Narration and Storytelling: Focalisation vs Head Hopping


Every narratologist has their own set of terminology. It gets a bit overwhelming. Pick and choose the terms that are useful; discard the rest. Here’s one way of looking at narration in stories. Focalisation comes courtesy of French narrative theorist, Gérard Genette.

When thinking about focalisation, we consider the following:

  • Who speaks (narrative voice)
  • Who sees (focalisation)
  • Who is seen

Writers tend to think in terms of point of view, as in, “Do I write this story in first person or third person?”

That’s a big question and does the job, mostly. Orson Scott Card’s book on point of view is excellent (though the author himself is a renowned homophobe). Paula B’s podcast on point of view is also excellent. Listen to that and you’ll know pretty much all you have to know in order to write a story.

That said, no matter how much you school up on ‘point of view’, the concept of ‘point of view’ will never distinguish between:

  • narrative voice
  • focalisation

And ‘focalisation’ can be important.


Focalisation refers to who is doing the seeing. Who sees the story (in order to report back on it)?

External Focalisers

  • External focalisers exist outside the story.
  • They are also known as ‘narrator focalisers’ or, to writers, simply as ‘narrators’, because the focus of perception seems to be that of someone narrating the story.

Internal Focalisers

  • Perception of the story comes to the audience via a character in a story.
  • In narratology these are known as ‘character focalisers’.

You may have heard different terminology to describe these aspects — extradiegetic vs intradiegetic, anyone? Diegesis (vs. mimesis) has been discussed since Aristotle’s time.

Anyway, back to focalising. Let’s focus.


  • A narrator is the character telling the story.
  • The focaliser is the character who ‘sees’ the story taking place.
  • A focaliser is not necessarily a narrator. Contemporary adult fiction is often written in ‘close third person’. That third person is not a narrator, but they are the focaliser. The narrator in a close third person story isn’t necessarily even noticed by the reader. They are most often invisible, or conflated with ‘the author’.
  • But does it work the other way around? Is a narrator always a focaliser? Nope. The narrator can choose to tell a story through a certain character’s point of view, effectively functioning in the same way as an author does.
  • Narration tends to be more fixed. Even in a book with multiple narrators, authors will usually telegraph when they’re switching narrators, e.g. by alternating chapters. But when it comes to ‘focalisation’, focalising can shift almost imperceptibly over the course of a single paragraph, moving like a camera on a dolly, first offering a wide shot, zooming closer for the long shot, in closer for a head shot. We see a character looking at a cake, then the camera zooms in on the cake. At that point, if we’re ‘seeing’ the cake from a particular character’s point of view, then they are the focalising character.
  • The Great Gatsby is often used as an example in discussions of narration. Written in first person point of view from the perspective of Nick Carraway, the story is told through his voice but his extreme focus on Gatsby means that Gatsby is the focaliser. (We might also say that Gatsby is the ‘main character‘, but that’s a little different again.) Not all the chapters in The Great Gatsby use Gatsby as the focaliser. Gatsby is the focaliser when Nick Carraway goes into his backstory.


One thing I’ve noticed about writing groups is the tendency to search for head-hopping, and some search for violations of point-of-view as voraciously as they hunt down spelling errors and inconsistent syntax.

There’s nothing wrong with this kind of critique – fussy ones, I mean. Genuine cases of head-hopping need to be fixed in a later draft. But I think the criticism of ‘head-hopping’ is regularly misapplied.

Consider the following passage, from Revolutionary Road (Richard Yates). April and Frank Wheeler have just decided to go to France. This is a description of the new household. We start in Frank Wheeler’s head:

…sometimes late at night when his throat had gone sore and his eyes hot from talking, when he hunched his shoulders and set his jaw and pulled his necktie loose and let it hang like a rope, [1] he could glare at the window and see the brave beginnings of a personage.

[2] It was a strange time for the children, too. [3] What exactly did going to France in the fall mean? And why did their mother keep insisting it was going to be fun, as if daring them to doubt it? For that matter, why was she so funny about a lot of things. [4] In the afternoons she would hug them and ask them questions in a rush of ebullience that suggested Christmas Eve, and then a minute later she’d be saying “Yes darling, but don’t talk quite so much, okay? Give Mommy a break.”

[5] Nor did their father’s homecoming do much to help: He might throw them high in the air and give them airplane rides around the house until they were dizzy, but only after having failed to see them altogether during the disturbingly long time it took him to greet their mother at the kitchen door. And the talking at dinner: It was hopeless for either child to try and get a word in edgewise. [6] Michael found he could jiggle in his chair, repeat baby words over and over in a shrill idiot’s monotone or stuff his mouth with mashed potato and hang his jaws open, all without any adult reproof; Jennifer would sit very straight at the table and refuse to look at him, feigning great interest in whatever her parents were saying, though afterwards, waiting for bedtime, she would sometimes go off quietly by herself and suck her thumb.

[1] Yates’ novel is about Frank — the narration is told through Frank Wheeler’s eyes. In other words, Frank is the focaliser. But if you’ve seen the movie you’ll know that Sam Mendes decided to give quite a bit more air-time to the character of April. If we imagine the novel, too, as a series of camera shots, Richard Yates sometimes moves his ‘camera’ outside Frank’s head, higher in the ceiling, looking down upon a scene to capture it in a new light. At [1]  we are definitely in Frank’s head.

[2] marks the shift from close third-person to true omniscient narration. Yates is about to explore this familial experience as it was for the children. But are we actually inside their heads? No, I don’t think so. To move inside their heads, telling the story from the children’s point of view would be a true case of head-hopping. Instead, Yates simply pans out, to a scene which includes the children as well as Frank.

