What are Plots? Understanding Episodic, Dramatic, Parallel, and Flashback

No Plot.jpg“What’s it all about?” “What’s the point?” If you’re a writer or reader, these are usually questions of plot. They could be the things we whisper in the dark before we sleep, too.

Anyways, moving along.

Let’s start this shindig with a basic definition. I pulled this one from The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing, by Alice LaPlante (it’s one gigantic book, but a really great one). “So plot, as we will define it, is that series of events, arranged in a particular order, which brings about the desired final effect of a short story or novel” (p. 377).

Highfalutin folks People who have taken some creative writing courses (or read a few textbooks on the subject) will mutter about The Major Dramatic Question. To put it simply, the major dramatic question is the problem the author presents for their characters to deal with; it’s the same problem the reader is confronted with as they go through the story. After the story is finished, the reader should feel they have an answer, or solution, to this problem (even if the reader’s solution wasn’t the same as what you wrote, at least you got them thinking).

While the journey to answering this question is why readers read, as the writer, it’s often important to take a moment to ask yourself: “Just where the heck am I going with this? What issue am I presenting in this story? Does my ending solve this issue? Should it?”

Ignoring the plot is like foreplay without We don’t want to take our readers on an awesome journey and not give them a payoff of some kind. The plot ensures we stay on track. I’ve read/heard many different techniques for ensuring you achieve this goal. I’m sticking with the shortest and quickest ones I’ve found.

Crying Boy No Plot.jpgDon’t plot. Doesn’t get any quicker than doing nothing. Not what I would recommend, but enough people have read Steven King’s book, On Writing, to cherry-pick passages that indicate plotting goes against creativity (as if every writer is creative in the same way and one person’s recipe for success fits all). According to King, this sort of pre-planning ruins the organic process.

The reason I don’t recommend this is because it’s hard to overhaul a plotless book. These novels/stories stretch on forever, largely because the writer is simply writing without a goal of any kind. They rock back and forth and whisper, “The ending will come, the ending will come…” Bad news, sometimes, it’s not coming. Sometimes, you must have a somewhat realized concept of what the plot was to effectively close it out.

Side note. The lack of any sort of plotting and blind writing is not something I advocate or dissuade people from, generically. Every writer is different. Some can power through to a conclusion that makes perfect sense. Some will get lost in the middle and never find the end. Some advice shouldn’t be stone, it should be sand. So, shift your style to fit your person, even if your person shifts year-by-year.

Plot points. Unlike an in-depth plotting project where you write pages of discovery material, this is a page or two where you numerically number the major plot points in chronological order and cross them off as you move along. This gives you the freedom to connect those dots however you want, and even change them along the way. This provides the writer an endgame, even if the conclusion is in flux and changes as you close on it.

Mission Statement. One of the best and least time-sucky methods I’ve seen comes from the book, Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, by Roy Peter Clark. He states you should take the time to draft a mission statement for your work. The mission statement, according to Clark, is a list of “I want” statements.

Examples. I want the hero to to lose his hero-status and die. I want to show space pirates have a heart of gold. I want to turn (insert trope) on its head. I want to show that kittens are superior to puppies.

These “I want” statements highlight what your goals are for the characters and conflicts in the story. They also can quickly become dramatic questions. Just replace I want with how do I. Suddenly you have a series of questions to answer with your writing. This allows you to be run wild with organic story telling, but also creates a loose set of guidelines to reel you back in.

Moving on.

There are four “main” types of plots out there. Honestly, there are more than four, but these seem to be the most common in current literature: dramatic, parallel, episodic, and flashback.

 

dramatic plot.jpg

An example of a dramatic plot. 

Dramatic Plots. This follows one main rising action to a climax, then tapers down to the end. Most of the book is spent establishing settings, characters, and conflicts. One main conflict reigns supreme, and the characters ride this action to a crescendo. There is a period of lull after this climax (called the denouement) where the reader gets to take a breather, then the writer closes the story.

 

Episodic Plots. These follow many actions or events chapter-by-chapter. The events stack, and are typically related by a character or theme. The goal with this sort of plot is to show a larger event, place, time, or idea from many different angles. Much like the namesake, many television shows are set up with an episodic plot. There are central characters and themes to drive the show, but “filler” episodes could be shuffled around without impacting the series much.

Serving Up Plots.jpgSome military fiction uses this style. Each chapter highlights a different member in the military, tackling a different aspect of the battle or war. Ultimately, these vignettes join to paint a much larger understanding of the conflict.

