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Many writers find that mastering a genre of writing, such as the novel, requires that at some point they break down other writers' pieces of work in the genre in order to study their structure: to understand the nature of the component parts and the way they are combined.

I am not asking for a definition of "novel", which would require a careful consideration of edge cases. But what grammars have been developed that enable the plots of many novels to be summarised?

I am looking for something a little more detailed than the three-act structure that is used in screenwriting and Freytag's five-act pyramid of rising and falling action that is used in stage drama. Something similar in its degree of complexity to Propp's morphology of wondertales is more what I am seeking.

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    I think you need to distinguish between "entertainment" novels, and "literary" novels. The first of these, which is the only kind I voluntarily read, generally has a lot of extraneous material that is merely intended to entertain the reader, and fill time. Structure is at most secondary. Unless I miss my guess, most visitors here intend to write entertainment, although they may fancy that their work is literary.
    – user23046
    May 9 '17 at 2:18
  • @RobtA - Thanks for this. Hence "grammars" rather than "grammar". Most novelists plot their novels first. I'm not keen on the "entertainment"-"literature" distinction, but surely something more sophisticated must have been published than Lester Dent's "master plot formula"? Writing almost any kind of novel requires an understanding of plot structure. I essentially mean to ask "What concepts do you use when you break down someone else's novel?" (whether by Dan Brown or Dostoyevsky), but I thought if I put it like that it would be too vague.
    – user18358
    May 9 '17 at 9:41
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    @RobtA I don't understand how you think entertainment novels aren't structured, or aren't structured in a way which could be diagrammed similarly to a literary novel. IMHO, it's the "literary" novels which are bloated with meandering, self-important authorial wank, and the entertainment ones which have to make every word count. Popcorn books don't have the heft of Literary Importance to push sales — they actually have to be entertaining. May 9 '17 at 15:16
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    @RobtA : "extraneous material that is merely intended to entertain the reader, and fill time" AKA plot? Lauren is absolutely correct, the genre fiction is way more structured and canonized that literary exploits of the prose warriors of old.
    – Lew
    May 9 '17 at 16:57
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    @RobtA - You seem fixated on the distinction between "entertainment" and "literature", when it has little relevance to this question. Most "entertaining" novels are just as structured as "literary" ones. Similarly a highly patterned dress - even a dress that has a piece of material the main purpose of which is to flap about - will still have arm holes, a neckline, and so on. Of those very few experimental novels which have little in the way of plot structure, most would probably count as "literature". But in any case, this is a question about plot.
    – user18358
    May 10 '17 at 10:20
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One of the most influential approaches to general story structure is Joseph Campbell's "Hero's Journey" monomyth, which analyzed popular story structures from all around the world to isolate common elements (quite similar to Propp's work, but probably produced independently). Christopher Vogel's popular adaption, "The Writer's Journey," specifically adapts the concept for writers (and demonstrates how the same structures can be used in a context without the fantastic trappings of classical myth).

Conversely, and although it may superficially seem a bit trivial for your needs, TV Tropes, the crowdsourced encyclopedia of story elements, is indubitably the most comprehensive collection of common plotlines and tropes ever assembled (although it lacks somewhat in higher organization).

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  • Many thanks for this. I have upvoted. I will wait to see what other answers come along before accepting. I read Campbell years ago, and Vogel's adaptation for screenwriters yesterday, and you are right that the approach is similar to Propp's. Do you know of a similar work for novelists, or - to focus on what I was trying to get at with this question - any kind of accepted set of concepts and notation used for breaking down the plot of a novel? (Propp uses letters of the alphabet in his work on the morphology of the Russian wondertale, if I recall correctly.)
    – user18358
    May 10 '17 at 10:29
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    TV Tropes is a very useful site indeed, and can be addictive! As a pedant I object to their use of the word "tropes", though :) What they define and describe are themes and motifs.
    – user18358
    May 10 '17 at 10:31
  • @ruffle - What is driving me crazy is I have the feeling I've encountered exactly what you're looking for, but I can't remember enough to find it. May 10 '17 at 17:01
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I'd like to add a different perspective to this focus on plotlines and plot formulas. For that, I'd like to tackle the question the OP presented in the comments:

I essentially mean to ask "What concepts do you use when you break down someone else's novel?"

