The Gap: How to Make Your Story a Page Turner!

Lately I’ve been having a hard time finishing books. Not because the writing is bad, or the stories don’t have developed characters, or even interesting plots. The problem is the stories don’t grip me and I’m not compelled to pick them up again to see what happens next.

Tired and bored boy sleeping among the books

With so many distractions in life – television, facebook, cooking classes – it’s easy to put a book down and stop reading. This is a reality we all must face. So, how do we keep our readers hooked? How do we make it impossible for them to put the story down?

Of course there are a lot of possible answers to that question, but the one I want to talk about today is The Gap.

The Gap is a concept coined by Robert McKee in his craft book STORY, wherein he argues that we read because we want to see characters presented with situations that “pry open a gap” in their lives. He describes the Gap as a moment in a character’s life when the world acts in a way that surprises them. It’s a revelation and/or situation in which the character’s landscape operates outside of what they knew was possible.

For example, a tornado headed straight for your character’s house is a gap in their life. Normal life has been interrupted by mother nature and now your character must act. But a gap can also be as small as the “cool kids” deciding to talk to your character at school. It’s any event that tilts your character’s landscape in a new way and presents your character with new opportunities and obstacles. At least, on the surface that’s what a Gap is.

But let’s talk about how to maximize the Gap and make your stories un-put-downable!

McKee describes the Gap this way:

story“The protagonist seeks an object of desire beyond his reach. Consciously or unconsciously he chooses to take a particular action, motivated by the thought or feeling that this act will cause the world to react in a way that will be a positive step toward achieving his desire. From his subjective POV the action he has chosen seems minimal, conservative, yet sufficient to effect the reaction he wants. But the moment he takes action, the objective realm of his inner life, personal relationships, or extra-personal world, or a combination of these, react in a way that’s more powerful or different than he expected … his action provokes forces of antagonism that open up the gap between his subjective expectation and the objective result, between what he thought would happen when he took his action and what in fact does happen … The gap is the point where the subjective and objective realms collide, the difference between anticipation and result, between the world as the character perceived it before acting and the truth he discovers in action.” (McKee, Story)

Creating a Gap for your characters isn’t as simple as throwing obstacles in the character’s way and hoping for drama. A compelling Gap will present your character with a situation that demands they make a difficult choice. This choice should be one that isn’t easy to run away from. I should “trap” your character and not allow them to return to their normal way of life. This is the space in which characters grow. It’s the space in which plot becomes so intoxicating your reader cannot put the book down.

Why? Because we want to see what choice the character will make. And, we want to see the consequences of their actions.

McKee goes on to say that:

“Once the gap in reality splits open, the character, being willful and having capacity, senses or realizes that he cannot get what he wants in a minimal, conservative way. He must gather himself and struggle through the gap to take a second action. This next action is something the character would not have wanted to do in the first case because it not only demands more willpower and forces him to dig more deeply into his human capacity, but most important the second action puts him at risk. He now stands to lose in order to gain.” (McKee, Story)

Okay, let’s look at an example to help illustrate this idea.

One of my favorite examples of a compelling Gap is in the reaping scene in The Hunger Games. As writers we have a lot of choices to make in our novels. Hunger Games author, Susan Collins, could have chosen to have Katniss’s name pulled out of the reaping basket. This would have presented a Gap in Katniss’s life. She would be presented with the choice of accepting the challenge of the games or running away and putting her family in danger. But Susan Collins makes the Gap even more intense and unimaginable for Katniss. Instead of pulling Katniss’s name from the reaping basket, her sister Primm’s name is pulled. Now the world has really opened up and torn a Gap in Katniss’s life. The world has truly acted in a way she did not see coming.


The Gap forces Katniss to choose between staying alive and watching her sister go off to die, or choosing to volunteer in her sister’s place and fight to the death. Neither decision is a good one. If you were forced to put the book down at that moment, before Katniss made her decision, don’t you think you would be itching to get back to reading? YES! Of course you want to see what choice she will make. This is the stuff of great drama!

Sunshine posterAnother great example of Gaps is the movie Sunshine. This is a lesser known sci-fi film directed by Danny Boyle and written by Alex Garland. Every action, decision, and plot point in this movie has a consequence that forces the characters to face a new Gap. The film follows the crew of ICARUS 2, a spaceship flying toward Earth’s dying sun in hopes of “rebooting” it with a nuclear bomb. ICARUS 1 failed its mission in the past and ICARUS 2 is Earth’s last and final hope before the planet dies from lack of sunshine. The first gap in the film comes when ICARUS 2 receives a distress signal from ICARUS 1. The crew is now forced to make a choice. Do they alter their course to intercept ICARUS 1 and get a second “payload” bomb to help re-boot the sun, thus allowing them two chances for mission success, or do they stay on course and gamble that the one payload they have is enough? It’s not an easy decision. Both choices have consequences. As a reader we want to see what they will do!

