STR 3.A includes elements of pacing or structure in a plot, including any time the linear narrative is reorganized, sped up, slowed down, or otherwise rearranged. Helping students identify (and name!) these plot ordering elements can strengthen prose analysis and make them more active readers.
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Types of Plot Order & Sequencing Skills
The AP® Lit CED lists several literary elements in connection with this skill. See each below, with a short movie or television clip to help illustrate it.
Flashbacks are interruptions to the normal order of a plot to present information from before the plot began. These scenes are integral for character-building and often help us learn the “full story” of an issue or conflict. In Toy Story 2, Woody can’t understand why Jessie won’t let him return home to Andy, his owner who is waiting for him. However, when Jessie reveals her own experience with an owner she loved, who eventually grew up and abandoned her, Woody understands her reasoning. Ask your students, how does this flashback add depth to Jessie’s character? How does it complicate the plot?
It’s hard to find an example of foreshadowing in television or film that 1) doesn’t require multiple scenes to explain, or 2) doesn’t give away huge spoilers. Some great movies with strong foreshadowing include Fight Club, Shutter Island, and The Godfather. Television shows also rely a lot on foreshadowing, especially to lure viewers to watch future episodes. Great shows that use foreshadowing include Arrested Development, Lost, Breaking Bad, How I Met Your Mother, and Gossip Girl.
To demonstrate a simple example of foreshadowing, check out this clip from Wayne’s World, where Wayne and Garth accidentally bump into a very informative limo driver (played by Chris Farley). The limo driver presents so much information that even Wayne and Garth can’t ignore how out of place it is, hinting that it may be important for the future. In fact, this limo and its drastic turn around to return to Aurora assist in Wayne and Garth’s happy ending.
In Medias Res
In medias res is Latin for “in the midst of things.” It refers to stories that begin in the middle of the plot, then go back to explain how it all started later. It is rare in short fiction, but a common strategy in long works and in film. It’s almost expected, for example, for movies to start with a climactic scene and then go back and explain how we got there. This method hooks the viewer so they won’t want to stop watching. This example from Thor begins with Jane and her scientist friends hitting a man with their van. The man turns out to be the Norse god Thor, who inexplicably dropped out of the sky in their path.
Stream of Consciousness
Stream of consciousness is a type of structure that is completely unfiltered and unstructured. Thoughts are meant to mirror the scrambled and uncensored ways our brains think at any given moment. A great scene for demonstrating stream of consciousness in media is from Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. The morning after Miles is bitten by the radioactive spider (instilling superpowers overnight), he wakes up with a heightened voice in his head. Miles’ thoughts are random and continuous, a classic sign of stream of consciousness. Ask your students what the effect of this scene is in terms of conflict, characterization, and pacing.
Narrative Pace or Tempo
Narrative pace is a touch element to “see,” but analyzing it lead to analysis of suspense and other plot events. To study narrative pace or tempo, study how an author moves from scenes of low tension (highly descriptive or imaginative text) to scenes of high tension or suspense (fast-paced moments of action and movement). One example of this is this scene from the television show Lost. This montage balances moments of slow pacing with high-tension, fast-paced scenes of action. Ask your students how the montage and its pacing contributes to the growing conflict on Lost.
Focus Text: Beloved by Toni Morrison
When it comes to unique voices and narrative structure it is hard to find a more masterful writer than Toni Morrison. This work is perfect for many facets of plot order and sequencing. Morrison’s masterpiece Beloved depicts the converging lives of three women, reaching a climax in four chapters from their different perspectives. The final of the four chapters is a stream of consciousness collection of all three narratives.
Click here to access this final stream of consciousness chapter, which blends all three women’s voices. Distribute to your students, then ask them the questions below:
Student Analysis – Beloved
- This text blends voices of Sethe and her two daughters, Denver and Beloved. Using different color pens or types of annotation, try to depict each unique voice in the text using these details. Beloved is Sethe’s older daughter who died as a toddler but returned as a full grown woman. Beloved fears abandonment and is completely devoted to her mother. Sethe, Denver and Beloved’s mother, presents a maternal view, feeling grateful for being reunited with Beloved and apologetic for believing her gone all this time. Denver is Sethe’s youngest daughter and Beloved’s sister. Denver lived her solitary life in the shadow of her sister’s ghost, playing with her outdoors and adoring her once she returned in human form. Read it through and try to identify which lines belong to which speaker.
