If I could persuade the fiction writers of the world to do one thing every year, it would be to read the winners of the Newbery Medal and other awards for best children’s literature. Writers of children’s fiction know that the apparent simplicity of the novel is anything but simple to write. Yet, their accomplishment offer superb models of all elements of craft.
— Elizabeth Lyons, Manuscript Makeover
The success of a novel is only five percent about the structure and ninety-five percent about the quality of the writing.
— Elizabeth Lyons, Manuscript Makeover
THE LINEAR STORY
The linear story tracks a single main character from beginning to end.
It implies a historical or biological explanation for what happens.
— John Truby, Anatomy of Story
The linear story is a traditionally Western story.
Linear Plots In Adult Film
Most Hollywood films are linear. They focus on a single hero who pursues a particular desire with great intensity. The audience witnesses the history of how the hero goes after his desire and is changed as a result.
Linear Plots In Children’s Stories
As in film, the majority of children’s stories are basically linear. However, the plot doesn’t necessarily begin where the story begins. Home-away-home adventure stories are generally linear.
Dennis Butts, among others, has pointed out that in their use of formulaic elements and stereotyped characters, adventure stories owe a good deal to the structure of traditional folk- and fairy tales in which similar patterns tend to repeat themselves. [Also to myth.] Butts refers to the ideas of both Propp and Campbell as possible instruments to examine the structure of adventure stories, and to those of Bettelheim* to show the appeal of these stories. He also discusses Treasure Island in terms of folktale.
— Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear
*Bettelheim was an asshole who set psychology back a couple of decades. Look up his theories on the causes of autism. (tl;dr: Refrigerator Mothers)
- The Epic Of Gilgamesh (the oldest known adventure story — 3rd millennium BC)
- Tom Sawyer (‘master text’ for adventure story as the Narnia Chronicles are for fantasy), but is itself an off-shoot of The Odyssey
- The legend of Saint George and the dragon
- The Greek tale of Perseus
- Robinson Crusoe (compared to Odyssean stories, the Robinsonnade keeps the characters in one place in order to focus on character development.)
- King Solomon’s Mines (1885)
- Jack and the Beanstalk
- Treasure Island
- Kim, Rudyard Kipling (1901)
- Peter Pan
- Sherlock Holmes
- The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings
- Doctor Who
- Star Wars (a parody of the hero adventure story)
- James Bond
- Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
- Cinderella, and any story using the ‘Cinderella Structure’ in which the hero can never go home again
For more on children’s adventure stories and their evolution, see The Centrality of the Adventure Story.
THE MEANDERING PLOT
The meandering story follows a winding path without apparent direction.
In nature, the meander is the form of rivers, snakes and the brain.
The hero has a desire, but it is not intense. He covers a great deal of territory in a haphazard way and he encounters a number of characters from different levels of society.
— John Truby
- The Odyssey (by Homer, about 3000 years old)
Comic Journey Stories
- Don Quixote
- Tom Jones
- Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (There’s more of a drive in Tom Sawyer, making it a linear shape.)
- Little Big Man
- Flirting With Disaster
Many of Dickens’ Stories
- David Copperfield
Other story experts use the word ‘episodic’ in a similar way to how Truby uses ‘meandering’. They’re not quite the same thing, but very similar.
Here’s Howard Suber — another film guy — on episodic plot structures. He compares ‘episodic’ plots with ‘dramatic’ plots, and has a strong preference for the latter. The shape difference is simply that in dramatic structure the series of little mountains leads to one big one, followed by a steep drop off.
Children and other inexperienced storytellers tend to tell episodic stories. The dead giveaway to episodic structure is that actions are linked by the word “and”. Any story that follows the form, “This happened, and then that happened, and then the next thing happened,” is episodic. Dramatic structure, on the other hand, links its events with the word “but”. It uses the familiar form, “The good news is…but the bad news is…” The danger in using episodic structure is that the story becomes less compelling or even boring as it develops because we do not see the relationship between events.
