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Plot Confusion?

by Doug Lipman

As a long-time professional storyteller, I have led workshops in many elements of storytelling, including character and place. But I have never led a workshop in plot.

Why not plot? The simple truth is that I've never been able to make sense of it. In particular, the various theories of plot have seemed interesting—but neither convincing nor especially useful.

Aristotle's idea of "beginning, middle and end," for example, makes a kind of intuitive sense, but it also seems to apply equally well to a doctor's appointment and to washing a load of laundry.

Well, In Theory…

Then there are the theories like "the hero's journey" and Freytag's "exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and denouement." These seem closer to my sense of the word "plot," but also seem specific to certain kinds of stories.

For example, it's hard to apply this kind of theory to any very brief stories. But doesn't a 3-minute story have a plot, too? Yes, you can force the brief story into the theory, but that doesn't mean the theory can help you shape the story.

As a result, in my absence of a general understanding of "plot," I have mostly kept silent about it. Until recently.

Now I have had a flash of insight that shone through the mists of my plot confusion. Perhaps it will help you, too.

What Do You Mean By Plot?

The flash of insight came after a coaching client, Sharon Livingston, recommended a particular book on plot. A short way into the book, I discovered that the author's concept of "plot" was broader than mine.

Suddenly, I saw part of my problem with plot: there are, in fact, three main meanings—or levels—referred to by the word "plot." Separating them, at last, has opened the gates to increased clarity. (In this article, I'll focus on these three levels of plot. Elswehere, I'll talk more about how the three levels relate—and how to build and shape each level.)

Diagram: 3 layers of plot: Chronology, Causality, and Presentation

Plot Level #1: Chronology

The first level of plot can be called "chronology": what happens, in what order. This is something like what novelist E.M. Forster calls "story." In a simple story, the chronology might include something like this:

  1. The queen announces to the world that she seeks a husband.
  2. Numerous suitors apply.
  3. The queen chooses a suitor.
  4. The suitor marries the queen, becoming king.

The Chronology doesn't include why things happen or what they mean to the characters or to the storyteller. It doesn't allow for flashbacks and the like. It consists of only two kinds of information:

  • The events;
  • The order in which the events happen.

Simply said, the Chronology is a list of events, put into chronological order.

Obvious—Or Not?

In most stories, the list of what happens is evident to all, as is the order in which things happen. In such cases, there is no controversy about a story's chronology. In fact, multiple versions of a story—each with a sharply different central meaning—might even share a common chronology.

Still, the choice of which events you include in your story is always an artistic choice. It's probably true that the queen chose a herald to carry her announcement from town to town on horseback, for example, but the storyteller must make an artistic decision about whether her choice of herald—or the herald's method of transportation—matters enough to include.

Plot Level #2: Causality

The second level of plot adds the element of causal connections: what causes the events to happen? How does one event lead to the next? More broadly, once the causal relationships between events are agreed on, what is the significance of the sequence of events? In other words, what do these events mean?

This is the level that E.M. Forster calls "plot," as in his famous dictum:

"The king died and the queen died" is story.
"The king died and the queen died of grief" is plot.

So Forster calls my Chronology level "story" and my Causality level "plot." Elizabeth Ellis, on the other hand, in her excellent book From Plot to Narrative, calls the Chronology level "plot" and the Causality level "narrative." Confused yet?

Causes and Meanings

In the case of an actual king and queen, for instance, historians (not to mention historical novelists) might not all agree about why the queen died. Was it because she was consumed with guilt for killing the king? Or was she subtly poisoned by the same third party who had poisoned the king? Or was she so relieved to be free from the king's harsh domination that she went on a binge of eating and merry-making that led directly to her death?

Until the storyteller has come to a personal understanding of the causal connections between the story's events, it's not possible to create meaning for the story. Is the story about the effects of grief? About guilt? About possible responses to liberation from constraints?

The meaning assigned to events, therefore, builds on the teller's understanding of the chain of causation. Further, if you change your understanding of the chain of causation, the meaning will likely also change. For this reason, I include both "causal connections" and "meaning" in this second level of plot.

Plot Level #3: Presentation

The third level of plot adds the order in which the story is told. No matter which events you include in your story and what causal connections and meaning you give to those events, you still have many options for the order in which you will tell them.

For instance, you could tell the queen's story beginning with her decision to seek a suitor, then continue to proceed in chronological order. Alternatively, you could start with the queen's death and then fill in the previous events. Almost every mystery story, for example, holds back at least some of the key events until late in the presentation of the story.

This third level, which also includes important devices like point of view, sensory descriptions and much more, is what Ronald B. Tobias calls "plot". Forster doesn't seem to have a name for this. Others just lump this with the second level.

Plot Finally Stops Thickening

Once we can clarify which of these three levels we mean when we say "plot," then we can finally begin clear and helpful discussions about each level.

To aid in those ongoing discussions, I suggest that we not redefine, yet again, the familiar terms "plot," "narrative," and "story."

Instead, let's just divide "plot" into three strands, give those strands helpful terms (I nominate "Chronology," "Causality" and "Presentation" but welcome other suggestions), and then begin to ask the important, practical questions we need answered:

  • What matters about each level?
  • How can the work at each level be improved?
  • How do decisions at one level affect decisions at another?
  • How can the levels work together to engage our listeners in any desired way?

Those are questions for later articles—questions that can only be answered well when our most basic "plot confusion" has been cleared up.

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This page was last updated on Friday, November 28, 2003
Copyright©2001 Doug Lipman