- Which lines present reflections on the past? What lines represent feelings of the present? Which lines indicate hope or fears for the future?
- Consider the pacing of each section in this text. How would you describe the narrative pacing? Are there areas where it speeds up or slows down? Why might this be?
- This chapter comes after Beloved pushed out the only male resident of 124 Bluestone Road, Sethe’s residence. Sethe walks out on her job and closes her door on the outside world. How do the various tones contribute to the story’s rising action and feeling of impending conflict?
- How can we use this unique chapter to make interpretations of Beloved? What significance or meaning can you draw about the characters, themes, or conflict of the novel?
Teacher’s Guide for Beloved
- Click here to see an annotated version of the text with speaker voices identified.
- Beloved’s lines refer exclusively to details of the past with a few mentions of the present (“I am loving her too much”). Beloved, being a spirit, does not think of the future but will prey on her mother because of her violent actions against her in the past. Sethe’s lines are mostly in the present, enjoying this moment where she’s reunited with Beloved. She paints an ideal picture of a safe and happy life, although considering she just quit her job, money and a future could become difficult eventually. Denver’s lines are filled with warning on staying safe from Sethe (who “loves too much”) and affirmations that she will protect her sister. Her lines indicate the most hope for the future.
- Beloved’s narrative at the beginning seems rhythmic and choppy and may seem faster-paced as it builds. Once Sethe’s voice moves into the dialogue, and later Denver’s, the pacing slows down but stays rhythmic. In the final lines of the text, the lines grow shorter and more similar. The lines “You are mine / You are mine / You are mine” may seem to go slow or fast, depending on how one reads it. Ask students to tie their answers to interpretations rather than worry what is the “right” answer for narrative pacing. The concept is very open-ended but can help in making an interpretation of a text.
- Each voice carries its own tone with it: Sethe’s is cherishing and grateful, Denver’s warning and protective, and Beloved’s is straightforward and sometimes possessive of Sethe. If these ladies stay shut in on themselves for too long things could get too intense (which they do). Students who have read the novel will see how this propels them to their weakened state two chapters later. Those who haven’t may predict that Denver may need to leave the house or do something to save them, which she eventually does.
- Some interesting interpretations could come from interpreting this chapter as literal or figurative. Are these real lines of dialogue in a conversation or more symbolic expressions of their feelings? Either answer will work but can support different analyses. This section also builds on one of the strongest themes in Beloved, which is themes of motherhood. Sethe rejoices in being reunited with her lost daughter, but her violent acts against Beloved still hang over their heads. Because of it, Denver will never trust Sethe. Beloved is pulling Sethe to her in an alarming way, possibly plotting against her in an act of revenge. But because of Sethe’s strong feelings of motherhood, she throws herself into this isolation with her daughters and overcompensates by ignoring everyone else.
Suggested Texts for Studying Plot Order
Here is a list of suggested short stories or novels to excerpt for studying plot order and sequencing. Thanks to the educators on the AP® Lit Facebook group for all of the great suggestions!
- Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko
- “Content of the Dead Man’s Pocket” by Jack Finney
- The Sound and the Fury and “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner
- “The Moment Before the Gun Went Off” by Nadine Gordimer
- Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
- To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
- “Charles” by Shirley Jackson
- “The Scarlet Ibis” James Hurst
- “Beginning, Middle & End” by Phil Kaye (spoken word poetry)
- “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin
- “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce
- “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry
- A Portrait of the Artist of a Young Man by James Joyce
- “Bullet in the Brain” by Tobias Wolff
- “The Birds” by Daphne du Maurier
- “A Sound of Thunder” by Ray Bradbury
- Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
- “On the Sidewalk Bleeding” by Evan Hunter
- “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” by Katherine Anne Porter
- We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates
- “Satisfied” from Hamilton (song)
- The Haunting of Hill House (television show)
- Deadpool (movie)