Visualizing Plot Structure

a-visual-analysis-of-plot-structure

A few weeks ago, my agent asked me to do one final pass on my verse novel for pacing. Make sure I wasn’t focusing on one emotion or idea for too many poems and that I kept the action moving. I really, REALLY wanted to get this absolutely perfect, so I maybe went a tiny bit overboard and graphed out all the storylines in my verse novel by color.

Here’s the evidence.

20161117_200250_resized

Yes, that is over 400 pages worth of poetry goodness right there. What was really interesting though, was that this little experiment gave me an entirely deeper understanding of plot structure. Because instead of it being just this idea, it became something I could actually see unfolding in my post-it notes.

The verse novel format gave a perfect way to break this down and really see how it works because each poem is a snapshot, a moment. It usually focuses on one idea or one emotion, or one specific plot line. I think this graphing experiment would be much harder to do with a prose novel since you’d have to do it by scene and scenes are so often multi-layered and go through several emotions and tie things together. In a verse novel, a series of poems can make up a scene, but each poem has its own specific focus, which made this such a neat visualization.

So, without further ado…let me show you what I saw!

First, I’m going to give you a very brief run-down of the color coding system.

Orange = the MC’s father’s battle with Cancer. This is where the book begins. It is her normal life.

Yellow = the World Series and the MC’s attempts to get there.

Green = the MC’s interactions with friends.

Hot pink = the MC’s discovery of her possible genetic condition and making the decision of whether or not to be tested.

Light pink = Breathers. Moments of lightness and happiness (It’s a heavy book, so you’ll notice I tried to sprinkle these throughout.)

However, I’m also going to use this graph and color system idea to show you that this plot structure works for any story. Not just mine. And since I just saw and analyzed it, I’m going to use Doctor Strange as my example. There will be spoilers. Sorry.

So now that you know that, let’s take a look at the whole story graph again, this time with the inciting incident, first turning point, midpoint, climax, and resolution labeled.

overview-of-entire-plot

Now what do you notice for the most part about the inciting incident, the first turning point, and the midpoint?

They are all huge blocks of color! Far larger blocks of color than you find anywhere, ANYWHERE else in the book. (For the most part, you can probably see where some of my pacing problems were. After my revision pass, it was even more obvious.)

So what does this mean? Well, let’s zoom in and take a closer look.

inciting-incident

Here is the first panel. As you can see, the beginning is a whole lot of orange. Orange being the MC’s normal, but flawed life. Here the orange is all about her Dad being diagnosed (again) with Cancer. In Dr. Strange it is his life as a brilliant doctor.

The MC’s life goes on for several poems with a sprinkling of baseball and happy poems and friends and then all of a sudden. A new color! Hot pink! Something new comes along and completely changes the MC’s life in a way that can not be undone.

In my story, it is when the MC discovers that she has a 50% chance of having the same devastating genetic mutation as her dad.

In Dr. Strange, it is the car accident and total destruction of the MC’s hands.

Something totally new that changes the trajectory of the MC’s normal, but flawed life. That is the inciting incident. And from here on out, that storyline will keep appearing along with the other ones that have all been hinted at in the introduction.

Let’s go on to the next panel!

1st-turning-point-alternative

midpoint-2

You’ll notice this panel looks a little bit different than the one I used in the overview shot at the beginning of this post. That’s because sometimes my poems really dealt with two storylines at once. When that happened, I layered sticky notes. (You can actually see some of those layered sticky notes in this panel.) At the first turning point, I had a few poems that were both yellow (World Series) and green (friendship). I removed the green sticky notes to give a clearer picture of the first turning point.

The first turning point is another solid block of color. It is not a totally new storyline. You have been dropping little hints about it up until now. But here, it comes and throws your character for another loop. A loop so big, that there is no going back once they know what they know.

In my verse novel, this is when the MC finds out that her family won’t be able to go on their annual trip to the World Series because of her dad’s chemo treatments and compromised immune system. It’s something she looks forward to every year and now it’s taken away. She can’t just suddenly get it back without a lot of hard work (which is what this storyline becomes.)

In Dr. Strange, this is when he finally gets inside that mystic place and the ancient one shows him all the amazing power he could tap into and control and then throws him out. He can not go back. He can’t unknow what he saw. He is forever changed.

So, first turning point is not a totally new storyline. You’ve been foreshadowing and hinting at it. But it, once again, changes your MC’s life in a way that can not easily be undone.