Road pictures, whether they literally take to the road as in Easy Rider, and Thelma and Louise, follow the yellow brick road, as in The Wizard of Oz, or flow down a river, as in The African Queen and Apocalypse Now, face the challenge of episodic structures. While the events that occur on the road are not bound by a cause-and-effect structure and could often have been arranged in a different order, the internal development of the central characters and their reactions to events does, in memorable films, follow a dramatic structure.
The structure of dramatic stories can be represented by drawing a triangle that resembles a mountain.
Writers who describe themselves as pantsers (writing without elaborate planning) often turn out episodic plots. Sometimes these are edited into more linear stories afterwards, sometimes some of the episodic story remains.
The big advantage to episodic structure: It’s easy for your reader to sink right back into the story after you’ve gone away and come back. At least, that should be the main advantage.
The big disadvantage to episodic structure: It’s really easy to put the book down.
You can hear more about episodic stories by listening to the Pub Crawl podcast, Pacing episode.
Episodic stories…can be represented by a straight line with bumps in it. Stories with a dramatic structure end in a climax; stories with an episodic structure often just end.
— Howard Suber
Elizabeth Lyons describes the shape of an episodic story as a series of little hills. She gives examples of the types of stories which most often use episodic plot shapes in her book Manuscript Makeover, which I recommend.
Sagas and Epics, usually set in historic time periods
Although the epic novel was originally in verse (Beowulf in the eighth century), it has now come to mean a historical novel with a giant sweep of time and peoples. Each book follows the lives of several generations.
- Shogun by James Clavell
- Treasure Island
- Lord of the Rings
- War and Peace
Dickens wrote famously episodic stories, but there’s no surprise there — his novels were literally presented to the public as separate episodes. However, Dickens was and is still quite readable because he obviously had an overarching plot in mind. The episodic nature of his stories were probably due to the publishing realities impressed upon him.
In these stories the protagonist introduced in Book 1 of the novel may die. In Book 2 her daughter takes over and we read the events and challenges of her life. In Book 3 the granddaughter’s life continues, bringing the story of all three generations to an end. Each part or book may cover that character’s lifespan, with the expected and unexpected travails of the era. When a family saga is well structured, each protagonist in each section, book, or generation has one story goal. There is one unifying element that creates the dramatic arc and replaces the lower suspense of episodic writing.
- Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides chornicles three generations of a Greek-American family. There are many unifying elements and at the core is the quest to answer “Who am I?” and “What am I?” by the protagonist.
- The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough
- American Pastoral by Phillip Roth
- Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
- See an extensive list here.
Lyons explains that ‘the picaresque is an old form of episodic structure that draws its name from picaro, a roguish protagonist who seeks adventure for adventure’s sake, or for some romantic ideal.’
- Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
- Tortilla Flat
- Lonesome Dove
- The Road
- Mad Men (which had its roots in a screenplay about “an American picaresque character,” according to Matthew Weiner. “By picaresque I don’t mean like Candide… I mean a guy who is making his own future because he has no other options.”)
- See an extensive list here.
Notice that Westerns, Anti-Westerns and Neo-Westerns feature heavily in that list. That’s because the West is well-suited to journeys along roads. Some scholars say that the genre of road movies are the ‘new picaresque’.
Lyons points out that the difference between a picaresque story and a more typically heroic one is all about character change:
Although the protagonists in these [picaresque] novels may articulate a hope or vague intention rather than a pressing story goal, reaching that hope or intention is not the point. The journey itself is the point, and the discoveries about self and life made along the way. Almost always, the picaresque story is a literal journey; the cowboys in Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry set out to herd cattle to Montana; the boy and Papa in The Road by Cormac McCarthy travel south in post-apocalypse America seeking warmth. But the picaresque is also usually a journey into expanded understanding. The cowboys learn that the journey is life and that life is for living in the moment. The boy and Papa are nurtured by their love for one another while moving through a land burnt and wasted from ultimate destruction.
— Elizabeth Lyons, Manuscript Makeover
Interestingly, children’s literature expert Maria Nikolajeva thinks of children’s literature in terms of ‘quest’ and ‘picaresque’ (rather than in terms of genre):
Quest has a goal; picaresque is a goal in itself.The protagonist of a picaresque work is by definition not affected by his journey; the quest (or Bildungsroman) is supposed to initiate a change. There is, indeed, sometimes a very subtle boundary between ‘there-and-back’ and a definite, linear journey ‘there’, which is best seen in the last volume of the Narnia Chronicles.
