Plotting a Novel (part 2)

by Kate Forsyth

The Forsyth Triangle

I have developed a diagram to help my writing students understand the basic narrative arc of stories and I’m going to share it with you all today – though if you are going to share it with anyone else please make sure you credit me!

It is based on Freytag’s Triangle, developed by the German dramatist Gustav Freytag who studied Aristotle’s Poetics. Freytag divided a drama into five parts which he named:

Exposition – Rising Action – Climax – Falling Action – Denouement

I have combined his theories with the idea of a three-act structure often used by playwrights and screenwriters.

Some definitions:

  • Expositionbackground information – characters, scene, & situation – a scene that shows the normal life of the protagonist
  • Inciting Incident the catalyst that begins the major conflict – a problem or complication to be solved – the point at which normal life is changed
  • Rising Actiona series of conflicts and crises – obstacles to overcome, ordeals to undergo, lessons to be learnt, revelations to be understood
  • Crisis – a crucial or decisive moment in the story that has a powerful effect on the protagonist – a turning point
  • Midpoint Reversal the middle of the story, where it seems all is lost and the hero cannot go on – it often marks a movement from one place to another, whether physical, spiritual or emotional
  • Climaxthe turning point of the action, when tension reaches its height. The point in which the hero must not only face – and defeat – his enemy, but also his greatest fear
  • Resolutionthe final stage, where questions are answered and problems solved
  • Falling Action the action following the climax that moves the story towards its end – it is usually much shorter than the previous series of events
  • Denouement comes from the old French, and means to ‘untie the knot’.  The final scene when all is well – ‘the feast scene’

Understanding the basic narrative arc of a story can help you make sure your story does not sag in the middle, fizzle out at the end or drone on for too long at the beginning (the most common mistakes I see in manuscripts!)

14 Responses to “Plotting a Novel (part 2)”

  1. 1 Joanna Gaudry May 22, 2010 at 2:38 pm

    Wonderfully explained, Kate. I love your diagrams. Thanks again. Joanna :))

  2. 2 Sheryl Gwyther May 22, 2010 at 2:57 pm

    Yes, an extremely useful diagram – especially for those of us who are visually inclined! Thanks Kate and Kath. :P

  3. 3 chrisbongers May 22, 2010 at 5:42 pm

    I’m using a similar plot line to keep myself on track with my current (and my last) novel. The advantage of the triangle is that it reinforces the rising action to the climax and the falling away to the denouement. Nice. Thanks for sharing that. :)

  4. 4 Jeffery E Doherty May 22, 2010 at 9:11 pm

    Thank you Kate. Two very detailed and helpfull articles. The diagram and the explanations below made the three act format much clearer.

    It came at a good time too. I’ve just started the serious plotting of my new novel.


  5. 5 Kate Forsyth May 23, 2010 at 8:45 am

    I’m glad you all find it helpful! Its so easy to use too. I use it when teaching even young kids. Good luck with all your writing!

  6. 6 skaldi May 23, 2010 at 12:43 pm

    I come from the screenwriting trad and it’s actually a little different from that.

    It goes somewhat like this:

    Setup (normal world)
    Catalyst: the inciting change.
    First act turning point: Moment of no return.
    Midpoint: moment of contemplation. Eg: spoon scene in the matrix.
    Second turning point: reversal/worst possible thing.

    See: Syd Field Screenplay, or the Screenwriter’s workbook.

    Very useful. Still use it to plot the arc of my stories.

  7. 7 Scott Chambers May 24, 2010 at 8:56 pm

    Wow – this blog is just a wealth of information! Thanks all for the contributions, and Kath for getting it all together (ie roping in Kate). I think I’m slowly starting to realise that stumbling your way from quirky scene to scene is no real way to write a novel. So I’ll just go looking for a spoon of discipline for my coffee, a sharp pencil and a big, clean sheet of paper =)

  8. 8 Kathleen Noud May 24, 2010 at 9:30 pm

    I love the term ‘falling action’. Thanks for the info Kath & Kate :)

  9. 9 Katherine Battersby May 25, 2010 at 6:02 pm

    So glad everyone enjoyed these posts. I did especially, as plotting technique was one of the most significant points Kate taught me during the mentorship. I really enjoyed being able to share the same with you all.

    Skaldi, from the scriptwriting books I’ve read, I think there are many ways to look at the three act structure and a few different traditions within plot, but all very useful. Like you, I’ve recently started using the 3 act structure to help with creating the arc of my stories :)

  10. 10 Scott Chambers May 25, 2010 at 8:52 pm

    Yes … “falling action”. Is that the action one makes in relief and weariness upon finally reaching the penultimate chapter??

  11. 11 Katherine Battersby May 26, 2010 at 1:04 pm

    It must be, Scott! Or the reaction after reading over your 1st draft for the first time :)

  12. 12 Jill Dempsey May 31, 2010 at 9:03 pm

    this is excellent information and very accessible , thank you :)

  13. 13 writeousindignation June 11, 2010 at 4:35 am

    Hear hear! I’d spent a big part of today reading plotting articles that mainly suggested a scene by scene method, and a series on writing fantasy – and it was all starting to whizz round in my head. So I decided to do some blog writing and wander through my fave blogs for a bit of light relief, and came across this. Ta-da! I feel quite inspired now – it’s similar to the ‘story mountain’ that I used to teach children about for planning short stories, but far more detailed – more ropes to hang on to,LOL. Thanks ladies!!

  14. 14 bluerabbit February 3, 2013 at 9:48 am

    A very clean and useful explanation.

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About this Blog…

A blog of ramblings about the world of writing and illustrating for children, by an author / illustrator who might just have a thing for rabbits.

Katherine's picture books, 'Squish Rabbit' and 'Brave Squish Rabbit', are out with Viking (Penguin, US) and UQP (Australia). Please e-mail if you would like her to blog about something in particular.

All text & images  Katherine Battersby

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