Lost the Plot: The Basics Part I

I love writing. That’s probably fairly obvious.

I also love using what I’ve learned from writing to understand other people’s writing. In fact, predicting other people’s stories has become a game for me. So far, I’m winning.

Last month, I wrote about how to know when a character is really dead (https://everydayepic.wordpress.com/2010/05/10/hes-dead-jim/), and this month, there are many other writing elements I want to discuss, but I can’t do that without discussing the basics of understanding stories. So that is what this is about.

The place to start is understanding the basics of plot.

The plot is composed of five parts.

Part I: The Exposition
This answers the question, “Who is in this story and why in the world should I care?” What you learn from the exposition sets the tone for the entire story. In Finding Nemo, the exposition is filled with heartbreak and attempting to overcome it. In The Lord of the Rings, it’s a happy Hobbit’s birthday party interrupted by a magical ring. In an episode of the Twilight Zone, it’s Rod Serling’s monologue that ends with “… in the Twilight Zone.” Some are more brief than others and sometimes it is not completely revealed at the beginning, but it is always present to some degree.

Part II: The Rising Action
And then things start getting exciting. Enter conflict, stage right. Nemo argues with his dad and is promptly captured by a dentist. Frodo learns that the Black Riders know where the Ring is and has to leave the Shire. The lights turn out on Maple Street, and everyone suspects each other of being monsters from outer space. This is usually portrayed as a line moving diagonally up towards the climax, but that usually isn’t the case. There are smaller conflicts that arise and are resolved as the story progresses. For instance, in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo is fleeing from the Black Riders when he gets mortally wounded. Then he gets chased along the countryside as his friends and guide flee towards Rivendell, where they’ll be safe. This is a small rise in the action that’s resolved when they reach Rivendell. When they continue on the quest, the line continues progressing upwards, like in the lovely picture I drew.

Part III: The Climax
The conflict comes to the breaking point. Either Nemo and the other fish escape the net or they die once and for all. Frodo throws the Ring into the volcano or claims it for himself. The neighbors on Maple Street either pull themselves together or kill each other. This is what the entire story has been building up to.

Part IV: The Falling Action
Once the decisions have been made, the consequences begin taking effect. Nemo apologizes to his dad. Frodo loses a finger but regains his life before an unexpected problem back home. Maple Street falls to pieces.

Part V: The Resolution
Finally, the story wraps up. Nemo goes home with his dad. Frodo leaves for the West. The source of the trouble on Maple Street is revealed–and I’m certainly not spoiling the surprise. Like the exposition, the resolution can be brief or basically nonexistent, but it usually is there to some degree.

And that is basically all I can say on plots for now. Characters, story types, and all those other fun things will have to wait until next time…

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