English 101: Plotting Your Plot

Rachel Richey Letters From The Editor

Let’s talk plot. We all know the basic concept, right? The plot is what happens in a story. Seems simple enough. However, it’s actually one of the most difficult and overlooked elements in writing. A good plot is more than a series of events that just happen; it drives the action of your story in a way that keeps your readers engaged.

In its simplest form, a plot should be about someone who wants something, but in order to get it he or she must overcome various obstacles, either physical or mental or both.

Example: In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, two young people fall in love and want to be together but their respective families are currently engaged in a bitter feud. Their “want” is hindered by the obstacles that arise because of this feud.

Even if it appears that the protagonist has no clear “want” in a story, chances are there still exists a hidden desire. If the character is happy with the way things are, then that desire might be to maintain the status quo. Conflict could arise when that status quo is threatened by an outside force.

Of course, you may also write a story with many characters having competing “wants,” or a story in which your character’s “want” changes over the course of their adventure. The important thing to remember is that there needs to be a motive that is central to your story.

Okay, so that’s what plot is, but how do you create an effective plot? Many people have broken down the structure of plot in many different ways. You might already be familiar with Gustav Freytag’s Pyramid. Never heard of it? Don’t worry, it’s basically the same five-part story structure that you may remember from your high school English class.

You see, Gustav Freytag was a popular writer and an avid reader in the 19th century who began to notice a repeated pattern in many of the stories that he read. He took pen to page, and voila! We now had a way to structure plot.

Here are the basics:

Exposition or Introduction– In this section, readers are introduced to the main characters, the setting, and the primary conflict, including the protagonist’s “want.”

Rising Action– In this section, the author builds up the tension by introducing the challenges that the protagonist must face in order to get what they want.

Climax– The climax is the crisis, or the decisive moment of a story. All of the tension that’s been built up previously will come to a head at this point at this moment, and the protagonist will either succeed or fail here.

Falling Action– This section reveals how the actions of the protagonist play out. Was he or she successful? What was the final outcome of the climax?

Resolution– The resolution can sometimes be mixed in with the falling action. It ties up any of the loose ends that might still be unresolved.

This structure can help you focus and refine your story by keeping you from wandering too far away from your end goal. Each scene that you write should be moving the story forward, pushing your protagonist towards the ultimate climax and resolution. Anything that doesn’t further the story or give insight into your character’s state of mind is unnecessary and will hurt your overall narrative.

Different stories can call for variations to these basic structures. And that’s okay. In fact, it’s pretty normal. The “W” plot structure (named for the shape that it makes when diagramed) contains several reversals of fortune for the protagonist on top of the other plot elements. You might also hear about the Episodic plot, the Mountain plot, and the Hero’s Journey. One style that’s fairly popular is the eight-point story arc that you can read about here.

So what type of story structure should you use? Well, it depends. It’s your story and you need to decide how best to tell it. You don’t have to follow a specific plot construct to the letter, but you should still keep in mind some basic principles.

  • Address the “why” of the story when you are constructing your plot. If there is no why, then your story is simply a series of meaningless events. Make sure that there is some type of motivation for your characters’ actions.
  • Every scene should have the end game in mind. Drive the action forward, always keeping in mind the purpose or message of your story.
  • Be logical. The events in your plot should be related by causality. This happened because of that, and so forth.
  • Resolve the conflicts that you present. If a ninja assassin was hunting your character in the beginning of your story, then you need to address what happens to him by the end of it. Ninjas might be able to vanish into the night, but your antagonists should not simply vanish from your plot.

If you’re still having trouble plotting your plot, or if you feel that you’re missing something important then you might want to ask yourself a few simple questions:

Whose story is this?

What is their ultimate goal or desire?

What is preventing them from achieving their goal or desire?

How do they overcome these obstacles?

What is the point or the message of this story?

If you can’t answer these questions, then you might want to do a little more leg work, and flush out a few more details about your characters or your setting. Plot is not separate from your characters and setting, and your setting and character development can help shape your plot.

If you have any questions, comments, or helpful tips to add, please include them in the comments section!
Happy plotting, people!

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About the Author

Rachel Richey

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As an avid reader and a lover of story crafting, Rachel started Literative.com as a way to motivate and connect authors to tell their stories (and the literary community at large). Her favorite part of Literative is discovering the talent that shows up in our creative writing contests.