What’s a plot diagram, why is it also called a plot mountain, and who comes up with these cute ideas?
To make it simple, a plot diagram is a line that shows how your story progresses in terms of suspense. The horizontal axis is the story time and the vertical axis represents the suspense.
In a typical story plot, it will look something like this:
This thing is also called a plot mountain, and that’s for the same reason potato chips in TV ads can sometimes sing: We humans like to bring lifeless and abstract objects into a form that we find easier to comprehend and that tickles our fancy (also, who wouldn’t like to hear their potato chip blasting some Billie Jean into their tiny mic?).
So if instead of calling it a plot diagram, you are into flowery images – I understand. Let’s make a majestic plot mountain out of it, with your scenes as little wooden cabins scattered alongside its slope, some more crooked than others, with your scene transitions as bridges, the forest is all of those fancy, tingling words you are using, and around that mountain you are driving your little chuff chuff model train – perfect!
Ok, calming down now (I’m just enthusiastic). In this post, learn:
- The 5 parts of a plot diagram
- How a plot diagram can help your writing
- The plot diagram for Little Red Riding Hood, as a proper example
- The pathetic shapes some plot mountains have and how to fix them (which means, how NOT to do it)
- You will also receive an awesome plot diagram template to download
Let’s start with the plot diagram:
Plot Diagram Template (Download It)
Fill out this plot diagram template and you will have a complete bird’s-eye-view of the suspense structure of your story!
You will see where it lacks, and you can use your template as a helpful guideline when plotting and during the writing process.
The download includes the classic plot diagram template, the revised plot diagram template, plus a handy summary of the most important info you should know.
Get it here for free:
Helpful template, check. Moving on to next item on the agenda.
How Can a Plot Diagram Template Help You?
“But why do I need this funny mountain hill in the first place?” I hear you asking, and: “How can it help me?”
Here you have the final answers, no further opinions accepted:
- With a plot diagram, you can get a great overview of when tension in your story is rising or falling. That way, when writing you know which scenes are the most climatic, which can be written at a slower pace, etc.
- You can compare the classic plot diagram with the one you have created specifically for your story. Then you can see what made sense in countless other stories and decide if it makes sense for your story too.
- With a quick glance, you will be able to tell if you have weak spots in your plot. For example, a long, tiring period without any suspense you can now see visualized. Again, comparing with the classic structure helps.
- You know on which part of the tension curve you currently are, at any point during writing. Which means your plot diagram template will help you with orientation.
Now, let’s take a look at the five classic elements that make up your plot diagram.
5 Parts of the Plot
These are the classical 5 parts of the plot diagram. The scheme is somewhat problematic, but we will get to that a bit later, and I will also show you a better structure. For now, let’s pretend we are tied to the classic structure like an empty tin can stuck to a dog’s tail:
- Exposition: The beginning of the story introduces us to the circumstances and the characters, while at the same time trying to keep things interesting. We have to give the reader a lot of background info so we can set the main plot into motion.
- Rising Action: Problems arise, urgent questions pop up and conflicts escalate. In short, suspense rises on a steep curve.
- Climax: The peak of the story, where suspense reaches its maximum. The monster is fought and killed, the princess is freed, the cake is eaten.
- Falling Action: The main problem has now been eliminated. Some questions are still open and get answered; conflicts are resolved. All loose ends are tied up. Suspense is let out of the story like hot air from a balloon, sounding like one big plot fart.
- Resolution: Things have finally settled down. Now there is a new normal, as in, “they lived happily ever after” (or “they died and are as dead as toothpaste”).
Want a practical example of how this works?
Plot Diagram Example
For a typical, well-known and simple story plot, we will examine the plot diagram of Little Red Riding Hood. Here are the 5 parts of the plot:
1. Exposition: We get introduced to the menacing mixture that is an innocent little girl combined with a big dark forest (character and circumstances). We learn that the girl is helping out her mom; she is taking some wine and cake to her sick grandmother.
2. Rising Action: The wolf shows up and his mind is anything but pure. What’s his plan? Is he dangerous? (You bet he is.) He talks to Little Red Riding Hood. Oh, now he takes the path to her grandmother’s house. Oh, damn, he is swallowing the old lady!! What now?
That pervert is putting on her nightgown and lying down in her bed?? Why on earth would he do that? Uh oh. Will the little girl fall into his trap? Now she is knocking at his door… this is getting worse by the minute!
3. Climax: Little Red Riding Hood exchanges a nerve-wracking dialogue with the wolf (“But… why do you have such a big mouth?”), before he jumps at her and swallows our little heroine whole without so much as a burp. We are shocked, some of us are in tears, others are eyeing their German shepherd angrily.
Luckily, a hunter discovers the perpetrator and cuts open the sleeping wolf. The girl and her grandmother emerge from the belly of the beast unharmed, which brings us great relief (unless you truly are a diehard animal rights’ activist).
4. Falling Action: What to do with the wolf now? is an open question. Because fairy tales can be cruel, the hunter fills the wolf’s empty stomach with heavy stones. When the wolf wakes up and drinks out of the well, the weight makes him fall and drown. Clean, easy solution. How is everybody else? (question to the crowd) Answer: Alive and happy.
