Common Core Standards: ELA
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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Using this Standard
- 1984 Teacher Pass
- A Raisin in the Sun Teacher Pass
- A Rose For Emily Teacher Pass
- A View from the Bridge Teacher Pass
- Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Teacher Pass
- Animal Farm Teacher Pass
- Antigone Teacher Pass
- Beowulf Teacher Pass
- Brave New World Teacher Pass
- Death of a Salesman Teacher Pass
- Fahrenheit 451 Teacher Pass
- Fences Teacher Pass
- Frankenstein Teacher Pass
- Grapes Of Wrath Teacher Pass
- Great Expectations Teacher Pass
- Hamlet Teacher Pass
- Heart of Darkness Teacher Pass
- Julius Caesar Teacher Pass
- King Lear Teacher Pass
- Macbeth Teacher Pass
- Moby Dick Teacher Pass
- Narrative of Frederick Douglass Teacher Pass
- Oedipus the King Teacher Pass
- Of Mice and Men Teacher Pass
- One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Teacher Pass
- Othello Teacher Pass
- Romeo and Juliet Teacher Pass
- Sula Teacher Pass
- The Aeneid Teacher Pass
- The As I Lay Dying Teacher Pass
- The Bluest Eye Teacher Pass
- The Canterbury Tales General Prologue Teacher Pass
- The Canterbury Tales: The Miller's Tale Teacher Pass
- The Canterbury Tales: The Wife of Bath's Prologue Teacher Pass
- The Cask of Amontillado Teacher Pass
- The Catch-22 Teacher Pass
- The Catcher in the Rye Teacher Pass
- The Crucible Teacher Pass
- The Great Gatsby Teacher Pass
- The House on Mango Street Teacher Pass
- The Iliad Teacher Pass
- The Lottery Teacher Pass
- The Metamorphosis Teacher Pass
- The Odyssey Teacher Pass
- The Old Man and the Sea Teacher Pass
- The Scarlet Letter Teacher Pass
- The Tell-Tale Heart Teacher Pass
- Their Eyes Were Watching God Teacher Pass
- Things Fall Apart Teacher Pass
- To Kill a Mockingbird Teacher Pass
- Twilight Teacher Pass
- Wide Sargasso Sea Teacher Pass
- Wuthering Heights Teacher Pass
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:
2. Rising Action
4. Falling Action
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!
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:
- surprise factor
- in medias res
- 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 QuestionsHere's an example of a quiz that could be used to test this standard.
Quiz 2 QuestionsHere'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.