The brilliant thing about Sunshine is that each Gap has consequences that lead the characters to a second Gap, and then a third. In Sunshine these Gaps aren’t simple issues of survival. Instead these decisions force the characters to make choices that challenge what it means to be human, how far they are willing to go, and what is an appropriate sacrifice for the greater good. I love the film because it isn’t plot and action for the sake of plot and action. Every action opens a Gap in the character’s world and forces them to react in ways they never thought possible. (Note: I’ve been deliberately vague here, in case you want to watch this movie – which you should!)

I realize both of these examples come from high-stakes adventure stories. Let me give you an example of a Gap that isn’t “life or death” in nature:

Sky is EverywhereIn Jandy Nelson’s young adult novel, The Sky Is Everywhere, teenage protagonist Lennie is dealing with the death of her older sister, Bailey. There’s a wonderful Gap when Lennie is hanging out with her sister’s boyfriend Toby. The two are chatting about Bailey, remembering her, and then they look at each other and — BAM! — Toby kisses Lennie. However, the gap comes in the moment when Lennie realizes she likes kissing her sister’s boyfriend! Suddenly the world has acted in a way outside of all that Lennie thought possible. And even more exciting, now she has to decide what she’s going to do about it.

So, how can you apply the concept of The Gap to your work?

Ask yourself these questions about your book:

  1. Within the scope of your story, what Gaps have been presented in your protagonist’s life?
  2. How is your character challenged and incited to act by those Gaps?
  3. How has the Gap brought into question what your character believes, wants, and thinks is possible?
  4. What are the consequences of the choice your character makes when presented with a Gap? Does that choice move the story forward and take your character to the next Gap in the story? If not, does the Gap need to be changed so it challenges your character in stronger way?
  5. What does your character learn about herself as a result of the choices she makes when presented with those Gaps?

It’s one thing to throw obstacles, problems, and action at your character, but that doesn’t make the story compelling on its own. We often hear the phrase “torture your characters,” but that’s not what captures your reader’s attention. It’s the moral questions imbedded within the choices they must make that allows your reader to peek through the words on the page and see what makes us human. It’s those choices and the subsequent consequences that compel readers to picking the book up, again and again, to see what will happen next.

Want to learn more about The Gap? 

Please Read:

  • Story by Robert McKee, specifically pages 147 to 149.
  • McKee also talks about the Gap on pages: 154-157, 177-180, 208, 270-271, 311-312, 362.
  • These page numbers are based on the 1997, hardcover, It Books edition.

The Many Layers of Structure and Design

layers_exampleI’ve spent the last two months talking all about classical design, alternative structures and plots, and designing principles! Hopefully you’ve seen that there are innumerable design possibilities at your fingertips. But as I walked us through this series, I’m sure a few of you read my posts and thought to yourself: Doesn’t that story fit into multiple types of structure? For example, as I explained that The Godfather uses a fairy-tale structure, you might have been thinking: But Ingrid, it also uses the mountain structure!

To which I’d say: You’re right!

Which brings me to my final point in this series: design and structure are layered. You won’t necessarily pick on design concept and be done.

In the film Memento, the designing principle uses a backwards structure to reflect short term memory. But it also has a goal-oriented plot and a mountain structure. Only the major structural beats are flipped.  If the story was told forward, what would be considered the inciting incident becomes the climax when it’s told backwards. Additionally, because the story revisits events of the past, again and again, you could also consider this movie to have a spiral structure.

Helen Frost’s novel Keesha’s House is also layered.  It’s told with eight protagonists as a portrait of a community and each chapter uses a wheel structure to unify the characters through a theme. But the structure of the whole novel still uses a mountain escalation as each chapter introduces new obstacles. It’s also a goal-oriented plot: to find a safe place to live.

Layered Design Slide

Stories are layered. And you may find, like me, that the story you’re trying to tell doesn’t fit easily into a three act structure or the hero’s journey. Or maybe it does. And it’s okay if it does. Just make sure that’s a choice you’ve made because it’s right for your story.

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman said in a lecture to the British Film Academy that “there’s no template for a screenplay, or there shouldn’t be. There are at least as many screenplay possibilities as there are people who write them.  Don’t let anyone tell you what a story is, what it needs to include or what form it must take.”

