Six impossible things

Uses for Plot Shapes

So we come to why I have been thinking about plot shapes for the past week. It started with an article on the traditional triangle plot that mentioned in passing that there were other possibilities, but didn’t give them much consideration beyond that. Naturally, this got me thinking about what some of the other possibilities were, and digging through my collection to find them.

It also got me thinking about what use knowing about different plot shapes is to a working writer. A lot of analysis of writing doesn’t help much when it comes down to actually producing a story; it’s only good for understanding it after it’s been written. For a writer, that means at the revision stage.

Recognizing the shape of the story – whether it’s a triangle, spiral, beads, or wheel – means that if the shape is a bit lumpy in the first draft, you can smooth it out in revision. If you have a nice spiral with a funny kink in it near the end where you were trying to make it have the peak of a triangle, you can spot the problem and fix it. If your circle plot feels more like an oval or a flat tire, you can pump it up til it’s nice and round. If there are gaps between beads, you can add whatever is needed.

But if the only shape you are aware of is the triangle, you aren’t likely to spot the missing bead, and you’re likely to spend loads of time trying to build things up to a peak or turning point that doesn’t belong on a circle or wheel or spiral…or at least, that doesn’t solve the plot-problem that has pulled the circle out of alignment. Fixing the wrong thing never helps, and usually makes things worse.

This much is fairly obvious. But then I thought a bit more, and it occurred to me that understanding shapes and possible shapes of stories is really useful at the other end of the process, too – that is, during the development and prewriting stage. Because some ideas are better suited to one plot-shape than to others.

Years back, I was discussing this with a writer who had an idea for a story that he thought was a character study – seven different people’s views of a particular world-changing incident and its aftermath. He was having problems figuring out what the climax of the tale ought to be, since according to everything he knew, the world-changing incident ought to be the big finish, but the stories he wanted to tell came after that.

What he failed to realize was that he had a classic wheel shaped plot; his big finish was not going to be a world-changing incident within the story, but rather whichever of the seven views of it that gave the reader a final understanding of it. Once he knew that, he could quit worrying about how to force the idea into a triangle shape that didn’t suit it, and get on with planning out what each viewpoint character would see and think, and what order to present them in.

It is also perfectly possible to go looking for an idea that suits one of the less-common plot shapes. I personally tend to come up with triangle shaped plots as a general rule. It’s possible that I will one day have an idea that is well-suited to one of the other shapes instead, but it is far more likely that if I want to write that kind of a story, I’ll have to start with the intention of doing something that suits a wheel (for instance), and cast about for an idea that I like. One can also look at an idea that doesn’t obviously need to be one shape or another, and try on several different possibilities, to see if one of them strikes more sparks than another.

Finally, if you know what shape you expect your plot to be, you have a better chance of spotting problems during the actual writing phase, before they pull things wildly out of shape in ways that will take a lot of revision work to fix. If you notice that the rising action leg of the triangle is flattening out, you can drop back a few scenes or a chapter and add more tension; if you realize that the spiral is getting lopsided, you can put in a suitable bit of action or emotion on the weak side. It is usually a lot easier to make major changes during the first draft, especially if they are the sort of thing that will send ripples through the entire rest of the story (which they always are, whether you intend them that way or not. It’s some kind of law of stories, I think. Or else Murphy).

But there is one more way in which understanding plot-shapes can be useful, and that has to do with the individual writer’s process. I suspect (though I don’t know for certain) that writers’ processes work best on compatible plot-shapes (and probably on different ways of looking at or using characters and background).

For example, I am, as I’ve said before, a very linear writer. The triangle shape comes naturally to me, and almost all my plots follow that pattern. I have one WIP that has given me fits for years, in part because it took me forever to realize that it doesn’t follow my usual process. It’s a spiral (I think), so I am going to have to approach it more consciously and think more about the story shape, because it doesn’t fit comfortably in my normal, linear process the way triangle stories do. I know writers who use stringing beads or circling in on something as their central metaphor for describing the way they develop and work at their stories, and I think they might find circular or beads-on-string plot shapes easier to write than triangles.

For this to be useful, one has to recognize both one’s typical process and the shape of the plot one is trying to write, so that one can identify any mismatch and try to compensate for it consciously. Or possibly recognize the difficulty and switch to some other story that fits one’s process better.

  1. What are your thoughts on stories that have multiple plot types? Reading this series of posts, I’ve realized that the novel I just finished does this. The main plot is triangular, but one of the big subplots is a spiral. My novel-finishing experience is low, so maybe I’m thinking too hard about this. Seems like character-development plots/subplots would be well-suited to the spiral shape…?

  2. You’re right. Now that I think on it, this could be very useful. I’ll have to take some time to think about my current story and which type of plot it fits. Time for plotting!

  3. “For this to be useful, one has to recognize both one’s typical process and the shape of the plot one is trying to write” makes very great sense. Then you know what to emphasize, and how to give out information to the reader, and how to pace things to meet expectations.

    True pantsers don’t get this system, unless they check what they’ve written afterward and adjust. Us plotters get it. We build it in on purpose.

    I have such a short attention span (due to brain fog) I need to know that when I finish a piece it will slide into its place, so have to plot solidly in advance. Fortunately, that seems to be my natural writing style, so it isn’t too painful.


  4. @Alicia: Very true! Us intuitive types just put in whatever seems right at the time, and when we’re done — oh, lookie, a triangle! (Or whatever shape it happens to be.)

    At least, when everything works right, that’s how it works. But that goes for any process, I think. 😉

  5. Thank you for this – very interesting. I do a lot of teaching of both three-act structure and alternative structures, but it’s rare to find people writing about the alternatives.

    Your articles have me thinking. The novel I’ve just finished is probably a braided shape! A number of characters interweaving their story around one central spine and finishing by getting knotted together before parting again… I’m wondering if you’ve come across any shapes like that?

    And the next one, you’ve helped me realise, is probably going to be a rather loose and rambling spiral… picaresque. I suspect it comes with the genre.

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