Plotting A Murder
August 8, 2016
Like most American high school students, my introduction to plot structure started on an island, at a dinner party. The island was Ithaca. I was stuck in my parents' house where hundreds of suitors drank my mother into the poorhouse as my family anxiously waited for the return of my father, Odysseus.
After reading The Odyssey, my teacher drew something like this graph on the chalkboard. This pyramid type structure, developed by German novelist Gustav Freytag, was the secret to all good stories.
First the author, Homer, set the scene and outlined the central problem. Then, he set the character--Odysseus' son--to solve the problem. Meanwhile, we see Odysseus' trapped on Crete recounting the adventures that took him away from his family in the first place. Odysseus sets off for home and meets his son who is searching for him (The Climax) and they kill the suitors (resolution).
I keep a modified version of this graph in my office. Thrillers can't have Freytag's long line of introductory exposition. The best ones start with the inciting incident and then the action takes off. Or, with a suspense story, there is the inciting incident and the uncomfortable movements beneath the guillotine. Thrillers must also have a twist that comes after the initial climax. The reader, in my opinion, should think he or she knows where the story is going and how the action will culminate and then, just as that happens or starts to happen, and the audience is anticipating the falling action, the reader should realize that there is something else going on and another unanticipated climax is in the offing. My graph looks like the one above with the orange words.
My stories don't always follow this exact pattern. Ideally, there are several twists and turns so a plot graph would appear more like my work on a stair climber machine than a pyramid. But, looking at this image reminds me of what I am trying to do and gives me a structure within which to be creative. It makes me feel more free to go nuts because I know that there is a format in the back of my mind keeping my story moving.
In addition to Freytag's pyramid, I learned another important things from my high school English teachers and The Odyssey: How NOT to end a story. At the end of the epic poem, Athena shows up out of nowhere and stops the now dead suitors' parents from flaying Odysseus' whole family. Dea Ex Machina is a disappointing exit in a thriller. The advancing hordes cannot be stopped by a sudden flood or the appearance of a bomb. The main characters have to resolve the action.
Odysseus should have ended when he gave Penelope the olive branch. Readers would have taken it as peace restored to his house and Ithaca--and conveniently forgot about the hordes of angry parents with dead sons. It was a better ending.