Only you know how to tell your story and only you know how to design it.

Thanks for reading this series!

Plot Genres

In my last two posts I covered a variety of alternative plots that deviate from traditional arch plot. In this post I want to address what is known as a plot genre.

You’ve probably stumbled across craft books that told you there are x-number of plot types and the story you are writing probably falls into one of these catagories.  For example Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat offers the following list:

  1. save-the-catMonster in the House
  2. Golden Fleece
  3. Out of the Bottle
  4. Dude with a Problem
  5. Rites of Passage
  6. Buddy Love
  7. Whydunit
  8. The Fool Triumphant
  9. Institutionalized
  10. Superhero

Or maybe you’ve stumbled across Ronald Tobias’ 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them, which offers these as plot variations:

  1. 20 Master PlotsComing of Age Plot
  2. Atonement Plot
  3. Love Plot
  4. Forbidden Love Plot
  5. Revenge Plot
  6. Mystery Plot
  7. Adventure Plot
  8. Rescue Plot
  9. Escape Plot
  10. Temptation Plot
  11. You get the picture…

So, why aren’t these alternative plots? Why didn’t I include them in my alternative plot list?

Great question.

This is the difference between what I call a plot type and a plot genre. The list above is a category: romance, mystery, superhero, buddy flick, etc. They all come with conventions and audience expectations. And yes, they sometime even come with what one might call “obligatory scenes” (i.e. a scene you would expect from that genre of story). In my book, however, these are all still variations of the hero’s journey/goal-oriented plot. They don’t push the envelope of plot in a new way. Instead they use the conventions of arch plot to tell this variation of the goal-oriented story. Instead of a quest, it’s the goal to “get the girl” or “seek revenge” or “solve the mystery.” The reason we often hear that there is only “one type of story” is because we often lump everything (including all these genre variations) under the umbrella of a goal-oriented story.

Of course you can take any one of these genres and decide to use an alternative plot! Of course you can! And I’d love to see you do that.

But let’s not get confused. A plot-type is defined by the type of action and it’s cause-and-effect relationships. Whereas a plot-genre is defined by the category of the story-type and the expectations and conventions of that category.


Alternative Plots (Part 2)

Thanks for coming back to learn more about alternative plots!

Last week in Part 1, I covered mini-plot, daisy chain plot, cautionary tale plot, and ensemble plot. Today we’re going to continue to push the boundaries of arch plot and the hero’s journey by taking a look at along-for-the-ride plot, symbolic juxtaposition plot, repeated event plot, and repeated action plot. Again, I’ve termed an alternative plot as one that doesn’t have a hero (as defined by the hero’s journey), one that lacks a specific goal, or one that does not use traditional cause-and-effect as its connective tissue.


In the Along for the Ride plot there isn’t an active protagonist.  Instead a secondary character drives the action and the protagonist is along for the ride. Often there’s still a change in the protagonist, showing that we don’t always have to be active goal-seekers for an event or person to incite personal growth.

  • Book Examples: Looking for Alaska (Green), What I Saw and How I Lied (Blundell), Rebecca (Maurier).

Life in a DaySYMBOLIC JUXTAPOSITION PLOT (Also known as: Thematic Plot, Intellectual Plot, Anti-Plot, Existential Plot)

In the symbolic juxtaposition plot the reader should be prepared for a more intellectual experience. Instead of traditional cause-and-effect, this plot uses themes, ideas, images, and concepts to connect scenes and sequences with meaning. It’s a more argumentative plot development where X doesn’t cause Y, but X is in a symbolic relationship to Y.

  • Film Examples: Life in a Day, The Tree of Life, The Thin Red Line, Chunking Express, Waking Life.
  • Book Examples: Einstein’s Dreams (Lightman), Criss Cross (Perkins).


In classical narrative, the same event is never shown twice. In this plot type, however, one event repeats several times throughout the story, but each re-telling usually offers a new perspective. Multiple characters are used to show that there is more than one version of the truth.

  • Film Examples: Vantage Point, Hero, He Loves Me…He Loves Me Not.


In this plot, a single character repeats an action over and over with the underlying design mantra of “we are going to keep doing this until we get it right.” This plot could be categorized as a goal-oriented plot, as the protagonist may have a goal, and the obstacles are the repetition of a single action with different outcomes. However, I’ve added it here, because it is a deviation from linear goal-oriented plot.

  • Film Examples: Run Lola Run, Groundhog Day, The Butterfly Effect, 50 First Dates.
  • Book Examples: Before I Fall (Oliver).

