I hope everyone is doing well and that 2020 is off to a good start so far! As promised, we’re going to be looking at the ways plot can differ between films, television series, plays, novels, short stories, etc.
Yes, there are slight differences as to how each form of storytelling is set up. They generally have the same format, though. We start off with an inciting incident that commences the journey. The action rises to the breaking point, and we hit the climax, which is where everything comes together. We then have the wrapping up of events and the end of our story.
The point of today’s post is to look at the plot structures for each medium and see how they work.
Whenever you think about a novel’s plot it usually looks something like the graph above. As we were taught in school, there are five beats to hit within a novel and these beats make up the plot of our story. It’s the roadmap of where we want to be at certain parts of the narrative. Those five beats we want to hit go into our novel outlines and in the end, they produce the narrative that our characters and readers follow.
Most plots are linear, meaning that they follow a sequence that doesn’t take a lot of twists and turns. This can lead to a boring book, depending on a bunch of other factors, such as character development. One way we combat this is by messing with that structure, which we will cover in the last installment of the plot series.
Novel plot structures will change based on stand-alone pieces in a series (also known as an anthology series) and multi-book series. Books that can stand alone don’t connect with other books in that series directly, even though they contain the same characters. An example of this would be Christina Lauren’s Beautiful series. There are multiple books within that series that contain appearances from characters in each book but focuses on one character couple. The first book, for instance, focuses on Bennett and Chloe, the second one focuses on Max and Sara, and so on.
Multi-book series are ones where a character or set of characters tackle a big challenge that will take several books to defeat. Examples of this would be the Harry Potter series, The Hunger Games trilogy and so on. In Harry Potter, Harry and his friends have to yes make it through the school year, but also face the ever-increasing threat that Voldemort poses to the wizarding world. In The Hunger Games, the first book set the stage for a rebellion against the domineering nature of the Capital and its oppressive rule over the Districts. The following books portrayed the Districts’ rebellion against the Capital’ oppressive rule. In each series, the authors tackled overarching themes and ideas in each novel.
If you are thinking about plotting out a trilogy or series, NovelSmithy developed this infographic for help:
In the end, your plot structure for a trilogy or a series should look a little something like this:
However, this is just a general guide and your final work won’t, and probably shouldn’t, look like this. Remember that each book in the series is still its own story and needs to hit a beginning, middle and end of its own. In this instance though, only one book gets a definitive ending which marks the end of the series.
Short stories are designed to be read in one sitting. They’re “short” and to the point to ensure that they quickly capture a reader’s attention. Most of these stories are about 3,000 words long, but they can be shorter than that as well.
Due to their brief nature, short stories don’t allow you to go through every single stage of a plot in detail. According to Phillip Brewer, a short story must:
- Require the character to make a choice,
- show that choice by actions, and
- those actions must have consequences.
If you’re going over these requirements, you’re starting to write a novella or novel-length piece, which isn’t the point of a short story and should be avoided.
Plays are exciting because they like to take your typical plot structure and draw them out over extended periods. Plays come in three variations: One Act, Two Act, and Three Act. Each of them, again, follows the typical structure that we all know and love.
** Side Note: if you want to know more about the technical aspects of writing a play, such as formatting, etc., look at this article by The Writers’ Guide.
A one-act play to a multi-act play is like a short story to a novel. This is a condensed form of play. With this length of play, you will cycle through our traditional plot elements as usual.
Two Act Structure
The two-act structure again follows traditional plot lines, but they happen in a slightly different way. As seen in the graph above, your inciting incident and rising action arise within the first act. The first act, in this instance, will have its own “climax” or cliffhanger that ensures an audience will come back for the second act.
(We even see this technique being used in Victorian novels. Most of the books were serialized or published in installments, and the author needed to devise a way to keep a reader’s attention between books.)
When the audience returns from the intermission, the story picks up from the cliffhanger or following right after that final scene before the break. The first scene’s purpose after the break is to reorientate the audience as to what is happening in the play and push the plot forward. The second act houses the climax and denouement.
Three Act Structure
The three-act structure is a bit more accelerated and not at the same time. The three-act play is longer than the other two types of plays and contains two intermissions. The first act is about setting up the conflict and bringing the characters to the point of no return – where the protagonist has to make a solid choice.
Act two is more involved with setting up the conflict and making things push forward. You can add in a plot twist at the midway point in the second act to make things more interesting. The second act is when all of the action happens within the story. It also leads up to the climax of the story, often ending just before the last hurrah.
The third act is where we see the final hurrah. The climax is happening and all of our tension shall come to its peak. After that intense moment is over, we see the wrapping up of events as we head into our denouement.
