NARRATIVE STRUCTURE & THE PLOT SCHEME: Understanding and Using the Plot Scheme

One of the very first things I do when I start working on an editing project is filling out a Plot Scheme with the details of the story I am asked to examine. Although not all stories follow this structure, and it’s important to maintain a certain degree of flexibility, filling out a Plot Scheme has proven to be an excellent diagnosis tool: it helps me identify and visualise major plot inconsistencies and tension issues.

For this reason, most developmental editing packages I propose include providing my customers with a plot scheme version of the story I am editing.

This article is a short guide to the Plot Scheme and the three theories about narrative structure this scheme is based on.


BASICS

WHAT IS THE PLOT SCHEME?

The Plot Scheme is a combination of three different theories about the narrative structure of fiction. The three theories this Plot Scheme combines are:

  • The Three Acts Structure as formalised by Syd Field in his Paradigm
  • The 17 Stages of the Hero’s Journey as formalised by Joseph Campbell (and their adaptation to screenwriting by Christopher Vogler)
  • The 31 Functions that compose the narrative structure of Russian folklore and fairy tales as formalised by Vladimir Propp

The theories and the terms derived from them are not my own, but belong to the respective authors; my own is the specific way I combined them in one diagram, namely the Plot Scheme.

HOW SHOULD YOU USE THE PLOT SCHEME?

The Plot Scheme is a diagnosis tool: when in a story something feels off, placing its parts into the Plot Scheme helps pointing a finger at what should be modified. If it’s difficult to place a part of the story into the Plot Scheme, it usually means that something is wrong: that part of the story should be put elsewhere in the plot, or perhaps the event it describes doesn’t really contribute to the main conflict, and so on.

Be careful: the Plot Scheme is not a creation tool and should not be used as such. Inventing a story by religiously following the Plot Scheme step by step will result in a mechanic, heartless, predictable structure. The core creation of the story should happen away from any rigid scheme. However, if you’re stuck with creating your story, it may help to use the Plot Scheme to get a general idea of what should follow.

DOES EVERY STORY NEED TO FOLLOW THE PLOT SCHEME?

Certainly not: there’s plenty of engaging, beautifully written stories that do not follow the Plot Scheme. However, the theories the Plot Scheme is based on are the result of centuries of analysis of successful fiction: their rules and constraints guarantee a high rate of success in crafting engaging stories.

DO THE DIFFERENT THEORIES I REFER TO PERFECTLY ALIGN IN THE WAY THE PLOT SCHEME SHOWS?

Not necessarily. The terms that are aligned in the Plot Scheme do tend to overlap with each other and usually refer to story parts or character turns that share a lot of similarities. However, what the Plot Scheme represents is only a simplified view of such theories, with the aim of making the Plot Scheme itself easy to read and use.

You will notice that not all 17 Stages of the Hero’s Journey and not all 31 Functions in the narrative structure of Russian folklore and fairy tales are used in the Plot Schemeand explained in these pages.

This is due to the fact that, in my opinion, many of the Stages and Functions refer to story steps that are indeed recurring in the myths and fairy tales analysed by Campbell and Propp, but do not necessarily occur in other works of fiction. I do however encourage you to read more about the missing Stages and Functions, as they offer further insights in Campbell’s and Propp’s analysis.

WHERE CAN YOU READ FURTHER ABOUT THE DIFFERENT THEORIES I REFER TO?

The original works I referred to during the creation of this Plot Scheme are listed in the References section of this short guide.

IS THIS SHORT GUIDE A SUBSTITUTE FOR THE ORIGINAL WORKS I DRAW FROM?

No. This document is meant exclusively as a guide to the Plot Scheme that I personally refer to when I work as a developmental editor. The wording here is my own and there might be inaccuracies or interpretations that do not provide a faithful account of the theories presented in the original works I referred to during the creation of this Plot Scheme.

WHICH PROGRAM DID I USE TO CREATE THE PLOT SCHEME?

