The Benefits of Exploring Plot Structure with University Students Taking an ER Course

The Benefits of Exploring Plot Structure with University Students Taking an ER Course

By: Amanda Gillis-Furutaka

The processes of story creation and sharing are as natural a human ability as spoken language and walking on two feet, because storytelling is related to the way our brains operate. However, we are not always able to follow, retell, and create stories with equal ease when processing them through a second or third language. This is especially true when we are at beginner and low intermediate levels of learning the additional language and are unfamiliar with the cultural setting of a story. How can teachers help reduce the cognitive load for students reading stories in an additional language? I recommend raising the students’ conscious awareness of narrative structure—the common pattern that stories share. In this article, I will explain what narrative structure is and discuss reasons why stories follow a recognizable pattern from the perspective of brain processes. I will then introduce a series of activities I have used to help university students identify the stages of a plot, then consolidate their understanding of plot structure by creating their own stories collectively.

What is plot structure?

Let’s take a very familiar story (and one that most students will already know) to see what we mean by this concept. How did Cinderella change from this person to that person? What happened?

On the left, an illustration of Cinderella dressed in rags and holding a broom. On the right, an illustration of Cinderella dressed in a ballgown, dancing with Prince Charming.

When you think through the stages of the story, you may notice that there is a pattern of events that can be described as an arc or pyramid (Gustav Freytag – see The Power of Storytelling in the Think Tank on Storytelling, April 2021, Vol 7 Issue 4). The Bulgarian-French structuralist literary critic Tzvetan Todorov (1939–2017) explained it as a five-stage process that starts with a state of equilibrium which becomes disrupted. This is followed by recognition of the disruption and repair of the situation, which leads to a new equilibrium.

An illustration of the five-stage process on a timeline. The timeline is first split in three parts at the top: equilibrium, disequilibrium, and new equilibrium. At the bottom is: balance or routine, disruption, recognition of the disruption, repair, and a new order is established.

I have found that a six-stage plot diagram called a plot pyramid is easier for first- and second-year university students to grasp. It combines the elements of Freytag’s arc and Todorov’s upsetting of the status quo and establishing a new order. The six stages are:

    1. Exposition
    2. Complication
    3. Rising Action
    4. Climax
    5. Falling Action
    6. Resolution
An illustration of the plot pyramid.

Let’s return to the story of Cinderella to see how this unfolds.

    1. Exposition: Cinderella’s life was unhappy because her stepmother and stepsisters treated her badly and made her work like a servant.
    2. Complication: The situation changed when the prince wanted to find a bride and invited all young women in the land to a ball.
    3. Rising action: Cinderella was able to go to the ball with the help of her fairy godmother’s magic.
    4. Climax: Cinderella met the prince and they fell in love, but she had to run away at midnight when the magic spell ended.
    5. Falling action: The prince searched for Cinderella with a glass slipper she had dropped when she ran off. Eventually, he found her because she was the only woman that the slipper fit.
    6. Resolution: They married and lived happily ever after.
An illustration showing the 6 story stages of Cinderella.

Plot structure is different from the often discussed seven main plot types which are defined by content. These plot types are: i. rags to riches (Cinderella), ii. overcoming the monster (Harry Potter), iii. voyage and return (Alice in Wonderland), iv. rebirth (Beauty and the Beast), v. the quest (The Lord of the Rings), vi. tragedy (Hamlet), and vii. comedy (Matilda). These are different types of stories, but all of them follow the same basic plot structure I have described above.

Vladimir Propp (1895–1922), a Russian scholar of folk stories, identified seven basic character types that drive the plot of stories. They are: the villain, the hero, the donor, the helper, the princess (often the person needing help1), the dispatcher, and the false hero. Although they are responsible for driving much of the action of the story, they exist independently of the overall plot structure.

In addition to all this, there are many story genres, such as mystery, horror, romance, fantasy, etc., which also should not be confused with plot structure. If you have time in your reading course, it is helpful to students to be able to identify plot types, character types, and genres. But I recommend drawing attention first and foremost to plot structure and I will now explain the reasons why.

 1Propp analyzed old folk tales and found the person needing help was invariably a young female of noble or royal descent. These days, however, this role can be filled by any living being in need.

Our brain is a prediction machine

We are constantly bombarded by sensory information. To deal with this efficiently, we reduce the load by using the innumerable mental models (familiar patterns) that we have constructed from previous experiences. The higher cortical levels of our brains use these mental models to predict what will happen and send signals down to lower cortical levels. If the incoming information and the predictions match at the lower cortical levels, our bodies react immediately. If the first predictions don’t match the incoming signals, the incoming sensory information is sent to a higher cortical level for further investigation by drawing on additional stored mental models. If an accurate prediction cannot be made at any of the lower levels of the hierarchy, a new model will be generated at the highest level. Creating these mental models is what we call learning. (You can read much more about this in our Think Tank on Predictive Processing Volume 6, Issue 10, October 2020).

