What is Arch Plot and Classic Design?

As an introduction to my series on Organic Architecture, I thought I’d start out with the ol’ granddaddy of plot structures: Arch Plot. You probably already know all about this plot structure, but to make sure we’re all on the same page, I wanted to do a quick overview.

The Hero's JourneyArch plot has lots of names. In your time as a writer, you’ve probably run into arch plot under one of these titles:

  • Classic plot
  • The hero’s journey
  • Goal-oriented plot
  • Aristotelian story shape
  • Energeia plot
  • Three-act structure
  • Hollywood screenwriting structure
  • The Universal Story

Arch plot is a goal-oriented plot where, “for better or worse, an event throws a character’s life out of balance, arousing in him the conscious and/or unconscious desire for that which he feels will restore balance, launching him on a Quest for his Object of Desire against forces of antagonism (inner, personal, extra-personal). He may or may not achieve it” (McKee, 196).  Film examples of arch plot include: Toy Story, The Godfather, Back to the Future, Star Wars, Etc. (Most American Hollywood films use arch plot).  Book examples of arch plot include: Harry Potter (Rowling), Hunger Games (Collins), Speak (Anderson), Pride & Prejudice (Austen), Hamlet (Shakespeare), The Odyssey (Homer),  etc.

A story that uses classic design has eleven basic story sections. Depending on which books you read these story beats all have different titles. I’ve culled the information below from a variety of different sources, each of whom give arch plot design their own title (i.e. classic plot, the hero’s journey, etc.), but at its core they’re all talking about the same design. For the major sequences and beats, the header titles use Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler’s Hero’s Journey terminology, and under that you’ll see a list of the same beat termed differently by others. Thus, what Campbell calls the Call to Action, McKee calls the Inciting Incident, and Blake Snyder calls The Catalyst.

THE ELEVEN STORY BEATS OF ARCH PLOT:

Arch Plot Structure by Ingrid Sundberg

ACT ONE

The Ordinary World: The hero’s life is established in his ordinary world.

This story beat is also known as:

  • The Known
  • The Set-Up
  • The Status Quo
  • Limited Awareness

Call to Adventure: Something changes in the hero’s life to cause him to take action.

This story beat is also known as:

  • TheInciting Incident
  • The Call to Action
  • The Catalyst

Refusal of the Call: The hero refuses to take action hoping his life with go back to normal. Which it will not.

Also known as:

  • Threshold Guardians
  • Defining Moment
  • Separation
  • Reluctance
  • New Situation
  • The Debate
  • Meeting Mentor

Crossing the First Threshold: The hero is pushed to a point of no return where he must answer the call and begin his journey.

Also known as:

  • Energetic Marker 1: End of the Beginning
  • The Point of No Return
  • Committing to the Goal
  • Act One Climax
  • Plot Point One
  • Break into Two
  • Turning Point One
  • The Threshold
  • Awakening

ACT TWO

Tests, Allies, and Enemies: The journey through the special world is full of tests and obstacles that challenge the hero emotionally and/or physically.

Also known as:

  • The Fun and Games
  • Resistance and Struggle
  • Rising Action and Obstacles
  • Belly of the Whale
  • Push to Breaking Point
  • The Special World
  • Road of Trials

Mid-Point: The energy of the story shifts dramatically. New information is discovered (for positive or negative) that commits the hero to his journey.

Also known as:

  • Energetic Marker 2: Halfway Point
  • Mid-Act Climax
  • Moment of Grace or the Mind-Fuck Moment
  • Moment of Enlightenment
  • Commitment to the Journey
  • Progress

Approaching Inmost Cave: The hero gets closer to reaching his goal and must prepare for the upcoming battle (emotional or physical).

Also known as:

  • Challenges and Temptations
  • Grace and Fall
  • Resistance and Struggle
  • Complications and Higher Stakes
  • The Bad Guys Close In
  • Intensification
  • Preparation
  • Rising Action
  • Obstacles

Inmost Cave: The hero hits rock bottom. He fails miserably and must come to face his deepest fear. This causes self-revelation.

