Sometime during the first lecture of every term, I draw this diagram on the whiteboard. Fiction or non-fiction, Macbeth or an IKEA commercial, a narrative can almost always be mapped onto this trajectory of rising action, crisis and wrap-up.
I’m not sure of the origins of the plot arc diagram, but Jack Hodgins does fascinating things with it from a writer’s perspective. In a chapter encouraging writers to take responsibility for how their readers will encounter the story as well as what they’ll find in it, Hodgins explores a variety of story shapes within the plot arc:
The spiral plot circles around a secret or defining moment, delaying its reveal. The Thirteenth Tale is a good example of a novel with this plot shape.
In a converging novel, disparate stories come together at a central crisis or event. Hodgins’ own example is Faulkner’s Light in August, where the convergence occurs upon a burning house.
Sometimes, like in The Blind Assassin, the present-moment story offers an occasion for multiple, more important flashbacks:
Probably the most common shape is the chronological plot’s. Here, multiple strands weave together through key scenes and are tied together, at least partially, by the end:Clara Callan is like this–the letters between two sisters allow for alternating POV but the story moves forward in time–except for our belated discovery that the whole novel is an historical artifact strung together by someone else, as follows:
So okay, it gets messy: you should see what 120 students produce when put into groups and asked to map a novel’s plot. But mapping plots is a great shortcut to appreciating narrative structure, and appreciating narrative structure makes us better readers and better writers.