These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.
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When I was teaching high school English, we used something called a “story map” to analyze short stories. One of the components of this map was a plot graph—a way of visually depicting the typical structure of a short story. Here is an example of a typical plot graph:
There are five labeled components of the plot graph, and the rest of this lesson will cover those components (some in more detail than others).
1. Exposition—this is introductory material. I’ve covered exposition in the lesson called “Great Beginnings,” which you can find here. Basically, it’s the part of the story that introduces your main character and your setting, and perhaps the conflict. In a very short story, this may be a sentence or two, or perhaps the first paragraph. In a novel, it would typically be the first couple of chapters.
2. Rising Action—these are the events in the story that lead up to the climax. In a short story, the rising action might be almost all of the story. In a novel, it could be many chapters, depending on where the climax is—usually pretty close to the end.
Your rising action should include conflict. This is something that makes some Christian writers squeamish; they equate conflict with sin. This is not the case. The conflict is what drives the story—it makes the reader want to keep reading, to find out what the main character will do (or what will happen to her). Conflict can be humorous or serious, minor or apocalyptic, physical or spiritual—but it must be present. The rising action is where you write this conflict, giving your main character something that drives her. And the rising action should lead inexorably to the climax.
3. Climax—this is the turning point of the story. It is the point at which the main character and the conflict come to a point of necessary action, or where the main character undergoes a significant change, or where something life-altering happens to the main character.
“Turning point” is a good metaphor; think of the events of the rising action as pushing your main character up that steep hill; then something happens to spin her around a few times, pointing her toward some different spot, but away from the previous events.
4. Falling Action—these are the events that happen after the climax. They reveal how the events of the rising action and the climax have changed the main character or her circumstances.
5. Resolution—this is where the main conflict is resolved, and “resolved” doesn’t necessarily mean “fixed.” The conflict may be fixed, or it may be changed, or set aside, or conquered. Whatever has happened, however, the reason for the story is now past. I covered most of this material in the lesson on “Great Endings,” here.
A few things to note—the plot graph I already linked to is very symmetrical; most stories—whether micro-fiction like the Writing Challenge or full-length novels—will not look quite like that. It’s more likely that the rising action will take up much of the story, leading to the climax, a few items of falling action, and the resolution. Like this:
However, there are many other possibilities for plot graphs. A very short story with an open ending might look like this:
A full-length novel might look like this:
And there are an infinite number of other plot graphs that could be conceived.
EXERCISE #1: Think of a story that is generally familiar to everyone. List the parts of the plot graph, and a few things that might go on each line. For example, here’s the plot of “The Wizard of Oz.”
Exposition: Dorothy in Kansas, tornado
Rising Action: Meets Glinda, takes yellow brick road, meets friends, goes to Emerald City, gets task from Wizard
Climax: kills Wicked Witch
Falling Action: Return to Emerald City, friends get rewards, Glinda says “no place like home”
Resolution: Back in Kansas
Now—you do one.
A few days ago, someone asked me for a lesson on putting a whole short story together—beginning, middle, and end. That seemed huge to me at the time, but I’m going to give this a shot. I’ve already linked to lessons on beginnings and endings—so now, how do we write great middles?
First of all, you might want to write with this plot graph in mind, but I wouldn’t want you to think of it as a formula—and especially not a symmetrical formula that you must somehow compose a story to fit. However, most short stories will include all of these elements.
So…write your story with this graph in mind, but that still doesn’t guarantee a wonderful story, which should also include the following elements. I’ve done lessons on some of them, but not all. Let me know which you’d like to have more information on in future lessons.
1. Compelling characters with fully rounded (not flat) personalities. Not stereotypes or perfect people, but realistic people with quirks, faults, eccentricities.
2. Unique situations and events—things that make your reader want to keep reading because she has never read anything similar to it before. If you’re a genre writer, you’ll have to work extra hard to make your piece stand out from all the others with the same basic setup.
3. Conflict, conflict, conflict.
4. An identifiable writer’s voice—find a way in which readers might identify a piece of writing as yours.
5. Word choice, word choice, word choice. There’s probably nothing more important than this one. Choose interesting words, and combine them in interesting ways.
6. Mastery of grammar and writing mechanics. As I’ve said in many of these writing lessons, many of the rules of grammar are frequently broken intentionally by excellent writers. BUT…you have to master them before you can break them, and the difference between intentional rule-breaking and just poor writing is always evident.
HOMEWORK: Do one or more of the following.
1. Do the exercise in the first segment of this lesson.
2. Post a link to a Writing Challenge entry of yours, and tell what the plot graph of that story would look like.
3. Is there an element of good story writing that you’d add to my list of 6? What is it?
4. Make a comment or ask a question about anything in this lesson
Hi Jan. That's a wonderful exposition that reminds me of Alice LaPlante's book The Making of a Story, Chapter Four: The Shapely Story (pgs 152-205). It's always helpful to experience information like you presented from new perspectives (in this case, through your narrative voice).
Now we're talkin'! Thanks for an excellent answer to my previous post. I can understand it all now! Blessings!
God Bless the beasts and the children
Give them shelter from the storms.
Children are our tomorrow
Keep them daily from the sorrow
Of the beasts in life
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Sorry I'm late for class!
Little Red Riding Hood
Exposition: Taking food to Grandmother
Rising Action: Meets Wolf, encouraged to pick flowers, enters Grandmother's cottage
Climax: Red Riding Hood is eaten by Wolf
Falling Action: Wood cutter rescues them, wolf killed
Resolution: Red Riding Hood and Grandmother eat the food she brought, Grandmother recovers
These fairy tales are really quite strange
This is a lesson that I will use again and again for reference. Thanks, Jan!
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