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If you're on this page, chances are good that I've asked you to complete a plot diagram for homework. Before you get started, please be sure to check the assignment--do I want a basic plot diagram or a Freytag's Pyramid?
Plot diagrams (at least in my class) have six basic elements. Click on the thumbnail at the right to see a plot diagram. At the bottom of this description, you can find a completed plot diagram for "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" to use as an example.
Item One: Inciting Moment (also called the Inciting Incident)
Something has to happen to set the events of the story in motion. Without this one moment or incident, the events of the story couldn't take place. Inciting moments/incidents can be long or short. In the case of our example, Mother Bear decides to make some porridge. You could also consider Goldilocks' decision to take a walk as an inciting incident. Different readers may have different interpretations of the same story.
Item Two: Exposition
The exposition is where we are introduced to the basic elements of the story. We meet some or all of the characters, get a description of the setting, and typically find out what the conflict of the story will be. In "Goldilocks," we find out that we are in a forest, and the Bear family is getting ready to set out for a walk. A young girl is wandering through that same forest toward the Bear cottage.
Item Three: Rising Action
Rising action refers to the series of plot points that build the action toward the eventual climax and resolution. Depending upon the length of the piece you are diagramming, you may have quite a few entries in this category. Short stories may not have as much. Be sure to only list the most important plot points on your diagram. Imagine that you are telling a friend about a movie you saw. Summarize the action with a few brief bullets.
Item Four: Climax/Turning Point
Most traditional plot diagrams call this the "climax," but I prefer the term "turning point." "Climax" is a bit misleading--novels (and short stories, too) can have lots of climactic moments. To avoid confusion, look for the turning point. At what point do you, as a reader, say, "Okay, the story has changed." At what point is the conflict resolved (or does it become obvious that the conflict will never be resolved)? The turning point is the moment when the story changes in focus. In the case of Goldilocks, the bears come home. The story now changes. It's not a story about Goldilocks alone in the bears' house any more.
Item Five: Falling Action
Now it's time to wrap up loose ends. Depending upon the moment in your piece that the climax occurs, there may not be much falling action. In the Goldilocks story, the bears wander through their house, finding all of the evidence of her presence until the final resolution occurs.
Item Six: Resolution/Denouement
You'll hear me use these two terms interchangeably, but they both refer to the end of the story. How does the plot conclude? Do they all live happily ever after, or not?
One final, very important note: Plot diagramming is not an exact science. The moment that I identify as the inciting incident may not be the same you would choose, and so on. As a result, I should never see identical plot diagrams from students. Do not copy work from your friends. There are no wrong answers (within reason, of course). If you've read the work and provided a logical answer, you will receive credit.
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