[3] This question is very definitely inside the children’s heads. Or is it? Is this what Frank imagines his children to be thinking? Is this what the young Frank would have thought himself, if he were in his own children’s shoes?

[4] Here we touch upon a small injustice: Even though April involves her children in her own excitement, she doesn’t want to hear them get excited. I’m sure the children would have felt this injustice — children always do — but would they have been able to articulate it? This observation — picked because of its irony — is either the observation of Frank, looking on from afar, or of an omniscient narrator.

[5] Again, even though Frank is here referred to as ‘their father’, this observation could well come from Frank himself, in the kind of hindsight that follows much reflection. Are we to take as a given that novels written in the past tense are the product of much reflection and insight, whether that be from the character or some unnamed narrator? It think this is the main benefit of writing in past-tense (as opposed to present tense), or rather, that is one limit of writing in present-tense; that the narrator does not have the benefit of hindsight, so opportunities for philosophical musing are lost.

[6] Now we are ostensibly inside Michael’s head, but this is really the observation of Frank himself (in hindsight) or of the omniscient narrator.

Yates’ scene may, upon critical inspection, seem to break the Rules of Point Of View, but no one could argue he didn’t know exactly what he was doing. The reader glides smoothly from one character to another. This adds variety to the narrative method and insight into the Wheeler’s family life. Switching from close third-person to omniscient narration is not easy to get right, but if writers timidly avoid it, these advantages are lost.

Take-home points:

  • When a writer ‘pans out’ in order to convey a wider scene, this is not a case of head-hopping. Changing focalisation is a widely used technique.
  • Deviation into the heads of minor characters is not always head-hopping. The writer may be making deliberate use of temporary omniscient narration. Perhaps we are still inside the narrator’s head, witnessing a scene in its entirely with the benefit of hindsight, even though it doesn’t seem like this at line-level (as in the dip into Michael’s head, above).
  • The rules of head-hopping are actually more pliable than many writing guides suggest. We should be wary of pouncing upon head-hopping in other writers’ drafts – as well as when editing our own – because there is really only one question to ask: Does it work?
  • Bear in mind that modern readers seem to have a much lower tolerance for switches in focalisation. Take this article for instance, in which Peter Selgin says the deadliest first page sin is when the point of view is slippery. So if we’re going to play with focalisation and would like to get published traditionally, it’s probably best we don’t do it on the very first page. I do wonder what has led to this shift, and I think it might be TV and film. Audiences are so used to ‘seeing’ stories through a camera that it affects the way we read novels. We all have these little movies playing in our heads now. This is just a theory and I have no idea if it’s true, because I don’t know how readers ‘saw’ novels 100 years ago.

What Is Meant By ‘Mythic Structure’?

William Henry Mander - A Welsh River Valley

Sometimes you find yourself in the middle of nowhere, and sometimes, in the middle of nowhere, you find yourself.


British novel: let’s go to a party and find a wife.
German novel: let’s go to the wilderness and find ourselves.
Russian novel: let’s go to the depths of despair and then find out there is an even deeper level of despair we didn’t know about and go there.


I’ve always wanted to get as far as possible from the place where I was born. Far both geographically and spiritually […] I feel that life is very short and the world is there to see […] and one should know as much of it as possible. One belongs to the whole world, not just one part of it.

Paul Bowles, American expatriate composer, author, and translator

Myth can be considered a genre. It is the oldest genre and to this day is the most popular.

Myth is not a part of every story. Even Joseph Campbell himself said that there was no mythic structure to be found in 25% of stories.

Mythic form is enjoyed by audiences across cultures.

Raison D’être

Myths are born of the sticky dark. That’s why the truest have survived thousands of years. They present fictional answers to primal questions: Why do tragic things happen? Which is stronger, love or death? What if death is just the beginning?

Marcus Sakey, Publishers Weekly


Originally, the Greeks invented myths which are now the foundation of Western thought. Even back then these were considered allegorical and metaphorical. In Greek myths, there were always at least two levels of beings: Gods and humans. The gods represented the aspect of man which was able to gain enlightenment and excellence. The gods did not necessarily rule the humans.

Consider the Greek gods ‘psychological models’ which represent character traits.


Myths use a clearly prescribed set of symbolic objects. Original audiences always knew that these objects stood for something else. These objects also represent something within the hero. Even today, audiences will recognise these symbolic archetypes:

  • Journey = life path
  • Tree = tree of life
  • Underground = unexplored region of the self
  • Crossroads = moral dilemma
  • Darkness = death

Take The Pilgrim’s Progress as a fairly modern story making use of mythic symbols:

Although The Pilgrim’s Progress is allegorical, it is impossible even for an adult to read about Christian’s journey to the Celestial City in any other way than as a story. The passages through the Slough of Despond and the Valley of Humiliation, the fight with the monster Apollyon, the loss of Christian’s comrade Faithful in Vanity Fair, the crossing of the River of Death: these are actual and vivid events, as real in their own way as the mass of detail with which Defoe built up Robinson Crusoe. It may be noted that the themes of all these three books the dangerous journey, as in The Pilgrim’s Progress, the desert island, as in Robinson Crusoe: and the miniature or other imaginary world, as in Gulliver have served for innumerable later books, both children’s and adult, and are by no means worn out.

Written for Children by John Rowe Townsend

For more on this see The Three Main Types Of Modern Mythic Structure, in which I have added an extra.


