Monday, August 31, 2015

The Lord of the Rings and Plot Structure, Part 2

So, last week I explained how I mapped KM Weiland's 3-act plot structure onto the plot of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings with some interesting results. This week I want to look at what I learned through mapping the same plot structure onto each of the 6 smaller books into which LOTR is divided. Again, before I start, a disclaimer: some of this may be all wrong, since I am working from memory, and haven't actually read the novel in a number of years, so that some of it is fuzzy in my mind. That said, here are my diagrams: (Spoiler warnings apply!)

Book 1:

Hook: Bilbo is eleventy-one! But he feels "scraped thin."
    First Act: Frodo learns about the power of the Ring and decides to leave the Shire.
        First Plot Point: Frodo leaves the Shire?
            Second Act A: The Old Forest, Tom Bombadil and the Barrow-Downs
--                   Midpoint: Meeting with Strider?
            Second Act B: The journey to Weathertop
        Third Plot Point: Frodo is stabbed by a Ringwraith on Weathertop
    Climax: The confrontation at the Ford
Resolution/impetus into next book: The Council of Elrond: Frodo is appointed Ringbearer. (Strictly speaking, this comes at the beginning of Book 2, but Book 1 finishes on a cliffhanger

Book 2:

Hook: The Fellowship is setting off with a duty laid upon them
    First Act/: Travel south and attempt on Caradhras
        First Plot Point: Decision to travel by Moria
            Second Act A: Epicness in Moria
--                   Midpoint: Gandalf falls
            Second Act B: Idyll in Lorien
        Third Plot Point: Starting down the River Anduin
    Climax: Boromir falls
Resolution/impetus into next book: Merry and Pippin taken captive; Frodo and Sam set off alone

Book 3:

Hook: The hobbits have been captured! But first, a funeral.
    First Act: Journeying through Rohan
        First Plot Point: Gandalf's back!
            Second Act A: Edoras/Fangorn
--                   Midpoint: Theoden is awoken/March of the Ents?
            Second Act B: Helm's Deep
        Third Plot Point: Gandalf's back again! Victory at Helm's Deep!
    Climax: Confrontation with Saruman at Isengard
Resolution/impetus into next book: Pippin looks into the Palantir and sees Mordor move against Minas Tirith.

Book 4:

Hook: Gollum's back!
    First Act: Frodo and Sam travel to Mordor
        First Plot Point: The Black Gate Is Shut
            Second Act A: Journey through Ithilien
--                   Midpoint: Faramir rejects the Ring
            Second Act B: Journey to Cirith Ungol
        Third Plot Point: Gollum almost-but-doesn't repent
    Climax: Shelob's Lair
Resolution/impetus into next book: Frodo is alive but taken by the Enemy.

Book 5:

    First Act: Gandalf and Pippin travel to Minas Tirith and meet with Denethor.
        First Plot Point: Aragorn takes the Paths of the Dead
            Second Act A: The siege of Minas Tirith
--                   Midpoint: PELENNOR FIELDS
            Second Act B: The Houses of Healing
        Third Plot Point: Aragorn determines to go to the Black Gate
    Climax: The Black Gate Opens
Resolution/impetus into next book: The Eagles are coming!

Book 6:

Hook: Frodo's captive!
    First Act: "...there's a big Elf or hero running around..."
        First Plot Point: Rescue of Frodo
            Second Act A: Struggle through Mordor
--                   Midpoint: MOUNT DOOM
            Second Act B: Resolution in Gondor and Rohan
        Third Plot Point: The hobbits return a lot of orc-rules and nothing to smoke or drink.
    Climax: The Scouring of the Shire and the death of Saruman
Resolution: "I will not say, Do not weep..." *everyone bursts into tears*

Again, I'm not positive I have everything mapped out correctly here. However, the first thing that struck me about these smaller "micro-plot" structures is how differently they're structured to how I expected. True, each of them begins with a slow build to a more thrilling later section. Each of them, except for the last, ends on a progressively more exciting cliffhanger. But here's the thing that stunned me:

The real climax of each Book does NOT occur in Act 3.

