Episode #5 of the course Studying English literature: Excel in the study of novels, poems, plays, and more by K.C. Finn
The building blocks of any story take us through key events, connected in a powerful journey that we call the plot. The plot gives our characters a chance to be put to the test, reveals interesting secrets and mysteries to the reader, and ultimately gives us the satisfaction of a shared experience.
In this lesson, we’ll analyze the different levels on which plot works, how events interconnect with one another, and which aspect of the story they are likely to relate to. So let’s get into the plot levels, and explore the idea of Central versus Sub Plots.
How Central Plot Works
As the title suggests, the central plot pertains to the main driving actions of the story and usually centers on the main protagonist(s). One of the key features of the central plot is the different activity levels of the events taking place. Not everything in the plot will always be a full level ten for excitement and thrills, and it’s this gradual build-up of different moments that gives the novel its overall flow of ups and downs. When analyzing the central plot, it’s important to notice the quieter moments which lead to the larger ones, for example, the reveal of a simple clue that turns out to be crucial to the mystery later on.
The Role of Sub-Plots
Any great work of literature is likely to have other strands of storyline weaving through it, slowly developing other characters or ideas for future books alongside the central plot events. These are called sub-plots, and they usually serve a crucial purpose in making the book feel fully realistic and delivering the twists and surprises that the central plot may need when it’s getting a little quiet. You may also find that sometimes you think that you are following a sub-plot, when in fact these events later become vital to the conclusion of the central plot. It’s possible to think of these types of plots as “streams” feeding into the wider “river” of the story.
For this activity, it’s best to take a longer work such as a full-length novel, because the more plot you have to work with, the easier it will be to see how its structure operates. If the novel has more than one central character, you may need to separate out the plot strands for each protagonist. Otherwise, you can stick with the idea of the central plot and the subplots. Under these sub-headings, take the story chapter by chapter, and make a brief note of the significant events which move the story forward in each one. You should begin to see a pattern of how the author delivers the story, piece by piece.
If you can identify the different levels of the plot events taking place, from the smaller moments right up to the climax of the action, then use a numerical system to label them, either from one to ten, or maybe one to five for a shorter series of events. In this way, you should be able to see how an author combines different highs and lows to add depth and momentum to the story.
If you’re interested in a tricker challenge in terms of plot analysis, you can take this practice activity up another level by looking at novels which have lots of flashbacks to the past, or even those which start at a different time and move in a non-linear fashion through the story. These kinds of stories are even more interesting to piece together and will show you how an author organizes their chapters to reveal crucial parts of the information at the right time, without making anything too obvious or difficult to comprehend.
In the next lesson, we’ll be moving away from these specialized areas that make up the building blocks of literature and exploring the more general style of an author’s work. This exploration of special techniques begins with the study of stylistics.
If you’d like to explore the traditional structure of classic literary plot more, why not check out this link to Prep Scholar’s clear and concise plot analysis.
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