Story Skeleton—1984

Plot point analysis of 1984 by George Orwell: narrative summary and story structure

Story structure relates to the psychological appeal of narrative, that which engages readers and builds in them a sense of anticipation—a desire to know what happens next. This blog series is meant to demonstrate the universality of story structure with plot breakdowns of award-winning and classic novels.

By David Griffin Brown

A simple story with complex world-building

Big Brother, Thought Police, Doublethink—these concepts from George Orwell’s 1984 resonated so widely when the book came out that they are now universally known, even by people who haven’t read it. And while 1984 isn’t the first dystopian novel ever written, it is no doubt foundational to the genre.

At its core, 1984 is a simple story built atop a visionary warning about a totalitarian future. There is a lot of explanatory world-building context, which is something I’ll come back to at the end of this analysis. But given that Orwell has a point to make and a dystopian world to convey, it makes sense that he keeps the narrative relatively uncomplicated.

Nowadays, it’s difficult to publish a book with a “straight shot” trajectory like this. Structurally, 1984 takes the form of a tragic romance. Winston meets Julia, they pursue a relationship, and then they get a (false) offer to join the revolution. This culminates in their arrest and torture. The end.

There’s not much more to it than that. The complexity that we would normally find in subplots instead takes the form of extensive world-building.

Winston’s narrative goal

Winston has an underlying motivation: to work against Big Brother. He doesn’t like the way his society operates. He doesn’t like having to participate in the creation of propaganda and revisionist history. But while he harbors these feelings, he has no recourse to act out against the Party. Because of this, “working against Big Brother” or “joining the Brotherhood” are not goals that he can actively work toward.

That is, until he receives a love note from a coworker. Now he has the opportunity to oppose the Party by engaging in an unsanctioned relationship. The one thing Big Brother cannot control is his love for Julia. The lovers will do anything they can to sneak away and spend time together. Winston’s desire to be with Julia, physically and emotionally, is the goal that crystallizes for him in the inciting incident and which culminates in the climax as a two-stage failure.

Plot Points

Stasis

The story opens shortly after Winston purchases an illegal journal. He is able to sit in his apartment and write out his rebellious thoughts just outside the view of the telescreen. This is when readers first get some explanatory context: how the world works and what Winston thinks about it.

Note that he is still active in this stasis by committing the crime of journaling— even though he doesn’t yet have a clear narrative goal, he still demonstrates his motivation.

Inciting Incident

Winston’s goal crystallizes in two phases. First, he notices an attractive woman (Julia) at his workplace. In romance terms, this is the “meet cute” moment when the reader gets a hint about a potential love interest. However, rather than swoon for her, Winston fears that she is an informant watching him for any signs of thoughtcrime.

When he next encounters her, she gives him a note that reads simply, “I love you.” This cements the romantic goal in the protagonist’s mind—he wants to find out why she has given him this note, what her intentions are, and whether the declaration is true. This is the beginning of a relationship quest, but it is also Winston’s opportunity to work against the Party, because an affair like this is forbidden.

Rising Action

Winston and his new lover Julia take risks to meet up in different places to talk and make love. They get to know each other, and in doing so, they are able to explore their hatred of the Party. Their relationship is a daring rebellion because if they’re caught, they’ll be arrested by the Thought Police and likely killed.

Winston wants to provide a more secure place for them to meet, so he rents a room from Mr. Charrington, the man from whom he bought his contraband journal.

Midpoint

O’Brien, a man from Winston’s workplace, sends a message that he would like to meet. Winston has had his eye on O’Brien for some time—he has an allure that has led Winston to believe he might be a member of the Brotherhood, the secret organization working against Big Brother. This qualifies as a midpoint since it gives Winston a new opportunity for rebellion—it takes the story in a new direction.

Now unified in their forbidden love, Winston and Julia want to take the next step in thwarting the Party by joining the Brotherhood. And that is exactly what O’Brien promises when they visit his extravagant apartment. The lovers swear their loyalty to the revolution, and he sends them home with a copy of the Brotherhood’s manifesto, supposedly written by Big Brother’s arch enemy, Emmanuel Goldstein.

False Victory

The plot structure of 1984 can be described (in the old dramaturgist’s sense) as a tragedy. The protagonist wants to rebel against the Party by taking ownership of his heart via the relationship with Julia and then, when given the opportunity, taking control of his fate by joining the Brotherhood. Neither will come to pass. In the tragic format, right before the climax, the protagonist achieves a false victory. This is the highest point of hope where it seems Winston has finally succeeded—he “got the girl” and now he’s joined the revolution.

Winston and Julia return to their apartment above Charrington’s store and read the manifesto. Their suspicions about the Party and Big Brother are confirmed. Here, readers get a significant dose of explanatory world-building. Winston reaches an emotional high as the truth he has been seeking is made explicit. In a tragedy, reaching an emotional height in the false climax makes the downfall to come much more painful.

Tragic Climax

Winston has three significant things to lose. First is his participation in the revolution. Second is his relationship with Julia. Third is his love for Julia. As such, 1984 has an extended climax.

It turns out Mr Charrington has been an informant all along. And of course O’Brien is a member of the Party. The rebellious lovers walked right into their trap. Winston and Julia are arrested and separated—here ends the relationship and also the hope of joining the Brotherhood. Even if they survive what is to come, they will never see each other again.

But Winston clings to one hope, that the Party will never be able to take away his love for Julia. However, after extensive torture, O’Brien makes Winston confront a face-full of rats, his biggest fear. This is the protagonist’s final defeat—he begs for Julia to be tortured with the rats instead of him.

Resolution

Once Winston has been fully broken, the Party releases him back into the world. His rebellion, along with his love, have been eradicated.

Explanatory context

As I was re-reading 1984, I kept thinking about how Orwell was doing exactly what I advise so many clients to avoid: he frequently puts narrative context in the showcase rather than story.

This tends to diminish a story’s emotional draw. I’m talking about the quality of a narrative that keeps readers engaged and anticipatory—eager to find out what will happen next. The speculative genres have come a long way since 1948 when Orwell was penning this classic. Readers now expect certain things when it comes to building fictional worlds and future scenarios. In a word, they expect more subtlety than is on display in 1984.

Despite this, 1984 is still a novel that people today devour. For one thing, the dystopia Orwell paints was prophetic in many ways. His contemporaries may have found the book wildly inventive, but we can now reflect on his astute prescience. But the other reason why this book “works” despite the long explanatory passages about the world, the politics, and the mechanisms of government control is that, at its core, it is still a powerful love story against all odds.

What do you think? When you last read 1984, did you feel like the long explanations about the political backdrop and the Party’s mechanisms of propaganda and power were overwrought? Did they diminish your immersion in the story world? Why or why not?

Leave a comment below!


David Griffin Brown (Septimus Brown) is the founder and senior editor at Darling Axe Editing

David Griffin Brown is an award-winning short fiction writer and co-author of Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. He holds a BA in anthropology from UVic and an MFA in creative writing from UBC, and his writing has been published in literary magazines such as the Malahat Review and Grain. In 2022, he was the recipient of a New Artist grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. David founded Darling Axe Editing in 2018, and as part of his Book Broker interview series, he has compiled querying advice from over 100 literary agents. He lives in Victoria, Canada, on the traditional territory of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations.

Immersion & Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling

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