By drawing our students’ attention to the concept of plot structure, we are enabling them to create mental models and generate predictions about what is happening in the story they are reading. They can position events within the overall framework of the story, and this will lighten the load on their working memory as they proceed through the story. In addition, it will increase their level of enjoyment because dopamine is released both when a prediction is correct, and when a prediction is adjusted and a new mental model is created. This process reinforces understanding, memory, and learning.

A simple illustration of dopamine as located on the brain.

How do I teach students about plot structure?

I have been teaching our highest-level (CEFR A2/B1 TOEFL ITP average 462) 2nd year English majors in their 3rd and 4th semesters of Extensive Reading (ER) for many years. After two semesters of ER in which they had to read roughly 200,000 words per semester, they quickly grasped the concept of the plot pyramid. When I was given a first-year mid-level class in 2023, I decided to teach them about plot pyramids to help guide their reading from the start. This required careful scaffolding, but it worked! Here is what we did.

First, we read a graded reader, at their level, together as a class using a class set. The students read aloud in small groups, one student taking the role of each main character and two were narrators who alternated page by page. Reading aloud was chosen for several reasons. First, it keeps everyone actively involved and focused. Second, our social brains like working together with others and we learn far better when collaborating (see our Think Tank on the Social Brain Volume 6, Issue 9, September 2020). In addition, this study and this study suggest that reading aloud helps us to remember better what we have read.

When we had finished the story, I explained the concept of a plot pyramid and the stages of a story, using the diagram above. The students then worked in their groups to identify which pages of the book covered each stage of the story. We then discussed this as a class. 

In the next lesson we refreshed our memories of the stages of a plot pyramid using a fun music video that tells a story. This was also to emphasize that storytelling and plot pyramids are not confined to books. I used a music video by Paul McCartney called “Dance Tonight” (other music videos that work well for this are Daniel Powter’s “Bad Day,” a-ha’s “Take on Me,” Olly Murs’s “Busy”). Students worked in groups to create an annotated plot pyramid to outline the story. (N.B. They will hopefully notice how the climax of a music video story usually comes near the end and often we are left to imagine the details of the resolution for ourselves.)

Another activity that I used for consolidating understanding was to get students to draw and then describe to a partner the plot pyramid of a graded reader they had just read. Second-year students have to do this each semester for one of their homework assignments.

The final stage was when the whole class created stories collaboratively following the stages of the plot pyramid. Each student started with a piece of A4 paper that had the five stages of the plot pyramid at intervals down the page, and spaces at the top for the genre and at the end for the title. The students were told to choose and write the genre of the story they would start (by referring to a slide on the class screen to remind them of various genres) and then to write the exposition. Some students needed prompting to include the names of the characters and to say where and when this story was taking place, so that the next writer had enough information to write about a complication. When they had finished their exposition, they took their paper to the front and picked up a story started by another student to read and continue. This process was repeated for the rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. The class was large enough that no student contributed more than one section to each story. The last stage was to read the complete story and create a title at the end.

Here is an example of the start of a second-year student story:

Intensive English B3 Amanda Gillis-Furutaka Lesson 8 Writing our own stories using a plot pyramid Last lesson, and for homework, we looked at how stories follow a similar structure. Today, you are going to create your own stories using the stages of a plot pyramid as a guide. First, choose the genre of the story that you will start. The genre of this story is: Romance x Horror Exposition: Main character is "Philip". He is from England. He is 17 years old and high school student. His life was so boring, but a new student who is very cute girl come to his school. Her name is Sheila. He fall in love at first sigh. However, she had a secret she couldn't tell anyone... Complication: One day, he went to her house and watched a movie. The mood was great and they huddled together. Then, they kissed. However, he suddenly felt pain in his mouth, and there was blood. Then, he said, "Who are you, exactly?" Rising action: She said, "Sorry." Then, she started to explain her secret. Actually, she is a vampire. But she is really in love with him. Vampires have some rules. One of rules is that don't fall in love with human. Sheila decided to break that rule and live with him.

This activity was totally absorbing. The students were reading and writing for 90 minutes! And they were keen to read and evaluate all the stories in the next lesson. Every story was anonymous and owned jointly by the students who had contributed to it. Some stories worked better than others. Most were amazingly imaginative. I didn’t correct any English unless I could see that a wrong language choice (e.g., a wrong pronoun or verb tense) was going to cause confusion for subsequent readers. In such cases, I talked with the writer, and we made a better choice.


Reading in an additional language is far harder work for our brains than reading in our first language because we have fewer syntactic and semantic mental models of that language for the higher cortical levels of our brains to draw on to make quick and accurate predictions about meaning. Bottom-up processing of the language alone is laborious! Teaching our students to explicitly recognize the overall structure of the story they are reading can help them to make sense of the incoming language information by positioning it on their mental model of a plot pyramid. This will lighten the overall load on their working memory and increase their sense of achievement, progress, and pleasure through the dopamine that is released when their mental models are reactivated or adjusted. Awareness of the overall scheme, predicting the big picture, makes reading to the end of a story so much more gratifying.

Amanda Gillis-Furutaka, the current BRAIN SIG President, whose undergraduate degree was in French and German, is grateful for the sheer volume of literature she had to read in those languages. It has proved to her that extensive reading in a foreign language is vital to retention of that language.

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