Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Freytag and Tomatoes…Growing a Plot

This week, I spent one whole day sitting in a darkened room, listening to human resources reps from my new employer tell us everything we wanted to know and more about working for them. To all outward appearances, I was taking diligent notes throughout. Reality: I was plotting a new book idea in my extra-special, corporate logo-ed pad of paper. I’d pause once in a while to acknowledge a flashback to high school – specifically to a day when I was called out in Pre-Calc class for being more interested in staring at the patterns of snowflakes falling outside the frosty window than I was in the variables on the blackboard. Luckily, the HR representative wasn’t nearly as observant as the pre-calc/football coach Mr. Seaman. (Yes…giggle at his name. We all did.)
The next day, I found myself thinking of all sorts of events – plot points, really – that could happen in this new story. But it was all a jumble. No order, no timeline – just a stream-of-consciousness kind of collection of plot ideas. So, I figured I had enough floating around in my brain, I’d better get some of it down somehow or I would forget these Great American Novel ideas.
Result: I swiped my daughter’s markers and a stack of huge pieces of drawing paper.

Was I regressing to elementary school art class? Was I planning to draw my own graphic novel? No… I was rediscovering Freytag’s pyramid. Heard of it? Even if you don’t remember Freytag’s name, you probably remember diagramming stories in school, and most of those activities were based on good ol’ Freytag’s story analysis.
Freytag is the dude who said that all stories should have a beginning (exposition, inciting incident), rising action, a climax, falling action, and a resolution. Look it up – a search on Google will show you literally dozens of examples of the diagram and the terminology that goes with it.
Here’s the cool thing: it works. Sometimes the “pyramid” ends up more like a bell-curve. Sometimes it peaks with multiple climaxes – but there is always one that creates the highest peak on the chart. I took a novel writing class recently where we created not only plot arcs (aka Freytag’s you-know-what) for a novel, but we compared them to character arcs as well. It was a hugely important exercise for my growth as a writer. If you haven’t diagrammed a story lately – plotted it out on an arc or pyramid – I strongly suggest you do! Pick your favorite adult or YA novel you’ve read recently. Pick the middle grade book you’re reading with your kids… Any well-written story will do, although you can find great examples of the pyramid for most Shakespeare plays online. See what you discover about story structure and organizing your own plot.
After about 30 minutes of playing around with my huge drawing pad and blue, green, red and purple markers, I produced a lovely example – and exposed plot holes and character questions along the way.  (Freytag would be so proud!) I’ve got a long way to go, but it is exciting to have this poster to hang on my office wall to inspire and motivate me. Now I can see that there really is a story hidden in the weird idea that fell into my lap during that never-ending meeting. I can see the basics: where the story can begin, what the major climax might be, and how it can resolve. Will it end up that way? Most likely not. I know my own writing style well enough by now to realize that I’ll made a gazillion changes before it is all said and done.
But it is a beginning. It is like planting a seed and checking the garden one morning to find a tiny, green tomato sprout sticking out of the dirt. The sprout will have its own arc (growing over time, producing flowers, then tiny green fruit, ripening tomatoes for picking, dying back, buried in the compost pile). Weird how that parallels the growth of a good story, isn’t it?
So Freytag and tomatoes. Wonder if he had a garden?

1 comment:

  1. Growing a plot,with Freytag as our gardener--great idea. Lots of good suggestions here that can help us all in our beginning stages of plotting. Thanks!