  • Lord of the Rings
  • Superman/Spiderman/Batman etc – comic book stories are modern myth forms.
  • Close Encounters
  • Crocodile Dundee
  • Dances With Wolves
  • The Lion King
  • Groundhog Day
  • Avatar science fiction stories often use the myth form, not only because myth is about the journey but also because myth is the story form that explores the most fundamental  human distinctions (human/robot etc.)
  • Thelma and Louise – a female buddy movie. Buddy movies tend to make use of mythic structure.
  • Casablanca
  • The African Queen classic example of river as setting in a mythic story, along with Heart of Darkness
  • La Strada
  • Beauty and the Beast
  • The Piano myth blended with romance
  • Bringing Up Baby
  • Singin’ in the Rain
  • Dona Flor And Her Two Husbands
  • Annie Hall
  • Sleepless in Seattle
  • True Grit  basically a crime story, blended with mythic structure
  • Harry Potter mixture of myth, fairytale and coming-of-age in a school story. Typically for heroes of myth stories, Harry is a foundling, abandoned by his parents and brought up by horrible people.
  • Le Week-end a film written by Hanif Kureishi in which the journey takes the form of a romantic weekend away with the purpose of rekindling a failing marriage
  • Locke a road trip with one on-screen character played by Tom Hardy. Extraordinarily well scripted, we really only see Tom Hardy sitting in his car. The opponents he meets on his journey come only in form of voices through his car phone. By the end of the journey he is in a different place both physically and spiritually.
  • I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore – an indie-film which provides an excellent example of modern use of mythic symbolism such as the labyrinth and the river. The backdrop is American suburbia. The main hero is a woman, though she is joined by a man. Interesting for its gender inversions.
  • Wildlike a 14 year old girl is sent to stay with her uncle in Alaska one summer as her mother is receiving treatment for an illness. She is soon faced with the task of running away from the uncle and making her way back to Seattle. She meets various helpers and opponents along the way, and contributes to a grieving man’s character arc as he grieves for his own wife’s recent death.
  • Jolene a 2008 film based on a story by E.L. Doctorow. A young orphan marries but in a Cinderella-like tragedy things don’t go well and she ends up on the road, meeting all sorts of people along the way, mostly horrible.
  • Hunt For The Wilderpeople a New Zealand comedy drama about the relationship between a cranky man and a boy, who go bush, pursued by the police for suspected child abuse.

Then there are computer games, such as Halo and Red Dead Redemption.


Myths and folktales are assumed to be the very first stories in the history of humankind, closely related to rites of passage. Thus, a fairytale becomes a travel instruction for a young person on the way toward adulthood, directions on exactly how to behave in various situations. […] The hero’s task in a folktale is totally impossible for an “ordinary” human being, it is always a symbolic or allegorical depiction. Allegories (like Dante’s Divina Commedia or Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress) are also travel instructions. But the addressee knows that you cannot die and then rise from the dead, nor be eaten by a whale and then come out again, nor descend into the realm of death, and so on. When the March sisters try to follow Bunyan’s instructions for a journey, they have to “translate” the allegory into more everyday conditions. […] The modern version of a travel instruction is formula fiction in all its forms: crime novel, science fiction, horror, romance, soap opera, and so on. The addressee of these texts also knows that the story has very little to do with life. On the contrary, the text is based on detachment, especially through its exotic settings and incredible events. Many scholars have noted the similarities between fairytales and formula fiction. As early as the 1920s Propp suggested that his model for folktale analysis could be applied to novels of chivalry and other texts with fixed narrative structures.

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in Children’s Literature

Nikolajeva refers to Umberto Eco’s analysis of structure of James Bond movies as an example of such analysis.

Grammar of James Bond

Award-winning authors such as Kate DiCamillo typically write with a mythic structure, though the list could go on:

[A] tendency to reflection is why DiCamillo’s style often echoes with the dark-light verities of Victorian or Edwardian children’s literature which, too, dwell on the private lives of playthings and speaking animals on heroic quests.

Canberra Times


There will be tests along the journey.

Thelma and Louise

Most buddy stories use a mythic journey. This is based on Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu. The buddies will encounter a number of opponents on the road.

Though essentially a crime story, True Grit uses the myth structure, with its series of tests on the road, to unfold the story and play out the accounting.

Myth is blended with other genres in modern mythic stories.

This is to make a story more relevant to modern audiences.

But there’s another reason for blending myth with other genres: In an old, purely mythic story the opposition is normally broken up into a number of different characters. These opponents are generally strangers to the hero, and the hero meets and defeats these characters in succession. This is the source of the biggest flaw of the myth form, which is that it is intensely episodic. The episodic story is one where the scenes stand out but don’t connect together, so the overall story doesn’t build. That’s why we add those other genres to myth other genres unify the mythic structure.

In a mythic story, a character goes on a journey, ultimately leading to oneself.


Key question for a hero: What is your destiny?

When the hero returns home he/she discovers what was already inside his/her deepest capabilities.

The irony is that the hero has to go on a journey to find out what s/he already had.

The journey is one of the great story techniques of all time. It solves the biggest problem the writer is: How to express character change. That ultimately is what the audience is there to see. People undergo character changes in real life, but we probably don’t know it.

The person who invented the journey technique was brilliant, because when the character is sent on a physical journey, and every time he meets an opponent there is a mini-anagnorisis. The journey is a physical manifestation of the internal change of the character. This is why the myth form has been the primary story structure for more than 2000 years.

Techniques of circular time are associated with the myth form. These stories are circular. Home-away-home. The second time the hero is home s/he realises what was already in him/her.

(For more on shapes of plots in children’s literature see here.)

The setting is often a road trip or a river.

A river is more than a path: it’s a road into or out of somewhere. (See Heart of Darkness, The African Queen.) For more on the symbolism of the river, see here.

Sometimes the main character doesn’t actually travel far in distance. For example, in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, the main character visits various places around his own suburb/school arena. He ends up ‘battling’ with various different characters who were already known to him but who he gets to know better over the course of his own spiritual awakening.

The hero has a public revelation.


