Circular Versus Linear Plots

by Laura Michelle Thomas


What does plot mean to you as a writer?

Here’s what plot means to me:

  1. You meet a character.
  2. The character encounters a problem.
  3. The character tries to solve the problem but it keeps getting harder to do so (if it doesn’t, you don’t have a story).
  4. The problem is solved or not.
  5. Loose ends are wrapped up and the character is changed, or not, by the story.

I’m sure you agree that this is a linear way to create action. But what if the first and last scene echo each other such as in the classic hero’s journey where the hero leaves home and then returns home stronger and renewed? Is that a circular plot? I know that many would argue that a plot which starts and ends in the same place is circular. But, now that I think about it, I disagree.

I don’t consider Lord of the Rings to be circular just because Frodo begins and ends his journey in the Shire. The plot of that story seems linear to me, as do the subplots.

Now, in my mind, if Frodo came home and realized that destroying the ring had not won the battle and the only way to keep evil at bay was to redo his journey over and over again in an endless loop, I would say that was a circular plot–a plot in which the same story is lived endlessly by the main character. Circular to me means “to run around in circles” and not make any progress.

I love, at the end of my stories, to echo back to the beginning, but essentially I stick with the five points above with all of my effort focused on building tension by keeping my foot on my protagonist’s neck and creating open loops that drive the reader onward. But, I have never written what I would call a story with a circular plot. Mine are linear plots with bookends.

No matter what kind of plot you choose, or what you call it, you want to make sure that it does two things well. First, it needs to have dramatic tension and keep the reader engaged. Second, it needs to be understandable. The more complex your plot is, the more readers you may turn off. Remember it’s our job to make reading easy.


Laura Michelle Thomas

About Laura Michelle Thomas

Laura Michelle Thomas is a novelist, freelance writer, writing mentor, and the owner of Laura Thomas Communications. She is the creator and administrator of the Junior Authors Contests and Junior Authors Conferences. Laura is publisher and senior editor of jaBlog! and is dedicated to fostering the development of young writers worldwide.

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