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Common Core Standards: ELA

Grades 9-10

Reading RL.9-10.5

RL.9-10.5. Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure a text, order events within it (e.g., parallel plots), and manipulate time (e.g., pacing, flashbacks) create such effects as mystery, tension, or surprise.

Great books get considerably less great when the plot is rushed, dragged out, scrambled, or not broken into chapters at appropriate places. And, just like a well-paced plot makes for better reading, knowing how to pace a plot makes for better writing. This Standard deals with plot, including how a plot’s structure and order keep the reader guessing - and reading.

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Teaching Guides Using this Standard

Example 1

Sample Activities for Use in Class

1. The Parts of the Plot

The plots of stories or plays, and even of some poems, can be broken down into their component parts. Each part has its own name, but don’t worry too much about remembering them. The important thing is to remember how the parts work together to tell a story.

At some point between 1816 (when he was born) and 1895 (when he died), a German novelist named Gustav Freytag, who read a lot of Greek plays, figured out that most stories, if not all of them, can be broken down into five parts:
1. Exposition
2. Rising Action
3. Climax
4. Falling Action
5. Denouement.

Have students gather in groups (or work singly) and give each group or student a short story or narrative poem to read. As they read, they should jot down parts of the story that fall under each one of Freytag’s parts of the plot. As a refresher, Freytag’s terms refer to the following parts of the plot:

Exposition: The introduction. Introduces the characters, the setting, and the “inciting incident,” or the event that sets the rest of the story in motion. Any information that answers one of the “five W’s” - who, what, when, where, or why - is probably part of the exposition, especially if it’s in the first few paragraphs.

Rising Action: This is the stuff that leads up to the climax (see below). In many stories, the “rising action” takes up some or all of the tale. For instance, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (which is also a stunning example of another plot-building tool, the “end-of-chapter cliffhanger”), the rising action of Harry and his friends figuring out what the Sorcerer’s Stone is and what’s happening to it takes up most of the book - the climax doesn’t occur until Harry faces Voldemort, and the falling action is restricted almost entirely to the scene in the infirmary.

Climax: A.k.a. “The Big Event.” This is the point where the main character finally has to face the bad guy or make a major decision. Far too many Sunday-night movies reach the climax just in time for Mom or Dad to switch off the TV and announce that it’s bedtime, immediately resulting in a chorus of: “But I want to know what happens!” The climax can also be thought of as the “turning point,” or the point at which the hero can’t just go, “Oh, forget it, let’s just go home and have some tea.”

Falling Action: The events that occur right after the climax, usually as a result of it. The infirmary scene in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is an excellent example of falling action.

Denouement: The final word or “moral” of the story. “And they all lived happily ever after” is probably the best-known denouement in English literature. Short stories tend to have much shorter - often only one sentence - and punchier denouements than novels, though of course exceptions exist on both sides.

Once students have made some notes, reassemble as a class and discuss what students have found about the story’s or poem’s structure. You may want to diagram the structure on the board or an overhead and write in the elements of the story that belong under each heading as students call them out. If something appears to belong in one or more category, discuss it as a class. The lines aren’t always clearly drawn!

Example 2

2. Plot Devices

Once it’s clear what a plot is and what it’s doing (more or less), it’s time to examine the details of plot that keep a story moving. There are literally dozens of plot devices, but the more common ones are:

  • flashback
  • ellipsis
  • surprise factor
  • in medias res
  • MacGuffin
  • deus ex machina

Start by discussing what each of these terms mean. You could either have a class discussion, or break the class into groups and provide definitions for each group to discuss.

Here’s a quick guide to these plot devices:

Flashback - is the term for when the present action of a story stops for a moment (or sometimes longer) so that the character or narrator can reflect on the past. The events of the past are usually presented as a story-within-a-story. Flashforwards are really similar, except that the present action of the story pauses so the character or narrator can reflect on an event that will occur in the future. Dream sequences are often flashbacks. Flashbacks help fill in information gaps by explaining what happened before the story began.