In myth stories, it’s not simply a ‘self’ revelation it is a public revelation. The hero discovers that s/he is not just a regular person but also a king/superhero/great leader. This is a metaphor for a character realising s/he has to take responsibility for not just him/herself but for the community, as a leader. Sometimes these stories include a ‘cosmic’ revelation, which is where a hero gets a vision about how an entire society should act in the future: Moses on the mountain top, Jesus on the mount.

In an episode of Big Love, Nicolette is standing on the roof at one point giving a speech from the roof as the neighbours have a BBQ.

In the film Le Week-end, Nick ends up making a speech (and thereby demonstrating a anagnorisis) at Morgan’s dinner party.

The hero takes his/her ‘family’ on the journey.


The family doesn’t have to be related by blood.

As in the best myth stories, the hero [of True Grit] brings her “family” – Rooster and LaBoeuf – along for the ride.

– John Truby

Myth stories have a tremendous number of story beats. A beatis a screenwriting term which refers to an event, decision, or discovery that alters the way the protagonist pursues his or her goal.

Myth stories tend to be linear circular starting in one place, going on a journey, returning back home. (Home-away-home stories also popular in children’s stories, right down to picture books.)

Myth stories emphasise two key structure steps: the opponent and anagnorisis.

There is a small anagnorisis after meeting each opponent, and a big anagnorisis when the hero returns home.

Sometimes the hero has changed so much that s/he can’t return home. (e.g. Thelma & Louise, Locke)

Myth shows the widest character arc of all the genres.

Birth to death, from animal to divine.

It was originally thought that women were a part of the natural order of things whereas men were the only ones who could genuinely rise above it. This explains why original mythic stories always starred men. Women as heroes are a very new development in story.

Myths tend to take a meandering form.

Wizard of Oz

The hero has a desire but it’s not intense.

They covers a great deal of territory in a haphazard way. In Le Week-end, the main characters are in Paris but they literally throw away any small plans they had and at one point their aimlessness is shown with them driving around in a taxi looking out at the sights with no destination in mind. In Locke, the main character knows exactly where he is going. He’s made his decisions before the film even starts. The disorder and therefore the conflict comes from those around him, and the dramas they tell him about on the phone. That film is interesting because he at no time changes his original plan. That, of course, is the point of the film to paint a portrait of a man who has made a mess of his life but instead of trying to wallpaper over the hole, he is taking the decision to make it ‘right’ no matter the cost.

They encounter a great number of characters from different levels of society. It is particularly effective to make the rich rub up against the poor. In Le Week-end our main characters are staying in a hotel which is out of their budget, at a dinner party with a colleague who has seen great publishing success.

The hero of a myth tends to be a single unit of personality, separated cleanly from others.

Forrest Running

The hero is searching for his/her ‘destiny’. This is what the true self was born to do. The mythic form therefore starts with the idea assumed shared by the audience that people do, indeed, have a life purpose.

Classic myth stories typically have a warrior for a hero. Even today the main characters are disproportionately male.

In a traditional mythic story, the hero serves as a model for the addressee.

Originally, the addressee was meant to learn from the hero simply by modelling their behaviour on the hero’s.

This is now an old-fashioned way of creating stories. Storytelling has shifted from ‘modelling’ to ‘learning’. These days the addressee (ie. audience/reader) is meant to figure out what is happening in the story, who these characters really are and what really happened. In this way, we are meant to discover, through thinking a bit harder, what it means to live a good life.

Myth is one of the less thematic genres.

Highly Thematic Less Thematic Genres

Instead of moral difficulties of the characters, myth tends to emphasise:

  • surprise
  • suspense
  • imagination
  • the psychological and emotional states of the characters

The hero wins because he/she is essentially ‘good’.

Matrix Movie Poster

Quite often, the hero remains good and the opponent remains bad throughout the story. The hero might have a psychological shortcoming but is basically good. The opponent is morally flawed or even evil. They compete for a goal. The hero makes mistakes but doesn’t act immorally. But the opponent executes a number of immoral actions. The hero wins simply because he/she is good. (See The Matrix, Forrest Gump, The Terminator, The Wizard of Oz.)


For the past 3000 years, the heroes of stories with mythic structure have been almost always male, leading to the symbolic annihilation of female characters.

This is partly because in a female-led mythic story the heroine requires an extra step: She needs to break free of the constraints of home. (See Thelma and Louise.)

As John Truby says, mythic stories tend to be highly ‘episodic‘ and therefore disjointed if not blended properly with other genres.

The mythic structure is certainly popular, but has been done many times before. It’s possible that the most original stories to emerge will veer away from mythic structure altogether. However, since film audiences are already conditioned for myth, such novel stories are likely to be considered ‘fringe’ and will have less money allocated to their production and marketing. Indie studios are more likely to take such risks. However, you’re more likely to see non-mythic novels than non-mythic Hollywood films for exactly this reason. Genre in novels/short stories/indie film is evolving at a faster pace and is more open to innovation.

Since myth tends to rely on simple distinctions between ‘good vs evil’, nuance can be sacrificed. The message that ‘good doesn’t always win out’ isn’t easily conveyed by the mythic structure.


Features of Epic Stories:

  • The fate of a nation is determined by the actions of a single individual or family.
  • In an epic story, the hero must be at the fulcrum of the nation, and therefore spearheading some big change in his/her society.
  • In the story, the nation will change from one state to another.
  • Generally, heroes of epics are kings or politician archetypes.
  • The character change of the hero matches the change that occurs in the nation. So the kingdom has to be corrupt/failing in some way. Enter the hero. The hero will have certain shortcomings at the beginning, even though they are going to help change the nation. We need to see major flaws that are holding that character back. These flaws need to match up with the flaws in the nation.
  • The story tracks the hero, who undergoes change, grows over the course of the story, in the same way and at the same way the hero grows. Mad Men is an example of an epic. The growth of Don Draper or actually of the female characters surrounding Don Draper mirror the changes that happened in the 1960s and early 1970s in America. (It’s more of an anti epic, see below.)
  • This is a challenging form: it’s the biggest form possible (the opposite of quiet/domestic.) Yet it must be matched with family drama, because we see the epic hero’s ‘small’ life as well as his/her big one.