Episodic Plots In Children’s Literature
- The Magic Pudding
- Anne of Green Gables. In their book The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Nodelman and Reimer explain how Anne of Green Gables moves forward. They call this an ‘episodic plot’, as distinguished from a ‘climactic plot’.
Case Study: Anne Of Green Gables
It’s possible that episodic plots such as that of Anne of Green Gables allow us to experience a different rhythm of basic human pleasure. Each chapter is a dramatic plot of its own:
Although Montgomery’s story does move Anne from her condition of homeless waif to her understanding that a home both gives her an identity and makes demands of her, many of the incidents related by the plot are not necessary to the story. A large part of the pleasure of Anne of Green Gables, in fact, comes in the way the plot exceeds the sequential logic of the story: or, to use the phrase from William Touponce… these incidents “exceed structural functions”. For example, like many of the other chapters of the novel, the chapter entitled “An Unfortunate Lily Maid” takes the shape of a complete climactic plot. In a series of actions organized to increase readers’ involvement, Anne and her friends plan to stage the scenario suggested by Tennyson’s pome “The Lady of Shalott,” succeed in scrounging the materials they need to do so, and leave Anne lying in her “barge” to float down the river. The crisis occurs when the boat springs a leak and Anne begins to sink, and there is a satisfying climax when Gilbert rescues Anne. But the pleasure of the incidents reported here has little to do with the story of the novel. Anne’s disdainful dismissal of Gilbert’s heroism is the only incident in the chapter that contributes to the moving forward of the story as a whole. And even this incident repeats and amplifies information readers already have, rather than adding new information. In other words, there doesn’t seem to be much reason for this chapter to follow the chapter in which Anne dyes her hair green rather than to precede it. Montgomery’s novel is a string of such small climactic plots that diffuse the pleasures of readers rather than concentrating them on a single line of action.
Interestingly, back in 1980, Nodelman called Anne of Green Gables ‘a story without a plot’. Nikolajeva suggests that this is only because Nodelman was looking for a male, linear plot, and this is why he viewed the ‘lack of plot’ as a flaw.
- The Worst Witch series by Jill Murphy, in which Mildred Hubble, the hapless student of magic gets herself into a different, self-contained scrape over the course of each chapter. Again, the pleasure of these chapters derives from laughing at Mildred and her nemeses, rather than working towards a conclusion.
- The Chronicles of Narnia
Climactic plots tend to be marketed to boys, while episodic plots tend to be marketed to girls.
Case Study: Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
Tom Sawyer is an interesting exception. Tom Sawyer is an archetypal adventure story, arguably ‘for boys’. Yet as Maria Nikolajeva points out in From Mythic to Linear:
At first glance, Tom Sawyer is very different in its structure from a typical quest narrative: there is no discernible home-away-home pattern, and the plot is episodic rather than progressive, as in the Narnia Chronicles. On closer examination there are at least two plots intertwined in the narrative: one progressive (or linear) involving struggle between hero and villain (Tom-Injun Joe), as well as treasure seeking and a princess; the other, indeed, episodic, where it is possible within every episode to discern the circular home-away-home movement.
In this episodic plot, Tom’s adventures take him, in concentric circles, further and further away from home, and into more and more perilous escapades: from Aunt Polly’s closet to the dangers of the cave. If the first chapters depict harmless “pranks”– pinching jam, playing hookey, getting other boys to do his work, blundering in Sunday school– the murder in the graveyard is more serious, since it not only initiates the second, linear plot, but also introduces violent death into what has seemed a harmless idyll.
Maria Nikolajeva is telling us — to use John Truby’s language — that Tom Sawyer is a mixture of meandering, linear and spiral plot shapes. Huckleberry Finn is the same, but with a river in the world of the story which influences the shape of the story itself.
If you’re writing a modern episodic story, watch out for the challenges it presents.
- There is no obvious singular goal or single problem.
