From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The concept of plot and the associated concept of construction of plot, emplotment, has developed considerably since Aristotle made these insightful observations. The episodic narrative tradition which Aristotle indicates has systematically been subverted over the intervening years, to the extent that the concept of beginning, middle, end are merely regarded as a conventional device when no other is at hand.
This is particularly true in the cinematic tradition, in which the folding and reversal of episodic narrative is now commonplace. Moreover, many writers and film directors, particularly those with a proclivity for the Modernist or other subsequent and derivative movements which emerged during or after the early 20th century, seem more concerned that plot is an encumbrance to their artistic medium than an assistance. Avant-garde novelist and critic Giorgio Manganelli said «Personally, I'm interested in books that have a theme rather than a plot; those that is not possible, or that is excessively tough, to summarize.»
The term plot-driven is used to describe work in which a preconceived plot and climax is the main thrust of the work, with the characters' behaviour being moulded by this inevitable sequence of events. It is usually regarded as being the opposite of character-driven.
Aristotle on plot
In his Poetics, Aristotle considered plot (mythos) the most important element of drama—more important than character, for example. A plot must have, Aristotle says, a beginning, a middle, and an end, and the events of the plot must causally relate to one another as being either necessary or probable. (Poetics 23.1459a.)
Of the utmost importance to Aristotle is the plot's ability to arouse emotion in the psyche of the audience. In tragedy, the appropriate emotions are fear and pity, emotions which he considers in his Rhetoric. (Aristotle's work on comedy has not survived.)
Aristotle goes on to consider whether the tragic character suffers (pathos), and whether or not the tragic character commits the error with knowledge of what he is doing. He illustrates this with the question of a tragic character who is about to kill someone in his family.
- The worst situation [artistically] is when the personage is with full knowledge on the point of doing the deed, and leaves it undone. It is odious and also (through the absence of suffering) untragic; hence it is that no one is made to act thus except in some few instances, e.g., Haemon and Creon in Antigone. Next after this comes the actual perpetration of the deed meditated. A better situation than that, however, is for the deed to be done in ignorance, and the relationship discovered afterwards, since there is nothing odious in it, and the discovery will serve to astound us. But the best of all is the last; what we have in Cresphontes, for example, where Merope, on the point of slaying her son, recognizes him in time; in Iphigenia, where sister and brother are in a like position; and in Helle, where the son recognizes his mother, when on the point of giving her up to her enemy.
Typical plot structure
- Initial situation - the beginning. It is the first incident that makes the story move.
- Conflict or Problem - goal which the main character of the story has to achieve.
- Complication - obstacles which the main character has to overcome.
- Climax - highest point of interest of the story.
- Suspense - point of tension. It arouses the interest of the readers.
- Dénouement or Resolution - what happens to the character after overcoming all obstacles/failing to achieve the desired result and reaching/not reaching his goal.
- Conclusion - the end result of the climax
Note that this is a simplification, and that not all stories follow this archetypal structure.
The plot of historical events
Epistemological historian Paul Veyne (1971: 46-47; English trans. by Min Moore-Rinvolucri 1984: 32-33) applies the concept to real-life events, defining plot as “the fabric of history”, a system of interconnected historical facts:
“Facts do not exist in isolation, in the sense that the fabric of history is what we shall call a plot, a very human and not very ‘scientific’ mixture of material causes, aims, and chances--a slice of life, in short, that the historian cuts as he [sic] wills and in which facts have their objective connections and relative importance...the word plot has the advantage of reminding us that what the historian studies is as human as a play or a novel....then what are the facts worthy of rousing the interest of the historian? All depends on the plot chosen; a fact is interesting or uninteresting...in history as in the theater, to show everything is impossible--not because it would require too many pages, but because there is no elementary historical fact, no event worthy atom. If one ceases to see events in their plots, one is sucked into the abyss of the infinitesimal.”
A plot device is a means of advancing the plot in a story, often used to motivate characters, create urgency or resolve a difficulty. This can be contrasted with moving a story forward with narrative technique; that is, by making things happen because characters take action for well-motivated reasons. As an example, when the cavalry shows up at the last moment and saves the day, that can be argued to be a plot device; when an adversarial character who has been struggling with himself saves the day due to a change of heart, that is dramatic technique.
- Arthur Quiller-Couch originally formulated seven basic plots as a series of conflicts: Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, Man against God, Man vs. Society, Man in the Middle, Man & Woman, Man vs. Himself.
- The Seven Basic Plots, a book by Christopher Booker
- Dramatic structure
- Syd Field: Three-act structure in screenplays and films
- Gustav Freytag
- Mythos (Aristotle)
- Narrative structure
- Narrative thread
- Plot device
- Plot drift
- Plot hole
- The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations, which is Georges Polti's categorization of every dramatic situation that might occur in a story or performance.
- Robert McKee
- The Seven Basic Plots