Monday, July 9, 2012

Day in the Life Plots

Today I'm looking at the rest of the storybook plots from Shutta Crum's PDF. There are 3 left -- numbers 5 through 7 (4 plots if you count her breakdown of 7a and 7b) -- that she calls Parallel Structure, Story Within a Story Structure, and Time Line Structures (both straight line and circular).

I just call these day in the life plots. The reason is because these stories are often little more than "this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened" stories. In my last post I mentioned episodic plots and, as I see it, these plots are the direct equivalent. Things happen in sequence, but this doesn't necessarily imply any logical connection between them. As in real life, sometimes one thing happens after another without any seeming connection (beyond convenience) between them.

And I think the structural differences between Shutta's divisions are pretty simple to see:
  • In a parallel structure, two similar series of events happen side-by-side where we can compare them.
  • In the story within a story structure, a big story happens "around" a smaller story -- that is, we start telling the big story, then we stop while we tell the smaller story (the inner story), and then we finish the big story.
  • And in time line stories, we just follow one series of events from beginning to end. Sometimes we finish in a different place than we started (straight line) and sometimes we finish in the same place where we started (circular).
Now if you've been following the last couple of posts, you may be a bit confused at why I've divided them up the way I have. Here's an overview that might help:
  • Rising action plots tend to focus on a single main event. They're very tightly focused plots that generally cover a very short period of time and a very specific sequence of events held together by a very clear logical connection. Think of these plots as having a strong cause-and-effect relationship. The first event in a rising action plot causes the second event; the second event has to happen to our character. This is the closest structure to a typical writer's concept of plot as a series of intricately related events.
  • Domino plots tend to wander around a bit. There's still a logical connection between the events -- the first one sends the story into the second one, like dominoes falling -- but the logic isn't necessarily as tight. The first event in a domino plot leads to the second event, but that second event may have happened even without the first event. The first event just happened to lead our character to the second event; the second event could have happened to someone else if our character wasn't involved. In essence, our character created the link between the events because he chose to. Here the concept of plot is simply one thing after another happened.
  • Day in the life plots don't have to be logically connected at all -- at least, not beyond the fact that they happened to our character. The connection here is basically the passing of time in the character's life. The concept of plot for this kind of story is really more of a theme, in that the events are related more by their nature than by cause-and-effect. A fireman might put out a small brush fire, then rescue a kitten from a tree, then go speak to first-grade class. Did one event cause the next? No, and our fireman didn't necessarily choose them or their order. But they're all events that could happen in the daily life of a fireman -- a thematic connection -- and therefore make perfect sense in this plot structure. Compare this to a rising action plot, where the sheer randomness of the events would drive the reader crazy -- "What does rescuing the cat have to do with the brush fire?"
I've moved from the most constraining plot to the most flexible plot. By identifying which plot structure best fits your story, you make it easier to avoid mistakes that would derail your story and -- in some cases -- you make it easier to plot your story. The order of events is more critical in a rising action plot than in a day in the life plot because of the demands of logic.

Different plot structures allow us to tell different types of stories. And if you realize that you most enjoy telling, say, day in the life stories, you've just made your writing life a whole lot easier. Use the correct plot structure and your stories will be better as well, because a properly-structured story is much easier for your reader to understand and enjoy.

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