The Heartbeat of a Great Plot


Character drives plot because plot is a series of the character’s choices and actions. Our author this week, Jewel Parker Rhodes, says, “Action disconnected from character is bound to fail.” If readers don’t care about the characters, readers won’t care about what happens to the characters. For ideas on character development, read our previous post, Characters are Human Too.

As a former high school teacher, I found Rhodes’s revision of the traditional plot diagram quite eye-opening. Starting in grade school and often through college, students are taught that plot is shaped like an equilateral triangle–a straight, ascending line; a single, climactic point; and a straight, descending line.

Rhodes says a plot diagram should look more like an EKG reading.

“Good story conflict is much more like a strong, intensifying heartbeat–with tension rising and filling, rising and falling until a climactic pitch is reached. After each pulse, the reader is pulled forward by the question ‘Then what happens?’

The plot–what happens, the sequence of events–is always a point/counterpoint, attack/counterattack to the protagonist’s desires and needs.”

One of the exercises in chapter 6 of Free Within Ourselves is to do a plot EKG study of a story that you absolutely love. It should be one that you couldn’t put down. Here are the instructions:

“For every significant obstacle to the character’s needs and desires, draw a line slopping upward; whenever the tension is resolved (even momentarily), draw a line sloping downward. As the risks to the protagonist’s well-being increase, pitch the upward slope more steeply. Continue until the story’s conclusion.”