October 26, 2010

plot structure

Many of you (me included) are outlining your NaNoWriMo projects, and we’re all familiar with the standard plot structure.

Being the blasphemer I am, I say forget about that plot structure. It stinks. Stories that follow that basic structure are weak and unbalanced. To scale, the climax would happen at the very middle of the story, and as we all know, that’s not how it happens. The concept behind the structure is right, but I have a better diagram for you.

This was taken from Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. The book analyzes Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces and puts a new spin on it for us writing types. Great book. Read it. Now.

So, as you can see, this diagram makes a bit more sense. I went ahead and added familiar terms so you can compare it to the old diagram. The idea is the same, obviously, but this diagram goes into more depth. You’ll notice it looks like a mountain range (see my artistic squigglies?).

The structure is broken into Acts because Vogler transcribes this structure to screenwriting, but it can be applied to novels too. Act I is your beginning (exposition), where you introduce the characters and the inciting incident. Act II is your middle (rising action), where all the cool stuff leading up to the climax happens. Act III (also rising action) leads directly up to the climax (climax!), and then the Denouement is your ending. Notice that I took out falling action. The denouement covers that by definition.

Vogler defines the peaks of his diagram as the high point of each act. Think of each peak as an example of our old diagram, minus the denouement stage (that way, falling action can come back for a short while). After each climax, the excitement settles for a bit before climbing again toward the next climax. The final climax should be the hardest struggle, the most significant trial the characters of your novel face.

The idea behind this blog post is to get you thinking about your plot. Do your characters breeze through their journey, or do they have to fight their way to the end? Fighting is good. Breezing, not so much. Characters need to earn those victories. They need to struggle for the victories to mean something.

I understand that plot structure might be a little elementary for seasoned writers, but sometimes, it's good to look back at the basics.


  1. Thanks for this post and the visuals! I've just found your blog via the twitter #nanowrimo hash tag. I'm working on my own nano plot (and a blog post about the process). This will help on both counts. Good luck to us all in November!

  2. I like your chart. Being a very visual person, it always helps to have a chart. I have been working on my outline, and it follows yours much more closely than the traditional.

  3. Thanks. I don't write much, actually just blogs and drunk rants, but it's nice to see their could be structure to my madness. It's reassuring. Hope your book gets published! Also you and your husb need to join me in haunted houses this Thursday.

  4. I always wondered about that plot structure when they taught it to us in school, because the climax is NEVER in the middle.