Are these the only plot types that exist? Absolutely not! This is simply the list I’ve created thus far in my search for alternative plots. If you know of more alternative plots, I’d love to hear about them!

For further reading on alternative plots, please take a look at:

  • Berg, Charles Ramirez. “A Taxonomy of Alternative Plots in Recent Films: Classifying the ‘Tarantino Effect.’” Film Criticism, Vol. 31, Issue 1-2, 5-57, 22 Sept 2006. Ebsco Host. Web. 6 May 2011.
  • Pages 44 -66 in:  McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting. New York: IT Books, 1997.
  • Pages 165 – 194 in:  Gardner, John. The Art of Fiction. New York: Vintage Books, 1983.

Coming up next: Alternative structures!

Alternative Plots (Part 1)

Up to this point in my Organic Architecture Series, I’ve been discussing the goal-oriented plot (arch plot) and the limitations of this plot-type. Arch plot functions in such a way that the connective tissue is a desire that moves the plot through its progression.

But are there plots where the cause-and-effect tissue isn’t defined by goals? Or plots that don’t have heroes? Or plots where the main character isn’t active?


In the next two posts, I’m going to introduce you to the following alternative plots:

  • Mini-plot,
  • Daisy chain plot,
  • Cautionary tale plot
  • Ensemble plot
  • Along for the ride plot
  • Symbolic juxtaposition plot
  • Repeated event plot
  • Repeated action plot

This list is by no means complete and I’m constantly on the lookout for more!

I’ve defined an alternative plot  as one that doesn’t have a hero (as termed by the hero’s journey), one that lacks a specific goal, or one that does not use traditional cause-and-effect as its connective tissue. Let’s look at how a few of these plots are different than the hero’s journey arch plot.

Tender MerciesMINI PLOT (Also known as: Emotional Plot)

Mini plot is a minimalist approach to arch plot in which the writer reduces the elements of classical design. Often these stories are internal and appear to be plot-less, and/or have passive protagonists. However, the cause-and-effect links are often derived from points of emotional growth rather than high-stakes action. Some might argue that this is a “watered down” version of arch plot, because you can still see the same patterns of arch plot arising in mini-plot, but on a smaller more emotional level.

  • Film Examples: Tender Mercies, Five Easy Pieces, Wild Strawberries.

red_violin_ver2DAISY CHAIN PLOT

In the daisy chain plot there is no central protagonist with a goal. Instead multiple characters or situations are introduced through the cause-and-effect connective tissue of a physical object that is passed from one character to the next.

  • Film Examples: The Red Violin, Twenty Bucks.
  • Book Examples: Lethal Passage (Larson).
  • Modified Daisy Chain Plots with a Protagonist: The Strange Case of Origami Yoda (Angleberger), Thirteen Reasons Why (Asher).


In the cautionary tale plot there isn’t a hero and it is often the antithesis of comforting growth. In both Chris Lynch’s Inexcusable and Todd Strasser’s Give a Boy a Gun, the main character’s commit horrible acts of violence.  In this plot, the reader becomes the protagonist who must evaluate the main character, and it is often the reader who ends up changing as a result.

  • Book Examples: Inexcusable (Lynch), Jumped (Williams-Garcia), Give a Boy a Gun (Strasser).

keeshaslENSEMBLE PLOT (Also known as: Polyphonic Plot)

This plot has multiple protagonists in a single location which is “characterized by the interaction of several voices, consciousnesses, or world views, none of which unifies or is superior to the others” (Berg). There can be goals in this plot type, but more often it is a character-driven story in the form of a portrait of a city, group of friends, or community.

  • Film Examples: The Big Chill, Nashville, Beautiful Girls.
  • Book Examples: Keesha’s House (Frost), Give a Boy a Gun (Strasser), Bronx Masquerade (Grimes), Doing It (Burgess).

Are you starting to see some of the new and exciting options available? Stay tuned. In part 2, I’ll cover: along for the ride plot, symbolic juxtaposition plot, repeated event plot, and repeated action plot.

Plot vs. Structure

TerminologyI want to step back for a second and clarify my own personal definitions of plot versus structure. As mentioned in my previous post on plot definitions there are many views of what plot it! Additionally, I fear that as I walked us through arch plot and classic design last week, I may have reinforced the misconceptions that plot and structure are same thing.

Plot and structure are not the same thing!

