Time to Punk-Rock with Plot: Discovering Alternative Plot Types

By Posted in - Guest Post on July 25th, 2011 4 Comments

Today I’m very proud to be kicking off a week of guest posts by graduates of the Vermont College of Fine Art’s MFA. First up is Ingrid Sundberg:

Ingrid Sundberg

“We can all agree that Aristotle is the granddaddy of plot. Aristotle’s goal-oriented or action plot is nothing new to shout about. In fact, at this very moment, we are all busy giving our protagonists goals (like saving their families from flesh eating zombies), building up obstacles of increasing intensity, crafting the perfect climax, an emotional resolution, eating zombie brains, blah, blah, blah…yes we’ve heard it before. When we talk about plot, 99% of the time it’s going to be Aristotle’s action plot that we’re referring to.

But is this the only plot available?

In my own writing, I’ve often found myself trying to pound my round-shaped story into this square-shaped Aristotelian idea of plot. I’ve done this because it’s the only type of plot anyone talks about. However, I had an Ah-ha! moment at my first Vermont College of Fine Arts residency last January (an intense 10-day lecture and learning extravaganza). During a group discussion with visiting author M.T. Anderson, he challenged concepts of plot and encouraged us to discover what works for our own writing and to not simply accept what others have said on the subject. This inspired me to start collecting alternative plot structures – and guess what – there are lots of them!

The following is a short list of some of the alternative plots I’ve come across. Of course, this is only a small sample:

The Repeated Action Plot

This plot follows a character who repeats an action multiple times until he or she “gets it right.” The classic movie example of this plot is the Billy Murray film Groundhog Day. We also see this plot structure in Lauren Oliver’s young adult novel Before I Fall, where the protagonist repeats the last day of her life multiple times.

The Daisy Chain Plot

There is no central protagonist in a Daisy Chain Plot. Instead the plot follows a chain of characters or an object as it’s passed from one character to the next. Each character’s story is told in whole, but their story is short and often self-contained. Examples of this type of plot include the films The Red Violin, Twenty Bucks, and Slacker.

The Ensemble Plot

This plot concerns a variety of protagonists where no character is more dominant than another. The plot explores multiple voices, consciousnesses, and takes place within a single location. Character storylines can interweave or be independent. This often becomes a portrait of a place rather than a portrait of a person with a particular goal. Film examples include: The Big Chill, Crash, and Dazed and Confused.

The Emotional Plot

This plot is similar to the Aristotelian action plot, but all of the “action” is internal rather than external. This plot explores the moral or emotional development of a character and much of the story is told through the characters thoughts rather than their actions. Sometimes an emotional plot will follow or mirror an action plot as well, but some don’t have an action plot at all.

There are plenty of plots out there to choose from, not to mention structures (but that’s a whole different blog post). Remember, there is merit to Aristotle’s goal-oriented plot and many agents and editors are looking for that type of plot in a novel. However, one must be true to the story he or she is telling and be purposeful and honest in that telling. If you’re struggling with plot, you may find an alternative form of plot is just the ticket you’ve been searching for.”

Ingrid Sundberg graduated from the Vermont College of Fine Art in January 2013. She also has an MFA in Screenwriting from Chapman University, and a BFA in Illustration from the Massachusetts College of Art. She likes to look at storytelling from all angles – artistic, cinematic, or word by word – and loves how VCFA has helped her to integrate these various points of view.  Ingrid writes young adult novels, picture books, screenplays, and illustrates for children’s magazines. She is very active in the Kidlit community and blogs about writing craft on her blog Ingrid’s Notes.  Her first book, ALL WE LEFT BEHIND, will be available December 2015 from Simon Pulse.

You may contact her with any questions about this post or the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts via [email protected]

(4) awesome folk have had something to say...

  • deescribewriting - Reply

    July 26, 2011 at 5:50 am

    Thanks Lia and Ingrid for a great post.

    I totally agree that when you're plotting, you have to do what works for you.

    • LiaKeyes - Reply

      July 26, 2011 at 7:01 pm

      So many writers aren't willing to put the work in that Ingrid has done, analyzing stories for plot structure in that way, but it's one of the best ways to learn how to tell a story, and the choices are limitless.

  • Elizabeth Varadan - Reply

    July 26, 2011 at 8:16 am

    This was an interesting slant on plot. I’m so used to the traditional concept that I found this quite refreshing. Liberating, really. Thanks.

    • LiaKeyes - Reply

      July 26, 2011 at 6:58 pm

      There are so many ways to tell a story. It's all in what you choose to emphasize.

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