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VCFA Guest Post: Time to Punk Rock With Plot: Discover Alternative Plot Types

by Ingrid Sundberg, current VCFA student

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 a crucial 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. Even though Jay Asher’s THIRTEEN REASONS WHY follows a single protagonist there is an element of the Daisy Chain Plot in the device that brings out the chain of characters in the story.

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. JUMPED by Newberry Winner, Rita Williams-Garcia is a great example of the Ensemble Plot in a young adult book.

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 will graduate 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.

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  1. Lindsey Lane’s avatar

    Most excellent post, Ingrid. I’ve always felt cramped by the Aristotelian plot (classic though it is) and I love your easy telling of other options.

  2. Lydia Sharp’s avatar

    Love this. Thank you so much! :D

  3. Barbara Watson’s avatar

    Thank you for sharing your short list (I’m interested in the long list too). I love M.T. Anderson’s challenge and the advice of finding what works for you.

  4. Shelley’s avatar

    Thanks for this. Nicely done.

  5. Brittany’s avatar

    I really like the ensemble plot and the daisy chain plot (especially in 13 Reasons Why). The plot that I use is usually just a three-act plot- beginning, middle and end, with certain plot points in between. James Scott Bell talks about it in Plot and Structure, and that’s where I learned it from.

    Thanks for writing this post!

  6. Kathryn Roberts’s avatar

    This is interesting. I always assumed that all of those were goal-oriented in some way, so never differentiated them. But it’s true, there are little differences in them, and it’s nice to shake things up. In doing so things are less predictable and readers don’t know what to expect.

  7. Gail Shepherd’s avatar

    I’ve been thinking about this for the last few days, so your post is very timely. Reading Deb Caletti’s wonderful YA novel Nature of Jade; she’s working in your fourth type, the emotional plot, and she’s a master of interiority.

  8. Laurisa White Reyes’s avatar

    I appreciated seeing some different approaches to plot. Thanks for mentioning 13 Reasons Why, my current favorite YA.

  9. Franziska Green’s avatar

    Great informative post. And… great hair too!

  10. Mima Tipper’s avatar

    Thanks for this thoughtful post, Ingrid; I’m impressed that you could put this out there during a rez:) I just came home from the alum rez, and part of Deborah Wiles’ masterclass was about structure and how it differs from, yet serves plot. Reading your post adds another layer to what I learned from Deborah.

  11. Karen’s avatar

    Thanks for the useful information on plots. It can actually help with ideas for stories.

    Thanks for sharing.

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