5. Resolution: The wolf is gone, the sun is shining, everybody feels better. The little girl can go back to her mother now, and when her mom asks her, “What happened?” she can simply reply “Nothing.” The End. Roll credits.
So far, so good. But I told you there is a problem – let’s take a look at it!
Freytag’s Triangle and the Problem with the Classic Structure (or: The Elephant in the Room)
The 5-part plot structure above is called Freytag’s Triangle, and if you are still into graphs, it looks like this:
Freytag’s Triangle, also called Freytag’s Pyramid, was established by German writer Gustav Freytag in 1863, which brings us to the core of the problem: it’s outdated.
As you can see, to Freytag, it was not a mountain, but more of a missile. You can see that its Climax is not at the end, but in the very middle of the story.
Honestly, how many great stories have you seen in which the most exciting moment, the rescue of the princess, the slaying of the monster, takes place right in the middle?
If you have seen one, I’m sure its second half was as boring as watching mold grow on cheese.
In reality, whether you look at books or movies – modern stories are usually not constructed that way because it would mean sending the excitement and suspense downwards only for the entire second half of the story. It would mean your middle is much more exciting than your ending. Terrible idea.
To Freytag, the Climax was more of a turning point in the middle of the story, where misery turned into fortune, or the other way around. What was described as a Climax by Freytag would nowadays just be our midpoint.
Today, what we understand under Climax takes place right before the end of the story. We have to shift our Climax to the right.
To make the issue even harder to grasp, online resources or books mostly explain Freytag’s Triangle and the 5 parts of the plot in one of two ways:
- They put the Climax in the middle of the story, implying to aspiring writers that the most exciting part should be in the middle.
- They put the Climax close to the end of the story, implying that Falling Action only happens towards the very end of the story.
Both of these implications are nonsense and confuse a lot of beginning writers.
So, to clear things up for you, instead I want to suggest to you my…
Plot Diagram Template Revised
The revised template is explained quickly. On the one hand, it moves the Climax almost all the way to the end of the storyline, where it realistically belongs.
At the same time, it arranges Rising Action and Falling Action like the spikey teeth of a saw blade, between the beginning and said Climax.
And of course, it finishes off with a Resolution, in which all loose ends are tied up and a new normal is established.
Here you have this beauty of a plot diagram again:
You can therefore forget about that missile above – let’s stay peaceful, you and me. Take my hand instead, and climb with me my idyllic and Disney-like plot mountain…
These are its parts:
- Exposition: The first part, the Exposition, is the same as in the classic version. It’s about introducing the characters, setting the stage and bringing in information. At first, the reader doesn’t know anything about the characters, so he doesn’t care; the line of suspense is more on the flat side. This is the valley below the slope, and in many stories the river of boring runs through it.
- Rising and Falling Action, but Mainly Rising Action: Look at that rising mountain chain! In general, your story should get more and more exciting from now on. It would be a terrible story if it was just meandering sideways, or even losing suspense by the page, wouldn’t it?
Your reader is climbing the slope we built for him, until he arrives at a mountain hut, where he will recover over a cold cuts and cheese charcuterie board; he will pet goats and listen to Alpine folk music (ok, maybe that’s just my personal experience).
Hold on – why do you need these little ups and downs in the first place? Why Falling Action too? Wouldn’t it be far more exciting to go up only?
Your story needs these little down spikes for two reasons:
- It’s just not possible to constantly up the tension. You will always have slower parts, which you want to use to connect events, raise stakes, show dialogue, or sprinkle in new information.
- The readers would get desensitized by constantly rising excitement. A calmer passage in between grounds them, so the next boost can rattle them even more. It makes for nice variation.
While the pattern is an ebb and flow, the bottom line is – it has to be a constant upwards slope, with many little peaks, until we reach the climax.
We could then build several houses on top of these peaks, maybe one for us and one for the children, and then we could come over for tea every afternoon at 5 o’clock, and we could make them feel guilty if they didn’t invite us. Or so.
- Climax: The Climax, again, looks just like in the “5 parts of the plot” classic version. The only difference is that it is moved almost all the way to the right towards the end of the story. You have the chance to build suspense over the course of your entire plot, up until your Climax.
- Resolution: Like in the classic version, the Resolution is the short part at the very end. Remember, most of the tension is gone by now, and your reader is just looking for a satisfying clean up.
However, as you can see in the graph, in a great story the suspense curve doesn’t fall all the way to the bottom. That’s because we care more now than we cared at the beginning, and a good ending makes us feel emotions (happy/sad/surprised/etc.).
