isn’t. I wish the short story book we used in the course I took wasn’t packed because there are specific authors/works who are challenging the basic/traditional ideas of plot in storytelling.

    I agree that an understanding of plot (and its parts) gives us a language and evidence to use when reviewing why a book failed to meet certain expectations–where did the “weakness” occur, etc.

    as for genre homework.. I was thinking about Caragh O’Brien’s ‘Birthmarked’. It is set in a post-apocalyptic landscape and in a Dystopian society. I was reading some responses to this book and there were enough who expressed a dislike in view of other works in the Dystopian genre. if the book were to be solely classified Dystopian Fiction, it would be dismissed (which would be a shame). Also, the dismissal seemed nebulous as there was no explanation as to which rules of the genre it violated…maybe it was just a terrible story?–which I couldn’t disagree with more. Maybe the readership who disliked ‘Birthmarked’ disliked Lois Lowry’s ‘Gathering Blue’. I noticed that though genre classification helped, the further comparison between books with similar classification was used and proved to be of greater illumination.

    (i hope this isn’t too much…and is maybe coherent. I am somewhat hiding out while the moving truck is being maneuvered in the drive and book boxes are being hauled out.)

  4. Jenny says:

    Aw, I remember that chart from school! When I got bored in math class, I used to draw little plot charts for some of my favorite books and label what parts of the book went with what parts of the chart. Because, yes, I was a geek, and also, my little charts looked sort of like geometry in case my teacher came and looked over my shoulder. :p

  5. Jessica says:

    Leslie – Interesting perspective on TODAY I WROTE NOTHING. It’d be interesting to do a kind of plot analysis on those types of absurdist books. And I appreciate your thoughts on genre. It’s unfortunate that genre labels can prevent people from reading certain books. I actually need to watch for that in my own reading.

    Jenny – I love this chart, and I love that you used to draw the charts for your books. The perfect geometry cover!

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