Posted by: jockmackenzie | November 30, 2009

Short Story Plot- The “Picture” of a Short Story

Using the Mind’s Eye

Pictures from fotosearch

Plot Pictures

Trying to get students to see things in the mind’s eye has always been one of my goals.  Visualizing allows me to better understand a concept and it provides hooks for the memory.

For the plot of a short story, I have added to the standard plot picture with several additions, additions I feel are helpful because they add important details. The pictures below are a progression from the standard plot outline familiar to most (but perhaps not all), my first adaptation (and this one may be sufficient for early grades), and then my latest version (and even this is only the very basic, no frills short story plot).

Your standard plot picture

The standard plot picture may be sufficient to explain the idea that a story has a beginning (where the reader learns where and when the story takes place, who the main characters are, if any significant events have occurred before the actual beginning of the story), it rises to a climax (a main problem exists that must be solved and in seeking that solution the events build toward the climax), a height of interest and answer to the problem is given, and then loose ends are tied up and/or unanswered questions are answered.

The standard plot picture doesn’t really say most of the specifics I’ve just mentioned but the BIG picture is given. I thought the picture needed to be more focused.

My Original Adaptation to the Standard Plot Picture

 


 

 

 

My improved and/or more detailed adaptation to the standard plot picture

My first improvement, and this is the one I used throughout most of my career, simply indicates where the Initial Incident occurs and shows it with a Q in a circle. After the information given in the introduction, the reader is met with the story’s BIG problem. I have always asked my students to note that problem as a question. When I introduce the whole notion of the simplest plot structure, I use fairy tales: What will happen to Goldilocks when the three bears return? Will Little Red Riding Hood get safely to her grandma’s house? Will the three little pigs stay safe from the big bag wolf?

The steps rising to the climax are a series of “Good” and “Bad” events – good for the protagonist’s situation or bad. We begin by playing the Good and Bad Game. Situations like this are invented: You and a friend are in a life boat in the middle of the ocean. Students then offer suggestions. Good – the boat has oars. Bad – a shark swims by and bites one of the oars in half. Good – you whack the shark over the head and he swims away. Bad – there is no food in the boat. Good – there is a first aid kit and it contains a fish hook and some line. . . and on we go. Students are quick to catch on to the idea that suspense increases through any series of events that keep the reader in doubt.

The steps are only a generalization as I am quick to point out that most stories do not follow a one good – one bad sequence. More often a number of either good or bad events occur in a row only to be interrupted by an opposite event. In Goldilocks’ case, it’s a “two bad, one good” sequence – this chair is too hard, this chair is too soft, this chair is just right.

For me, the climax has always been the answer to the BIG question, not the point of highest interest, the split second before the reader discovers what happens. In the real world a climax is a climax. I rest my case. A = answer.

The shortest part of the story seems to have been blessed with the most names: epilogue, resolution, falling action, denouement. I use Epilogue/Resolution because it fits my mnemonic. For my students, the plot of a short story is 3I-RACER. That’s 3 I’s, one for Introduction, the next two are for Initial Incident. The RA is Rising Action, C is Climax, ER is Epilogue or Resolution.

Fairy tales offer a perfect epilogue/resolution with the ubiquitous “They all lived happily ever after.”

 

This more detailed version of the very simple plot structure of a story is my “since I’ve been retired” version. It is not classroom tested . . . but it does appeal to my “let’s not dummy down” philosophy. It only includes a few small additions and I think it makes things a bit more clear. The jagged lines forming the introduction are a series of W’s and perhaps should be shown as such. (I added a picture below that does this.) The introduction, once again as portrayed in fairy tales, is the “Once upon a time, a long time ago, in a far away place, there lived a . . .” part. It tells when, where, who.

Another W in the Introduction could be What if one can make the leap to Antecedent Action being thought of as What important events occurred before the actual beginning of the story. The arrow below the W’s indicates the Antecedent Action.

The labeled version of the above plot picture

 

As promised above, the slightly altered plot picture with W’s in the Introduction.

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Responses

  1. Thank you for these tips and visual clues!


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