What you can at the very least take away from this revised plot diagram, in a nutshell:
- Your Exposition (Beginning) doesn’t necessarily have to be slow; you can also start with a bang
- The Climax is the most exciting part of your story and has to come close to the end
- While suspense rises in the main story part, it creates an exciting up and down rhythm (like sex), letting suspense ebb and flow
With that being said… psst… psst… want to see some deformities? Welcome to the freak show…
Plot Mountains Gone Wrong
Let’s take a look at some horrendous abominations, so you can learn what not to do. Let’s look at…
…the “Hunchback of Notre Dame” Plot Mountain (build on that hunch!):
The classical one. A shy beginning, a lone peak in the middle, and in the end a fall into the bottomless pit of “nothing happening.” This is not a plot roller coaster, it’s a plot tunnel of horror.
…the “Let Me Arrange My Garden Gnome” Plot Mountain
Fail. This is hardly even a story because nothing exciting happens at all. You tried to play it safe and gained… absolutely nothing, congratulations!
Yes, you can build your perfectly symmetrical, dull little plot world and stay safe – look, I even built a brown little picket fence around it to protect you, you chicken heart! Now you can drink your Sunday afternoon tea safely behind it, but sorry, you and your story really don’t interest anybody.
…the “I Wish I Had Never Gotten out of Bed” Plot Mountain
What is this? Your beginning is much more exciting than the rest of your story, including your ending. This is the matrimony of story plots. In other words: It fizzles out. You showed up for the 100-meter-sprint, but found yourself in the middle of a marathon. Go try again!
Also, at your service is its even more extreme implementation…
…the “Downhill Only, Please” Plot Mountain
Are you kidding me?? Your plot is nothing but a measly initial idea, and when your reader has to pause for a bathroom break, their interest in your story will be flushed down the drain pipe as well.
…the “Pass Me that Cocaine Again” Plot Mountain
This is the opposite. You obviously have as much explosivity as fireworks (which is a good start), but you are missing beautiful things: some sort of balance, a satisfying ending, periods of relaxation.
A reader isn’t just lusting for suspense – she also wants to get to know the characters, to look around, to be led into all sorts of emotions. This much suspense is… boring.
Are you on meth?
I don’t even know what this is. Do you feel dizzy? We are running out of forms here.
On that note, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you… the double helix:
Ok, enough with the silliness! Go to your room and do your homework! Here is your task for the day:
Plot Diagram Template Writing Prompt
Today’s writing prompt is simple: draw the plot diagram of your story, or fill out one of the sheets from the download pack.
Identify and label all parts of your plot diagram; Exposition, Rising Action, Falling Action, Climax and Resolution. Then see if your plot diagram has an attractive shape!
Be honest with yourself – if the suspense curve points downwards, your diagram has to show it. Don’t cheat, I can see you! Then, if you realize that your suspense curve has room for improvement, polish it up!
Oh, and you are welcome to post the short descriptions of the 5 parts of your diagram in the comments (no graph necessary). You will gain an even clearer picture of your story by sharing it with a large group of fellow writers.
Here are the downloads again.
Plot Worksheets to Download
Simply download these templates and fill them out! It will become quite obvious to you where to raise tension, where to rein it in, and which part is which. You can then use that clarity to write a dynamic and interesting first draft.
The download includes the classic plot diagram template, the revised plot diagram template, plus a summary of the most important things to know.
You can use the template for your short stories as well. Here is a quick guideline on how to do that.
Short Story Plot Diagram Template
In essence, the plot diagram template works for your short stories just like it would work for your novel. However, you might want to tweak it a little, keeping the following in mind.
Most short stories use the same 5 plot elements as a novel: Exposition, Rising Action, Falling Action, Climax and Resolution.
Obviously, the difference is that you have a lot less time for each plot part. All of the parts are shortened drastically and, therefore, pushed closer together.
Everything happens quicker. This means:
- In your Exposition, you should only present the most indispensable information, and do it within a couple of paragraphs. Your reader has to understand what’s going on superfast, otherwise you will spend half of your short story explaining.
- You don’t need a long sequence of Rising Action and Falling Action. In a story of a few pages, one phase of Rising Action is enough. You can even skip the Falling Action, as you have no time for slow parts.
- You can put the Climax into the last paragraph or into the very last sentences, almost like a punch line. The climax is often a good way to end your story with a bang.
- You could even skip your Resolution If your format is that short, your reader is not expecting many explanations about what happens after.
What your story structure looks like also depends on the exact length of your story; a story of twenty pages will give you more opportunity for development of plot, character and settings than a two-page story.
For example, in a two-page story you won’t need to demonstrate the main character’s traits. However, in a twenty-page story, it’s a good idea to develop the character of the protagonist a little.
The Plot Diagram Template, Your Secret Weapon
You are now armed to the teeth with practical knowledge about how to use a plot diagram, plus you have the support of the templates.
This little mountain slope can make all the difference in the world to your story: After all, suspense and excitement are what your readers are thirsty for – and now you can deliver it to them in a perfectly timed manner.
Once you get a feeling for how to fill out your plot diagrams and how to time the tension curve of your stories, it will make you a master of suspense. You will be able to draw your readers deep into your stories, and you will make all of your tales exciting and irresistible!
Image Credits: Title image: rogistok/123rf; Wolf and girl in forest: davorr/123rf; Wolf in bed: hopscotch1/123rf