I am in a class where we are being taught to analyze the smaller consecutive units of text which make up chapters in the overall work (which is of a biographical-historical narrative genre), where we are to apply the anatomy of plot development at the level of the smaller unit. Thus in, say, a six to ten sentence segment (one to two paragraphs) of the text, which is designated a 'pericope' in our analysis, where there is a new episode in the development of the story in the biographical-historical narrative —or some new thematic segment of dialogue between characters— we are being asked to try to identify the parts of rising and falling action.

In our case, those parts are labeled "setting", "inciting moment", "development of conflict/tension", "climax", "denouement", "final suspense", and "conclusion".

I am questioning whether plot analysis for rising and falling action was designed to be applied at this scale or level of the smaller text units in literature, versus applying it only to the arc of the overall work.

If you can apply this at such a localized level, that could result in identifying hundreds of climaxes in a book. Is that a concept in literary analysis?

Please back up any of your answers with authoritative references for conducting literary analysis at the smallest unit of coherent literary development in a literary work. As far as I know, Gustav Freytag is the original creator of a five-act plot structure, which was only applied to the entirety of the work, but I assume literary plot analysis has evolved since Freytag's time.


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In the abstract sense, storytelling is a fairly fractal craft, so you can zoom in and see smaller versions of the same structures at work at finer levels. The book itself has a climax, and so do individual arcs, and usually individual scenes. Sometimes these are missing, either because of unusual circumstances or because the author made a mistake, but they’re not hard to find.

The climax of Lord of the Rings as a series is the Ring’s destruction. This is also the climax of Return of the King. Zoom in a little further, and we see the climax of individual books. Fellowship has the big orc fight, Two Towers has Helm’s Deep. Zoom in even further and you can see climaxes of individual scenes, like Gandalf stopping the Balrog in the mines of Moria.

However, this literature class is going to have trouble because it’s proceeding from a number of false premises.

  1. It’s talking about narrative structure in a "biographical-historical narrative," which is always gonna be weird because this is a kind of story that kinda sorta maybe follows a person's real life, and real life often does not conform to storytelling's best practices. So it'll all depend on whether the emphasis is on telling a good story or being true to what really happened.

  2. The plot structure it’s using is full of stuff that may or may not be there. You see this a lot in writing advice. Some stories have things like “inciting moment” and “final suspense,” but many others will not because they are not actually fundamental aspects of storytelling, and there’s no reason they should be. They just get repeated in writing classes because they’re found in famous books. And if you often can’t find them in the story as a whole, you often won’t find at smaller levels either.

  3. The class is having people look at sections of text as small as six to ten sentences. Sections that small can have their own complete arcs--often called microfiction--but just as often they won’t. You’re just at too fine a level to subdivide any further. More likely you’re looking at some exposition, description, dialogue, etc.

  • Your first observation is fair though some specifics are missing on my part. This is ancient Greek literature which is biography of a condensed and episodic nature with some stories that are coherent on their own, but still contribute to the overall direction of the narrative. Think Plutarch's Parallel Lives (βιοι παραλλελοι), or "Bioi" = ancient name for biographical story accounts, and the New Testament Gospels, which contain diegesis (διήγησις) = 'narrative'. That aside, can you please provide some citations from an academic source for analysis sections that "have their own complete arcs"? Nov 15, 2023 at 21:35

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