What are Plots? Understanding Episodic, Dramatic, Parallel, and Flashback

No Plot.jpg“What’s it all about?” “What’s the point?” If you’re a writer or reader, these are usually questions of plot. They could be the things we whisper in the dark before we sleep, too.

Anyways, moving along.

Let’s start this shindig with a basic definition. I pulled this one from The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing, by Alice LaPlante (it’s one gigantic book, but a really great one). “So plot, as we will define it, is that series of events, arranged in a particular order, which brings about the desired final effect of a short story or novel” (p. 377).

Highfalutin folks People who have taken some creative writing courses (or read a few textbooks on the subject) will mutter about The Major Dramatic Question. To put it simply, the major dramatic question is the problem the author presents for their characters to deal with; it’s the same problem the reader is confronted with as they go through the story. After the story is finished, the reader should feel they have an answer, or solution, to this problem (even if the reader’s solution wasn’t the same as what you wrote, at least you got them thinking).

While the journey to answering this question is why readers read, as the writer, it’s often important to take a moment to ask yourself: “Just where the heck am I going with this? What issue am I presenting in this story? Does my ending solve this issue? Should it?”

Ignoring the plot is like foreplay without We don’t want to take our readers on an awesome journey and not give them a payoff of some kind. The plot ensures we stay on track. I’ve read/heard many different techniques for ensuring you achieve this goal. I’m sticking with the shortest and quickest ones I’ve found.

Crying Boy No Plot.jpgDon’t plot. Doesn’t get any quicker than doing nothing. Not what I would recommend, but enough people have read Steven King’s book, On Writing, to cherry-pick passages that indicate plotting goes against creativity (as if every writer is creative in the same way and one person’s recipe for success fits all). According to King, this sort of pre-planning ruins the organic process.

The reason I don’t recommend this is because it’s hard to overhaul a plotless book. These novels/stories stretch on forever, largely because the writer is simply writing without a goal of any kind. They rock back and forth and whisper, “The ending will come, the ending will come…” Bad news, sometimes, it’s not coming. Sometimes, you must have a somewhat realized concept of what the plot was to effectively close it out.

Side note. The lack of any sort of plotting and blind writing is not something I advocate or dissuade people from, generically. Every writer is different. Some can power through to a conclusion that makes perfect sense. Some will get lost in the middle and never find the end. Some advice shouldn’t be stone, it should be sand. So, shift your style to fit your person, even if your person shifts year-by-year.

Plot points. Unlike an in-depth plotting project where you write pages of discovery material, this is a page or two where you numerically number the major plot points in chronological order and cross them off as you move along. This gives you the freedom to connect those dots however you want, and even change them along the way. This provides the writer an endgame, even if the conclusion is in flux and changes as you close on it.

Mission Statement. One of the best and least time-sucky methods I’ve seen comes from the book, Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, by Roy Peter Clark. He states you should take the time to draft a mission statement for your work. The mission statement, according to Clark, is a list of “I want” statements.

Examples. I want the hero to to lose his hero-status and die. I want to show space pirates have a heart of gold. I want to turn (insert trope) on its head. I want to show that kittens are superior to puppies.

These “I want” statements highlight what your goals are for the characters and conflicts in the story. They also can quickly become dramatic questions. Just replace I want with how do I. Suddenly you have a series of questions to answer with your writing. This allows you to be run wild with organic story telling, but also creates a loose set of guidelines to reel you back in.

Moving on.

There are four “main” types of plots out there. Honestly, there are more than four, but these seem to be the most common in current literature: dramatic, parallel, episodic, and flashback.

 

dramatic plot.jpg

An example of a dramatic plot. 

Dramatic Plots. This follows one main rising action to a climax, then tapers down to the end. Most of the book is spent establishing settings, characters, and conflicts. One main conflict reigns supreme, and the characters ride this action to a crescendo. There is a period of lull after this climax (called the denouement) where the reader gets to take a breather, then the writer closes the story.

 

Episodic Plots. These follow many actions or events chapter-by-chapter. The events stack, and are typically related by a character or theme. The goal with this sort of plot is to show a larger event, place, time, or idea from many different angles. Much like the namesake, many television shows are set up with an episodic plot. There are central characters and themes to drive the show, but “filler” episodes could be shuffled around without impacting the series much.

Serving Up Plots.jpgSome military fiction uses this style. Each chapter highlights a different member in the military, tackling a different aspect of the battle or war. Ultimately, these vignettes join to paint a much larger understanding of the conflict.

Parallel Plots. This form allows you to take multiple dramatic plots, usually two or three, and run them at the same time. Remember how the dramatic plot has a rising action that leads to a climax in the story? With parallel plots, the multiple arcs usually all crash together at the climax. Because the reader has followed multiple rising actions, they might be more emotionally involved in the climactic moment.

Flashback, flashback, flashback… This plotting device allows the author to start the story in the middle of a high-action point, and flash backwards to lead back up to it. Giving the reader all the backstory and moving them back to the high-action moment. The clichéd version of this is certainly the, this is how I died, intro. Of course, I should eat my words as one of the most talked about and controversial shows on Netflix right now is 13 Reasons Why. A show about a girl who commits suicide, and each episode it basically a flashback to events leading up to it.

thanksThat’s a wrap for today, thanks for reading! No matter what plot you go with, or if you’re going into the work plotless, you owe your readers that moment at the end of the book where they sigh, look up at the skies, and say, “I feel…something.” Let’s just hope that something is a positive connection, one that will keep them coming back for more. Until we cross quills again, keep reading, keep writing, and as always—stay sharp!

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Template for Tracking Character Arcs

I had a couple emails from folks regarding how I track character arcs.  Specifically about the extra notes I take chapter to chapter to track changes in character.  I’ve talked about character arcs in the past here (use in self-editing) and here (what they are).  I do have a standard template I work from and attach to chapters as I roll through.

Below is the one I mocked up a while ago.  I just recently converted it to Flickr so you can click on the image below and print it out if you need it.  It’s been formatted to fit a standard piece of printer paper (landscape) so you should have no trouble printing.

It’s pretty self explanatory as you look at it, so I won’t go into any great detail about how to use it.  If you do have questions about it, don’t be afraid to leave a comment. I’m pretty good at getting back to people.  I destroy trees at an alarming rate so I just print them off as I need them.  This template would cover six chapters.

Character Arc Tracking Sheet.jpg

Give the image a click and get teleported via interweb majesty to my Flickr page.  You can print a higher-resolution version there.  Created by me, and as always, free to use and share.

 

Today is a mercifully short post, but provides you a handy tool.  If you can get your beta readers to use something like this – you win the prize.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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