To Aristotle With Love: We’re Done
So many contemporary playwrights claim to have “broken up” with Aristotle.
As in, “Ari, we love you and all, but you’re so old school. We’re done.”
The energy of the “action plot,” where a protagonist has a goal and takes action to obtain that goal, is the plot of Aristotelian tragedy, and the most common organizing principal used when plotting.
Whether structured as an episodic early point of attack plot or crafted as a climactic late point of attack plot, it’s still following an active protagonist through his idealized “want” to achieve (or not to achieve) his ultimate high stakes goal. We identify with the protagonist on some level as our “hero,” and experience his journey vicariously through that emotional identification.
This is the plot of The Hero’s Journey. It’s the most common plot structure taught in grad school, film school and found in myth and novel from contemporary times to the days of the Greeks. But it’s far from the only way to construct a plot.
Alternative Plot Structures
Searching for other structures, I came across film theorist Charles Ramirez Berg’s article A Taxonomy of Alternative Plots in Recent Films: Classifying the “Tarantino Effect.” 1
Berg noticed a trend of an increasing number of modern films that didn’t fall under the dominant energeic plot paradigm. He decided to classify films by these different plot types, and has come up with twelve categories, suggesting that this is just the beginning and not an all-inclusive list.
In theater we know that many types of plots exist, and though character goals can be a part of these plots, it’s not the only way in which to plot a story. But I found Berg’s attempts to categorize them fascinating, and great food for thought.
According to Charles Ramìrez Berg, films can thus be divided into 12 categories, arranged into three main groups based on the ways they deviate from the Hollywood paradigm:
- plots based on the number of protagonists
- plots with nonlinear temporality
- plots that violate classical rules of subjectivity, foregrounded narration, and the narratives of goal-orientation, causality, and exposition.
PLOT BASED ON THE NUMBER OF PROTAGONISTS
1) The Polyphonic or Ensemble Plot – multiple protagonists, single location
2) The Parallel Plot – multiple protagonists in different times and/or spaces
3) The Multiple Personality (Branched) Plot
4) The Daisy Chain Plot – no central protagonist, one character or prop leads to the next
PLOT BASED ON RE-ORDERING OF TIME; NONLINEAR PLOTS
5) The Backwards Plot
6) The Repeated Action Plot – one character repeats action
7) The Repeated Event Plot – one action seen from multiple characters’ perspectives
8) The Hub and Spoke Plot – multiple characters’ story lines intersect decisively at one time and place
9) The Jumbled Plot – scrambled sequence of event motivated artistically, by filmmaker’s prerogative
PLOTS THAT DEVIATE FROM CLASSICAL RULES OF SUBJECTIVITY, CAUSALITY AND SELF-REFERENTIAL NARRATION
10) The Subjective Plot – a character’s internal (or “filtered”) perspective
11) The Existential Plot – minimal goal, causality, and exposition
12) The Metanarrative Plot – narration about the problem of movie narration
Different Plots, Same Dramatic Needs
Instead of a particular plot structure, let’s talk about serving the dramatic exigencies demanded by plot:
- a dramatic arc that grounds the audience in a particular world (the beginning),
- gradually builds in emotional intensity (the middle)
- to a climax where certain “truths” are revealed and understood by an audience, and in that understanding, the dramatic action is resolved (the end).
- It’s about the journey that you take the audience on, and how you make them feel on the way.
It’s how you make them feel.
I’ve seen circular plots revisit an action three times, each time ramping up the emotional intensity for the audience with new information; it works. I’ve read plays that were more character studies than plays, but the structure worked because the character was approached from different perspectives, each one more intense than the one before. It was very interesting. (Admittedly, this works better for plays than musicals, which need clearer plots and subplots to be successful.)
An audience goes to the theater to experience something different from their own life. As long as a play takes the audience on an interesting journey, holds their interest and engages their emotions or their intellect in an enjoyable (not confusing) way, plot structures can and should be as inventive and creative as possible. There’s more than one hero’s journey.
So – have I encouraged you yet to play around with structure? Take Berg’s 12 categories and start brainstorming.
What structures would YOU like to experiment with? Post your thoughts in the comments below.
1A Taxonomy of Alternative Plots in Recent Films: Classifying the “Tarantino Effect.” Charles Ramírez Berg, Film Criticism, Fall 2006; 31, 1/2; ProQuest Direct Complete pg. 5