In short, an ‘epic’ is about the hero leading change within a society.

In the fantasy genre, ‘epic fantasy’ is commonly known as ‘high fantasy’. (Though some would argue that these subgenres are different perhaps with ‘high fantasy’ being more about the setting often medieval and ‘epic fantasy’ being more about the scale the entire world is affected.)

The features of mythic structure have been outlined above, but it’s not necessary for a story with a ‘mythic structure’ to star an ‘epic hero’. A story utilising a mythic structure can be a low-stakes, quiet story, affecting only the main character and his/her immediate family.


What makes a story an ‘anti-myth’? Basically, it’s a subversion.

  • Whereas the heroes of myths have almost superhuman powers, heroes in anti-myths have real human shortcomings. See Northrop Frye.
  • In an anti-myth the delineations between good and bad are blurred. The heroes are morally flawed, if not downright anti-heroes. Anti-heroes do not serve as models for the addressees.
  • Myths tend to take place on roads and rivers, but the anti-myth might have the characters take a journey to nowhere significant, or nowhere particularly different from before, a la Lonesome Dove. (The typical setting of typical dime Western novels was a lush river setting.)
  • Whereas heroes of myths have a self- and public- anagnorisis, heroes of anti-myths don’t really change a la Don Draper of Mad Men. In myths the character arc is huge; in the anti-myth, there may be no real arc. In a ‘mock-myth’, the hero doesn’t learn anything once returning home. (e.g. Ulysses, a modern form of The Odyssey.)
  • If heroes of myths win because they are essentially ‘good’, the heroes of anti-myths can lose despite their goodness, because shit happens.
  • Whereas myths focus on psychological states of the heroes, anti-myths focus on moral dilemmas.
  • Whereas heroes of myths tend to be separate identities, heroes of anti-myths can be represented by ensemble characters, with each character representing a different aspect of self. (Winnie-the-Pooh, Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants)
  • Whereas myth stories are circular home-away-home structured stories, anti-myths can take on a variety of different forms, including linear, branching, explosive etc.


  • The Anatomy of Story by John Truby
  • The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
  • From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature by Maria Nikolajeva

Header painting: William Henry Mander A Welsh River Valley

Shapes of Plots In Children’s Literature

Ernst Haeckel, (German, 1834-Jena, August 8, 1919), Illustration No. 71, Stephoidea from Art forms in Nature, 1904

While this post started off with a focus on children’s literature, it is absolutely a post about all kinds of narrative, for any human audience.

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 is a traditionally Western story.

Linear Plots In Adult Film

A single main character goes after a strong desire. This describes most Hollywood films are linear. As the main character experiences a character arc, the audience is along for the ride. In the best linear stories, the audience experiences some kind of revelation alongside the main character. The majority of films coming out of Hollywood are linear in shape. This is the O.G. plot shape. It goes back a very long way.

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 [Vladamir] Propp and [Joseph] Campbell as possible instruments to examine the structure of adventure stories, and to those of [Bruno] 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.

My sense is that if you go far enough in any stylistic direction, you can make a beautiful and complex representation of reality, although that representation may not be linear. God knows we’ve got enough linearity in our representations of our world. We’ve tremendously overvalued analytical knowledge, rationality, etc. To me, the process of writing is just reading what I’ve written and—like running your hand over one of those mod glass stovetops to find where the heat is—looking for where the energy is in the prose, then going in the direction of that. It’s an exercise in being open to whatever is there.

George Saunders


Characters who embark upon a winding story don’t seem to be going in any particular direction.

In nature, the winding plot can take the form of rivers, snakes and the brain. Many stories featuring rivers might be winding plots.

In Myth

  • 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

In Other Stories For Adults

  • David Copperfield and many of Dickens’ stories

In Children’s Stories

  • Diary Of A Wimpy Kid books, especially those written before Jeff Kinney actively started writing the books around the fact they’d later be adapted for Hollywood.
  • A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck, sequel to A Long Way From Chicago. Kirkus has this to say about it: “Peck’s slice-of-life novel doesn’t have much in the way of a sustained plot; it could almost be a series of short stories strung together, but the narrative never flags, and the book, populated with distinctive, soulful characters who run the gamut from crazy to conventional, holds the reader’s interest throughout.”


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. You’ll have seen this shape all over the Internet if you’re interested in this kind of thing. It’s known as ‘the dramatic arc’.

Exposition, inciting incident, rising tension, climax, denouement, new situation

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.

Family Sagas

In family sagas 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 this replaces the lower suspense of episodic writing.

  • Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides chronicles 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.

The Picaresque

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 categorises 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 Maidtakes 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.

Maria Nikolajeva

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

One of the few novels to successfully employ an episodic structure is Voyage of the Dawn Treader, something that makes it worth reading despite other problems. Dawn Treader is a travel story, and each island the characters stop at represents a self-contained episode, with its own conflict and pay off. But at the same time, each episode builds toward the overarching plot of their quest to find the Seven Lords of Narnia.

Five Popular Tropes Writers Struggle With

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

Maria Nikolajeva is telling us that Tom Sawyer is a mixture of winding, 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 in a truly episodic plot, but you might choose to put one in.
  • 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 story. 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.


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 picture books 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 ‘singulative’ 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.