Parallel Plots. This form allows you to take multiple dramatic plots, usually two or three, and run them at the same time. Remember how the dramatic plot has a rising action that leads to a climax in the story? With parallel plots, the multiple arcs usually all crash together at the climax. Because the reader has followed multiple rising actions, they might be more emotionally involved in the climactic moment.

Flashback, flashback, flashback… This plotting device allows the author to start the story in the middle of a high-action point, and flash backwards to lead back up to it. Giving the reader all the backstory and moving them back to the high-action moment. The clichéd version of this is certainly the, this is how I died, intro. Of course, I should eat my words as one of the most talked about and controversial shows on Netflix right now is 13 Reasons Why. A show about a girl who commits suicide, and each episode it basically a flashback to events leading up to it.

thanksThat’s a wrap for today, thanks for reading! No matter what plot you go with, or if you’re going into the work plotless, you owe your readers that moment at the end of the book where they sigh, look up at the skies, and say, “I feel…something.” Let’s just hope that something is a positive connection, one that will keep them coming back for more. Until we cross quills again, keep reading, keep writing, and as always—stay sharp!

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17 responses

  1. My only thought, though it really is pointless since I am not a writer, is that when a story has to many flashbacks, i get lost in the story. I have not seen the series on Netflix yet, but I hope it is not a confusing story line where viewer is constantly asking,” What is going on now?”. As always love your post.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Flashbacks, in my opinion, become even more confusing in books. It’s a little more forgiving in a tv series because cinematic effects (black and white, fuzzy outlines, slow fade to black) instantly cue the viewer to a flashback. The written word isn’t as forgiving. Thanks for stopping in today, Kim!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “Just where the heck am I going with this?” lol I hate it when I have to ask that question!
    I find that I often go organic, at first, but then plot points are a lifesaver. ; )
    This is a very good summation of all the different approaches that you can take, and I hope writers are not hesitant to mix and match as needed. Like you said, sand not stone.

    Meno<3

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for reading and leaving some thoughts. I find some people want to write organically simply because they don’t want to plot or outline. For some, that’s no problem. For others, their style requires plot points. I love hearing from folks like you who understand needs change. What worked for us last book, chapter, or sentence may not work now. We’ve just got to have enough tools to fix the problems when they come.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Lol you sound like you need some sleep
        ; ) Have you had the sleepless teeth-coming-in nights yet? Feels like it never ends… but it does eventually (thank whatever deity is at hand).

        Anyways, always good to see a post from you! Keep on keeping on!

        Meno<3

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Very informative article. Thank you. Kurt Vonnegut said to make sure your main character wants something, even if it’s just a cup of water. In the right context, “a cup of cold water is like good news from a far country.”

    Liked by 2 people

    • This is great advice. I was tempted to include some information from Vonnegut, but was already exceeding my word count restriction (trying to not bore people with giant posts these days). Absolutely love this perspective. Thanks for reading and enhancing the discussion.

      Like

  4. “According to King, this sort of pre-planning ruins the organic process.” I recall seeing some other author’s comment once on what image “organic” writing process conjured for him. Something about imagining the writing being covered in moss or slime-mold. 🙂

    “The reason I don’t recommend this is because it’s hard to overhaul a plotless book.” [deletes five different snarky comments about “plotless wonders”] I totally agree. The difficulty of rescuing a plotless wonder from itself is part of why I generally prefer to leave the developmental editing to those brave enough to attempt it even when they can’t read the author’s mind.

    I think SOME plotting in advance saves a lot of time and effort for the writer, but all that really matters (to readers, anyway) in the end is the finished story.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Ten years ago, I had a great idea. I should write a novel. How hard could it be? I thought. Well, now I know and it is really hard. I wish someone had told me then that the things like POV, plot, setting, character development and dialogue are better left to professionals.

    I can’t say enough how much I admire guys like you who can take this really complex concept like knowing where the story should go before you write it and breaking it down so knuckleheads like me can understand.

    Looks like I am starting over….again. ha ha

    rob

    Like

  6. I think I must have tried just about every system at some time or other. I like the ‘I want’ idea. Of course, in the Earplug Adventures, it’s bound to become a case of ‘I want to go to the toilet’. It always is.

    Like

  7. Thanks for your informative posts. I was enamored with the term DEEP POV. I struggle with the mechanics of putting it on the page, getting into the character’s head. Stream of consciousness written the way one thinks, in incomplete sentences. The reader knows what and how the character is feeling because he is in his head—listening.
    I’ll check out your suggested reading.

    Liked by 1 person

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