Plot is the series of events in a story; it’s the action, the stuff that happens. A good plot is logical, believable, and compelling enough to keep the reader reading.
Two Sentence Test
In order to create a strong structure, identify the main plot. If you can’t tell someone what your story, novel, or screenplay is about in two sentences, you probably aren’t ready to build the structure and should spend more time developing your ideas. Your two sentences should identify the main character, the main character’s goal, and the conflict.
Jim Butcher, author of The Dresden Files, offers this structure: “WHEN SOMETHING HAPPENS, YOUR PROTAGONIST pursues a GOAL. But will he succeed when the ANTAGONIST PROVIDES OPPOSITION?”
Ex. from the film Finding Nemo: When his wife and all but one of his children are eaten, Marlin tries to keep Nemo, his remaining child, safe. But will he succeed when Nemo is caught by a fisherman and an entire dangerous ocean stretches between Marlin and his son?
Point of View
Point of view (POV) is the perspective from which your story is told. Ask yourself, “Who has the most to lose?” or “Who will be hurt by this?” Those questions lead you to characters and often to your POV.
There are two primary points of view used in writing fiction:
- First person narration is written from the character’s perspective. It uses “I.” First person automatically heightens your story’s emotion because the reader is in the character’s head, hearing his or her thoughts. Its drawback is that the reader only gets that one perspective. Since the character doesn’t always witness all of the action taking place, it can make including necessary plot elements a challenge.
- Third person narration is written as though the writer is in the room with the characters and is recording what happens. With third person, more than one character can be followed and we can read the minds of more than one character, which gives the writer more freedom. The downside is that following too many characters can become confusing for readers.
This is what the character aims for at from the beginning—the Immediate Goal should:
- Be active and specific. It’s not enough for your protagonist to want to be rich and famous. It’s far better to be specific: she wants to study music, become a great singer/songwriter, and sell millions of records.
- Be attainable. Don’t set the goal too high. First, it’s unrealistic and readers generally prefer realism even in the most absurd stories. Second, there will be a bigger goal later. The main goal will change when the antagonist comes along, so leave room for the story to become something more.
- Be important. Make sure the goal is important enough that it will drive the character and, therefore, your reader. It doesn’t have to be big, just important to the character. In The Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry wants to escape the oppression of his uncle’s house, learn magic, and make friends. None of those are splashy goals, but they’re important to Harry, who’s been mistreated and never had a friend.
- Force a course of action. This goal determines your character’s actions for the first part of your story, screenplay, or novel. Make sure the goal requires movement or action; otherwise, there’s no story. In the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Tula, the daughter of a controlling family, decides to change her life. She goes back to school, studies computers, alters her appearance, and gets a new job.
Conflict occurs when someone or something decides that the character should not reach the goal. The opponent does not necessarily have to be a Darth Vadar-type embodiment of evil; a well-meaning but misguided relative, for instance, can be just as effective at stopping action as an evil mastermind. Conflict can also be a result of circumstance. In The Outsiders, we learn that the protagonist’s brother, Darry, had received a scholarship to play football; that was his goal. But when his parents died, he had to abandon his dream in order to raise his younger brothers. That’s conflict. Good conflict should:
- Be equal. The antagonist’s will/power should be equal to or even outweigh the protagonist’s will/power. Both sides have to be equally weighted; if one is obviously stronger than the other, the conflict’s conclusion is obvious and that’s boring.
- Be opposite. The antagonist’s goals should be the opposite of the protagonist’s goals so that they cancel each other out. BOTH cannot happen. Problems that can be easily resolved won’t keep readers interested; in the end, one side must prevail. In a good story, the reader isn’t sure which side will win.
The New Goal is established when the character realizes that attaining his Immediate Goal will not be as simple as anticipated. A barrier has been established by the conflict and the character must overcome that barrier to achieve the goal. The New Goal should:
- Be bigger than the Immediate Goal. The New Goal raises the story’s stakes. It makes the story and the character more important and makes the story’s conclusion more urgent.
- Be connected to the Immediate Goal. The two are not separate. Usually, the New Goal is the result of the Immediate Goal and the conflict. For example, in the Harry Potter novels, Harry, the young wizard, wants to live, but the evil wizard Voldemort is trying to kill him. Therefore, destroying Voldemort becomes his New Goal.
