Back in letter B, I blathered a bit about narratives and plots, but the search for order in storytelling chaos is neverending...
The idea of diagramming a plot goes back to Aristotle, and probably earlier, with the basic idea of "something" (call it tension?) that goes up, then comes back down. It builds up, then it is released. A famous playwright called it the tying and untying of knots. Some say that the whole is divided into three parts (protasis, epitasis, catastrophe) and others argue that it's really five acts (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement). Up until the middle of the 20th century it was rare to see anyone questioning this basic idea.
Enter Professor Allen Tilley. He claims the old Aristotle up-down just characterizes one "episode" in a more complete narrative. The minimum necessary sequence for a truly satisfying story isn't a single mountain, it's a SNAKE:
(He's got one book from 1992, a more recent one from 2009, and also an active web page at his university... lots to see there!)
He calls the vertical axis "entropy," with upward motion meaning more order, and downward motion more chaos. The story ends on a "higher" plane than it began, but the characters had to go through their highs and lows to get there.
I'm particularly fond of Tilley's plot snake because it's such an infectious mind-worm... once you know it, you start seeing it everywhere! Let's briefly break down a story that everyone probably knows: Cinderella. Compare these steps with the ups and downs in the snake diagram above:
- Initiation: Her parents dead, Cinderella is stuck with her horrible stepmother and stepsisters. The main conflict is set up: her own self-worth clashes with how the others see her.
- Burnt Fingers: The conflict begins to come to a head. She wants to go to the ball. The stepmother says she can, if she accomplishes an impossible amount of work.
- Temporary Binding: The fairy godmother helps Cinderella attend the ball and she falls in love with the prince. Everything seems to be working out perfectly!
- Infernal Vision: Not so fast... It's midnight! From the heights, to the depths: Cinderella has seen love, but is now even lower than before.
- Final Binding: Of course, the prince is searching for the owner of the glass slipper. Through many travails, he finds her.
- Termination: And they live happily ever after.
Of course, there are other templates. Joseph Campbell's monomyth is often visible through the cracks of modern film making. (I know what example you're thinking about, but I would bet money that George Lucas didn't know about it until 1986 at the earliest, despite what he says now...) There are also companies who sell software that supposedly does this work for you. Some of these don't seem to be that worthwhile, but others do seem to be doing their homework on comparative dramatic theory. But Tilley's plot snake is compelling because of its simplicity and unintentional ubiquity. I dare you to NOT think of it in the next movie you see! :-)