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Plot Structure

by Tiffany

What is plot?

A plot is the sequence of events that make up a story. Aristotle stated in his book The Poetics that plot structure had "a beginning, a middle and an end". But it is much more than simply the telling of events one after another. A plot needs a motivating purpose to drive the story to its resolution, and a connection between these events. If you watch a movie with a string of unconnected scenes, you will probably be frustrated because the plot makes no sense. Unless these scenes are tied together in some way, it will be very hard to make a real story out of it. So, we should say that plot is the CAUSAL sequence of events that make up a story. Of course, this "sequence" doesn't necessarily have to be in order - detective stories or thrillers can often work backwards or jump from one event to another - but at the end of the day, everything should come together. Seemingly, modern artistic storytelling has increased the emphasis on theme than on plot structure.

"The king died and then the queen died."

This is a bad example of plot. Why? Well, there are two events - one followed by the other. But there is no tie between the two events.

"The king died and then the queen died of grief."

This is a better example of a plot because it shows one event (the king's death) being the cause of the next event (the queen's death). The plot draws the reader into the character's lives and helps the reader understand the choices that the characters make.

Plot structure is also called dramatic structure.

When reading the elements of plot structure you will see why Shakespeare's plays are so popular to study - because they are an excellent example of plot structure. Usually his plot elements are easy to identify.

Elements of plot structure

Gustav Freytag (1816 - 1895) was a German dramatist and novelist. Why is he important? He came up with the structure for the way stories are told in ancient Greek and Shakespearean drama. This analysis is known as Freytag's analysis. His analysis consisted of dividing a play into FIVE parts:

  1. exposition
  2. rising action
  3. climax
  4. falling action
  5. resolution/denouement

These five elements of plot structure can differ slightly, but for the most part you will see the gradual build-up of events, the climax, followed by a resolution. Here's some background information on each element:

Exposition

This is the introduction of story - background information that is needed to properly understand it. This information can include the protagonist, antagonist, the setting and so forth. The inciting incident occurs here - the initial event which triggers the rest of the story. In other words, what was it that put everything in motion? Inciding incidents are not always obvious - you may not even catch them when reading the story.

Rising Action

Rising action is what occurs leading up to the climax. For example, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry must go through a set of tasks to reach where the sorcerer's stone is hidden where he will have the final battle. These tasks are the "rising action", and the final battle would be considered "the climax".

Climax

The climax is considered the high point - the most exciting part - of the story. This is where all the rising action and conflict building up in the story finally reaches the peak. It is usually the moment of greatest danger or decision-making for the protagonist. The turning point can be considered the incident right before the climax, or can also be used as another name for climax. For example, in Romeo and Juliet, the climax occurs when Juliet stabs herself.

Falling Action

The falling action deals with events which occur right after the climax. These events are usually the after-effects of the climax.

Resolution/Denouement

Here is the end of the falling action and the conclusion to the story. There is usually a release of dramatic tension and anxiety (also known as catharsis). It can also be the that portion at the end of the plot that reveals the final outcome of its conflicts or the solution of its mysteries.
Denouement originates from the old French word denoer, which meant "to untie". So you could say that denouement is the unraveling or untying of the complexities of a plot.
Keep in mind, that sometimes stories have endings with a lot of unanswered questions. It is up to your discretion on whether you want to identify a resolution, or argue that a resolution in the story was never fully developed.

Images Credits: wikipedia.org, polytropia, EJ Chang

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