But wait! Didn't I specifically label part of each third act - the Scouring of the Shire, for instance, or Shelob's Lair - as a climax? Well, yeah. I'm just mapping 3-act structure onto what Tolkien's got. But what Tolkien's got here doesn't match up perfectly with what KM Weiland's got. If you define a story's climax as the most thrilling, gripping, and memorable segment of a plot - a classic setpiece, like the journey through Moria, or the Battle of the Pelennor Fields - then the truth is that with few exceptions, the climax of each of Tolkien's micro-plots occurs squarely at the midpoint of each Book.

Ooohh, I thought. Now where have I seen that before?

And it struck me: this is five-act structure.

And I began to get excited, because I'd never before been really sure how five-act structure was meant to work. And now suddenly it was happening before my eyes.

Three-act structure is the structure we're most familiar with these days. To recap, reduced to its most simple components, the first act of a three-act structure sets the scene, introduces the characters, and defines the conflict that they will have to overcome for the rest of the book. The second act, taking up roughly 50% of the runtime or wordcount, introduces plot complications which the characters must overcome as they work toward a resolution of the conflict. This second act usually sets up a catastrophic reverse (if the story is meant to end happily) or a victory (if the story is meant to end sadly). Last, the third act showcases a final climactic struggle and a brief resolution.

KM Weiland's three-act structure is a somewhat fleshed-out version of this. But I'd also heard  of five-act structure. I knew Shakespeare used it. I had an inkling it was a somewhat more classical approach (it was based on Roman playwrights like Seneca), so I immediately suspected Tolkien was using it here.

Five-act structure is enjoying a bit of a resurgence right now, especially championed by internet pundits who think it represents a revolutionary new/old approach to plotting, but I'm not so convinced. Five-act structure actually maps pretty well on top of three-act structure. The five acts of this structure are commonly labelled Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Resolution, as you see in the diagram above. Exposition corresponds to the First Act of three-act structure; Resolution or Denouement corresponds to the Third Act; and the other three--Rising Action, Climax, and Falling Action--all describe stages of the Second Act, with the Climax mapping onto the Midpoint.

So if five-act structure and three-act structure are simply different ways of describing the same thing, what's the difference? Well...I think there can be a difference of emphasis. If you think in terms of three-act structure, I think you'll wind up expecting to save all your thunder for the third act. Say you have a climactic battle to include in your story, in three-act structure you'll tend to postpone it till the third act. Whereas if you think in terms of five-act structure, the natural place to slot it in will be at the midpoint, and you won't stay up late at night  trying to come up with some even more climactic final confrontation. In practical terms, five-act structure means that I no longer have to fit an epic battle scene into the last act, the last 25% of the plot, and then somehow provide a satisfying denouement on top of that. Instead, like Tolkien, I can showcase the battle at the centre and then spend the rest of the plot tying up loose ends, dealing with fallout, fleshing out the resolution, and so on. A final climactic scene - technically known as the Catastrophe - or an ultimate resolution of the conflict, such as the Scouring of the Shire, or the deaths at the end of a Shakespeare tragedy, may occur, but the writer is freed from the obligation of saving the very best for last.

One reason five-act structure is such a benefit in LOTR is that it enables Tolkien to spend plenty of time working through falling action. In Book 3, for instance, the climactic Battle of Helm's Deep occurs, as usual, at the midpoint of the Book. Obviously, before our heroes can rush off to war in Gondor in their next instalment, they're going to have to take some time to consolidate their victory, including travelling to Isengard, confronting Saruman, and collecting the hobbits say nothing of sitting down to have a pipe and a chat with the hobbits in the ruins of Isengard. Basically, there are a lot of loose ends to tie up before the plot can move ahead, and five-act structure gives this all the time it needs.