Television incorporates two plots within a single episode. You have your overarching season narrative as well as what is happening in that episode. We also have specific ways that we deal with certain genres within the industry. Screencraft sums it up best:
With television, you’re creating a world with a cast of characters that will hopefully continue on for upwards of 10-24 episodes (give or take) for multiple seasons, thus the main story will not be resolved by the end of each teleplay or television script. You have the options of hour long dramas or serials, hour long procedurals, half hour sitcoms, and in some cases, either limited series (American Horror Story) or miniseries. While each episode may showcase a certain story that is resolved by the end, the characters, their main stories, and their arcs continue on throughout each season.
According to Screencraft, a single episode is broken up into four to five acts that are typically separated by commercials as well as a teaser. The teaser is the part of the show that outlines what’s going to happen in the episode. Or, in the case of pilot episodes, introduce your audience to the characters and the world they inhabit.
Once you get past the teaser, you start to develop the story through the remaining acts. Storycraft recommends that each act should end with some sort of cliffhanger. (Remember you need to keep the audience’s attention through the commercial breaks.) These acts follow the plot structure that we all know and love.
The four to five-act structure that most tv plots follow are designed for an hour-long television show. This formula gets condensed for 30-minute sitcoms, for example. The sitcom still contains an opening teaser, but the following acts are condensed into two acts instead of four or five. Sitcoms also sometimes have a tag scene, which happens after the episode’s story has played out and is one last gag or character moment for the audience’s viewing pleasure.
Like television, a movie uses the overarching plot structure we all know and love. However, how we tell the story changes how the plot is conveyed. This video by Cinefix sums up the different storytelling techniques really well:
If you’d like a more in-depth look at the 10 structures outlined in the video, I suggest that you check out Screencraft’s article on them.
While doing my research on this section of the post, I came across the idea of the Nine-Act Movie Structure. According to David Siegel, the author of the Nine-Act structure, it focuses on whether the movie works or not. This structure sets up a strong reversal later in the film, ensuring that the movie is a success at the box office. It looks something like this:
Act 0: Someone Toils Deep into the Night
Act 1: Open with An Establishing Shot
Act 2: Something Bad/Mysterious Happens
Act 3: Meet the Hero
Act 4: Commitment
Act 5: Go for the Wrong Goal
Act 6: Reversal
Act 7: Go for the New Goal
Act 8: Resolution
The Nine-Act structure was born after Siegel was told that his manuscript didn’t work. Looking to figure out why his manuscript didn’t work, he rented and watched 80 movies with the goal of finding out what made these manuscripts successful. He found out that of those 80 movies, most of them followed a two-goal plot structure. According to Siegel:
In a two-goal film, the hero believes her first goal is the right solution to the current problem, but in fact it’s a trap. This is often referred to as the false goal. Sometimes, she actually attains it, but most of the time she stops short, because she learns what’s really going on and needs a new goal to save the day. Occasionally the hero achieves the second goal and dies in the effort (e.g., Braveheart) — it’s still a triumph.
However, in any sort of film, there are going to be “reversals”, which are changes in the plot to make things more interesting for the viewer. At most, Siegel argues, there is usually one reversal in a film, except for Predator, which has two false goals or reversals. These reversals, in essence, contribute to the nine act structure that Siegel proposes.
Siegel also argues that the plot of the movie is driven by the wants and needs of the antagonist of the story and not the protagonist. They’re just wrapped up in the adventure of trying to stop the antagonist, which is pretty standard for any type of story that we’re writing, reading, or watching.
At some point in the film, we get what Siegel calls “the history lesson.” The history lesson is when we learn all about why our villain is doing what they’re doing. It also gives our hero the chance to formulate the ultimate plan to stop the said villain from achieving their goal. This is when the hero is not in a good position in any way, shape, or form. They’ve been caught or are so down on their luck that all hope is lost. According to Siegel, this history lesson from Casablanca is one of the best of all time:
Here’s what Siegel has to say about the reversal and history lesson in Casablanca:
After that, there is a montage in which she tells him everything and says he’ll have to think for all of them now. Remarkably — and this is a huge exception in the canon of the Nine-Act Structure — their time in Paris was only about 18 months ago, not ten years, but in the context of the war that was a lifetime.
With this reversal/history lesson, we see Ilsa trying to push her and her husband’s agenda forward by forcing Rick into giving her the transit papers they need to get out of Casablanca – without them, they’re going to die by Nazi hands. When she can’t force herself to follow through with the plan, she tells Rick her side of the story during their time in Paris. This ultimately leads to Rick’s change of heart in the final moments of the film. This reversal and history lesson gave Rick the information he needed to put his resentment of his time in Paris aside so he could help Ilsa and her husband escape from the Nazis.