I did a previous series on plot (To Plot or Not to Plot) where I explored the differences between narrative, story, plot, and structure. I’ve since re-evaluated some of the things I said in those posts and the following are my current definitions:

PLOT: Plot is often defined as a “sequence of actions” (Fletcher) or “the actions of the characters” (Bechard). However, plot is also the connective tissue that links events or actions with meaning. It’s not just what happens, but the causal connections of why it happens. Janet Burroway defines plot as a “series of events deliberately arranged so as to reveal their dramatic, thematic, and emotional significance … Plot’s concern is ‘what, how, and why,’ with scenes ordered to highlight cause-and-effect.”

In simple terms, plot is a series of actions with a cause and effect relationship. In my explanation of arch plot, the hero’s journey is the plot.


STRUCTURE: Structure is the triangle or mountain shape in the diagram I used. Structure has two parts. The first is arrangement. For example, you tell scene one, then scene two, then scene three. Or you tell scene 3, then scene 1, then scene 27, etc. This is about order and organization. The second part is about patterns, rhythm, and energy. It’s about the movement and feeling your particular arrangement creates. The triangle (often called the Aristotelian story shape) is a visual metaphor for the escalating energy that is meant to come as a result of a classic design arrangement.

With structure we are looking at the arrangement and rhythm of the whole. Author, Susan Fletcher defines structure as “the organization, or overall design, or form of a particular literary work … [It is the] larger rhythm of the story.” Additionally, Chea says that “in examining story structure, we look for patterns, for the shape that the story as a whole possesses. Plot directs us to the story in motion, structure to the story at rest.”

In the coming posts, I’m going to list alternative plots and alternative structures. I wanted to clarify the difference between these terms so you would better understand how I’ve organized these lists. One is by the nature of the action (plot) while the other is about the organization and rhythm of the action (structure).

Works Cited:
Bechard, Margaret. “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Plot.” Faculty Lecture. Vermont College of Fine Arts, Montpelier, VT. Jan 2008.
Burroway, Janet. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narative Craft. 8th Edition. New York: Longman, 2011.
Chea, Stephenson. “What’s the Difference Between Plot and Structure.” Associated Content.  16 Feb. 2010. Web. 7 May 2011.
Fletcher, Susan. “Structure as Genesis.” Faculty Lecture. Vermont College of Fine Arts, Montpelier, VT. July 2012.

The Hidden Agenda of Classic Design and the Hero’s Journey

Arch Plot Structure by Ingrid SundbergFrom my previous posts outlining the major beats of classic design  (aka: arch plot, the universal story, mythic structure, the hero’s journey, etc.) you’ve seen that this design is very precise. If done well this “universal story” creates a satisfying story experience where all the pieces seem to fall effortlessly into place. It’s clean. It’s inspiring. It’s tempting to use such a beautiful template to organize our stories as well.  And at first glance – why shouldn’t we? After all classic design is touted as:

“… the story of life. Since before time was recorded, it has been transforming simple words into masterpieces … [it] is the undercurrent of every breath you take, every story you tell yourself, and all the stories you write.”  –Martha Alderson (The Plot Whisperer)

Aristotle’s story structure works, and in fact it is the only structure that has ever worked, because it is a mirror of our own views on the universe.” — Lisa Doan (Plot Structure)

girl-looking-in-mirrorIn his book Story, Robert McKee has the grace to acknowledge other plots, but goes on to point out that a writer must earn a living at writing, and according to him you can’t do that without arch plot because “classical design is a mirror of the human mind.” 

With these kinds of endorsements why would you ever consider an alternate story structure?

Vermont College of Fine Arts faculty member Shelley Tanaka posed the following question in one of her lectures:

“Is there such a thing as a universal child?”  

I’m sure you know the answer to that question. So how can there possibly be such a thing as a universal story? How can there only be one story of life, one view of the universe, or one mirror of the human mind?  Katie Bayerl notes in her graduate thesis that “a single narrative structure, no matter how flexible, can’t possibly address the diverse needs of readers.”

And yet we are constantly encouraged to use this one form of design.  

In Anatomy of Story, John Truby points out that “one of the great principals of storytelling is that structure doesn’t just carry content; it is content.”  And McKee says that: “Our appetite for story is a reflection of [our] … need to grasp the patterns of living … Fiction [is] a vehicle that carries us on our search for reality … story is a metaphor for life … [it] gives life its form.”  So, if we seek story as a guide for how to live our lives, and if structure is the content that reveals that guide, then we ought to consider what this one universal story has to say.