Ellipsis - This is when the author deliberately leaves out some information, either because the author trusts that the reader can fill it in or because the story is made stronger by what isn’t said. One of the most famous users of ellipsis is Ernest Hemingway. His short story “Hills Like White Elephants” derives its power from the fact that the characters never use the words “pregnancy” or “abortion” - even though the entire story consists of two people discussing an unwanted pregnancy.

Surprise Factor – This is the thing or event in the story that seems to come out of nowhere and provides a literary “punch in the gut” to the reader. Horror stories almost all have one of these. Consider, for example, the muffled heartbeat in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” or the plethora of horror stories that end with a line like: “They realized the phone call was coming from inside the house!”

In Medias Res - This literally means “in the middle of things.” A story that starts in medias res starts very close to the climax, then loops back around to explain (usually very briefly) how the characters got there. The Star Wars movies started in medias res in 1977 and didn’t get around to explaining how everyone got there until 1999.

MacGuffin - A “MacGuffin” is an object or goal that everyone in the story is aspiring for, or someone is trying to hide, or that is somehow so important to the plot that it actually drives everyone’s behavior. The One Ring in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is one example. Some objects are a MacGuffin and a surprise factor at the same time, like the “diamond” necklace in Guy de Maupassant’s “The Necklace” - “We searched everywhere and worked our fingers to the bone for this necklace. Surprise - it’s actually fake!”

Deus ex machina - This literally means “god in the machine.” It is used to describe a device in Greek plays where, just when things could not possibly get any worse, an actor playing a god would be lowered to the stage on a rope and set everything right with a wave of his or her god-powers. Today, it refers to a force (a character, event, or object) that wasn’t previously in the plot but that suddenly swoops in and makes everything right, usually because the characters can’t do it themselves anymore.

Once students have had a chance to discuss the various plot devices, list each one on the board and have students name stories, poems, plays, or movies that contain one or more of these devices. Have students identify what scene, object, or event specifically uses one or more of the above devices.

Quiz 1 Questions

Here's an example of a quiz that could be used to test this standard.

  1. Which of the following lines most likely does NOT appear in the exposition of a horror story?

    Correct Answer:

    I breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, we were safe...or were we?

    Answer Explanation:

    (d) - This sentence, which is a wrap-up at the end of an action sequence, is more likely to appear in the falling action or the denouement.


  2. In Guy de Maupassant’s short story “The Necklace,” the plot focuses on a diamond necklace that the main character borrows from a friend, and then loses. The necklace serves as what type of literary device?

    Correct Answer:

    MacGuffin

    Answer Explanation:

    (b) - A “MacGuffin” is an object on which the plot focuses - here, it is a necklace.


  3. The last line of “The Necklace” reveals that the diamond necklace, which the main character has worked for twenty years to replace, is actually a fake. Which part of the plot is this?

    Correct Answer:

    denouement

    Answer Explanation:

    (e) - The denouement, or “moral” or “punch line” of a short story, is almost always in its last line.


  4. In the same short story, the necklace also serves as:

    Correct Answer:

    a surprise element

    Answer Explanation:

    (e) - A “surprise element” is something that no one saw coming - in this case, it’s the fact that the “diamond” necklace was a fake.


  5. In the novel The Lord of the Flies by William Golding, a group of boys are shipwrecked on a deserted island. At the beginning of the novel, they agree that whoever holds the conch shell is in command of the group at that moment. The focus on the conch shell throughout the novel means it’s probably what type of literary device?

    Correct Answer:

    MacGuffin

    Answer Explanation:

    (a) - It’s an object on which the novel’s plot focuses and without which there would be no plot.


  6. At the end of The Lord of the Flies, a ship comes to the island to save the boys just as it appears they will all destroy each other. This event occurs during which part of the plot?

    Correct Answer:

    denouement

    Answer Explanation:

    (e) - The denouement refers to the part of the story when the plot resolves itself. Think of it as the moment when we find out what happens to the characters after everything has changed.


  7. The appearance of the adults in the last paragraph of the novel serves as what kind of literary device?

    Correct Answer:

    deus ex machina

    Answer Explanation:

    (d) - A higher power swoops in and saves the boys, instead of the boys figuring out how to save themselves.