A Diary Of A Wimpy Kid book looks very similar but more like the image below. This is because Jeff Kinney writes his gags first then fits a plot around it. Each gag has its own self-contained story arc, with the full seven stages of story structure. The stakes of each self contained gag are raised over the course of the story. So for example an early gag might be about Greg failing to get any sleep, but later in the book the whole family will be involved in a fake getaway saga, because Greg has imagined some fellow travellers are following them with the aim of stealing all their stuff. (That example is from The Long Haul.)

In Wrecking Ball, the episodes of Greg’s life come from the ‘present’ as well as the past, and culminate in a chaotic scene in which the Heffleys’ house is surrounded by all the unwanted opposition mentioned previously in the story. So although the diary entries seem episodic, they build to something big — a huge, unlikely, slapstick scene.

What about The Lion King? The theme emphasises circularity, but Simba goes on a mythic journey to ‘find himself’:

The Circle of Life presents the cosmic drama as a circular story. For all Simba and Arjuna know, lions ate antelopes and warriors fought big struggles for countless aeons and will continue to do so for ever and ever. The eternal repetition gives power to the story, implying that this is the natural course of things, and that if Arjuna shuns combat or if Simba refuses to become king, they will be rebelling against the very laws of nature.

Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century


Think of a 2D or 3D spiral.

Stories about races, tournaments are likely to be vortex plots.

In Adult Thriller Film

A character keeps returning to a single event or memory and explores it at progressively deeper levels. Vertigo is the classic example.

The film poster of Vertigo itself shows the shape of its plot.

vertigo poster plot shape

Jane Alison in her book Meander, Spiral, Explode offers the example of Mr. Potter by Jamaica Kincaid:

I wonder if first person retrospective narrativesespecially obsessive ones — might naturally follow a vortex. It’s how I’ve found lyric memoir to work; maybe it’s true of fictive versions of retrospection, too. A preoccupied (haunted?) narrator turns around and around in her hands the most potent moments of her past, gazing at repeating patterns and shapes as she spins. I see this happening — almost literally see a narrator turning a magic spindle in her hands — in Kincaid’s Mr. Potter.

Jane Alison

Jane Alison also encourages me to think about the following:

  • If you’re reading a book and a lot of the sentences/chapters open with ‘and’, you might be reading a vortex plot.
  • If you’re reading a book in which the narrator slowly reveals themselves to be an intradiegetic part of the story, you might be reading a vortex plot.
  • If you’re reading a book with a witch storyline, and there are spindles and weaving and threads, you might be reading a vortex plot, because the spiral is a symbol indicating the voyage into one’s inner self, and a lot of witch stories are about that. Witch stories also tend to be feminine, and historically, only men were allowed to venture outside the house. (Which explains why a household item of servitude, the broom, became a magical flying device.)

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 picture book 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 funnelling 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 young adult 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.


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. John Yorke talks a lot about this particular story structure in his book Into The Woods, though I feel he ignores all the other variations of telling a story.

In Multiple Hero Stories

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.

  1. It was thought that the third person narrator could better ‘teach’ something to the young reader.
  2. It was thought that children were not developmentally ready for the first person because they’d think they were reading about a real person.
  3. A first person narrative can be more engaging, and therefore too frightening.

Jane Alison calls this the fractals shape. In fiction, she posits many major writers (Woolf, Joyce, James, Bolano) create fractals at a sentence level. People have done word counts of their texts and found self-replicating rations between sentence lengths.

Fractals are naturally hierarchical.

But the most fractal kind of work —ironically, since it seems like no order at all (to me) —is the stream of consciousness narrative.

texts that start with a ‘seed’ or blueprint that spawns several more

Jane Alison, Meander, Spiral, Explode

Alison points out the distinction between fractal narratives and cellular ones: in cellular narratives the segments are equal. But in fractal narratives an initial segment is more likely to be compacted like a seed and generate the rest.

As literary examples of the fractal narrative, Alison offers “The Fifth Story” by Clarice Lispector and Crossing the River by Caryl Phillips.

Branching stories are non-linear, in their own way.


The non-linear story community has been deep into this particular plot shape for decades. When I say non-linear, I sometimes mean the Choose Your Own Adventure type of story, though the owners of that brand are very keen that we don’t use that phrase generically, so let’s call these stories Pick a Path.

Another word used by this community: ‘Dynamic fiction is a term suggested by Caelyn Sandel some months ago to describe her work.’ More on this term at Emily Short’s interactive storytelling blog. This word was suggested to replace ‘interactive fiction’, to get around the politics of that. Others have pointed out that there was already a word in use to describe dynamic, and that was ‘kinetic’.

interactive fiction — shortened to IF, which is a nice double meaning, since interactive stories are all about what happens ‘if’ the player does this versus that. Opinions vary widely about how ‘interactive’ a story must be before it deserves the term ‘interactive’ fiction. Is a page-turn-equivalent interactive? If that’s the case, a book made out of tree is interactive.


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’. This guy:

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/ex 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. It looks a little retro today.

The Canterbury Tales is an example of an ancient exploding story.

When it comes to novels, I really like Jane Alison’s tips on how to pick an exploding — or radial — plot shape:

Narratives that strike me as radial are those in which a powerful centre holds the fictional world characters’ obsessions, incidents in timetightly in its gravitational force. That centre could be a crime or trauma or something a figure wants to avoid but can’t help falling into: something devastatingly magnetic. Unlike in a spiral, the story itself — the incidents we see dramatized — barely moves forward in time. Instead, a reader might have a sense of being drawn again and again to a hot core — or, conversely, of trying to pull away from that core. You might already know the end at the start and get many fractured views of the same moment, or many fractured views of things avoiding that moment. You might feel a sense of violent scatteration from a central point. Radials can be centrifugal or centripetal, but linear they are not.

