Pretty straight forward, right? Since we primarily teach the classic curve (Freytag’s Pyramid), it’s not typically an area of confusion. Plot, structure, plot structure, story, story structure, story elements, narrative, narrative structure, narrative elements, literary elements, elements of plot – many of these terms are used interchangeably (as we know is the case with plenty of literary terms!). While they are similar and often coinciding, there are differences, however subtle they may be, that need to be understood to be taught appropriately. I’m not arguing that they shouldn’t be used or taught interchangeably – there’s a case for it, especially with younger students who are not quite ready to understand the complexity of their differences; however, there comes a point when our students are not only ready to distinguish between them, they also require it in order to reach higher levels of thinking and application.
It’s no secret that the standards we’re expected to teach and the curriculums we’re given to teach them, in many cases, are vague and/or contradictory to one another. It’s also common practice to embrace those teachable moments, even if beyond our grade level objectives in rigor or applicability. If we’re expecting students to write a narrative, analyze plot, comprehend a story, and refer to structural elements when speaking about a text, then their differences need to be actively addressed.
First, I certainly do not claim to be an authority on the matter, nor have I found one set authority. Many literary terms are as subjective as their interpretations are within a text (amirite?). I just happen to be a bit nerdy on the subject and study up in my spare time…for fun. I’ve seen big brand teaching resources, curriculums, college resources, professors, textbooks, and scholarly articles, all claiming to be authorities on the topic, disagree on the intricacies of these terms. With this in mind, I’ll do my best to break apart the concept of plot structure by discussing the individual terms, their differences, and how they’re related. Again, I am NO authority! My understandings may be different than yours, and if this is the case, let’s discuss! My goal for this article is to open dialogue on the topic and provide information that will benefit you, and ultimately your students.
Additionally, I created two resources, a Plot Structure Tool Kit and an Elements of Plot Tool Kit, each containing study guides, posters, and graphic organizers for each of these terms (and more) that can help your kiddos in grades 3-8 (although you may find it appropriate for your younger or older students, too!) better grasp these concepts. They're designed to be used in correlation with the information detailed below. I hope you find them useful! Get your hands on them by clicking the images below!
Alright. (Rolls shoulders and neck, wiggles fingers, stares intently at screen…) Let’s break it down, shall we?
There are 4 primary terms that I’d like to dissect. STORY, PLOT, STRUCTURE, and NARRATIVE.
EVERY STORY HAS A PLOT. EVERY PLOT HAS A STRUCTURE. THE STORY/PLOT/STRUCTURE IS PRESENTED BY THE NARRATOR, THROUGH THE NARRATIVE.
STORY A literary work containing a plot, characters, setting, and theme (among other elements).
PLOT Each event of the story in chronological order. WHAT happens (not necessarily WHEN or HOW).
STRUCTURE The presented order of each event. WHERE and WHEN the plot is presented. The organization of events (plot). The arrangement or layout. A manipulation of time may be presented (think: foreshadowing, flashbacks, etc.). There are basic structures (beginning, middle, and end or Freytag’s Pyramid) and there are complex structures (The Hero’s Journey, The Fichtean Curve, In Media Res – more on these later).
NARRATIVE The narrative is the storytelling. It is told by the narrator (Think: Narrative Point of View). It is the presentation of the plot within a given structure. WHO is telling the story (narrator/point of view) and HOW the story is being told. The perspective or emotions of the narrator (and author) may shine through. The narrative provides an additional layer of complexity.
Now, because my brain is visual, I’ll describe some analogies that help me understand these terms in context. Maybe you have your own analogy – I’d love to hear it!
The AUTHOR is the RINGMASTER.
The STORY is the CIRCUS.
The PLOT would be the ACTS.
The STRUCTURE is the SCHEDULE of the acts.
The NARRATOR would be the PERFORMER.
The NARRATIVE is the PERFORMANCE.
Now, we can dig deeper into plot.
the elements of plot
The elements of plot are pretty basic. Remember, plot is chronological regardless of how it’s structured or presented. A thriller may structure the plot with the main conflict occurring at the beginning and the rest of the narrative unfolding through a structure of flashbacks, a play with chronology. The plot, however, consists of all the events in the story from A-Z, regardless of how the structure and narrative presents them.
The elements of plot are as follows:
EXPOSITION: Characters, settings, goals, motivations, and stakes are established. Conflicts and crises are presented. There’s an inciting incident. The battle, quest, or journey begins. This is NOT always at the beginning of the story, depending on the structure (more on this in a bit).