  8. The part of The Lord of the Flies in which the boys’ island society begins to break down most likely occurs during which part of the plot?

    Correct Answer:

    rising action

    Answer Explanation:

    (b) - The breakdown creates conflict, which raises the tension in the plot toward its “peak,” or climax


  9. You are writing a screenplay (movie version) of The Lord of the Flies, and you want to tell the story as a flashback. Which of the following should you include in your screenplay?

    Correct Answer:

    Start the movie showing one of the boys as a grownup, recalling his time on the island as a boy.

    Answer Explanation:

    (c) - This is the way you can tell the story as a flashback.


  10. One of the most well-known denouements in English literature is:

    Correct Answer:

    And they all lived happily ever after

    Answer Explanation:

    (d) - This tells us what happened to the characters after the action of the story was resolved.


Quiz 2 Questions

Here's an example of a quiz that could be used to test this standard.

Questions 1-10 are based on the following scenario:

You’re reading a novel that is set in London. Terrorists have stolen a bomb, hidden it in a truck, and parked it outside the British Parliament. The police are rushing to find and de-fuse the bomb before the terrorists set it off, but the only police officer who knows how to de-fuse the bomb has been kidnapped and may not be able to escape in time.

  1. The scene described above most likely appears in which part of the novel’s plot?

    Correct Answer:

    climax

    Answer Explanation:

    (c) - The plot has gone about as far as it can go; it has reached a “breaking point.”


  2. If the story began at this scene, one would say that the story began:

    Correct Answer:

    in medias res

    Answer Explanation:

    (b) - “In media res” means “in the middle of things.”


  3. Suppose the story began at the scene described above. Then, the story focused on one character and showed that character’s memories of the past and how everyone had gotten to this point. The literary device used to show the character’s memories is called a:

    Correct Answer:

    flashback

  4. At this moment in the novel, an angel appears to the terrorists who are about to set off the bomb and stops them from doing it. After the angel disappears, the terrorists all fall to their knees, crying with remorse. This scene is most likely which part of the novel’s plot?

    Correct Answer:

    falling action

    Answer Explanation:

    (d) - It’s after the climax, but is not yet the end; the terrorists changing their ways is part of the “wrap-up” that occurs in the falling action.


  5. The appearance of the angel is an example of which kind of literary device?

    Correct Answer:

    deus ex machina

    Answer Explanation:

    (d) - A “God in the machine,” or in this case an angel, who appears and sets everything right, instead of the characters sorting it out themselves somehow.


  6. Which of the following details most likely appeared in the exposition of this novel?

    Correct Answer:

    the story is set in London

    Answer Explanation:

    (a) - “Where” is a common question that is usually answered in the exposition.


  7. This story never uses the word “terrorists” to describe the story’s antagonists. Instead, the reader has to figure out, based on the clues the story gives, what kind of “bad guys” the antagonists are. This is a literary device known as:

    Correct Answer:

    ellipsis

    Answer Explanation:

    (b) - An ellipsis leaves out a crucial bit of information; the reader has to “read between the lines” in order to find it.


  8. If the entire story focuses on the bomb - where it is, who has it, and so on - the bomb is most likely what kind of literary device?

    Correct Answer:

    MacGuffin

    Answer Explanation:

    (d) - A “MacGuffin” is an object or goal that everyone in the story is aspiring for, or someone is trying to hide, or that is somehow so important to the plot that it actually drives everyone’s behavior.


  9. Which of the following things most likely happens in the falling action of the story?

    Correct Answer:

    The terrorists turn themselves in to the police, apologizing for their attempts to cause murder and mayhem.

    Answer Explanation:

    (a) - This would most likely occur after the climax, with the angel appearing and stopping them, which would make it part of the falling action.


  10. At the end of the novel, the police bomb expert suddenly wakes up, scared and in a cold sweat, and then takes a deep breath after realizing none of it actually happened. In this case, the plot is enclosed in which kind of literary device?

    Correct Answer:

    dream sequence

    Answer Explanation:

    • (b) - flashbacks are usually to things that actually happened, not things that happened only in one’s dreams, making (e) the better answer.
    • (e) - The action happened in a dream, not in real life.

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