Also known as:

  • Energetic Marker 3: Crisis
  • Dark Night of the Soul
  • Abyss and Revelation
  • Plot Point Two
  • Act Two Climax
  • The Major Assault
  • Death of the Ego
  • Death Experience
  • Rock Bottom
  • The Ordeal
  • The Crisis
  • Big Change
  • Epiphany

ACT THREE

Final Push: The hero makes a new plan to achieve his goal.

Also known as:

  • The Descent
  • The Sprint

Seizing the Sword: The hero faces his foe in a final climactic battle. The information learned during the crisis is essential to beating this foe.

Also known as:

  • Energetic Marker 4: Climax
  • The Climax
  • Seizing the Prize
  • Transformation
  • Finale
  • Break Into Three
  • The Final Incident

Return with the Elixir: The hero returns home with the fruits of his adventure. He begins his life as a changed person, now living in the “new ordinary world”.

Also known as:

  • Transformation and Return
  • Rapidly Falling Action
  • The Road Back
  • Denouement
  • New Life
  • Resolution
  • Aftermath
  • A New Status Quo
  • Return to the New Ordinary World

“I took a master class with Billy Wilder once and he said that in the first act of a story you put your character up in a tree and the second act you set the tree on fire and then in the third you get him down.” – Gary Kurtz (Film Producer)

Bibliography:
Alderson, Martha. The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master. New York: Adams Media, 2011.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Second Edition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968.
Chapman, Harvey. “Not Your Typical Plot Diagram.” Novel Writing Help. 2008-2012. Web. 6 Oct. 2012.
Field, Syd. Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. Revised ed. New York: Delta, 2005.
Gulino, Paul. Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach. New York: Continuum, 2004.
Hauge, Michael. Writing Screenplays That Sell. New York: Collins Reference, 2001.
Marks, Dara. Inside Story: The Power of the Transformational Arc. Ojai: Three Mountain Press, 2007.
McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting. New York: IT Books, 1997.
McManus, Barbara F. Tools for Analyzing Prose Fiction. College of New Rochelle, Oct. 1998. Web. 11 Sept. 2012.
Snyder, Blake. Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. Studio City: Michael Wiese Productions, 2005.
TV Tropes. Three Act Structure. TV Tropes Foundation, 26 Dec. 2011. Web. 11. Sept. 2012.
Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. 2nd Edition. Studio City: Michael Wiese Productions, 1998.
Williams, Stanley D. The Moral Premise. Studio City: Michael Wiese Productions, 2006.
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14 thoughts on “What is Arch Plot and Classic Design?

  1. Excellent analysis of archplot structure. And I have to laugh, because when you mentioned granddaddy in the first paragraph, I glanced at the little character figure in the diagram, and it looks like an old man on a cane!

    Do you find that people are moving away from this model?

    • L.Marie, No, I don’t find people straying from this model very much. In fact, I often find myself disappointed with stories because they seem to insert this model over the story without giving it real room to breathe. Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for this model of storytelling. But many think it’s the only model and try to force their story to fit into it. More on this in coming posts! :)

  2. I can’t wait for the follow up post to this, Ingrid. I love studying this classic structure, but I’m against using it as a roadmap. What you’re calling “room to breathe,” I call stretching the mold. Study it, know it and then make it malleable! :)

  3. I wanted to run off and become a samurai but my mother caught me and made me peel potatoes. Then there was a fire at the neighbor’s and I took the chance to run away for real.
    The samurai I met laughed at me and drank a lot of sake. They were nothing like I expected. But there was one swordsman who was special. He saw my potential and taught me. I wandered as a ronin for many years, honing my skills. When Lord Satsuma heard about me I was summoned to become his tutor.I refused. I felt my own training was incomplete. The Daimyo was furious and declared me an outlaw. My arch-rival Noriyama got the post instead.
    To make a long story a lot shorter, I exposed Noriyama as a traitor and slew him in a duel in front of Lord Satsuma and his retinue. Now I was ready to take up my responsibilities. I married the Lord’s daughter and continued on to the sequel.

  4. Structure…ugh…such a struggle for me, as it has always been. I just stumbled onto your blog and have been struck by the awesome elaboration and variety of plot and structure. Thank you for taking the time to not only compile all these great aids, but to share it with us.

  5. Pingback: Fire In The Hole! | Great Big Jar

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