There is also such a thing called the illegitimate reversal, which is when the protagonist’s goals change for any other reason other than learning about the bad guy’s “long-incubating and unfolding plan.” Predominately, illegitimate reversals provide the tension and interest hooks that the audience needs without the benefit of having an antagonist. So these are films where the protagonist is running a race against time, the elements, luck, etc. (i.e., Jaws, Forrest Gump) or its a cover-up for lousy writing (i.e., the last season of Game of Thrones).
Using a plot without an antagonist can be a risky thing at the box office argues Siegel. This usually leads to an antagonist being written in and then being revealed at the last minute (i.e., Back to the Future). Siegel pointed out that Steven Speilberg is a champion in putting in illegitimate reversals or an emotional history lesson right before the big comeback of the film.
For a detailed breakdown of what happens at each stage of the Nine-Act Structure, you should check out Siegel’s article on Medium. I just wanted to highlight the other elements that typically aren’t covered in the traditional plot structure.
Fairy Tales, Fables and Children’s Literature
For this section, we’ll look at things written for children. Tales developed for children are more complicated than we give them credit for. They usually contain some sort of moral or lesson and they’re typically pretty short. Children’s books also have an added visual element that isn’t typically found in adult books, creating a new type of plot structure.
In books for younger children, plot is easy to see — it is the something different that happens on each page. You have thirty-two pages in a picture book, and that usually means approximately twenty-five or so incidents comprising the plot of the book. Your plot outline is really your book dummy, where you draw or describe the picture on each page. For a picture-book plot to work, something different must happen in each picture. But that something needn’t be very different — a dramatic change in a character’s facial expression may be sufficient in some instances.
This principle can also be applied to fairytales and fables as these stories are also usually accompanied by illustrations. Fairytales are essentially short stories that certain elements and are accompanied by some sort of illustration. This video sums up the elements associated with fairytales quite nicely:
Fairytales have also changed over the years. Many of the stories collected by the Brothers Grimm or written by Hans Christian Andersen did not always contain a happily ever after and addressed taboo subjects that were not talked about in the wider public circles. For example, in the Brother’s Grimm version of Cinderella, the two evil stepsisters had their eyes picked out by crows for what they did to their good stepsister, leading to a not so happily ever after ending for some of the characters. An earlier version of Little Red Riding Hood has also been interpreted as a cautionary tale for young ladies in the 1800s about protecting one’s virtue against rogues or men looking to seduce them. These men were represented in the form of the wolf.
When Disney started to adapt the stories of Cinderella, Snow White, The Little Mermaid, etc., they changed the endings to reflect the happily ever after that we associate with these stories today. This has led to the development of the basic fairytale formula, which according to the Missouri Southern State University, contains five essential elements: a moral lesson, characters, magic, obstacles or tasks, and a happily ever after. Each of these five things works its way into the traditional plot structure of a fairytale.
According to Literary Devices:
The purpose of writing fables is to convey a moral lesson and message. Fables also give readers a chance to laugh at the follies of human beings, and they can be employed for the objective of satire and criticism. They are very helpful in teaching children good lessons based on examples. However, in literature, fables are used for didactic purposes at a much broader level.
Similar to fairytales, fables are short stories that contain a moral message for children and follow the same plot structure as their adult counterparts. The most commonly referred to fables are known as Aesop’s Fables. Aesop is believed to be a slave from Ancient Greecian times that compiled these stories (my favorite is The Hare and the Tortoise). Each fable typically features animals that behave and speak as human beings, told in order to highlight human follies and weaknesses. A moral—or lesson for behavior—is woven into the story and often explicitly formulated at the end.
Overall, the plot is driven in literature for young children in the format of the short story. According to Writer’s Digest, “the pictures will be more incidental, so you must make sure your plot is internally logical and motivated. The best way to do so, as in any book, is to create a strong, consistent character who drives the action forward.”
This is where we start to get out of the moral stories that we read to young children. These stories are more complex and go beyond a short story structure, moving into longer works of fiction. However, these stories still have lessons that are communicated to the target audience. The lessons though become more complex and move away from simple black and white answers. We also see that characters take on a more essential role of moving a plot forward, instead of the picture book format approach that fairytales and fables take on.
In essence, longer-form children’s literature follows the same structures that we see in an adult novel. You’re still going to have a beginning, middle and ending. Most of these books are in the word range of a novella. They can’t be too long as children are still learning to read and we don’t want to overwhelm them.
We’ve also seen the emergence of the graphic novel into children’s literature. We’re still going to be looking at the traditional elements of a basic plot structure with the added lessons that we’d like to impart to the children reading that tale. However, the difference of how the plot is structured and the timing of the plot is going to reside in how the images are staged on the page and what each panel imparts to the reader.
So there you have it! Those are the different plot structures for various creative mediums. I hope this guide helps you out with whichever medium you’re writing in. Keep these in mind, though – we may be coming back to this in a future post.
In the words of Porky Pig:
Until next time!