Aelius Donatus, a Roman grammarian and teacher of rhetoric from the mid-fourth century AD, gave a plot structure for plays (novels did not exist yet). Very simply put, a play has a beginning (protasis), a middle (epitasis), and an end (catastrophe). The protasis is the introduction of a play, the epitasis has the main action and the catastrophe is the resolution which brings the play to a close.
If we strictly follow the classical structure we talk of arch-plot (though in reality it is a bit more complicated than that). The structure of arch-plot is always the same. It tells the story of one or more protagonists that have or develop a goal or desire early in the story and go on that journey to reach it against all odds. This journey can also be an inner journey. The protagonist has to fight inner and outer forces, nearly getting defeated at, at least, one point, to finally get to the goal, object or person of desire.
The Hero Journey
The hero journey resembles arch-plot a lot. The hero journey was developed by Joseph Campbell (1949). The original structure has 17 elements divided into 3 acts: departure (or separation), initiation and return. It has, however, been toned done by several academics to eight or twelve elements.
Roughly said, the hero journey is about the transformation of the protagonist, the main character. This hero is called to go on an adventure (act 1), though is reluctant to go. They then meet a mentor who helps them on their way. The hero the crosses the first threshold and starts their transformation. The hero then encounters many trials and tribulations (act 2). Eventually they are faced with that which holds power over their life. After this encounter the hero has a greater understanding about themselves. The hero is now ready to confront the more difficult part of the journey. They reach this confrontation and overcome the goal of the quest. They return (act 3) home with the wisdom gained on their journey.
src: Wikipedia (public domain)
Gustav Freytag (1816) came up with a structure in the form of a pyramid. His structure has similarities with the hero journey, but can be applied more broadly. With Freytag’s pyramid, the plot of a story consists of five parts: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution and denouement (the final two are sometimes mingled). The pyramid may suggest the climax is (almost) half-way through the story, but this is rarely the case. Most stories, like novels, series and movies, follow the structure of this pyramid, although there are also works that defy the structure like the recently published Reservoir 13.
The exposition introduces the story. Who is the protagonist, who else is involved, where are we in time and place? Often the exposition states the initial balance or status quo.
The inciting incident is probably the most important element in the story. Although the climax is important for the development of the main character, a story would not set off without this trigger. The inciting incident is an event or a series of events in which the status quo from the exposition is disrupted or challenged. The protagonist is invited or forced to set on a mental or physical journey. If there would be no such incident, the status quo would remain and thereby no story would enfold.
The rising action builds up to the climax of a story. It is a series of linked events in which the protagonist grows towards the turning point in the novel. These events could be challenges, revelations, and meetings. They form the development in the novel.
The climax is the turning point. From this point onward, the protagonist is transformed. If the story has a happy ending, things will often turn better, if the story has a sad ending, things will often turn worse. The climax is not always a big event like a battle of armies (this would often be in the resolution), but can also be very subtle, like an inward realization of the main character that will influence his decision making for the rest of the story.
In the falling action we see the changes in the behaviour of the protagonist. More challenges, revelations, and meetings will occur and they build towards the resolution of the story. This doesn’t mean the outcome is clear. There will often be some suspense whether the protagonist will overcome his challenge.
The resolution resolves the main plot. The protagonist overcomes (or fails!) his challenge. The resolution can be entwined with the denouement.
Any other plot is resolved, or unraveled (as the word denouement comes from French meaning “to untie”). There is a new status quo with the main character being changed (or deceased). They might go back to the initial setting, but not necessarily. The denouement is sometimes entwined with the resolution and can also be very short.
Freytag’s Pyramid and the novel
Freytag’s Pyramid works more efficiently than a summary. It forces you to get to the gist of the novel and offers a visual representation of the story, so it is easier to remember and recall the plot. Even if the story deviates from the pyramid, the pyramid remains handy as you might better understand to what purpose it deviates. It is helpful to write a short reflection on the novel next to the pyramid as well as more in-depth information and reflections on the characters.
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