Last week Julie Paschkis wrote here about lines – the lines that make up illustrations.

I’d like to add to the lines conversation – only I want to talk about lines that relate to text. It was a subject of discussion when I talked to Jolie Stekly’s UW-extension class in Writing for Children this week. We talked about lines that describe the plot of a story. Graphic plotlines.


PICTURE BOOK  — To start, here’s a simple graph that uses a line to indicate the rising dramatic tension in a picture book.sharkfinThink of it as a sharkfin. Tension rises continuously to a climax followed by a quick denouement/resolution.

carrot seedA classic example of this is Ruth Krauss’ The Carrot Seed, illustrated by Crockett Johnson. A little boy plants a seed. Tension mounts as his various family members tell him it won’t grow. He persists. He weeds and waters. Family members again say it won’t grow. He weeds, waters, waits. Then the climax: “a carrot came up,” and the resolution “just as the little boy had known it would.”

NOVEL — For a basic novel graph, you can’t beat the Cascades profile.


Here are the three acts, beginning/middle/end, each with its own rising tension and climax, all building together to the biggest climax and the resolution. I first learned about this profile from Barthe deClements who is a fellow Northwesterner, thus the Cascades Mountains get naming rights.

MORE ABOUT STORY STRUCTURE — Norma Fox Mazer gave a memorable lecture at Vermont College of Fine Arts about how “a novel’s structure is the glass that holds the wine.” (Now there’s a good line.) Like Barthe, she talked about the structure of the novel as a three act play, explaining each act has its own beginning, middle and end. Each act has its role to play. The opening act must introduce character, setting and conflict; the middle is the place for rising struggle and confrontation, and the end turns on the climax and resolution.

Norma recommended creating a story ladder as you begin revising a novel. This is a scene-by-scene list of essential actions, emotions and characters as the story progresses.

Working on my present middle grade novel project, I decided to combine Norma’s story ladder with Barthe’s Cascade graph. I wrote a short description for each scene on a strip of paper. Then I rated each scene for dramatic tension. (The note beside my computer reads: It is not a scene if it does not have conflict.)

Next, I laid them out on our dining room table, letting each strip poke up in a little mountain range at heights that related to how much dramatic juice each scene held.tablemtn

It was helpful-ish. I began to see where the three acts of this project were located. And that long flat place in the middle – a sort of valley in the jagged mountain range of chapter strips – clearly needs attention.

A FEW OTHER LINES — One of the best known graphic depictions of plot is the circle that describes the Hero’s Journey. Joseph Campbell wrote about this plot sequence that is often found in myths and fairy tales. It’s a circle with many proscribed story elements along the way.


There are other, more simple, depictions of plot as well.

In the world of early readers, you sometimes encounter the umbrella profile – each chapter has it’s own rising conflict, climax and resolution. Sometimes there’s an overarching plotline that rises across the whole work to the biggest climax in the last story/chapter.


Of course, all plots don’t run chronologically. One fairly common one works sort of like a fly fishermans’ cast. The story opens with a compelling scene that is in fact close to the chronological end of the story, then the author suspends that plot line and circles back in time to fill in back story, bringing the reader back to that compelling scene, picking up that suspended plot line and following through to the climax and resolution. Kathi Appelt’s Keeper follows this profile, as does Bruce Colville’s Jeremy Thatcher Dragon Catcher.


Then there are plots with two characters whose storylines each have rising tension as they find their way to be together, a fir tree profile. My favorite example of this is Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, an adult book.


In the wings profile, the story begins with the characters together, then each circles out on his/her own adventures and they meet again, each changed, at the end, like in The Prince and the Pauper.


Shark fin, Cascades, Hero’s Circle, Umbrella, Flyfisherman, Fir Tree, Wings — all of these graphic depictions of plot supply helpful visuals when you are considering how to shape your story.  That’s my finish line.


  1. Nice collection of plot graphs! I introduced a few in my animation classes, but several are new to me. Thanks!

  2. Pingback: Even More on Lines, Architectural and Musical | Books Around The Table

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s