I did a four year university course on Literature (in Portugal) and I never talked about plotlines and plot formulas (which led to a. my deeply ingrained notion that these are geared towards 'entertainment genres', which are incredibly 'corseted' by rules, and to b. my feeling of complete 'alienness' when plotlines take the stage in writing circles). Nevertheless, we did study Propp's morphology when we studied Popular Literature, and we did talk about climax and theatre play structures.

The concepts we focused on in order to break down novels weren't plots (or structure in general), but the collection of narrative elements and how they were used to produce certain effects. Besides that, two of the most important focuses were actually on:

a) tension and how the author created and managed that tension;

b) how the events and the characters represented the author's contemporary society and, at the same time, how they represented humanity as a whole.

So, what concepts do I use to break down novels? The narrative elements and how they can be used to underline an idea (whether that idea is a philosophical message worthy of 'capital L Literature' or it's simply the state of mind of a character, or maybe just the excitement of a car chase scene).

As for structure, specifically, we focused on how the sequence of events (including any narrator monologues that might be dropped in) produced the tension and how it fluctuated throughout chapters and novel. Then, we would focus on how that tension would underline this or that idea (whether it belonged to the main plot or a subplot). But never did we talk about how the events should happen in one or the other way. We viewed structure as 'descriptive' rather than 'prescriptive'.

Of course, I studied literature and not creative writing. Nevertheless, (and since I started writing in highschool) my course taught me, as a writer, to look at the structure of my stories not as plot formulas but as a collection of events that must produce a certain effect, whether they follow genre rules or not. In fact, it taught me to go beyond prescription of plotlines (in the shape of formulas) all together.


I apologise if I sound dismissive of plotlines and plot formulas. I do think being aware of those is useful, but I see that focus as simply one perspective and the OP's question in the comments made me feel that mentioning a different perspective (and where that perspective derives from) was relevant.

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  • Thanks for this. You seem to be saying that those who taught you how to break down novels were only ever synchronic and syntagmatic in their approach and never at all diachronic and paradigmatic. Yet almost everyone who writes a novel plots it before they get stuck into the writing.
    – user18358
    May 10 '17 at 14:10
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    @ruffle: I wouldn't say there wasn't diachronic study: I studied from medieval texts to mid-20th century texts and keeping in mind the estetical evolution was very important. We also had to know the 'rules', or paradigms, that governed the different literary styles and know how the works followed or deviated from those paradigms. Nevertheless, understanding the novel was very much 'see what's there and how/why it works'. May 10 '17 at 14:56
  • @Ruffle: I agree there must be some degree of plotting before you start writing (unless you're a radical pantser), but before the plotting you may look at other elements. You can start with a general idea and devise a plot to fit that idea, or you can start with a plot and then look for deeper meanings within it. What I mean to say is that, yes, plot is important, but it does not exist alone. May 10 '17 at 14:58
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Story structure is essentially a sequence of incidents. It is important and contrary to what is said in some of the comments, literature has it just as much as light entertainment.

But while all conventional stories have story structure, those incidents must happen to someone in some place and some time. The incidents, and therefore the structure of the story, are only interesting because they happen to interesting people in an interesting place at an interesting time.

There isn't a huge amount of variation in the size and complexity of various story shapes. What makes the difference between shorter and longer works is the amount of content devoted to the people, places, and times.

In other words, the skeleton of a elephant is no more complicated than the skeleton of a mouse. There is simply more flesh on the bones, and the bones are corresponding bigger to hold the greater weight.

Don't expect to find more structure in a large novel than you do in a short one, therefore, or even than you find in a short story. Expect the same bones, but larger, and a greater amount of flesh.

Flesh is composed differently than bones. Flesh comes principally from observation. It is not more detailed structured that makes for a longer novel, but deeper and more detailed observation.

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The question asked was:

But what grammars have been developed that enable the plots of many novels to be summarised?

Answer : Genre

  • Romance
  • Sci-Fi - Space Opera
  • Mystery
  • Western
  • Mainstream
  • Fantasy

There are of course many more. These are words that have come into use because they provide a basic summary of what the content is going to be like and what the plot may center around.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_writing_genres

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