But what would this plot look like in the hands of a storyteller wedded to three-act structure? The answer is pretty simple actually - you just have to watch the Peter Jackson movie version of the same book. Because audiences don't expect the climactic battle to finish a bit over halfway through, Jackson pruned Tolkien's five acts into three for The Two Towers, padding the storyline leading up to Helm's Deep and cutting much of the Isengard material after. The result works just fine and is among the least of Jackson's cinematic sins, but it does mean that Saruman's storyline is barely resolved.

Now oddly enough, although the micro-plots of LOTR seem to fit best into a five-act structure, the macro-plot itself fits more naturally into what I'd call a three-act structure. The midpoint of the macro-plot, the Breaking of the Fellowship, is neither a set-piece nor a turning-point on the same scale as the Mount Doom chapter. Definitely the climax occurs near the end. This makes sense - in a book this long, you need to save the most compelling thing for last. Five-act structure, on the other hand, is a terrific way to structure the smaller internal plots which make up the plot elements of the bigger story.

So that's how The Lord of the Rings combines three-act and five-act structure to build tension in steady waves to its thrilling finish. It's a wonderfully elegant structure, for all its complexity, and having picked apart why it works, I feel excited and confident about using what I've learned on my own project!

Disclaimer: I have not, by a long shot, explained everything there is to know about five-act plotting in this short post. After having my interest whetted through analysing the LOTR microplots, I actually sat down and spent a whole day analysing four Shakespeare plays and trying to figure out how he used five-act plotting. Not only was it a fair bit different to how Tolkien used it, I discovered all sorts of fascinating nuances. Perhaps another blog series is warranted...!


Unknown said...

I JUST heard about Weiland's model for the first time yesterday. Too funny that I open Bloglovin' and see you're talking about it too! :) I used it last night as a guide for outlining the book I plan to write for NaNoWrMo this year. So helpful!

Jamie W. said...

Yes, another blog series is most certainly warranted! This is one of the most insightful readings of plot structure I've seen in a long time. I'd love to see it applied to Shakespeare's plays.

I wonder how much the modern system of bullet-pointing (e.g. for outlining an essay) helps or hinders writers in understanding plot structure. When you're building an outline in a Word document, it's the natural system to use, but on paper it'd be more natural to use various spaces and lines... Does that pose any kind of perceptual barrier between how we map this structure and how earlier writers would have mapped it?

Suzannah said...

Alison, yes, I do think a good working knowledge of plot structure is invaluable in any kind of storytelling! That said, I think I learned more about how to use plot structure through studying the works of the greats--and how they bent the rules, or did creative stuff with them--than from the basic structure outlines I've learned.

Jamie, I'll hope to do something on plot structure in Shakespeare in the future, but no guarantees as to when--life is a bit crazy around here right now! As to the bullet pointing, I don't know. I actually suspect that writers have used a whole lot of different visual tricks to try to get their minds around plotting in the past. Even today lots of authors will actually use index cards, either real or virtual, that can be reshuffled and laid out in various different permutations...Sometimes, it seems, the biggest challenge simply lies in coming up with a way to lay out your plot in a way that your mind will understand. I've used all sorts of diagrams, flowcharts, mindmaps, timelines, etc, some of them on the computer, some of them covering those bits of paper all over my desk. :D

Unknown said...

I agree with your thoughts on bullet pointing, and after reading many opinions and experimenting myself, I've come to the conclusion that it really depends on every author's personality, work style, and even preference; some authors even skip the outline altogether. I think it would be the same with earlier writers.

Loving this series. The five-point structure has my attention now, especially since you compared it to Jackson's three-act version. Now we all know where "The Scouring of the Shire" went! :)

Suzannah said...

So glad you found this useful, Hannah! Despite the very slight differences between three-act and five-act plotting, they make a huge difference to the way you actually arrange the climax, don't they?


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