To create the Plot Scheme I used the yEd Graph Editor, a free software by yWorks. You can download it here: yEd Graph Editor


THE THREE ACTS STRUCTURE IN THE PARADIGM


Syd Field (1935 – 2013) was an American screenwriter and author, credited with drafting the `bible’ for successful scripts in his Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting (1979). His analysis of the Three Act Structure is even nowadays considered a fundamental tool for conceiving and structuring an engaging story, particularly when it comes to movie scripts.

ACT I: SET UP

The Status Quo, the common everyday situation of the Hero, is described and the main characters are introduced. The Status Quo is not necessarily without any tension and it isn’t necessarily a happy situation; it is, however, a situation that the Hero is not willing to change. The Inciting Event disrupts the Status Quo and starts the chain of events that will inevitably lead the story to its climax and its resolution. The tension starts rising and the Hero’s reaction to the Inciting Event will lead to a more profound change in either (or both) the situation and the Hero’s Character Arc: this second event corresponds to the Plot Point 1 (see Turn 1 in the Plot Scheme) and to the beginning of ACT II.

ACT II: CONFRONTATION

The Hero is forced to undergo trials and challenges as part of their attempt(s) to resolve the tension of the main conflict. To be able to tackle the situation, the Hero must evolve, often through the help of other characters; the Midpoint (see Middle in the Plot Scheme) is the peak of the Hero’s Character Arc and should be situated roughly in the middle of the narration.

ACT III: RESOLUTION

The Resolution starts when the Hero undergoes a third, fundamental change in the Character Arc; it corresponds to the final victory against the Antagonist and to the point of maximum tension throughout the story (Plot Point 2, see Turn 2 in the Plot Scheme). Wounds are then healed, the main conflict and most subplots find their conclusion and a new Status Quo is established.


THE 17 STAGES OF THE HERO’S JOURNEY

and CHRISTOPHER VOGLER

Joseph Campbell (1904–1987) was an American Professor of Literature. His most famous contribution to the field of Comparative Mythology, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), applies Jungian theories to the analysis of recurring patterns in myths from different cultures; it has been heavily criticised by the academic community for being an example of generalisation, universalism and ethnocentrism. Some fiction writers have also warned new writers against following the Hero’s Journey too closely, as it can lead to repetitive plots.

Christopher Vogler (*1949) is a development executive, screenwriter and author that has worked with many renowned film studios and taught the principles of screenwriting at both the USC School of Cinema-Television and at UCLA. He is best known for adapting Campbell’s theories to cinematic screenwriting in his handbook The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, the first edition of which was published in 1992.

I. DEPARTURE

1. CALL TO ADVENTURE

The Hero receives an invitation to head into the Unknown. The invitation can be an actual call or an inciting event that modifies the Status Quo so much or in such a way that the Hero cannot help but react to it, whether willingly or not.

4. THRESHOLD TO THE UNKNOWN

The Hero crosses the threshold that separates the Ordinary World and the Unknown World, entering the realm of danger and uncertainty. This crossing can be literal, such as actually entering a dark and unexplored forest, or metaphorical, such as breaking those rules and taboos that structure the Hero’s community.
The willingness and the ability to cross the threshold are what sets the Hero apart from any other person they know and any other character in the story – they are what make the Hero special.

II. DESCENT & INITIATION

9. ATONEMENT WITH THE FATHER

The Hero faces the last trial in their training, the missing piece that still kept them from being able to defeat the Antagonist. The “Father” doesn’t have to be a male, paternal figure: it represents the toughest challenge yet, one that the Hero risks losing because of how terrifying and powerful this Father is over the Hero. The Hero can survive the confrontation with the Father only by displaying absolute trust in themselves, in what they learnt in the trials that followed their crossing the threshold, in what magic aid was given to them by their helper.
In a typical Hollywood film, this is the point where the Hero seems to be in control of the situation, of their abilities, and ready to defeat the Antagonist.
The Atonement with the Father represents the second key point in the Character Arc: the character gains, and most especially accepts and owns, knowledge of themselves, of their strengths, their potentially fatal flaws. This knowledge and acceptance is instrumental to defeating the Antagonist.