- Modern readers are used to the dramatic shape and it’s hard to hold their interest unless the drama steadily rises.
- It almost never works in a genre novel. However, there are exceptions. Harlequin has been known to ask for episodic romance.
- Make sure you haven’t accidentally written a thinly disguised autobiography. Life is episodic but successful stories are usually not.
LINEAR CIRCULAR PLOT
There are cultures around the world who view time quite differently. For instance, Chinese cultures consider time and events as circular. There’s no need to worry about too much about what’s happening now because this too shall pass and things will come good again.
The basic pattern in children’s literature is the circular journey. That is, the plot follows the trajectory home — departure from home — adventure– return home. This pattern, which has its origin in European Romantic philosophy, can be traced to practically any children’s text, not necessarily belonging to what is commonly labeled as adventure genre. It can be found on different levels and in different shapes anywhere from picturebooks to psychological novels. The purpose of the journey is the maturing of the child (protagonist as well as reader), but the return home is a matter of security; whatever hardships and trials, the safe home is the final goal.
– from Children’s Literature Comes Of Age by Maria Nikolajeva
Nikolajeva also writes of ‘the idea of the linear movement changing into a circular one’, which is very common in children’s stories, because children’s stories are often idyllic.
In all idylls, time is cyclical: either there is no linear progress whatsoever, or the linear development rounds back into the circular pattern […] Characteristically, in “realistic” books such as Little Women or Little House In The Big Woods, where the progress of chronos is inevitable, the duration of profane time is exactly a year. By the end of the book, the cycle is complete: “The attic and the cellar were full of good things once more, and Laura and Mary had started to make patchwork quilts. Everything was beginning to be snug and cozy again.”
In these stories, the seasons tend to be important. Winter is the season of low activity. Characters don’t get older. (The Moomin books, The Wind In The Willows etc.) The cyclical time is associated with the notion of home and the inevitable return home.
Nikolajeva distinguishes between ‘iterative’ time and ‘singular’ time. In an iterative sentence, it is assumed that whatever is happening has always happened and will continue to keep happening. A singulative sentence applies to an action in this particular story.
Iterative: ‘In the winter time the Rat slept a great deal, retiring early and rising late. During his short day he sometimes scribbled poetry…there was a good deal of storytelling.’ (In which storytelling is a ritual act). There are a lot of iterative sentences in Anne of Green Gables, as well as in The Secret Garden.
The Narnia Chronicles are classic circular narratives — the children return to their original world after their great adventures.
THE SPIRAL PLOT
A spiral is a path that circles inward to the center.
In nature, spirals occur in cyclones, horns and seashells.
— John Truby
You might think of it as a vortex rather than a 2D spiral.
Think of a vortex story as a tornado. As you get closer to the final battle between the last two contestants, the conflict, pressure and speed of the story becomes almost unbearable.
— John Truby
Stories with this shape are often a race or a tournament. The stories of many are gradually ‘funneled’ down, focusing on one winner. There is often a lengthy investigation, where the story can be about all sorts of things but details are gradually revealed to reveal just the one reality.
In Adult Thriller Film
A character keeps returning to a single event or memory and explores it at progressively deeper levels.
- Vertigo — A detective suffering from acrophobia investigates the strange activities of an old friend’s wife, all the while becoming dangerously obsessed with her. The detective follows her and is unable to stop her from climbing to the top of the steeple, owing to his vertigo, where she jumps to her death. A subsequent inquiry finds that she committed suicide but faults the detective for not stopping her in the first place. Several months later he meets Judy Barton, a woman who is the spitting image of Madeleine. He can’t explain it, but she is identical to the woman who died. He tries to re-make her into Madeleine’s image by getting her to dye her hair and wear the same type of clothes. He soon begins to realize however that he has been duped and was a pawn in a complex piece of theater that was meant to end in tragedy.
- Blow-Up — A mod London photographer finds something very suspicious in the shots he has taken of a mysterious beauty in a desolate park. The fact that he may have photographed a murder does not occur to him until he studies and then blows up his negatives, uncovering details, blowing up smaller and smaller elements, and finally putting the puzzle together.
