Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Classic Plot Shape

The topic for today’s post is the Classic Plot Shape. Plot was really my nemesis at the start of my writing career. I was and I am still a plot novice. When I craft the individual scenes, I just follow my instinct. When I stumbled upon this diagram in a book, it really helped me understand plot and scenes.

The conventional or the traditional western plot follows the linear conflict- crisis - resolution pattern with its roots in the ideal plot which has been defined by Aristotle  in the poetics as having a beginning, a middle and an end.

The classic plot shape for both stories and novels   can be drawn as shown in the diagram above. A classic  story begins with a situation in which there is potential for conflict, but in which nothing so far has  happened to set the conflict  in motion.

Then, something happens (the catalyst -: equivalent to Aristotle’s  beginning) to disrupt the status quo. This catalytic event may open the story with a bang or it may be preceded by a passage of scene in which the status quo is established.

Once the  catalyst has taken effect, there is usually a build up of conflict and tension, a series of scenes or moments in which matters complicate  and which culminates in a crisis (the equivalent of Aristotle’s middle) and this is followed  often very quickly by a resolution (Aristotle’s End).

This classic plot shape can be kept in mind when we are crafting the scenes in our books. Each scene can be taken as a separate short story  and the same formula can be applied.

Each scene starts with a scene catalyst, something that disrupts the status quo in that particular scene, then, there is a build up of conflict until a crisis is reached and finally we have the much awaited  scene resolution.

We can even draw this classic plot diagram with short notes and titles for the individual scenes. This  can be used like index cards and the different scenes can be written in brief using this diagram, much like  scene synopsis.

I am definitely going to give this a try for the individual scenes. What about you all? Does the Classic Plot  Shape have any appeal for you all? How do you craft the individual scenes and the plot? Please share your method with us.


  1. Very good post my dear friend :)
    I love that the classic plot structure can also be used for each story scene. Smaller plots within larger plots like the Russian nest of dolls...one fits into the next which fits into the next.
    (Now hopefully this time Blogger will allow my comment.)

  2. I have to say I'm still a plot novice as well. I tend to follow my gut and just see if it feels "right" when I put words to paper. But I know that I have to start drilling down and make sure that I am following these types of storytelling guidelines. I'm sure that if I break it down, I'll find gaps in the process.

  3. That's an interesting idea to create each scene like a mini plot. I write out my scenes on index cards; I'll have to try out this mini plot idea!

  4. Yep, looks like you've hit the main points here. There's definitely a formula that fiction needs to adhere to in order to keep it a fiction piece. Thanks for sharing!

  5. I always wonder about the black moment in my books and if it's good enough. It's tough for me to graph out my novels properly. It's my weakness.

  6. I always had a rough time with plot, too-- until I read Larry Brooks' Story Engineering. He lays it out so clearly, with specific points that every story needs to hit, that it was like the lightbulb went on in my head! I follow the typical story arc that you point out here, and make sure the arc hits the point Brooks' mentions, and voila! It's amazing how much easier it is to write now that I understand all that.

    Now, structuring each scene individually is something I'm still working on...

  7. @ Rachit...thanks.

    @ Kim...I like the idea of using the Classic Plot Structure for each scene.

    @ Liz..I too go by instinct while crafting the scenes. But, now will follow this method.

    @ Laura...I have heard so much about index cards, that I have decided to make my own, using each scene as one index card.

    @ D.U.Okonkwo....I discovered the formula few books too late. But, as they say, better later than never.

    @ Tana...plotting is not one of my strongest points. I struggle while crafting the plot, I would rather start writing than work on a plot.

    @ Shallee...Larry Brook's Story Engineering sounds good. Will try to get it.

  8. As always, I enjoyed your post. I've seen that pattern before, mostly when I was in college and was reading novels. The teacher always pointed out build up of action or tension to a climax and resolution. But I never really applied it to writing until a few years ago, and while the diagram looks simple, it's harder to do that it looks! :-) Likewise, getting an "arc" into every scene. I've also heard another pattern, that a novel is like a three act play, and that there should be roughly three scenes to a chapter. Yeah, again, easier said than done. But great fun to work for.

  9. I'm working on plot/structure at the moment in my revisions. You could almost map my moods using that formula ;)

  10. Very good post. Your suggestion of using this formula to craft scenes to be short stories is interesting.

  11. A very informative post! I do keep in mind plot structure as I write, and normally that involves the three-act structure, which is very similar to the one posted here.