- Accompany character growth. The New Goal usually requires a change in the mind, heart, or soul of your protagonist. The protagonist must develop in order to make and fulfill this New Goal.
Sequence of Events
Most stories follow a similar sequence of events. As the main character moves through the sequence, he/she grows or changes. Make sure the beginning of the story leads believably into the middle and the end. Readers like the ending to be a surprise but appreciate it when there have been clues to that surprise all along.
The typical sequence includes:
- Exposition: The opening introduces the characters and setting and establishes the central conflict.
- Rising Action: Everything that leads up to the climax.
- Climax/Turning Point: The point at which the protagonist decides how to resolve a conflict or faces those conflicts. At this point the story moves from building conflict to resolving conflict. It is NOT necessarily the most exciting part of the story, although it often is.
- Falling Action: Everything that happens as a result of the climax.
- Resolution/ Denouement: The part of the story that sums up or brings the conflicts to a conclusion. It should be believable, and not a huge surprise, because the plot should have been building to it.
In the opening of the story, readers meet the main characters and begin to understand the central conflict. Readers also learn important background information. Some stories begin at the beginning (“Once upon a time, there was a frog … “) but often the story begins in media res—a Latin expression meaning “in the middle of things.” For example, E.B. White opens Charlotte’s Web with the line, “’Where's Papa going with that axe?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.” Instantly, readers are, like Fern, wondering where Papa is headed with that axe, but they’re also wondering who Papa is and who Fern is and why she cares about Papa and the axe. Having gotten your attention, White then quickly begins to provide answers to those questions.
In Rising Action, tension is mounting. Your character is moving steadily towards the New Goal and the final showdown. This could be a preparation for battle or a confrontation with a lesser foe. Rising Action should:
- Rise from the New Goal. It’s the action now being taken to fulfill that ultimate goal. The tone should be charged and full of expectation.
- Lead directly to the climax. The Rising Action should cover the actions and emotions leading up to the ultimate clash. Even if your climax is a kid confronting his mom about wanting to go to college in New Zealand, he’s going to be nervous about that and he’s going to be making plans. That’s rising action.
The climax is the “beatdown.” where the opposing sides square off and fight it out—not necessarily literally. It is, as writer Jim Butcher puts it, where the story’s question is answered. A good climax should:
- Be cathartic. You’ve spent your entire story getting your readers invested. They want to KNOW what happens. They’re on the edge of their seats and reading instead of going to class or making dinner because they HAVE to see how it ends. A catharsis is the release of all that tension and emotion.
- Be a surprise. Readers mostly know how a story ends—in many genres, good is expected to win over evil, love triumphs, etc. As a writer, though, you want readers to doubt that. A climax should include a moment where all seems lost and then--despite insurmountable odds--the protagonist triumphs.
- Result from character growth. The climax often makes readers love the main character even more--whether a character triumphs due to learning a lesson, making a sacrifice, or simply refusing to give up.
Everything that happens as a result of the climax is the falling action. The falling action should:
- Feel inevitable. Everything that led to the climax has set up the story’s arc.
- Be logical. Anything that results from the decisions or actions of the main character should seem like a logical outcome.
Resolution (or Denouement)
This is where the loose ends get tied up. The lovers finally kiss, there’s a wedding/funeral, someone receives a medal, or the old cowhand gives a speech to the young upstart who just saved the town. It’s the beginning of a new (and hopefully improved) reality. A good resolution should:
- Be logical. Don’t have something or someone no one ever heard of come in and save the day and make everyone’s lives perfect. Don’t pull out those rabbits just to make things fit.
- Leave the reader satisfied. The reader should feel they can go on with their lives because their questions have been answered. They should feel that justice has been dealt and peace has been restored, looking forward to a brighter tomorrow.
- Match the book. Many writers—even very talented ones—run into the problem of a happy ending or epilogue that feels out of place. It’s almost too light and too perfect for the heavy events of the story. It’s often enough to end on a hopeful note, rather than resolving every issue.
Buckham, Mary and Dianna Love. Break into Fiction. Holbrook: Adams Media, 2009.
Butcher, Jim. Jim’s LiveJournal. Fundamentals--Story Skeletons. Web. Sept 29 2004. June 17 2010.
Knight, Damon. Creating Short Fiction. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1997.
Schaefer, Candace and Rick Diamond. The Creative Writer. Addison-Wesley, 1998.