- The Conversation — A surveillance expert who can bug people lives in a isolated world, immersed in his work. One day he records a young couple having a conversation in a park. When he pieces together the entire recording he realises that they are being targeted by a killer. Caul races against time to figure out the truth before the couple get assassinated.
- Memento — this film chronicles two separate stories of Leonard, an ex-insurance investigator who can no longer build new memories as he attempts to find the murderer of his wife, which is the last thing he remembers. One story line moves forward in time while the other tells the story backwards revealing more each time.
- Game Of Thrones — The cast is initially huge and takes place in various separate lands. But with scenes such as the infamous Red Wedding, characters are gradually (and sometimes dramatically) culled, presumably leaving one winner in the end.
In Real Life
- John Truby considers the 2016 US Presidential Election a story in the shape of a vortex.
In Children’s Fiction
A children’s literature equivalent of the spiral story is the picture book in which the reader returns to the same scene over and over, but the scene is a little different each time. For example, the picture and words will have built upon the previous page. The picturebook version is perhaps an ‘upside-down vortex’.
- And To Think I Saw It On Mulberry Street by Dr Seuss is a classic example of this kind of book. The layout of each illustration is exactly the same but has more added to it each time.
- Oliver Jeffers’ Stuck is a story which returns time and again to the tree, each time with more unlikely objects stuck in it. The reason I think of it as an ‘upside-down vortex’ is because instead of funneling objects out of the story, objects are added until the plot can hold no more. On the other hand, it is just a regular vortex if you consider not the objects themselves but the ‘options’. The options are gradually getting weeded out as we see they don’t work.
- 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher is a YA novel in the vortex shape. Clay Jensen comes home one day to find a package waiting for him. Inside are seven cassette tapes. On the cassette tapes are the thirteen reasons why Hannah Baker has killed herself. As Clay listens to the tapes, he learns a lot more than he bargained for about the people around him, and comes to understand just how important it can be to reach out a hand to someone in need.
- Pretty Little Liars has a vortex shape which is not as successful as the mystery introduced in its adult-equivalent, Desperate Housewives, because it refuses to answer the main mystery at the end of the season, which ends up frustrating viewers. (Who killed their friend and the surrounding circumstances.) If a series tries to milk a mystery for too long the viewer/reader gets stuck inside the vortex.
THE BRANCHING PLOT
Branching is a system of paths that extend from a few central points by splitting and adding smaller and smaller parts.
In nature, branching occurs in trees, leaves and river basins.
In storytelling, each branch usually represents a complete society in detail or a detailed stage of the same society that the hero explores. The branching form is found in more advanced fiction.
In Multiple Hero Stories
- American Graffiti
In Social Fantasies
- Gulliver’s Travels
- It’s A Wonderful Life
Interestingly, when Gulliver’s Travels was adapted for children, the first person narrative was changed to third person because in those days children’s books existed primarily for pedagogical/didactic purposes.
- It was thought that the third person narrator could better ‘teach’ something to the young reader.
- It was thought that children were not developmentally ready for the first person because they’d think they were reading about a real person.
- A first person narrative can be more engaging, and therefore too frightening.
THE EXPLOSIVE PLOT
Howard Suber calls this a ‘simultaneous plot’ and credits its origins to one P.T. Barnum, who called his circus ‘The Greatest Show On Earth’ who:
At first staged his performances like everyone else — putting up a big tent with a ring in the centre into which he brought a succession of elephant acts, sword swallower, trapeze artists, clowns, monkeys, and anything else that might entertain people. But in 1870 he came up with an idea that has since been emulated in every other entertainment media: simultaneous, rather than sequential, action.
Being an expert in film, Suber points out that film is particularly well-suited to the simultaneous plot. It was D.W. Griffith who first demonstrated ‘cross-cutting’.
Suber breaks simultaneous action into two types:
1. That in which the audience imagines time ‘freezes’ while we get to see what’s happening in a different place
2. That in which the audience imagines ducking from place to place, seeing one bit but missing out on another.
Split focus is another technique film makers used when telling simultaneous stories. That’s when the audience can see two things going on at once in the same scene, with one character positioned near the camera and another thing of significance positioned in the background.