    Ellie Garratt

  12. I'm also a plot novice and am trying to apply the points you mention. My 'black moments' have become more sensational as I gain confidence!

    I am always amazed when a writer can still hook me with little plot but exquisite writing.

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  14. Hi Rachna,

    Just stumbled across your blog while trying to look for easy ways to describe the idea of a plot to my Creative Writing class.

    If you're in Mumbai in the next three months and fancy a workshop with students here, please let me know. You'd be the perfect person to give budding writers a pointer or two :)



  15. I spent a lot of time investigating plot structure over the past few months and came across storyfix.com and the plot whisperer.com(links on my sidebar) and it has certainly helped me plan out my story so far :O)

  16. I generally use a three-act format, which is pretty similar to your diagram. It works for me!

  17. I usually use a three-act structure similar to yours, Rachna. But lately I've noticed that I have too many conflicts going. So Scott Bailey did a wonderful post on this yesterday. Basically he said: "Every one of the characters has his/her own story that is separate from the mystery plot. But these characters' stories are not subplots, because they do not develop over time and are not resolved within the confines of this novel. They are more like lengthy character sketches through which the detective story passes while the detective investigates the crime. Since they are, plotwise, fairly static, I have decided to call them Nonplots, which sounds a bit derogatory so I'm open to a better name." here's the blog in case you want to have a look: The Literary Lab

    He had this wonderful diagram drawn out and his post has helped me a lot.

    Thanks Rachna! :-)

  18. I don't have a method per se, but I do try to always keep the plot moving forward and the conflict rising. It's challenging, for sure. Thanks for posting this! IT's always good to be armed with more knowledge and I hadn't heard this before.

  19. I confess I actually use index cards and a corkboard. That way it's easy to see the structure of the plot and moving scenes around is painless.

    I tend to work with a row of cards each for Act I, Act II part 1, Act II part 2 and Act III. That way I have a defined mid-point as well as the other important structure points in the plot.

    Whatever files I create on my computer I always seem to end up back at the corkboard, staring at the overall story flow and making sure it all works from there.

    As always your article is well thought out, informative and helpful - thank you.

  20. Eek, diagrams *almost runs away*

    I hear you on the plot thing. I learned not too long ago about writing scene by scene to build towards the overall plot climax, then tie up the loose ends to the resolution. I'm not much of a plotter (Tony, really? Cork board?) but if I focus on each scene within a chapter, and what the chapter is to accomplish with the plot/character progress, its a much smaller task and keeps things moving.

    Then the editing process begins . .

    I do envy people who are organized with their writing. I bet they actually finish projects :)


  21. @ Elizabeth..I will check if my WIP has three scenes in each chapter. And getting a character arc in every scene sounds difficult.

    @ Lynda..I follow this diagram and something else which I call the 8 points of the plot.

    @ Khushi....I am trying to follow the principle of crafting each scene as a short story. Its easier said than done.

    @ Ellie...The Three Act Structure is something I am hearing a lot about. Practically every writing craft book mentions it.

    @ Margo...nowadays when I read books I try to analyze the plot and learn from that writer.

  22. @ Quaint Murmur...As of now I have no plans to visit Mumbai, But I will definitely let you know if in future I visit Mumbai. I left a comment on your blog and replied to your question.

    @ Lydia...The Three Act Formula is a wonderful system to follow.

    @ Robyn...Thanks for the link to The Literary Lab.Will check it out.

    @ Jessica...keeping the plot moving and the conflict rising is a great idea.

    @ Tony...I am intrigued by the index card method and the corkboard. Will email you for the details.

    @ Donna...I hope my diagram drawing hasn't turned you away. Its the first time I have drawn something for my blog.I too write one or two scenes within a chapter.

  23. I sometimes sketch action scenes on small cards then lay them side by side. It really helps to get the visual of how the reader may "see" the action unfolding.

  24. I just basically go into the scene and increase tension as the chapter unfolds. When I edit though, I check to see if I've achieved what I set out to do.

  25. I've used a similar one when teaching children to write stories, and often think of it for my own writing. I do need to think of it in more detail for various scenes and general plot in the current WIP. Glad you shared this, I needed the reminder!

    Have a great weekend,

  26. Rachna, what a great idea to use this structure for individual scenes. It reminds me of something a writing friend told me...to think of our story as a ladder with a slide. We climb up, up, up, then wheeeee! down the slide we go.

  27. Eventually, the "nemesis" will tell you where you are, and lo, there you go!