9b. THE INNERMOST CAVE

This part of the Hero’s Journey was actually highlighted and named by Christopher Vogler in his The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers.
In Vogler’s interpretation, the Hero approaches the Innermost Cave by entering the Antagonist’s quarters (either literally or metaphorically), ready to face their worst enemy in their last, extreme fight. Campbell conceives descending into such cave (that he calls the ‘Abyss’) as a death and rebirth process that allows the Hero to achieve a ‘more than human’ state (see: 10. Apotheosis).
At the very bottom of the cave/abyss, the Hero will meet the Antagonist and engage in the final battle, and this is the reason why this step coincides with Propp’s 16. Struggle in the Plot Scheme.
In a classical Hollywood film this is also the moment when the Antagonist seems to prevail over the Hero: a fatal mistake or flaw on the side of the Hero appears to render useless every other effort made up to that point. The Hero despairs and thinks that “Everything is Lost”.

10. APOTHEOSIS

This is the final Turn in the Hero’s Character Arc. By understanding a key missing piece of the puzzle, the Hero is able to turn the situation upside down and defeat the Antagonist. The key missing piece can be either a physical piece (for instance a clue until then misunderstood) or else a metaphorical piece of the Hero, a greater understanding of their own being and powers. Through finding this missing part of themselves, the Hero properly becomes a hero, a superior, more-than-human creature able to confront the superior, more-than-human power of the Antagonist.

III. RETURN

15. THRESHOLD TO THE ORDINARY WORLD

The Hero must return to the family home (see Propp’s 20. Return); what makes this process difficult and somewhat risky is that the Hero must be able to retain the knowledge gained through his adventure and make it compatible with his old life, in order to regain the original Status Quo.

In The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King we have a perfect example of a Hero that manages to cross the Threshold to the Ordinary World but isn’t then able to find balance between the knowledge gained in his travel and his old life. Incapable of mending the distance between his previous life as a normal ‘human’ character and his new life as a ‘more-than-human’ Hero, Frodo Baggins sees no other choice than removing himself permanently from the safety of the family home.

FRODO: ‘How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on, when in your heart, you begin to understand, there is no going back? There are some things that time cannot mend. Some hurts that go too deep… that have taken hold.’

Wood, Elijah, and Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. DVD. Directed by Peter Jackson. Los Angeles: New Line Cinema, 2003.

16. MASTER OF TWO WORLDS

The Hero that finds balance between his human and more-than-human nature can then live serenely for the rest of his life, mastering now both the Unknown and the Ordinary World. This most often corresponds to a happy ending.


THE 31 FUNCTIONS IN THE NARRATIVE STRUCTURE OF RUSSIAN FOLKLORE AND FAIRY TALES

Vladimir Propp (1895 – 1970) was a German-Russian folklorist and scholar that researched the narrative structure of Russian folklore and fairy tales. His main work on the topic is Morphology of the tale, published in 1928 in Russian and translated into English only in 1958.

1. ABSENTATION

A member of the Hero’s family (sometimes the Hero themselves) leaves the safety of the family home (literally or metaphorically), not necessarily of their own will. This is the inciting event that breaks the balance of the \textbf{Status Quo} and starts the tension of the main conflict.

2. INTERDICTION

The Hero is warned that a certain action or object must not be pursued.

3. VIOLATION

The Hero violates the previous warning by pursuing the action or object they were warned against. This introduces the Antagonist.

4. RECONNAISSANCE

The Antagonist gathers information and takes concrete action against the Hero (although the Hero and the Antagonist may not necessarily confront each other openly yet).

10. BEGINNING COUNTERACTION

The Hero takes concrete action against the Antagonist. This is the first big change in the Character Arc of the Hero, as they accept the threat posed by the Antagonist and their own capability of and responsibility in countering the Antagonist.