I’ll put it to you that the explosive novel has become more popular since the era of book to film adaptations, in which the novelist’s only real hope of reaching a large audience is by getting a film made out of their story. Or perhaps film is simply influencing storytellers who write novels.
An explosion has multiple paths that extend simultaneously; in nature, the explosive pattern is found in volanoes and dandelions.
In a story, you can’t show the audience a number of elements all at once, even for a single scene, because you have to tell one thing after another; so, strictly speaking, there are no explosive stories. But you can give the appearance of simultaneity.
In film, this is done with the…crosscut.
Stories that show (the appearance of) simultaneous action imply a comparative explanation for what happens. By seeing a number of elements all at once the audience grapss the key idea embedded in each element. These stories also put more emphasis on exploring the Story world, showing the connections between the various elements there and how everyone fits, or doesn’t fit, within the whole.
— John Truby
The Canterbury Tales is an example of an ancient explosive story.
Explosive Plots From Adult Cinema
- American Graffiti
- Pulp Fiction
- Tristram Shandy
- Last Year At Marienbad
- L.A. Confidential
- Hannah and Her Sisters
Explosive Plots From Children’s Fiction
- After the First Death by Robert Cormier (1979) is a young adult novel which follows three different characters all involved in a terrorist attack. The narrative switches between characters as the action unfolds. The story begins with a narration from Ben Marchand, a teenager who was drawn into the hostage situation as a third party, and for whom the experience has changed everything, most notably the relationship with his father. As Ben tells his story from a hospital bed, the novel shows how the hijacking happened from the point of view of Miro – the youngest member of the terrorist group, a sixteen year old teenager.
THE REPEATING STORY
Some plots are more common in children’s literature. The repeating story is one.
In The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Nodelman and Reimer point out that many children’s stories tell basically the same story twice…
…first in a straightforward manner and then with added subtleties. In Treasure Island, there is a short, exciting, but unsettling encounter between Jim Hawkins and the old pirate who stays at his inn, before Jim has the longer, more exciting, and more unsettling encounter with Long John Silver that makes up the bulk of the novel. The first of these encounters, less complicated version of the story that follows, foreshadows each of its major events. Similarly, Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows begins with the story of how Mole, unable to resist the temptations of the spring air, leaves his home and the duties of spring cleaning to find a more glamorous life of leisure on the river bank. After that, the book tells story after story of animals tempted to leave home. Those who go suffer for it and those who stay are praised. Mole’s story, then, exists as a kind of counterpoint to what happens in the rest of the book, as a one-sided version of the story of leaving home that acts as a schema for the more complex dilemmas of Rat and Toad.
For a cartoon example of this structure see Courage The Cowardly Dog: “Hothead”, Season One, 1999.
While this plot structure can also be seen in many stories for adults, it’s more popular in children’s fiction.
Some children’s novels also present alternating stories that operate as variations of each other. Martha Brooks’s Bone Dance alternates between the stories of two teenagers, both concerned in different ways with understanding their aboriginal heritage, family history, and connection to and claims to ownership of the same piece of land. In Welwyn Wilton Katz’s Out of the Dark, similarly, alternating stories describe how a young boy in the present and a somewhat older man in the ancient past work out their relationships with the original residents of a new land they have come to–the same place in different times. And in His Dark Materials, Lyra and Will must deal, alternately and then together, with parents who have abandoned them, dangerous enemies who want to destroy them, and magical instruments that give them power.
– The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Nodelman and Reimer
- If I Stay by Gayle Forman is an interesting case because the plot alternates between before the car accident and back to the present. The next in the series, Where She Went, is from the point of view of Adam, Mia’s boyfriend.
- Will Grayson, Will Grayson, which was actually written by two separate writers
Related to this is the linked novella. Instead of each dash, imagine any kind of story shape at all, each intersecting with each other. Each story can be related
- by setting
- by mood
- by situation
- by character
- The Joy Luck Club
- various Alice Munro collections
- This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
- Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Examples From Children’s Literature
- Homesick by Roshi Fernando