Part of what makes a graphic novel more novel than novelty is the fact that it can be used to discuss and appreciate the nature of literature in a relatively accessible format. A great graphic novel can be just as challenging, thought provoking, and structured as anything else we consider traditionally as literary canon. One of the consistent contributions to this blog will be an examination of literary techniques, theory and analysis of my humble library of graphic novels, manga and films.
The term of the day is: Plot!
Plot is the essential information about a story that explains what one should know or expect. When I teach students about plot I tend to reduce it to basic understandings of context/exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. Not all stories have all of those things, and some stories rely on the absence of an element in order to create an effect. It is, in my viewpoint, a consistently misunderstood part of discussing stories and students often rely on unfocused summary in lieu of dissecting plot. It is also important to understand this construction in order to discuss other facets more precisely and with greater depth.
Instead of going over how this is seen in stories, which is silly since it’s in everything, I’ll run you through ways to add it to your general analysis of story. Keep in mind, as well, that it is something far easier to look at with complete story arcs or stories versus individual issues of comics.
Let’s start with context/exposition. You can consider this the lead up, the calm before the storm, or the runway before take off. Often the events that lead up to the main issues are talked about as being essential to the plot. Most often that’s not quite true. Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” is a great example of this. The main conflict of the story revolves around Sanger Rainsford avoiding death at the hands of the antagonist. His life, who he is, and his perspectives are important to the examination of character, but they are not essential to the plot. It does however give context to the plot, why its important for us to care about. In short programs, like most Simpsons episodes, what the episode begins with is rarely what it contiguously ends with. Of course, it’s only after the story has kicked off, that the context reveals its relevance.
Conflict is the problem or issue that needs a resolution. On the flip side, a resolution is the end or result of a problem’s / issue’s escalation. The conflict may emerge partially at the beginning of a story, but can definitely transform, as the plot progresses. Some conflicts are very singular, such as the rescuing of a distressed individual. It is important to note whether this is a fact or a feint. I think about films like Shrek,which use a trope of a conflict and has it develop into a deeper, more meaningful story. In this case, what is the conflict? It only becomes clear once there is a little love being shared between Fiona and Shrek that we better understand that it is about happiness, and what does happily ever after really mean. Conflicts are best identified based on the resolution. How a story resolves indicates the purpose of the story. Most analysis of a work happens with postmortem, but it’s always important to be an active reader, and keeping your eyes on what issues are present to come up with the best response.
Rising action and climax are integral parts of stories, as they are typically what draw us in. Rising action can be summarized as any event or moment that raises the tension and makes the resolving of the conflict paradoxically closer as it moves further. Imagine the Lord of the Rings and the journey Frodo undertakes to destroy the ring. As he gets closer to Mount Doom, he is also met with more difficult hazards, threatening to prevent him from achieving his goal. Climaxes are identified at the moment where no more escalation of the conflict is possible, and all subsequent action becomes comparatively more calm or settled. Using the previous example, once Frodo reaches Mount Doom, we understand that his success or failure will inevitably lead to the resolution of the story. The likelihood of him being blown off the mountain, or realizing that he left the ring back at the base of the mountain is unlikely. At the climax, our expectation is for a definitive result, to prepare us for how the resolution will inevitably play out.
Much of our identification of these elements is analyzing the flow of the story. Most of us are adept enough to know these parts off hand, but it’s always good to have a reminder of those small parts of story. It helps us to clarify how to focus on the important parts of the story, and then move on to what we enjoy about it. If you ever find a great difficulty identifying these aspects, then it’s possible it’s just not a good story, or the story is structured for other purposes.
Sample breakdown: Captain America: Civil War (Minor Spoilers Ahead)
Exposition/Context: The new Avengers team become the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back, as the world debates the role of the team, and creates a schism. Steve Rogers and Tony Stark differ in their viewpoint of what should be done, straining their friendship and faith in each other.
Conflict: Steve Rogers must prove the innocence of his friend, Bucky Barnes and reveal a secret plot against the Avenger, while struggling to maintain a moral high ground with Tony.
Rising Action: Steve’s attempt to prevent Bucky’s capture, assembling of a criminal team and breaking of international law to unearth the plot, bring Bucky and Steve closer together, but push he and Tony further apart.
Climax: Steve’s willingness to withhold personal information from Tony erodes the final pieces of faith that he had for Steve, Bucky’s involvement in it, turns Steve and Tony against one another.
Falling Action: Steve eventually prevails in the fight, but at the cost of his friendship and his title. Steve departs with Bucky, leaving Tony alone with the shield and his thoughts.
Conclusion: Tony returns to the base and finds validation from Rhodey, who has suffered from Tony’s decisions. Tony also receives an apology from Steve, but also a reaffirmation of belief on both sides and creates closure as both heroes are set down new pathways, foreshadowing a reuniting in the future.