Six impossible things

Old ways of looking at plot

Most experienced writers know in their bones that plot operates in far more directions and on far more levels than most modern how-to-write books acknowledge. It’s the folks who’re just getting started who get bogged down in strict adherence to the basic skeleton or act structure, or worse yet, to one of the many and several “scene formulas” that purport to be the One True Way to produce a successful story. There is a lot more to plotting than producing chains of action-reaction or crisis-catastrophe-consequences scenes.

Back about sixty or seventy years ago, there was something of a fad for analyzing and classifying plots in various ways. Georges Polti came up with thirty-six dramatic situations in a stunningly boring book that, when referred to, is nearly always condensed down to a list that occupies about two pages. Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch classified plots according to seven types of conflict (Man against Man, Man against Nature, Man against Himself, etc. Unaccountably, his list omits Man vs. the IRS). And Robert Heinlein summed it up in three: Boy Meets Girl, The Little Tailor, and the Man-Who-Learns-Better.

Looked at a little more closely, these classifications are actually looking at different things. The 36 situations are about content, and fairly specific content at that. “Adultery” (#25 -Two Adulterers Conspire Against a Deceived Spouse) is barely different from “Murderous Adultery” (#15 – Two Adulterers Conspire To Murder the Betrayed Spouse). The “seven types of conflict” are about the sorts of obstacles the protagonist can face: other people who don’t want him/her to succeed, natural disasters, the narrator’s own internal prejudices or flaws, etc. And Heinlein’s three basic plots, if one looks carefully, are the three things that result in change/growth in the main character, that is, people change because they’ve established (or want to establish) a new relationship, because they have to grow in order to face an external problem that looks bigger than anything they ought to be able to cope with, and because they have to face themselves and their own wrong judgments and mistakes.

One of my favorite old how-to-write textbooks takes a completely different perspective on plot, classifying stories as Character Story, Complication Story, Thematic Story, and Atmosphere Story, and the Multi-phase Story (a combination of two or more of the other types). It’s a very dense text, but as near as I can make out, the classification is based on where the plot’s main focus of attention is and/or where its driving force comes from.

All of these things are important, but none of them say much about the movement of a plot. That’s left for a different set of classifiers, who generally draw diagrams and graphs to represent tension over time, or complications, or the protagonist’s situation (good or bad). The classic one is the saw-toothed triangle, with the rising action, the climax, and the falling action, but there are others. One of the older texts I’ve been looking at separates plots into three types: a cup-shaped one it calls the Comic Plot Arc, which begins and ends with the character in a good situation, but which dips in the middle where the character is in trouble; a hill-shaped one it calls the Tragic Plot Arc, which begins and ends with the character in a bad situation, but which rises in the middle where it looks as if the character is going to make it out of the mess; and a flat line which the book call the Modern Story, in which the protagonist doesn’t struggle against Fate but passively accepts whatever events come his/her way.

And then there are the folks who attempt to deal with non-linear storytelling (which deserves, and will eventually get, a post all to itself), using circles and spirals and chains of linked boxes and arrows to try to sort out and classify plots that don’t move in strict chronological order.

All of these different ways of looking at plot are valid. Internalizing this is really useful; it means that when you are looking in despair at a plot whose action doesn’t follow the classic saw-toothed triangle pattern, you can switch gears and see it as a spiral Man-Learns-Lesson pattern, or perhaps as a Character or Atmosphere story whose primary plot-pattern isn’t on the action level at all. When there’s a problem, one doesn’t have to look only at the movement of the story; one can look at the obstacles, or the focus, or the content, or the shape.

The thing I like about all this is the richness of all the different ways of looking at plot, what constitutes plot, and what’s important about plot. It allows for much greater complexity than the basic plot skeleton and/or three-to-five-act structure that is the main substance of most modern how-to-write books. The basic skeleton and the act structure are, certainly, one set of plot fundamentals…but they’re only one set, and fundamentals are supposed to be something that you learn in order to build on, not something that you learn and then stop because that’s all you need to know.

  1. Great post! I particularly like the last line.

  2. I’ve looked at the 36 plots, and other plot lists. Also those character types books. The one kind of how-to-write book that I’ve always found useless.

    Though I’ve heard that writers sometimes find the character types books useful — to check that you don’t make the characters all the same, and to compare your characters to, knowing that you have to deepen the characterization if you recognize the type.

  3. I have a few different plot arcs going through my current work in progress, and I’d say that’s a good thing. When I first started writing, I would focus on one type of story, say the boy-meets-girl story, and disregard the others. But what I’ve learned is that you have to have internal and external conflict for the story to be interesting, otherwise it’s too one-dimensional and the reader gets bored.

  4. Love this article! (especially the bit about Man vs. the IRS, which was a major conflict of mine just today!) When I’m struggling with a book I often go looking for a magic formula thinking I will be able to reassure myself if I can just look at my story and check off all the boxes. But whether I fail or succeed may have more to do with the method I am applying to my story than the story I am scrutinizing with the method. Really enjoying hearing about all the “old” ideas about writing you are finding in your mother’s books, because I think you’ve got it: it’s just a lot of different ways of looking at the elephant.

  5. And another great post to be shared!

  6. What is the title of your favourite ‘old how-to-write textbooks’ that you refer to above?

    • Stephanie: the specific one I was talking about above is NARRATIVE TECHNIQUE by Thomas H. Uzzell, copyright 1923, 1934.

  7. Thanks so much!

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