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.

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Plot Structure

Photo by Simon Cocks (Creative Commons). Adapted by The Write Practice.

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.

Narrative Arc

Freytag's Pyramid
Also called Freytag’s pyramid, the narrative arc is made up of the following pieces:

  1. Exposition — The opening of the story, including a reader’s introduction to characters and settings.
  2. Rising Action — A series of events that complicates matters for your characters, and results in increased drama or suspense.
  3. Climax — The big showdown where your characters encounter their opposition, and either win or lose.
  4. Falling Action — A series of events that unfold after the climax and lead to the end of the story.
  5. 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.

PRACTICE

For today’s practice, you have five different options. That’s right, FIVE! Here they are:

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. Outline a new story following the three act structure. Look at it from a 50,000 foot view. What can you improve?
  5. 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.

Happy writing!

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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.

  • I plot using Scapple, a Scrivner product – 10 bucks. It allows me to make mind maps of my developing stories. After I decide to go forward I make a paragraph for each mind map spot. Usually I don’t end up actually keeping to the plan as the story takes off at some point and has a mind of its own, but the plotting before prevents mind boggling sequence of events problems in the editing phase.

  • EndlessExposition

    My WIP uses the narrative arc plot structure. The exposition is where the narrator (Alex) meets her new neighbor (Alicia) and the two discover a dead body. Rising action is the process of solving the mystery. Climax is when they identify the killer and confront her. The very brief falling action is the loose ends being tied up. And the resolution is when their friendship is cemented at the end of the adventure.

    The two doors also works. The disturbance is when they discover the corpse and the first point of no return is when Alex decides to help Alicia investigate the murder. The second is a moment when they’re in the woods at midnight, making their way to an abandoned theater to look for clues, and they have to leave the path. Alex is apprehensive but decides to follow Alicia. The literal act of stepping off the path metaphorically represents the moment when Alex decides to leave her old self behind.

    Taking a moment to actually think about the physical plot structure can help when you’re trying to sequence events. It’s something I’ll try to be more aware of when I’m planning.

    • Glory

      I have a character, a girl who was kidnapped after birth from a king.
      She was kidnapped by a servant of the king 13 years ago from when my story is set.
      My story is set in a sort of modern dystopia in a fiction location but the main character is a detective who finds her only in convenience of her misbehaving on the streets. She doesn’t know she is the daughter of a king and the servant who is kept in hiding doesn’t tell her.

      However there are multiple POV”s and I don’t know how to develop a simple plot where she finally finds out where she is from. Does anyone have any suggestions???

      • EndlessExposition

        Hey, I don’t know if you realize this, but you posted this as a reply to my comment instead of making your own comment on the post. You might want to do that so more people see it.

      • EndlessExposition

        And to give some advice, I would say reexamine which POV’s you’re using in your story. If you’re trying to tell a narrative about this girl’s birth, the narrators should be people who are somehow related to her life or the kidnapping. You may have to sacrifice some of your narrators if they’re getting in the way of telling the story. Kill your darlings, as they say!

      • starrweaver

        Personally, I like to let the story offer hints on how to tell it. I’ve done multiple pov tales where the story’s scenes come alive with great dialog and interaction. I’ve been told by a smart person, he said get out of the way and let the story flow.
        It’s sometimes hard to get out of the way, wanting to control the story that wants to be written. If the story is inspiring, exciting and you can’t wait to share it… get out of the way and let it out.
        I’ve been told by so many all these restrictions… don’t do this, you can’t do that, you should do this or that isn’t how it’s done.

        Have you read the great literature from the masters?
        Even Tolkien was long winded with descriptions and details. It would have been impossible to make such grand movies without all of it. But it isn’t the sort of writing you’ll find today by the modern masters.
        King,Rowling, Brown, and many more are of a different type, their writing is more urgent and filled with emotions and actions.

        So find the voice inside, the one that’s uniquely your own and tell the story within raging to be born… set your mind free and let your story take wing.

  • Miriam N

    Well I won’t be sharing my practice today, which was option one, because I plan on doing this idea for NaNoWriMo and don’t want to spoil it. 😉 but I will share how I began developing my plot for another WIP
    First I started with a first draft. I wrote the whole thing without a care about character development, grammar or other things you worry about in the editing process. That draft SUCKED. I can tell you as much.
    For a while I let it simmer not looking at it and content with the fact that I had completed a book even if it was only a first draft. After about a month or so i picked it up again. I laughed and laughed like there was no tomorrow. there were errors all over the place and It was simply hilarious to me at the time.
    I set it down again for about a year but that dint’ stop me from thinking about it. Unknowingly i went through the processes mentioned in the blog post.
    That first draft has nothing to do with the novel I have now, besides the fact the some of the characters are the same.
    Well there’s my experience with this post. Thanks for sharing it with us Matt Herron!

  • Dizzy

    Number 3, I choose you!

    My character, Jade, has to make a decision between life and
    death. Not for herself. The main villain is a fallen angel called Dark, and has
    a kind of traumatizing back story. Jade feels pity toward him, but he’s the
    main villain, and doing destruction and causing mayhem.

    At one point, Dark goes out of control, and starts planning
    to kill everyone Jade loves. Jade get made, like anyone else would, and get
    confused on what to do. So she decides to talk to him, and see if he’s willing
    to stop. (Jade prefers the kind approach, or is at least trying it.) The
    conversation goes terribly wrong, including it getting interrupted several times,
    due to another group of bad guys destroying thing.

    Jade then actually has to make a choice between killing Dark
    or letting him live. For an entire chapter (In its rough draft state), she just
    thinks about her options, and then talks to her friends about it. Of course
    they say kill him, but what’s right isn’t always popular, and what’s popular
    isn’t always right.

    Jade thinks that killing Dark would be wrong, but Dark isn’t
    the most stable or good thing in the universe. At all. And there’s really no
    way to fix him, or help him heal. Jade would end up looking for information of
    Dark, to get a better feeling toward what he’s feeling, but finds that his
    record aren’t clean. He’s as bad as it gets.

    But Jade actually wants him to live, even to understand him.
    Understand the pain, and the sorrow. She looks up his back story, finding it’s
    full of terrible stuff. She feels pity toward him, and wants to help him. One
    problem; she doesn’t know how.

    Yeah, I know. I probably wrote this terribly. But, we all
    did at one point.

    • Okwriting

      If you ever wrote this story I’d like to read it. It sounds interesting. What’s the title?

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  • marcel gendron

    You know, they tell you a script is linear. You go with that cause you’re green. And these people appear to be experts. There’s all kinds of them. Turns out a script is not linear at all. It resembles the graph representing Google stock. Not only that, but you can put your own graph line in there and loop it back to the second scene. And you can explode a line on the rebound. So, to all you experts, you are hindering creativity. There’s no absolute way to write.

    • Tesh N

      Yep. Because reality usually doesn’t follow a simple line. I think this is helpful to some degree though.

    • Richol Richards

      It’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly scripts wiptsy, really….

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  • rosie

    I think the three act structure can be fatal especially if you don’t understand it (like how I didn’t!) There can be multiple turning points in a story, and it might look like a cubic graph–or sin or cos–or maybe the stock exchange. The three act structure is just a very rough template for the main climax, but there can–and should be–many.

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  • This is the simplest explanation I ever read about plot structure. It gave me a better understanding of the subject matter. Well done!