A Writer’s Cheatsheet to Plot and Structure
Plot and structure are like gravity. You can work with them or you can fight against them, but either way they’re as real as a the keyboard at your fingertips.
Getting a solid grasp on the foundations of plot and structure, and learning to work in harmony with these principles will take your stories to the next level.
Definition of Plot and Structure
What is plot? What is structure?
Plot is the series of events that make up your story, including the order in which they occur and how they relate to each other.
Structure (also known as narrative structure), is the overall design or layout of your story.
While plot is specific to your story and the particular events that make up that story, structure is more abstract, and deals with the mechanics of the story—how the chapters/scenes are broken up, what is the conflict, what is the climax, what is the resolution, etc.
You can think of plot and structure like the DNA of your story. Every story takes on a plot, and every piece of writing has a structure. Where plot is (perhaps) unique to your story, you can use an understanding of common structures and devices to develop better stories and hone your craft.
Essential Devices for Plot and Structure
Here are three common devices essential to fiction—but especially important in writing novels—that will help frame any current story you’re working on, and give you a jumping off point to learn more about plot and structure.
Three Act Structure
This idea goes back to ancient Greek dramatic theory, so you know it’s been time-tested. Aristotle said that every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end (in ancient Greek, the protasis, epitasis, and catastrophe), and ancient Greek plays often follow this formula strictly by having three acts.
Still commonly used in screenwriting and novels today, the three act structure is as basic as you can get: every story ever written has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Also called Freytag’s pyramid, the narrative arc is made up of the following pieces:
- Exposition — The opening of the story, including a reader’s introduction to characters and settings.
- Rising Action — A series of events that complicates matters for your characters, and results in increased drama or suspense.
- Climax — The big showdown where your characters encounter their opposition, and either win or lose.
- Falling Action — A series of events that unfold after the climax and lead to the end of the story.
- Resolution — The end of the story, in which the problems are resolved (or not resolved, depending on the story.) Also called the denouement, catastrophe, or revelation.
Again, this is an abstract device used to describe the narrative arc of all stories, which is why it’s so powerful and commonly used in dramatic structural theory.
Ask yourself how your story fits into this framework. If it doesn’t, what’s missing?
A Disturbance and Two Doorways
I originally found this concept in Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell.
The disturbance is whatever happens early on in your story that upsets the status quo. It can be a strange phone call in the middle of the night, news of the death of a close relative, or anything that is a threat or a challenge to your protagonist’s ordinary way of life.
But a disturbance isn’t enough. Something has to propel your protagonist from the beginning into the middle of the story, and from the middle to the end. Bell suggests:
“How you get from beginning to middle (Act I to Act II), and middle to end (Act II to Act III), is a matter of transitioning. Rather than calling these plot points, I find it helpful to think of these two transitions as ‘doorways of no return.’”
Every story has a disturbance and two doorways of no return. You can learn more about this concept, as well as a whole host of other indispensable devices, by reading Bell’s book.
Take Your Novel’s Plot and Structure to the Next Level
An understanding of narrative structure and plot are essential to the creative writer’s understanding of craft. If you can master them, you can use them as a foundation for your work. Mix a good plot with solid structure, pour in your characters, toss in a dash of setting, and you’re most of the way to a fully cooked story.
How about you? What tips do you have for writing plots? How do you structure your novel? Share in the comments section.
For today’s practice, you have five different options. That’s right, FIVE! Here they are:
- Identify the narrative arc of your story. Where does the rising action start? What is the climax? What is the falling action? Do you already know the resolution, or is that something you have yet to work out?
- Divide your story into three acts (even if you don’t divide the story into acts in the final product.) Where does each act end and the next begin?
- Write down what the disturbance is in your story. Identify the two doorways of no return. What is the propellant that pulls your protagonist through the first doorway? Through the second?
- Outline a new story following the three act structure. Look at it from a 50,000 foot view. What can you improve?
- Outline a new story by starting with the disturbance and two doorways. Think about what pulls your character through each doorway. Remember, a disturbance isn’t enough!
After you finish your practice, share what you learned in the comments section.
About Matt Herron
Matt Herron is the author of Scrivener Superpowers: How to Use Cutting-Edge Software to Energize Your Creative Writing Practice. He has a degree in English Literature, a dog named Elsa, and an adrenaline addiction sated by rock climbing and travel. The best way to get in touch with him is on Twitter @mgherron.