11. DEPARTURE

The Hero leaves the safety of the family home (literally or metaphorically), determined to solve the main conflict.

13. HERO’S REACTION

The Hero succeeds in some good deeds that are instrumental to understanding how to defeat the Antagonist. The Try-Fail Cycles have a positive outcome (usually after the third attempt) and the Hero seems to have control of the situation and be set up for success.

16. STRUGGLE

Direct confrontation and fight between the Hero and the Antagonist.

18. VICTORY

The Hero defeats the Antagonist.

19. LIQUIDATION

The bad consequences brought on by the Antagonist’s wrongdoing and the tension of the main conflict are resolved positively.

20. RETURN

The Hero returns to the family home (literally or metaphorically).

27. RECOGNITION

The Hero is recognised as the hero by their own kin.

30. PUNISHMENT

The Antagonist is punished for his wrongdoing and experiences the bad consequences that derive from it.

31. WEDDING

The Hero is officially rewarded for their services to the community, either with an actual wedding or with an official ceremony of some sort.


OTHER TERMS

TRY-FAIL CYCLES

The tension generated by the main conflict should ideally rise continuously from the beginning of the plot until the final climax. Therefore, the Hero cannot succeed in their very first attempt at resolving the situation: a story where the path towards the resolution of the conflict is straightforward and plain is not an engaging story to read. As a rule of thumb, the Hero should fail at least twice before succeeding at a given task.

The improvisational tool generally referred to as ‘Yes, but/No, and’ can be useful in setting the Hero up for failure. If the question is Does the Hero successfully complete the task assigned?, then there are two possible outcomes:

  • Yes, the Hero succeeds, but the actions they took in order to succeed generate a different, equally problematic situation that substitutes the initial task
  • No, the Hero doesn’t succeed, and the actions they took in order to succeed generate a second, equally problematic situation that overlaps with the initial task

The Three Acts Structure itself can be seen as a practical application of the ‘Yes, but’ part of such tool: the Hero tackles the conflict successfully in Turn 1, but their actions complicate the situation in a way that leads to the Middle. The Hero then deals with the conflict once more, but the situation gets worse and this leads the plot to Turn 2. The final resolution is the Hero’s only success not followed by further complications.

Try-Fail Cycles are not limited to the first half of ACT II, but most of them do occur in that section of the plot as the Hero achieves the greater knowledge they will need to overcome the threat posed by the Antagonist. For this reason, the Middle may not correspond exactly to the middle of the word count, but lean slightly towards the end of the narration, giving more space to various Try-Fail Cycles.

TENSION

In this Plot Scheme, the word tension is defined as the answer to the following two questions:

  • How close is the Hero to resolving the main conflict?
  • How much is at stake for the Hero?

Depending on the answer to the two questions above, the tension increases or decreases. For instance, the tension rises if the Hero learns a key piece of information that will help against the Antagonist, or if the Antagonist gets hold of a character the Hero is emotionally invested in.

This is the reason why the classical moment in Hollywood films where it seems that ‘Everything is Lost’ is represented in the Plot Scheme as a sudden drop in tension: the Hero appears to be deprived of any tool to defeat the Antagonist, and is therefore the furthest away from resolving the main conflict.

The tension in this Plot Scheme therefore must not be seen as a representation of how involved the readers or viewers are in the fate of the Hero, and it is not to be seen as an equivalent of suspense. The audience may be ridden with anxiety and on the edge of their seat when ‘Everything is Lost’, even if the tension as ‘closeness to the resolution of the conflict’ drops to a zero.


REFERENCES

  • CAMPBELL, Joseph. The hero with a thousand faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.
  • FIELD, Syd. Screenplay: The foundations of screenwriting. New York: Random House, 2005.
  • PROPP, Vladimir. Morphology of the Folktale. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
  • VOGLER, Christopher. The Writer’s journey. Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 2007.

You can download the latest PDF version of this short guide here:

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