Six impossible things

Plot shapes II: Circles and Spirals

The traditional plot shape I discussed last time is vaguely triangular; it starts at a beginning, tension rises as the protagonist faces and overcomes (or doesn’t) a series of obstacles, until things reach a peak at the climax or turning point; after that, it’s all downhill until the end. This is the shape of almost all action and adventure plots, and it’s really fairly straightforward.

The circular plot shape is harder to explain, partly because we’re so used to the traditional rising-peak-falling triangle. I find them really frustrating, because the protagonist never really gets anywhere and nothing changes – which is, of course, the whole point. The protagonist may wander through a lot of places and meet a lot of people, but eventually he arrives back where he started. Exactly where he started. And nothing has changed, and the protagonist hasn’t changed (except for having some nice/nasty memories of his adventures).

circle plot

Very few action-adventure stories use this kind of plot, and when they do, they usually have the much-derided “…and then he woke up and realized it was all a dream!” ending. Lots of action-adventure stories, however, look at first glance as if they are circular, because in many of them the hero’s reward for saving the kingdom or slaying the dragon is to be allowed to go home, back to the ordinary life he left in order to go adventuring.

Look a little closer, though, and it isn’t really the same ordinary life – it’s better. Things have changed as a result of the story. Sam ends up back in the Shire, but he’s married Rosie and Frodo has left him Bag End, making him a respected hobbit of substance. Or, sometimes, it isn’t the ordinary life that’s changed, it’s the hero, who may have been so altered that, like Frodo, he discovers he can’t stay, or who may simply have come to appreciate deeply the things that, before all his adventures, he took for granted.

The two obvious examples of circular plots are Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake and Delany’s Dhalgren, both of which open in the middle of a sentence and end with the first half of the same sentence, so that if you had the book on a mobius strip you could just keep reading on forever. Both get described as “enigmatic” – lots of stuff happens, but it’s never quite clear where it’s going or what it means…because really, it’s all heading right back where it came from. But circular plots can also be Marvelous Voyages – the sort of story where the protagonist(s) go off to Arcturus or Wonderland, meet strange and interesting people and find out all about how this odd new world works, and then go home.

The main difficulty with a circular plot shape is keeping the reader interested and giving them enough meat that they don’t get frustrated when they realize that the protagonist is going to end up right back where he/she started. This is why Marvelous Voyage plots tend to work as circular structures: if the writer has come up with enough cool and interesting stuff for the protagonists to find out about, the reader can get carried along with the fun even when there’s no apparent goal or obstacles or any of the things we’ve been taught that stories need to have.

Spiral plots are related to circular ones in that they are usually getting somewhere new. The protagonist keeps revisiting something, but each time it comes around, it’s on a different level or from a different perspective. It can work well with action-adventure, especially with a Man-Learns-Lesson plot or subplot: first, the young princess is spirited away from the rebels taking over the castle, without making any choices herself; later, she’s grown up and chooses to flee again rather than endanger the people who’ve raised her; later still, she chooses to fight back, or perhaps decides to sacrifice herself to stop the fighting. The situation – being attacked by rebels – keeps recurring, but in different places and times, and what the princess is capable of doing (both physically and emotionally) keeps changing.spiral plot

The plot can spiral around all sorts of things: a place, a person, an object, a situation, a memory, a discovery. It can also spiral inward, getting deeper and uncovering new information or new layers of meaning with every go-around until it reaches a climax of revelation or discovery, or it can spiral outward, with the protagonist learning and growing with each iteration until he/she can escape the cycle. You can also have a nice, even spiral, like a spring (the way I drew it above), or one in which each new circle is a bit larger than the last as the stakes or the main character’s knowledge and ability to act keep growing.

Two more, and then I’ll get around to explaining why I’m going on about all this. 

  1. I only read one “Wheel of Time” book because I got the impression that each rotation would make the previous plot pretty much irrelevant.

  2. One of the most common places that a circular type of plotting appears is in episodic television writing.

    One of the most canonical examples would be programs like The A-Team. No matter what events our heroes do in the course of any individual tale, at the end they are still on the run from the government and essentially still in the same place as they were at the start of the story. This could also apply to most mystery series. Poirot is little changed by the events in any story.

    Of course, the argument can be made that the story in these cases isn’t about the A-Team or Poirot, but rather the people that they are helping/investigating.

    I got some of my start with paper-n-dice role playing and it was suggested that there are two type of plots, movie plots where the hero or situation are irrevocably changed it the course of the story or “television” plots where the situation is nearly unchanged at the end of the story.

    Nothing wrong with either storytelling format, but a writer needs to recognize what they are aiming for when they are plotting the story.

  3. Good! I am curious about why you have story structure on your mind!


  4. I usually hate circular plots. Spiral ones too – but if they’re done well, then I’ll give them a chance. I laughed at the first comment – since I’ve read all the Wheel of Time books, and yes, some of them do seem somewhat unnecessary.

  5. Hmmm…. I always thought if you came back to your beginning, even if the hero was changed, to be a circle plot. By your definition, The Hobbit isn’t really a circle plot because he’s grown through his adventure, but it’s not a spiral plot because he only returns home at the end. I am a little confused. But then, I’ve never read Finnigan’s Wake or Dalhgren.

  6. It occured to me that the most common example of a circle plot would be a television series where the episodes do not build on previous episodes.

  7. I admit, you just named my confusion with a story of mine and now I’ve got to learn more about spiral plotting because I have one: a story where the main character, Wesley, only retains his memories for one week, so while he keeps making progress in his relationship with the other main character, it’s essentially reset every week. Makes this a spiral and I kept trying to figure out how not to bore people in a triangle plot that kept hitting reset.

  8. @ liana #7
    Now you’ve got me curious. I’d like to see something from the other person’s PV.

  9. There’s plenty from the other’s perspective, but it still covers similar ground, something that bothered me when I first thought of turning the shorts into a book.

    This is the set of flash fics if you’re interested:

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