Aristotle and Plot Line
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Plot Sequencing: Aristotle’s Incline

 

          The definition of plot and its principles were originated by Aristotle in Poetics.  According to his definition, a plot has to have a beginning, middle, and ending.  The end must have a logical outcome resulting from the beginning and middle events.  All events travel toward a single and inevitable logical outcome.  Tied together are the elements of action, time, and place.

          Aristotle’s principles of plot were modeled after classic Greek tragedies.  Throughout the centuries, the plot model has evolved, and now the various types of plot lines are almost limitless.  Before we examine different types of plot sequencing, it’s best to start with the classic linear structure, also called Aristotle’s Incline. The model I use for this exercise is based on the model Robert J. Ray uses in his book, The Weekend Novelist.

          The classic linear plot has a beginning, middle, and ending.  In a novel, they’re structured as three acts. If you were to draw a diagram of this plot line, it will look like a diagonal line starting at the left, building toward a climax which ends on the right.  The line is divided into thirds, one third for each of the three acts.  At the bottom left at the very beginning of Act One is your opening scene. Your ending scene will be at the top of the incline on the far right.  In the middle of your incline is your midpoint scene, the first great turning point of your novel (or short story), or as Aristotle called it, the reversal.

          A novel using this type of plot line will have six key scenes. Because of time and word constraints, a short story won’t have this many full scenes, but you can still use this diagram to outline your story. The six key scenes are:

1.      Opening scene

2.      Plot point one

3.      Midpoint or reversal scene

4.      Plot point two

5.      Climax

6.      Ending scene

 

Now let’s go into this in more detail.

Act One is your beginning of the story. It is the setup.  Here you introduce your characters, reveal their conflicts.  Act One closes with a turning point (with plot point one) and then the curtain to Act Two opens.  In Act Two, obstacles intensify the conflict.  Act Two will contain the reversal scene at its midpoint and will close with plot point two, another key scene that will signal the ending of Act Two and bring up the curtain for Act Three.  Act Three contains the climax and ending scene.

Opening Scene

Your opening scene is your reader’s first glimpse into your story.  It’s the scene that determines whether or not your reader will buy your book or continue with the rest of the story. It introduces your characters and conflicts while also setting the tone and mood for the rest of the story. “Cinderella” opens with the King’s decision to have a ball in order to find a suitable wife for his son, heir to the throne.

          In Anne Tyler’s Accidental Tourist,  Macon and Sarah Leary, a married couple who recently lost their son are coming home early from their vacation.  Frustrated that her husband won’t share his grief, she asks him for a divorce.

          John Irving wrote, “Know the story—as much of the story as you can possibly know, if not the whole story—before you commit yourself to the first paragraph. Know the story—the whole story, if possible—before you fall in love with your first sentence, not to mention your first chapter.”

Plot Point One

After your opening scene, your next key scene is plot point one.  This is the scene that closes the first act of your story.  The purpose of this scene is to finish the setting up of conflicts and characters.  At the end of plot point one, the tone, time, or pace changes.  In The Great Gatsby,  the plot point one scene is the one in which Nick Carraway discovers Daisy’s husband Tom has been having an affair with Myrtle.

          In The Accidental Tourist, plot point one is Macon’s decision to hire Muriel, the dog trainer.

          In “Cinderella” it is when the Fairy Godmother has dressed up Cinderella in a beautiful gown and glass slippers and tells her she must be home by midnight.

Midpoint/Reversal

In a movie, the midpoint occurs at the midpoint, at the end of the first hour of a two-hour movie, or around page sixty in a script.  In a novel or story, you will also have a midpoint.  Understanding the importance of this key scene will help you to prevent a boring, floundering middle of a story—or middle-of-the-book blues. 

          Syd Field, author of Screenwriter’s Workbook defines the midpoint as “ . . . a pit stop, a destination, a beacon that guides you and keeps you on course during the execution of your story line.” The midpoint of your story is the scene that causes a big change in your characters.  It can also be called a reversal.  In a romance, the couple might break up, or a platonic couple becomes romantic.  In a mystery, it could be a violent action or something that thwarts the investigation.  In “Cinderella,” the midpoint occurs when the prince and Cinderella are dancing, they fall in love, and she forgets about her curfew.

          In Accidental Tourist, it’s the point at which Macon confesses to Muriel (the dog trainer) about his son’s death.

          The midpoint serves another purpose in your story.  Robert J. Ray describes it as what anchors the events both leading up to the midpoint and away from it. Your midpoint should transform your character in some way.  All the events leading up to it should have a logical cause and effect relationship, as should the events leading away from your midpoint. Each event linked in a causal chain will lead to a logical but also satisfying ending.

Plot Point Two

Just as plot point one closes Act One, plot point two closes Act Two and opens the curtain for Act Three.  Robert J. Ray describes the function of plot point two: “Plot point two is the high point and turning point.  You use it to wind the action up, twisting the strands of your story so they can be unwound in Act Three, sometimes called the denouement.”  He explains that the origin of denouement comes from desnouer which means “undo.”

          This scene is also a good place to bring back all your major characters.

          In Accidental Tourist plot point two occurs at Macon’s sister’s wedding. His sister Rose is marrying his boss, Macon is still married but living with Muriel the dog trainer, but it seems Macon is working his way back to his wife, also present at the wedding.

          In “Cinderella” the clock strikes midnight, the coach turns back into a pumpkin, and Cinderella flees from the ball and loses a slipper.

Climax

The climax of a story is the high point of emotional intensity. It is the moment of resolution.  On the Aristotle incline diagram, it’s the highest point of your story before it closes with the ending scene.

          In “Cinderella” the climax occurs as she endures the scorn of her step-mother in order to try on the glass slipper.  It fits, and we know what happens next.

          In Accidental Tourist Macon drops the sleeping pill his wife has given him.  It’s the moment of decision, of revelation.

Ending

The ending scene is the final scene of your story. At this point, everything has come to a logical resolution.  An ideal ending scene should have a final image that remains in the reader’s mind after he has closed the book.

          In The Great Gatsby the final image is the green light blinking from the dock in East Egg.  The light symbolizes Gatsby’s hope of winning Daisy, the hope that died with him.

          In Accidental Tourist, the final image is of sunlight glinting on the windshield. Macon is in a car, like in the opening scene, but this time he is a changed man and in love with someone else.

          Depending on what version of “Cinderella” you read or watch, the ending scene will be different. Usually, though, it’s of Cinderella and the Prince riding off to start their new life.

 

          Diagramming your key scenes or events of your story is a way to check and see if your plot works.  You can then write each scene individually in whatever order you like, or write the story linearly.

Exercise

Use a work in progress—a short story or novel—and write the key scenes.  You may draw a diagram of the Aristotle Incline or do an outline.

Using the list below for your outline, describe each key scene in one or two sentences.

1.      Opening

2.      Plot point one

3.      Midpoint or reversal

4.      Plot point two

5.      Climax

6.      Ending

 

The objective of this is to see whether the events leading up to your key scenes are logical, whether the motivations of your characters are clear.

 

Ó Cacoethes Scribendi Creative Writing Workshop 2001