Jane Alison, Meander, Spiral, Explode

Centrifugal Force: Mud flying off a tire. TFW sitting on a merry-go-round and being pushed outwards while spinning.

Centripetal Force: the rotation of satellites around a planet. A satellite orbiting the planet is an example of centripetal force. Twirling a lasso, spinning a ball on a string. The force of tension on the rope pulls the object in toward the centre.

Jane Alison offers the example of Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez as an example of a radial or exploding plot shape.

Chronicle of a Death Foretold iris murder
Jane Alison’s eye metaphor for the radial shape of Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Jane Alison describes Chronicle of a Death Foretold as an inverse panopticon. Instead of a guard keeping watch over prisoners (the original purpose of a panopticon), visible from his central vantage point, the murder happens in the centre of a circle of onlookers. (Modern, open plan living spaces remind me of a panopticon, which could be used to great horror effect in a suburban setting, imo. I like our older house, with its separate rooms with doors, which can be heated properly.)

Jane Alison also offers Why Did I Ever by Mary Robison as an example of a radial or spiral plot shape.

You might be reading a radial story if:

  • A murder happens at the beginning and the narrative winds out slowly, showing how and why this happened, as in a ‘whydunnit’ rather than a ‘whodunnit‘. Whydunnits are considered more literary, generally. The whodunnit is a bit more genre, and the fun derives from second-guessing which of the cast it might be. (The best of these are also very cleverly written, make no mistake.)
  • Lots of circle imagery combined with linear imagery, perhaps
  • Perhaps themes around fate, which encourage the reader to ask: At what point could this tragedy have been averted? (What was the ‘crossroads moment’?)
  • Characters who are blind to what’s really going on around them
  • An extradiegetic narrator looking back on a time long ago with a significant amount of extra hindsight
  • A series of vignettes with a kaleidoscopic, manic feel
  • The reader pieces the story together bit by bit

Exploding Plots From Adult Cinema

  • American Graffiti
  • Pulp Fiction
  • Traffic
  • Syriana
  • Crash
  • Nashville
  • Tristram Shandy
  • Ulysses
  • Last Year At Marienbad
  • Ragtime
  • L.A. Confidential
  • Hannah and Her Sisters
  • Men, Women and Children, based on the novel by Chad Kultgen. The setting is important in this story because the characters are all beginning to integrate technology with their sexuality. As the story progresses the writer reveals how each character is connected.

Exploding 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.


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: “Hot Head”, Season One, 1999.

Roberta Seelinger Trites also writes of the repeating story structure and how common it is in feminist children’s literature in particular. Trites doesn’t use ‘repeating’ as terminology, but focuses on one type of plot that does fold back on itself — the story within a story. Granted, this is a slightly different thing, to do with diegetic levels, if you’re interested.

A common pattern among feminist children’s novels is the use of the “nested narrative,” that is, of a plot structure in which a framing tale contains some sort of story-within-the-story. The embedded narrative usually parallels the framing tale in both plot and theme. Gayle Greene comments on the prominence of embedded narratives as a mode of feminine communication when she describes their recurrence within postmodern feminist writing. Greene defines the reason for the proliferation of the structure within recent women’s novels as being a way for women to work through problems by revisiting them at different points in time in a pattern “which allows repetition with revision”. Greene notes that feminist critics and novelists alike have rejected the “linear sequence of traditional quests and Bildungsroman plots” in favour of more circular narratives. […] Thus, feminist children’s novels with embedded narrative structures are potentially a source of social criticism.

Moreover, as is the case with many parallel embedded narratives written for adults, such texts written for children tend to emphasise discussions of art and of creativity because the story-within-a-story creates an atmosphere wherein the very nature of narrative becomes a fundamental issue. Embedded narratives therefore complicate sequential narrative linearity by demonstrating that “life, as well as novels, is constructed through frames, and that it is finally impossible to know where one frame ends and another beings.”

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Waking Sleeping Beauty

This kind of ’embedded narrative’ is a cousin of the parallactic story — a form of narrative in which any given temporal event is shown to the audience through the viewpoints of various characters. This means there’s no ‘eye of god’ and no concept of ‘the real truth’. Stories like these convey the idea that there is no such thing as the truth.

A graphic of this plot might look like a circle within a circle, or a baby inside a mother. There would be an umbilical cord linking mother and child together, but these stories are about human connection in general — human connection starts with the mother. Trites calls this the ‘maternal narrative structure‘:

In and of itself, the narrative structure of the embedded narrative evokes for the reader a textual representation of a mother’s pregnant body. With its housing of one narrative body within another narrative, the structure implies feminine fertility, so nested narratives can themselves become a child-of-the-mother image; the subnarratives are the offspring of the narrative. The very structure of a nested narrative places a metaphorical value on birth.

Moreover, the maternal embedded narrative evokes the awareness of interpersonal connections that Gilligan associates with feminine decision making. The story-within-the story establishes a weblike structure from within which a storyteller communicates about the importance of community. The structural pattern of the nested narrative represents the interconnectedness of narratives, while the thematic content of the story emphasises the interconnectedness of relationships, especially between mother and daughter figures. Nested narratives that follow this pattern reproduce mothering in that they articulate the maternal process as a creative, artistic process. When this articulation occurs, the text joins form and function to glorify the maternal body. And this pattern may encourage child readers to question such social traditions as delegitimising motherhood and such prescribed narrative traditions in children’s literature as the linear plot.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Waking Sleeping Beauty

In short, the maternal story structure is a political stand against the linear plot shape, which is dominant.

The ending in a repeating plot is oftentimes an ‘aperture’ ending.

‘Aperture’ Endings In Children’s Literature

Many people associate children’s stories with happy endings, but in contemporary works, there is not always a happy ending. Instead, we may see an APERTURE.

