How do you feel about unexpected plot twists and surprise endings? Do you remember any films or books which surprised you so much that you couldn’t stop thinking about them? When we read stories, we usually expect some familiar elements of plot structure like exposition (unless there is an in medias res beginning), conflict, crisis and climax (when events happen quickly), and hopefully a resolution of some sorts (because we all like a happy ending).
Then there are surprising elements of plot structure that we also crave because no one really likes a story without any excitement. Think about foreshadowing, flashbacks, suspense and delays and unreliable narrators in a story. Understanding how stories work and how storytellers amaze us can be fun for language learners. We often hear that some students find the plot of a given story a bit complicated, and it might happen because they are not familiar with the characteristics of plots or perhaps they have encountered only a limited number of story types.
When you become more familiar with plot structure and plot twists, you can start having more fun with storytelling, and it has important benefits for your language class, too. Your students might start using them in their writing assignments or during their speaking practice, surprising you with their own fascinating stories.
Let’s see some characteristics of storytelling, and you can use these examples in class to present them to your students. Remember to ask them to share their own experiences with you. We cannot always keep up with all the contemporary novels, films and TV series but they often offer excellent examples that can make your students understand the basic principles of narrative.
First, let’s look at the difference between ACTION and PLOT.
The easiest way the understand the distinction between the two is to read Aristotle’s definition of ‘plot’. In Poetics he describes plot as ‘the arrangement of the incidents’. So we can say that the action of the story is simply the sequence of events, whereas in the plot these events are structured in a purposeful way.
1 LOOKING BACK: FLASHBACKS
Flashbacks are usually easier to understand in films. Readers, especially language learners, can easily miss the time reference of the flashback. Understanding flashbacks can also create difficulty, but these sudden trips back in time or references to past events can reveal unknown information or put already known information into a new perspective, changing our understanding of the story. You can numerous examples of flashback in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
2 A HARD WORD WITH P: PERIPETEIA
Do you remember the films The Sixth Sense and A Beautiful Mind? At the end of both films there were crucial turning points, which completely changed our perspective of the narratives. In these reversals not only our understanding of the action changes, but we have to reinterpret the whole story from a different perspective. Do you remember any other stories with peripeteia?
3 DON’T TRUST UNRELIABLE NARRATORS
There are several reasons for the presence of unreliable narrators in stories. They can have a mental disorder which makes them interpret or see things unrealistically. They can be lying on purpose to mislead us, almost committing ‘narrative crime’. Perhaps they are unreliable because of their emotional state and they can only see things from their own point of view. Whatever the reason is, it often happens that these kinds of narrators surprise us with a sudden change in the storytelling by giving us hidden information. With unreliable narrators we often sense that the story they are fabricating has weak points.
Huckleberry Finn can be seen as an unreliable narrator in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.
4 AN EXCITING NARRATIVE STRUCTURE: CHINESE BOX STRUCTURE
This is another often challenging yet entertaining structure. If your students have difficult understanding this narrative frame, draw Russian dolls on the board. The main idea here is that there is a story in the story, and there might be even another story embedded in this story. This frame often gives us the opportunity to learn about the same story from different points of view. Your students might remember the film Inception, which had a dream within a dream, and sometimes another one within a dream. This structure can often create a confusing and surprising effect.
Coming soon in the Helbling Readers series: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.
5 WHEN YOU REALLY WANT A HAPPY ENDING: DEUS EX MACHINA
When an author really wants an unexpected happy ending, he or she will turn to this device, ‘god from the machine’. Sometimes a storyline has so many complications or a character is in such trouble that only another person, force or event can change or solve it. This device has helped us stop worrying about our favourite characters several times, and it usually results in a happy ending. Can you think of any films or novels which feature this device?
A good example of ‘deus ex machina’ being used to great effect is in Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. Do you remember when it happened?
Try these devices with your students in class, and ask them to use them in their writing tasks. Can you remember any other ways you can twist a story and surprise the readers?
Share the five points discussed in this article with your students (and talk about the examples), then ask them to use one or more of them in the next story they write for class.