From time to time we invite local writers and friends of Agile Writers to contribute to our site. Today’s column comes to us from Grace Robinson who is working on her soon-to-be-released fantasy novel “The Vanished Reindeer,” part one of the “The Light-Whisperers of Kalevala” trilogy. You can catch up with Grace on her blog at StorytellerGirl.
For the basics of plot structure, I always learned “rising action, climax, falling action.” What does that even mean?
I learned early on how to write a story with a plot (as opposed to a wandering narrative or stream-of-conscious descriptions) mostly from reading good stories with good plots. While I eventually figured out what “rising action,” “climax,” and “falling action” were, I never liked using those terms for my own writing.
In case anyone else finds themselves in a similar boat, maybe this illustration will help: introduce the problem, complicate the problem, solve the problem.
For an example, I’m going to use Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Granted, this is an exceptionally complicated story with a huge cast of characters—but this example of plot structure holds true whether you’re writing an epic fantasy series or a short story with only one major character.
1. Introduce the problem
The initial problem is keeping the Ring hidden and getting it out of the Shire. Simple solution—travel by night, stay off the road, make it safely to Bree and meet Gandalf. End of problem, right? The characters think so, of course, but the reader (or movie viewer) knows better (especially if they’ve sat down with the 1,000 page tome or the stack of DVDs. This won’t be a short adventure).
2. Complicate the problem
Lord of the Rings offers dozens of examples of this “complicating the problem.” Gandalf isn’t waiting for them in Bree, friends are kidnapped or killed, Nazgul, orcs, and dark wizards pursue them, the Ring becomes a near-impossible burden, and so forth. Even if your initial problem is something as simple as “boy goes to school without his lunch money,” complicating the problem is what gives the story its plot.
3. Solve the problem
Lord of the Rings is an almost over-the-top example of “falling action.” The story seems to end about three times, though each “conclusion” wraps things up more neatly and gives the audience a full sense of closure. But as for “solving the problem,” it is a simple act—tossing the Ring into the volcano. Problem solved, and all is well again (or will be shortly).
In this case, the solving of the problem matches the initial problem in its simplicity: keep the Ring hidden from the bad guy and get it out of the Shire. The solution accomplishes this, in mirror simplicity: toss Ring into volcano. Bad guy can’t get it, and the Shire is safe. The only reason the “conclusion” of the story seems to go on so long is because of all of the other characters and plot threads (see “complicating the problem”) that need to be tied up.
On that note, make sure that all of the “complications” that are added to the initial problem actually are solved, in one form or another. The initial problem should always be the main problem, even if other complications take temporary front and center. For example, the Battle of Helm’s Deep is about Theoden and his people fighting to survive the onslaught of Uruk-Hai—the Ring isn’t part of that particular plot thread. And yet, it is—it’s because of the Ring and the initial problem that the Uruk-Hai are on their killing mission to begin with.
So if you’re stuck on how to structure your plot or you feel like the plot has gotten out of hand with aimless direction, just apply the three-step format to it: introduce the problem, complicate the problem, solve the problem. Happy writing!