When I taught writer’s craft, an entire unit was devoted to the elements of fiction. I’m testing myself to see if I can condense successfully a week’s worth of lessons on plot into one blog– it’s a challenge I accept.
The power of plot
The plot is not your story, but a series of events that provide conflict. It is the result of the choices made by the characters in response to those events. There are different ways to plot different genres. A romance novel, for example, will progress different than a mystery – but overall, they follow the five-stage structure proposed by German novelist Gustav Freytag (1816-1895):
1. Exposition. The beginning of the story. Major characters are introduced, the setting is established, and key conflicts are revealed.
2. Rising Action. The main conflict is presented through a series of events. The three main conflict types are divided into internal or external conflicts:
i) Character versus Self (internal conflict)
ii) Character versus Character (external conflict)
iii) Character versus Nature/Society (external conflict)
3. Climax. The turning point in the story. This focuses on the protagonist’s most difficult challenges or their bleakest moment.
4. Falling Action. The consequences of the characters’ actions are revealed. The details of how they deal with the turn of events are explored.
5. Denoument. The outcome of the events. The fate of the characters is revealed, and conflicts and loose ends are tied up, unless there is a sequel.
These five basic elements in your story will help ensure an enjoyable read.
Journalist Christopher Booker (1937-2019) said that all plots – and their millions of iterations – can be grouped into seven grand plots:
1. Overcoming the Monster. The protagonist must defeat a threat to society. This plot is one of the oldest and can be traced back to Beowulf (c. 700-1000 CE). The monster does not need to be literal, but can also be a human villain. Examples include Frankenstein and Little Red Riding Hood.
2. Rags to Riches. A poor character becomes rich. This is the classic underdog tale. Examples include My Fair Lady, Great Expectations, and Aladdin.
3. Quest. The protagonist and friends must journey to secure something, an object or goal. Examples include Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and Treasure Island.
4. Voyage and Return. The protagonist and friends set out on an adventure. Unlike the Quest, there’s no Holy Grail to find. Examples include The Odyssey and The Chronicles of Narnia.
5. Rebirth. The protagonist seeks redemption. There are usually themes of beginnings and renewal. Examples include The Secret Garden and A Christmas Carol.
6. Comedy. A light and humorous character reveals triumph over adversity. Examples include A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Bridget Jones’s Diary.
7. Tragedy. The protagonist has a major character flaw that is ultimately their undoing and sparks pity in the reader. Examples include Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary.
From these seven master plots come millions of variations. If you’re interested in learning more, you can read Ronald Tobias’s 20 Master Plots: And How to Build Them and French author Georges Polti’s The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations, which is still a classic over 100 years later. (As a benefit of this blog, rather than a writer’s craft class, these books are suggested, not mandatory, readings, which may increase your pleasure and interest.)
What kind of plotter are you?
Are you a plotter or a pantster? You may not have heard these terms before, but they’re common in the writing world to describe someone who either sits down and meticulously plots every detail of their novel before they begin, or someone who flies by the seat of their pants, writing whatever comes to mind with no clear idea of the storyline when they sit down to write.
Randall Klein is a former editor at Penguin Random House. He recommends that all writers have a rough sketch of the “big picture” before they begin and that they get the key points down on paper. Incidentally, I do too. Most editors can tell when a story has been plotted and when it’s been pantsed.
When you know the major plot points beforehand, you can leave a breadcrumb trail for the reader. It’s always enjoyable to go back and find these hints the second time around (or when forced to write an essay); not only that, but some genre rules prohibit things like a surprise twin brother at the story’s end.
Other aspects of plot
There are so many aspects of plot that aren't covered in this blog, but I would like to leave you with a few more points:
Start your story as close to the action as possible. Try to avoid unnecessary, overdrawn descriptions of background, characters, or setting.
Don’t forget the subplot. A subplot isn’t a second runner. It flows parallel to the main plot and often illuminates the themes and central characters, acting as a literary foil.
Know your characters. Know what they want and why. The reader needs to be invested, they need to worry about the character, they need to care what happens. In order for this to occur, the stakes in the story have to be high enough to elicit those emotions; it’s not enough for the character to simply be a good person: What do they stand to lose?
Every character needs a flaw. This must be the thing about them that needs to change in order for them to reach their goal at the end of the story. This flaw makes them relatable to the reader, creates conflict, and shows what it means to be human.
Final plot thoughts
American author John Gardiner, who wrote Grendel, said that there are only two stories in the world: a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.
I can’t wait to read your story next.