Katie Bayerl notes that the hero’s journey plot is “comforting in its familiarity and in its emphasis on an individual’s ability to triumph over adversity … it is the dominant American narrative of progress and individualism. For writer’s who don’t question those belief systems the hero’s journey may feel like the best way to tell a good story. For those with an agenda of empowerment, it may appear like the only option.”

hero with a thousandAnd for Joeseph Campbell (the founder of mythic structure), it turns out he may have had an agenda of empowerment. Bayerl notes that he “became obsessed with the hero’s journey because he was troubled by what he perceived as the despair of his times; he believed that elevating heroic myths would heal the collective psyche. Campbell explains how the hero myth can support healthy psychological growth when people recognize their own problems in the ordeals of the mythic … and are reassured by the stories that give them abundant, time-tested strategies for survival, success, and happiness.”  This is exactly what Truby and McKee meant when they said structure can be used as a metaphor for how to live our lives.

But what are the psychological implications of this structure?

1)  Are Our Lives Defined by Lack of Desire?

By creating a story design that is driven by goals and desires, are we saying this is the only way in which to define our worth and success? Bayerl asks: “Does it mean our lives must always be defined by lack of desire? Are we failures if we cannot independently solve every problem that faces us? Must we all be heroes?”

Empty box2)  Does it Create a False Sense of Values?

When a plot is goal-oriented and revolves around achieving a task (getting the girl, saving the world, winning the race, etc.) does it create a false sense of values? Instead of searching for wisdom, do we put value in the search for an external goal only to find ourselves disappointed?

3)  Does it Limit Our Vision to Only One Aspect of Existence?

Diane Lefer quotes Ursula Le Guin in questioning if this structure isn’t a rather “gladiatorial view of fiction” one where we’re “… taught to focus our stories on a central struggle, [and] … by default base all our plots on the clash of opposing forces. We limit our vision to a single aspect of existence and overlook much of the richness and complexity of our lives, just the stuff that makes a work of fiction memorable.”

4)  Is it Socially Coercive?

Young adult author Amy Rose Capetta’s lecture on catharsis discusses how a pleasurable catharsis can be the result of Aristotelian structure, but she goes on to introduce Augusto Boal’s opinions on the matter, wherein he suggests that this type of catharsis is socially coercive. Capetta explains that “Boal was convinced that catharsis as it was presented by Aristotle, was not just normative in that it returned the audience to their default emotional state, but that in fact it served a socially normative function, reinforcing and upholding the status quo.”

success key5) Does it Perpetuate an Untrue American Myth?

And lastly, Malcolm Gladwell’s non-fiction book Outliers, has pretty much de-bunked the modern American myth that if you set yourself out a goal, and you try hard enough to overcome the obstacles, you’ll succeed. This simply isn’t true. So why do we continually write stories about hero’s overcoming obstacles and succeeding in the end as if it is the natural order of things?

Is it possible that the hero’s journey myth, is just that – a myth. After all, it does initially derive from stories of mythology, and not actual experiences. Not to mention that the popularization of this design is relatively new. Yes, it shows up in ancient works and the classics of western literature. But it’s elevation as the end-all be-all of storytelling started in the 1950’s with Campbell’s research and was greatly escalated by the influence Star Wars on American film. Is it possible that  arch plot and mythic structure are the predominant storytelling paradigm of our time and not a universal story?

Am I saying that we shouldn’t use this storytelling plot and structure?


But I think you should ask yourself why you’re using it, and not use it blindly because there’s an implication that it’s the only type of design that exists.

Don’t fret! The coming posts will introduce you to the wide variety of plots and structures that will take you beyond arch plot and mythic structure. Stay tuned and see how many options really are available to you!

Alderson, Martha. The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master. New York: Adams Media, 2011.
Bayerl, Katie. “Must We All Be Heroes? Crafting Alternatives to the Hero’s Journey in YA Fiction.” Critical Thesis. Vermont College of Fine Arts, 2009.
Bayerl, Katie. “Must We All Be Heroes? Crafting Alternatives to the Hero’s Journey in YA Fiction.” Graduate Lecture. Vermont College of Fine Arts, Montepelier, VT. July 2009.
Capetta, Amy Rose. “Can’t Fight This Feeling: Figuring out Catharsis and the Right One for Your Story.” Graduate Lecture. Vermont College of Fine Arts, Montepelier, VT. Jan 2012.
Doan, Lisa. “Plot Structure: The Same Old Story Since Time Began?” Critical Essay. Vermont College of Fine Arts, 2006.
Lefer, Diane. “Breaking the Rules of Story Structure.” Words Overflown by Stars.  Ed. David Jauss, Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2009. 62-69.
McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting. New York: IT Books, 1997.
Tanaka, Shelley. “Books from Away: Considering Children’s Writers from Around the World.” Faculty Lecture. Vermont College of Fine Arts, Montpelier, VT. Jan 2010.
Truby, John. The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller. New York: Faber and Faber Inc., 2007.

