4 More Plot Variations

In part 1, I covered plot patterns beginning with character or beginning with a pattern such as the Hero’s Journey. This continues the discussion of 9 ways to plot.

5. Combinations of Plot Paradigms

Many descriptions of how to write plot combine a couple of these paradigms:

Overlaid with Three Act Structure.
Syd Field: Snowflake + Important Points Paradigm. Syd Field basically advises a Snowflake approach to writing plot, but overlays a paradigm that points to important events and connections among those events. His plot points aren’t labeled with reference to the hero and his journey, but with reference to the three act structure; often, however they coincide. Field works mostly with screenwriters, so is emphasis on the three act structure comes from that.
Emphasis on Inner Plot. Peter Dunne in Emotional Structure: Creating the Story Beneath the Plot likewise has a chart of events, with a variation of the hero’s journey. Dunne, however, emphasizes the difference in the inner and outer plot, relegating most of the outer story to acts one and three, leaving act two as the character or inner plot. Same story, but with a variation when you want the story to be about two people changing each other. It won’t work, though, when the main antagonist is man v. nature or man v. himself.

To emphasize the importance of both inner and outer plots, Dunne recommends you write plot points on an index card with the outer conflict on one side and the inner conflict on the other.

Major Change at Midpoint. Another idea for patterns is from David Seigel, a screenwriting, who emphasized that at the midpoint of a story, there must be a change in the main character’s goal. It’s the understanding that interesting characters grow and their needs and wants change because of events. His classic example is from The Lion King. In the first half of the story, Simba wants to be happy; in the second half, he wants to be restored to his rightful place as king of the lions. Seigel said that without this major change, stories are ineffective. He basically falls in with the hero’s journey type structure, but puts his emphasis on this major shift of the story. (Seigel had his plot paradigm on line at one time, but it’s no longer available.)

6. Emphasis on Writing in Scenes

One other variation in writing and plotting novels is the emphasis or de-emphasis on writing in scenes. Screenplays and theater plays must be written in scenes, but novels can be fuzzier about this and still succeed. However, I think there’s value in learning to write in scenes, as it keeps a story focused better. Dwight Swain’s classic Techniques of the Selling Writer, is followed by Jack Bickham’s Scene & Structure. One of the most helpful on scene writing is Sandra Scofield’s The Scene Book: A Primer for the Fiction Writer.

When you write in scenes, it’s possible to plan every scene in a novel, as Swain and Bickham recommend. But generally, you need some other paradigm of the overall structure to do a good job of it.

7. MICE quotient

There are other approaches to plot patterns that I find less helpful; nevertheless, knowing them sometimes makes it easier to be bold in doing something different. For example, Orson Scott Card in Character & Viewpoint discusses the MICE quotient: stories are governed either by their milieu (For example, fantasy which invents and explores a new world), an idea (mysteries), a character (romance or character novels) or an event (an imbalance in the world, an injustice that must be put right). The author’s focus on one of these elements determines what actually makes it into the story.

For example, on The Lord of the Rings, it could be classed as an event story, with the Dark Lord disturbing the balance of the world order. Card argues, though, that it is rightly understood as a milieu story. The story begins in the Shire, travels through Middle Earth, and as it is destroyed by the battle, it returns to the Shire; Frodo can’t remain there, though, because he’s been too damaged by his contact with evil, and takes the boat ride with the elves across the Western Sea. If it was just an event story, the story ends with the defeat of the Dark Lord. But as a milieu story, it doesn’t end until we see the end of Middle Earth.

8. Author’s idiosyncratic plot pattern

Hero’s journey overlaid with the process of grief.
Pattern can also come in the shape of any process of change or growth that a human might undergo. For example, in my novel, The Wayfinder, I used the process of grief as a structure: loss, denial, acceptance, healing, You can even combine several of these structures: the process of grief overlays the hero’s journey for a more complex structure.

Patterns can come from any other source: you can think of a novel as peeling away layers of an onion; as way-stations on a long journey; as episodes.

What plot patterns work best for you?

Books Mentioned in This Series

Websites Mentioned in This Series

Next: Enhancing the Basic Plot

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