An aperture is a new opening, indicating further possibility for character development.

An aperture plot allows for many possible endings.

Readers might expect a sequel from such an ending, but this sort of ending would in fact be ruined by a sequel since readers are robbed of the chance to envision an ending for themselves.

Aperture has become very common in modern children’s literature. Some even say that it is now banal.

To counteract the banality, some modern stories now return to a happy ending, but with an ironic undertone.

The Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature by Maria Nikolajeva


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

This technique is hardly limited to children’s books. It’s equally common in adult fiction. A downside to this is the tendency for readers to enjoy one point of view more than the others, which means the switch feels a little irritating. Perhaps this reward the reader as much as it ‘punishes’ and isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It is worth writers examining our reason for writing in an alternating point of view. I’ve heard it advised that in a story about a girl, it’s a good idea to ‘draw boy readers in’ by including the male perspective. I’ve also heard it said that in boy-girl shifting narratives, the boy chapter should open, otherwise boys will be alienated by the voice of a girl. I can’t even be bothered digging into what’s wrong with that view, but be aware that it’s out there.

The Affair is a TV series for adults which does an interesting thing with its alternating (and repeating) plot structure. (It is also a classic parallactic story. See above.) First we see a family man about to embark upon an extramarital affair. Then the perspective shifts to the target of his affection and the audience is encouraged to reflect on his story — the woman’s point of view depicts him as far more predatory than the story from his perspective. This series expects the audience to bring quite a lot to the table — hopefully the audience has already read between the lines and suspects the man from the outset, as he mansplains stuff to the black female principal of his children’s school. I found this series so uncomfortable that I couldn’t bear to watch more than half of the first season, but I admit it’s a very interesting and useful structure for a story, asking us to examine the nature of truth and subjectivity, as well as who we tend to believe. This could be modified for the young adult literature market to examine some very uncomfortable injustices, and in fact has been utilised by Malorie Blackman in Noughts and Crosses. This is probably a trend which started in young adult literature and moved up into the world of adult fiction, as so often happens.

The alternating story is perhaps showcased best in linked short story collections.


aka novels-in-stories

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

  • thematically
  • by setting
  • by mood
  • by situation
  • by character

Adult Examples

  • The Joy Luck Club
  • various Alice Munro collections e.g. The Beggar Maid
  • This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz (a milkshake duck)
  • Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
  • Kate Forsyth wrote Winter Greens (a Rapunzel story) in a form which emulates the main imagery: that of the braid. She writes with three strands of story, braided together. Sometimes the structure of a story has been inspired by the imagery.

Examples From Children’s Literature

  • Homesick by Roshi Fernando


Header painting: Ernst Haeckel, (German, 1834-Jena, August 8, 1919), Illustration No. 71, Stephoidea from Art forms in Nature, 1904

Gilgamesh and The Wizard of Oz

The Epic of Gilgamesh

As modern humans we are all familiar with the Quest story. The nature of the quest story is explained succinctly by Michael Foley in his pop-psychology book The Age of Absurdity:

There is a rich and unbroken tradition of quest literature running from The Epic of Gilgamesh in 1000 BCE to The Wizard of Oz in the twentieth century. The scholar of myth, Joseph Campbell, has shown how the quest saga has been important in every period and culture and always has the same basic structure, though local details may vary. Each saga begins with a hero receiving a call to adventure which makes him abandon his familiar, safe environment to venture into the dangerous unknown. There, he undergoes a series of tests and trials, negotiates many difficulties and slays many monsters. As a reward he wins a magical prize — a Golden Fleece, a princess, holy water, a sacred flame or an elixir of eternal life. Finally he brings the prize back from the kingdom of dread to redeem his community.

Likewise, the Quest Story has been very popular in children’s fiction.

Wizard of Oz

This narrative hasn’t always been the dominant one; the Quest Story started with The Epic of Gilgamesh. Before that, stories tended to star female characters, because they were about the birth of the world, and in order for things to come into existence, our ancestors believed that a female being was necessary. If you’ve never read The Epic of Gilgamesh, here’s Foley’s summary:

The hero, Gilgamesh, a Mesopotamian king, becomes disenchanted with his kingdom and life and departs on a quest, which involves dealing with ferocious lions, scorpion men and a beautiful goddess who attempts to detain him with surprisingly modern temptations: ‘Day and night be frolicsome and gay; let thy clothes be handsome, thy head shampooed, thy body bathed.’ Nevertheless, the hero persists in his quest and, diving to the bottom of a deep sea, plucks the plant of immortality. But the ending has a nasty twist that would have to be changed in any movie version: when Gilgamesh lies down to rest a serpent steals the plant, eats it and attains eternal youth. In mythology the snake is always the villain.

mesopotamia map


Storytellers such as John Truby argues a case for a departure from these old stories, as have others before him. (See Marjery Hourihan: The Centrality of The Adventure Story) But can we ever really get away from this narrative? Foley says we’re all living the narrative. By ‘abstract seeker’ he’s talking about people who say they ‘want to travel’, but if you were to ask them to where, and for what purpose? they would be hard-pressed to say why — instead, the modern imperative is to be constantly on the move.

Campbell argues that these narratives symbolize an essentially inward journey—the hero breaks free from the conventional thinking of his time, ventures out into the dark of speculative thought, finds the creative power to change himself and wishes to share this with others. The prize won after much uncertainty and danger is knowledge. “The hero is the one who comes to know.” So the narrative has four stages: departure, trial, prize, return; these are the same as the goals of the abstract seeker: detachment, difficulty, understanding, transformation.

The Narrative of the Modern 'Abstract Seeker'
The Narrative of the Modern ‘Abstract Seeker’