Classical Design: Breaking it Down with Toy Story

Last week I started off my Organic Architecture series by outlining the eleven major story-beats of  classical design. Before I jump into alternative structures and plots I want to make sure we understand arch plot as more than just a template for story. I want to show how this story-frame can be used, and used well.

Today I’m going to breakdown the major beats of classical design using Pixar’s film Toy Story. This film is an excellent example of how arch plot can create a satisfying story experience that moves like a well-oiled machine and every piece has a purpose.  Let’s take a look at how the eleven steps outlined in my previous post are put into practice.


1) Ordinary World

In the first images of Toy Story we’re introduced to Andy and his favorite toy Sheriff Woody (our protagonist). In the first minutes we establish Woody’s ordinary world, consisting of Andy’s room. At minute four, we get the story hook: the toys come to life. At this point we’re introduced to the major players: Mr. Potato Head, Slinky-dog, Bo-Peep, etc. Relationships are hinted at and we see that Woody is the leader of this clan. The complexity of this world deepens when the first obstacle is introduced, allowing us to see how Woody normally functions in the ordinary world. The obstacle is Andy’s birthday party and a covert toy-style mission to see if there are any new, bigger and brighter, toys to be worried about. This action reveals the emotional core of the film: every toy’s deepest fear is that they will be replaced and Andy will no longer love them. In the first twelve minutes the film has set up the world, how it works, and what’s at stake.

Ordinary World

2) The Call to Action

At minute fourteen, Buzz Lightyear shows up on screen. Something new has arrived to disrupt the ordinary world. This is what the hero’s journey calls the call to adventure. In Toy Story the call isn’t an invitation to a quest, but it is a catalyst that disrupts Woody’s status quo. Woody tells himself that this new toy isn’t going to change anything and we enter…

Call to Action

3) The Refusal of the Call

This is the debate section where Woody tries to keep his authority, but is slowly usurped by Buzz.

Refusal of Call

4) Crossing the First Threshold

Woody’s refusal culminates when his flaws of pride and jealousy cause him to pick a fight with Buzz.  Both toys fall out of the car and Andy’s family drives away,  leaving Woody and Buzz on the pavement. The two have now become LOST TOYS! This is the moment when Woody and Buzz cross the first threshold and move us into act two. This is the point of no return. Woody and Buzz are no longer in the ordinary world but the special world, which will force them to grow. The energy of the story changes here because the two have a new desire: to get home.

First Threshold


5) Tests, Allies, and Enemies

The next seventeen minutes of the film constitutes the fun and games section where our heroes are presented with tests, allies, and enemies. When I went to film school we called this the “trailer section.” It’s where all the gags and jokes used in a film trailer come from. This is the section of the story that fulfills the promise of your premise. Toy Story’s premise is: how do two rival toys find their way home when lost in the real world? Well, they hitch a ride to pizza planet. They get chosen by The Claw and taken home by the evil neighbor Sid. They defend themselves against cannibal toys. Each obstacle gets harder and harder. And it leads us to…

Tests and Allies

6) The Mid-Point

In the hero’s journey there isn’t actually a mid-point, but in screenwriting it has become very important story beat. It’s where the energy of the film swings up, or swings down. In Toy Story it swings down. Buzz comes upon a TV commercial selling Buzz Lightyear action figures and realizes he is not the Buzz Lightyear, but actually a TOY!

Mid point

7) Approaching the In-Most Cave

The mid-point also affects Woody and propels the story into the next section. Woody continues to put out fires while Buzz has his existential crisis. This is known as approaching the in-most cave or continued obstacles and intensification.

Approaching Cave

8) The In-Most Cave

At minute 57,  Woody hits rock bottom and reaches the in-most cave or crisis of the story. Both Woody and Buzz are trapped, Woody’s friends have abandoned him, and he can now see that his pride has led him astray.

Cave Crisis


9) The Final Push

Just after the crisis usually comes a change in fate. Sid takes Buzz into the backyard to blow him up and Woody realizes he must save the only friend he has left. This propels us into act three and the final push where Woody devises a rescue plan.

Final Push

10) Seizes the Sword

Woody enacts his plan in the climax and seizes the sword by saving Buzz’s life!


11) The Return Home

But the return home is still wrought with tension as Woody and Buzz chase down the moving van. Some consider this a second final climax (think horror films where monsters you thought were dead jump out at the last minute). Woody grows by putting his pride aside and works together with Buzz to reunite with Andy. As the film closes Buzz and Woody have returned to the new ordinary world with the wisdom and friendship of their adventure.