Next panel(s)!

midpoint-1

I’d never thought of the midpoint as something with two parts until I did this exercise. And then when I analyzed the plot of Dr. Strange, the pattern held, so I know it’s not that I’m crazy. The midpoint takes place over the course of two panels. It is that huge block of orange followed by that huge block of yellow.

Here’s what that means. The midpoint is really that place where the entire story shifts or gets turned on its head. It is that place where really, truly, there is a point of no return. And I firmly believe that every plot achieves this midpoint shift in two parts. I don’t think they have to be in this order, in some stories the yellow block might come first and then the orange block. But let’s look at what that shift means.

The orange is the MC’s original normal, but flawed life. Remember? So an important part of that life now comes to the forefront of the story and drastically changes.

In my verse novel, this is when her dad’s cancer spreads and now he’s dying.

In Dr. Strange, this is when he realizes that he can either have his perfectly, masterful hands back and go back to his life as a brilliant doctor, or he can use his powers to fight evil. But he can not do both. He can go back to his life, but at a very high price. See the normal life shift?

Then we have the block of yellow. Again, this doesn’t necessarily have to be the storyline highlighted in the first turning point. I believe it could also be the inciting incident storyline. But it has to be one of them. Something from that storyline fully changes too. In a big way.

In my verse novel, the MC goes to this big meeting and pleads her case and gets approval for a big fundraiser to get her dad special, private box seats, to watch the World Series from. So that is a big shift in the storyline.

In Dr. Strange, this is when the bad guys take down the London headquarters and blast one of the gateways and Dr. Strange gets thrown into the middle of the battle and the gateway is sealed off. This is literally, a point of no return. He has to use his powers to fight the bad guys. The powers that he got a glimpse of in the first turning point…remember?

See? Now, I used to just view my midpoint as the point when the MC’s dad’s cancer spreads. And I probably would have originally seen the midpoint in Dr. Strange as that big moment of truth when he finds out he can’t have everything. But now I see that each midpoint has two halves to complete a full shift of the storyline.

Is your mind blown yet? No? Maybe just me? That’s ok! Let’s look at the next part of the plot!

fourth-panel

Okay, so I already showed you this panel when I was focusing on the midpoint. But now let’s talk about what happens next. I LOVE to write the story after the midpoint. It’s when you just slowly ruin your MC’s life completely. EVERY storyline crumbles. EVERYTHING goes bad. So, you can’t tell just by looking at the colors, but I labelled it here very scientifically. Each of these places where I have a small or large block of color, bad things are happening. My MC is losing everything. Each of those green blocks is a different friendship falling apart somehow. That big block of orange is her dad’s biopsy coming back and getting a terminal diagnosis. This, my friends, is the dark night of the soul.

I’ve only seen Dr. Strange once so I don’t remember enough to be specific, but this is basically where he’s getting his butt kicked by the bad guys.

But then look at that last line! It’s a freaking rainbow of storylines! And it’s hard to see it in this picture, but a lot of those post-its are doubled or tripled up with other colors.

IT’S THE CLIMAX!!!!!!

This is when all your storylines collide into one great big, messy, exciting, pinnacle of action and emotion.

In my verse novel, it’s her big fundraiser. It’s successful! But then, oooh. See that light pink? For the end, I ran out of colors, but here at the end, that light pink isn’t a breather or happy poem. It’s my twist. Every story needs a plot twist. And here’s mine. Right at the climax. I’m not going to tell you what it is because, you know, I’m still hopeful this story will get published.

But…I’ll talk to you about Dr. Strange. I’d say the plot twist is probably at the beginning of the climax of Dr. Strange, whereas in my verse novel it’s obviously at the end. Either one works, in my opinion. In Dr. Strange, the plot twist is when the Ancient One reveals that she has been tapping into the power of the evil guy and then dies. Then the rest of the climax happens where Dr. Strange brings time to the universe of immortality and that’s how he beats the bad guys.

So, to recap. The climax is a rainbow of all your storylines with some kind of twist thrown. However, that twist doesn’t come completely out of nowhere. It’s hard to see this in my graph, but several of those light pink, “breather” poems are actually foreshadowing this twist (as well as some of the orange poems). You can’t have a twist without foreshadowing.

And then the last panel.

fifth-panel

I think this picture speaks for itself.

I hope this gave you a deeper understanding of plot structure like it did for me!

_____________________________

Amanda Rawson Hill grew up in southwest Wyoming with a library right out her back gate, which accounts a lot for how she turned out. She now resides in central California where she is a gardener, chemist, homeschool mom, Yosemite explorer, and Disneyland enthusiast. She writes middle-grade fiction and is represented by Elizabeth Harding at Curtis Brown LTD.

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