Episode 208: Alice in Chains Mash-Up (The Man-in-the-Hole Plot)

On December 3rd, Kasie and Rex were back in the studio taking on plot structure as a methodology for understanding and crafting a story. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

Plot structure: Man in the Hole


  • Can you believe we’ve never done plot structure?
  • Basic types
  • Focus on Man in the Hole
  • How to do it
Photo by Rami Hammoud on Pexels.com

Are you coming to our Holiday Party? It’s Wednesday, December 14th at 6 p.m. at The Aristocrat and will feature readings from eight writers:

  • Lis Anna-Langston
  • Bonnie Stanard
  • Phil Lenski
  • Paula Benson
  • Dr. Walter Curry
  • AJ Brown
  • And of course, us.

Should be a lot of fun. We’re making it a kind of contest where listeners can vote on their favorite stories and when you and I inevitably win, we’ll taunt the others mercilessly. Only kidding, just trying to put skin in the game with a little healthy competition and some trash talk.

Now! Plot structures! Can you believe we haven’t done this? We did a whole series on character arcs (start with Episode 165 then 168 & 169). We did those in response to 2021’s #NaNoWriMo and here we are, fresh off 2022’s #NaNoWriMo talking about plot structure.

Coincidence? Maybe. Or maybe we know pantsing with a character will only get you so far. Eventually you’re gonna need actual structure. In any case, here we are, taking on Plot Structure. The last time we looked at this, it was Story Structure (Episode 138).

Of course I googled this when looking for one to match the existing structure of the vampire novel when the developmental editor told me I needed a rewrite. There’s a great “images” search results so check that out.

But I like John Fox’s list of nine so we’re going to work off that for this quick overview and then maybe do an episode per type. Today’s focus will be man-in-the-hole which is the one decided upon for the vampire novel.

Here’s the link and here are the 9:

  1. Plot Pyramid 
  2. Tragic Pyramid
  3. Hero’s Journey
  4. Plot Embryo
  5. Tragic Plot Embryo
  6. Seven Point Plot Structure
  7. Poetics
  8. Snowflake Method
  9. Save the Cat

So he doesn’t even have the Man-in-the-hole plot, though it probably most closely resembles the pyramid. There’s also the “W” plot, so we can look into that, too.

I selected Man in the Hole because it’s a three-act story and I have two “halves” to the book – Kansas and the modern era and Geneva or the time-travel era. To connect them, I needed the middle peak – or hole as it were.

Segment 2

This link from BBC World claims there are six basic structures and does recognize my selection which comes from Kurt Vonnegut, who did not study writing, but studied anthropology. 

It starts out with the hero of the story on known territory, happy, no problems. And then he loses control, has a crisis, and reaches rock bottom. Through some outside help he climbs out the hole, and ends a bit happier than where he started. With a lesson learned. (link)

Some examples:

  • The Wizard of Oz (good write-up here) – everything’s fine, Dorothy is in a tornado, she finds her way home, everything’s fine again
  • The Godfather (link) – everything’s fine, Vito Corleone gets sick, Michael takes over, everything’s fine again
  • Dracula (link) – everything’s fine, Dracula shows up and bites some people, he’s killed, everything’s fine again

Segment 3

I’m going to challenge the examples and say the Man-in-the-hole is a bit more complicated than fine-bad-fine.

This link from StoryGrid breaks down the beats of the man-in-the-hole. It’s a whole break down of another writer’s story and, let’s be honest, not that interesting. But I do like this line regarding the man-in-the-hole plot:

“So the maturation plot is a way that people, when they read the story and they identify with the protagonist and they root for her to come to a truth, it reinforces this necessity of all of us to constantly be searching for our own private truth.”

Essentially, the man-in-the-hole plot is about a character realizing everything he knew is wrong and then deciding to take action on the new reality he’s presented with. I think the man-in-the-hole relies on decisions the character makes that result in descent and ascent. The critique of my book (and rightfully so) was that Blue didn’t have enough agency. And I see Blue as a passenger, he’s meant to be that way, naive and manipulated by Raven. But the editor said, “Why, then, is he the viewpoint character?” which made me think of Nick in Gatsby.

Is Blue a Nick? No. I don’t want that. So I have to give him decisions to make and they have to be the wrong ones. And end up in disaster.

Apparently, the man-in-the-hole plot enjoys the most success at the box office (link). It’s almost formulaic to put your character in such trouble the audience is hanging on to see how he’ll get out of it. 

Further, research on plot structure explains the reader’s own connection to the story in terms of emotional beats, or those scenes we just can’t put down. From the article: 

…a book’s plot isn’t necessarily about conflict and resolution, but emotions, which “serve as proxies for the narrative movement,” as Jockers writes. This is an attractive approach to plot, in part because it allows us to ascertain—and to defend, if need be—the “plottiness” of certain books that tend to be regarded as plotless. It’s become conventional wisdom that plot, and the active enjoyment of it, are middlebrow pursuits, and that true literature is free from the shapely confines of narrative. This ignores that intricate, careful plotting is itself an art form, and that what makes so much “literary” fiction so ungodly boring is its inept or absent plotting.

So that helps, right? It’s building on this idea that there are two plot silhouettes: the syuzhet or the linear progression and the fabula which is concerned with the specific events of the story which may not be revealed in chronological order. I’m drawn to this because, of course, time travel.

Segment 4

So how do you do it? Well, you could pants the shit out of a novel and revise it scene by scene for 5 years until you are finally told to work out the details of the plot and get back to us, or you could take the idea you have, outline it (yikes!) and look at it against all of these structure types to decide what kind of structure you have. And go from there.

Man-in-the-hole step-by-step:

  • What are the current conditions? How are they fine? What does the protagonist take for granted? How is the reader introduced to this everyday life?
  • Things start to change, why? What new character is introduced? What new circumstances occur?
  • Things start to get worse, why? What decisions is the character making that alienate him from his goal? That alienate or hurt the people around him?
  • Things are at their lowest point, what is that? What has he lost? How does he feel? What will he do about it?
  • Character gets spurred out of the hole, why? Who instigates a renewal? What motivates the climb?
  • Character begins to climb, how? What decisions does he make to drive him back toward “fine”?
  • Major decision or result occurs. What is it? How does the character’s climb get confirmed/solidified? How does he become unstoppable?
  • Second peak is a height he cannot sustain, why not? What is it about this place that cannot last?
  • Back down to “fine” but having learned something about himself, what was it? Or learned something about others, what was it?
  • What’s next? Where will the character go from here? “Maybe he goes home and celebrates with a couple of cheeseburgers or something.”

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s