Return Home

This is classic design used well! It creates an emotionally engaging and well-paced story. If you like this story design I highly suggest reading Sheryl Scarborough’s guest post that continues this discussion in regards to three-act structure.

However, despite popular belief, classic design is not the only way to tell a story. My next post will outline the hidden agenda of arch plot and why we need more storytelling options!

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.


Arch Plot Structure by Ingrid Sundberg


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


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


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)

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.

The Many Definitions of Plot

PlottingAwhile ago I did an 8-part series on Plot to help me understand the differences between the terms: plot, story, and structure. (I’ve since revised some of my thoughts from that series when I did my grad lecture on story structure. More on that coming soon). But what I seem to find interesting is that no one seems to be able to agree on what plot is.

Sure, everyone sort of knows what plot is on a gut level, (and there’s plenty of overlap when writers discuss it), but there isn’t a concrete single definition. I think this is fascinating (and confusing), and oddly empowering. It means each of us gets to create our own personal definition of plot. We get to pick a definition that works for us!

I’ve begun to collect definitions of plot and I’ve shared my list below. Take a look through them and see if any resonate with you. Or maybe you’ll find you disagree with some (I sure do!). Perhaps some will confuse you, while others might help you consider plot in a whole new way! I’d love to know what you think.

As writers, we create our own philosophies about how we each define good writing and how the craft should be approached.  Coming up with our own personal definition of plot is an interesting part of that journey. I’ve never found two writers who articulate it exactly the same way.

Here’s what some of my craft books, friends, and teachers have to say about plot:

“Plot is how the events in a story directly impact the main character.”  – Martha Alderson 

Story is: “The king died and then the queen died.” Plot is: “The king died and then the queen died of grief.” – E.M. Forster

“Story is what happens; plot is the structure of what happens.”  – Cheryl Klein

“Plot is merely the mechanism by which your character is forced up against her deepest fears and desires.”  – Margaret Bechard 

“Plot is nothing more than the way you organize your story.”  – Nancy Lamb

Plot is “merely one way of telling a story, by connecting the happenings tightly, usually through causal chains.”  – Ursula Le Guin

“Story [is] what your novel is about. Plot [is] what happens within your story … Structure [is] how it’s organized.”  – Sheryl Scarborough

“Plot is the arrangement of events that make up a story…  Plot is the sequence of unfolding action. In examining plot we are concerned with causality, with how one action leads into or ties in with another.” – Chea Stephenson

“Plot is a system of actions.” – Susan Fletcher

Plot is “the under-the-surface weaving of various lines of action or sets of events so that the story builds steadily … It is a combination of what happens and how those events are revealed to the audience.” – John Truby

“Plot is not just what happens in a story. Rather, plot is a pattern of cause and effect or conflicts upsetting the equilibrium of a situation.” – Ron Layne and Rick Lewis

“Plots engage our capacity to understand motives and thus the logic of action.” – Roger Seamon

How do you define plot? I’d love to hear your personal definitions, thoughts, and ideas!


The above quotes come from the following sources:

Alderson, Martha. The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master. Avon, MA: Adams Media, 2011. Print.
Bechard, Margaret. Small Workshop Plot Handout. Vermont College of Fine Arts. 2012.
Chea, Stephenson. “What’s the Difference Between Plot and Structure.” Associated Content. 16 Feb. 2010. Web. 7 May 2010. 
Forster, E.M. Aspects of the Novel. 1927. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985. Print.
Klein, Cheryl. “The Essentials of Plot.” Web. Nov. 2012.
Fletcher, Susan. Structure as Genesis. Faculty Lecture. Vermont College of Fine Arts. 2012.
Lamb, Nancy. The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 2001. Print. 
Layne, Ron and Rick Lewis. “Plot, Theme, the Narrative Arc, and Narrative Patterns.” English and Humanities Department. Sandhill Community College. 11 Sept, 2009. Web.  7 May 2010. 
Le Guin, Ursula K. Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew. Portland, OR: Eighth Mountain Press, 1998. Print.
Scarborough, Sheryl. “Re: Laura’s (Way Late) Lecture Thread.” MFA Student Forum. Vermont College of Fine Arts. Web. Nov. 2012.
Seamon, Roger. “The Price of Plot in Aristotle’s Poetics.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 64:2, Spring 2006. Ebsco Host. Web. 10 May 2011.
Truby, John. The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller. 2007. New York: Faber and Faber, 2008. Print.