Writing a first draft–a “discovery draft,” as I like to call it–has to end somewhere. This is a blessed relief, because drafting is scary and hard. You do it blind. You have no idea whether what you’re writing is “going anywhere” or whether it’ll be any good (in fact, it’s not good, it’s terrible, that’s why they call it a ROUGH draft).
When do you know you’re finished with a first draft? For me it’s when there are no more gaps in the basic story. Figuring this out involves laying receipt tape on the dining table and monkeying with the order of the scenes I’ve written, each of which is represented by a sticky note. What you see here is my entire draft mapped out on a single tape, plus my notebook containing the scenes or part-scenes I still have to write.
What I haven’t done yet is make tapes for individual subplots, character development/relationships, significant objects or any of the many other aspects of the book that will eventually require mapping out. I thought I might do this today too–thus the extra (blank) tapes–but I realized that it’s too early. That’ll be second-draft work, the equally-but-differently scary and hard work of revision.
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.