RISING ACTION: Conflict intensifies. Struggles ensue. Challenges arise in the quest, journey, or battle. The conflict may be internal within a character, or external among other characters, society, nature, technology, or the supernatural. The stakes: what will be won or lost? Life, love, health, happiness, freedom, sanity, opportunity, pride, money, family, or friends.
CLIMAX: The battle (internal or external) was won or lost. The conflict’s resolution occurs or begins/is made possible. There is a turning point. The highest point of interest.
FALLING ACTION: The aftermath or the climax or the results. The characters’ reactions to the climax are revealed. Mysteries are solved and loose ends are tied up. A final brief conflict may occur. The reader is prepared for the ending.
RESOLUTION: The problem/conflict is resolved. The enemy, in any form, may be vanquished. The goal is reached. Acceptance occurs as a new normal is in place.
As we know, there are plenty of plot structures out there to keep us busy FOR DAYS. We can go super into detail and discuss linear, meandering, dramatic, circular, spiraling, branching, explosive, repeating, or alternating structures. We can dip into the teachings of Aristotle, the writing of Shakespeare, or Greek history and reaaaaallly get our feet wet. For the sake of our collective sanity and our kiddos, I’ll just stick the the basic two that we’re required to touch on through 5th grade, as well as two more that are present in middle grade and young adult fiction.
The fact is, every structure is unique. An author may use a linear chronology with some spiraling or meandering thrown in. Another author may have two separate climaxes, each with their own rising and falling actions. Should we acknowledge this with our students when encountering it in our text? If they’re capable of grasping it, I think YES!
The two most common plot structures in children’s literature are as follows:
(or MODIFIED pyramid, for the original is simply a pyramid without the exposition and resolution extensions).
Also referred to as a narrative arc, dramatic curve, or, most vaguely, a plot diagram (I cringe at this, for any plot structure can have a corresponding diagram).
Why is it so popular in children’s literature? It’s rather simple, really. As we know all too well, children are still learning and developing understandings of cause and effect, problem and solution, and conflict resolution. Depending on the age, they don’t yet have the full capacity to predict outcomes after a climatic conflict. Thus, a predictable and simplified structure that helps relay the concept of time through less abstract concepts can help yield comprehension, also allowing the focus to shift to other learning targets (characterization, sequencing of events, etc.). Additionally, a longer rising action and falling action helps frame the conflict and climax in terms of cause and effect and conflict resolution. This also increases tension and emotional involvement for the young reader, both of which are necessary for engagement.
As I’m learning through my own journey into children’s book writing, every word is beyond intentional – it’s crafted with care, creativity, and consideration for our audience and their likes, needs, and capabilities. The Freytag Pyramid may be overdone (and certainly may not be the best choice moving into YA and adult fiction), but it’s an effective tool that need not be reinvented.
THE HERO’S JOURNEY
Most commonly encountered in text by our older kiddos in Sci-Fi or Fantasy, the Hero’s Journey (or The Quest as it’s referred to in the 4th grade CCSS) involves an interruption to the protagonist’s every day life. There’s an opportunity for adventure that may be ignored at first but is later accepted with the help of a friend or mentor. The threshold into the unknown is crossed, obstacles are faced, and change occurs. After overcoming challenges and usually embracing victory, the protagonist returns home, changed, to a new normal.
LESS COMMON IN KID LIT: THE FICHTEAN CURVE
In this structure, the rising action begins immediately with the exposition scattered throughout. Conflicts and crises are frequent, each with their own corresponding rising and falling actions. About two thirds of the way in, a climatic conflict occurs, following by an abrupt falling action, leading to the resolution.
The Fichtean Curve is actually quite popular and is being used by many YA and adult novelists to engage and hook their readers. Can you think of any elementary appropriate texts that use this structure?
LESS COMMON IN KID LIT: IN MEDIA RES (into the middle of things)
A story that is written In Media Res would begin on the 3rd or 4th crisis point of the Fichtean Curve. The stakes would be high and, like the Fichtean Curve, the exposition would be revealed gradually through the narrative, conversations, or flashbacks. What about this structure – any examples come to mind?
Alright. I hope this helped paint a more vibrant and accurate picture of these terms and their intricacies!
Don’t forget to check out the Tool Kits that correspond to this article!