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The Building Blocks of Plot, or “Dramatic Arc”

Emma Walton Hamilton / Blog  / The Building Blocks of Plot, or “Dramatic Arc”
The Building Blocks of Plot, or “Dramatic Arc”

The Building Blocks of Plot, or “Dramatic Arc”

The Building Blocks of Plot, or “Dramatic Arc”Basic plot structure for a picture book is the same as for any other kind of dramatic structure, be it a novel, a play or a film: 3 acts – or, beginning, middle, and end. Each one takes up roughly one third of the book, and each is divided by a transition or plot twist… an event (or events) that somehow raises the stakes or ups the ante for the central character. The best way to work out this balance when developing a story idea is to create an outline, also sometimes called a “step sheet” or a “plot map.” This represents the building blocks that make up your story. Essentially, it looks like this:

Act 1: Set-Up – transition/plot twist – Act 2: Conflict/Crisis – transition/plot twist– Act 3: Resolution

Let’s take a closer look:

Act 1 – Set up: This tells us the world we’re in, who the central character is, what s/he wants, and what his/her problem is. At the end of this section there is some kind of transition or plot twist that raises the stakes, and makes it matter all the more that the character achieves his/her goal.

Act 2: The character keeps trying, keeps going for what s/he wants. Obstacles occur – either from external circumstances, or from within the character’s own make-up. Finally, something happens, some major obstacle, and – crisis! This further raises the stakes. There is another transition/plot twist – perhaps s/he is about to give up, or there is some impasse. It seems as though all is lost.

Act 3 – One last ditch effort – and then, resolution! Goal met, objective achieved, prize won – the final obstacle is overcome, yet often when offered the prize, s/he has to decide whether to take it or not… thus satisfying the need created by something in the past (at the beginning).

Most types of dramatic writing – most film scripts, most play scripts, most full length novels – follow this strict 3 act format. It’s basic dramatic structure: beginning, middle and end, or set up, crisis and resolution, and it is just as true, necessary and important in a picture book as it is in any other kind of dramatic literature. It’s also referred to as the “dramatic arc” or “journey,” and can be illustrated visually by a hill, a bell curve, a hat, a pyramid.

Stakes rise… and rise… and peak… then move toward resolution.

Emma Walton Hamilton
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