Hey, you. Do you want readers to love your story? (Who doesn’t, am I right?) Then you need to understand plot.
In today’s post, I am honored to give you a broad overview of what plot is and how to use it.
What Is Plot?
How Plot Works
Plot has a specific structure. It follows a format that sucks readers in; introduces characters and character development at a pace guaranteed to create fans; and compels readers to keep reading in order to satisfy conflict and answer questions.
Plot is about cause and effect, but, most importantly, plot is about choice, a character’s choice.
In other words, it’s not just a recitation of facts; the facts you include in your plot each have a purpose, putting a character into a situation where they must make a decision and pulling the story toward its conclusion.
Story vs. Plot
In Aspects of Novel, E.M. Forster makes a distinction between “story” and “plot.” A story just an event, almost a recitation of facts.
The mouse ate a cookie isn’t a plot—it’s just a story (albeit a cute story).
On the other hand, the mouse ate a cookie and then asked for a glass of milk is a plot because it’s causal. I’ll let Forster explain it better:
“Let us define plot. We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. ‘The king died and then the queen died,’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief,’ is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it. Or again: ‘The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king.’ This is a plot with a mystery in it…”
– E. M. Forster
To trim that down:
- The king died and then the queen died is a story.
- The king died and then the queen died of grief is a plot because it’s causal and connected.
Hemingway’s famous six-word story is an amazing example of plot: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Why are they for sale? Because the baby never wore them (and oh, it’s so sad). These aren’t disconnected facts; this is actually a miniature plot. More on that in a moment.
The Components of Plot
So how do you build a plot with this cause-and-effect thing? Fortunately, the answer is simple: you break plot down into its components.
The components of plot are like puzzle pieces. If you want your reader to see the final picture, you need to see the shape of each component and fit them into their proper place.
- Exposition or introduction. This establishes characters and setting. Not all your world-building happens here, but this is where you show your readers what “normal” is for your characters. That way, readers will know what’s wrong when we hit the next step.
- Rising action, which reveals the conflict. You know that quote about getting your characters up a tree, then throwing rocks at them? This is rock-throwing time. Here’s where you raise the stakes and begin building up to the story’s climax. It’s crucial that your readers know what’s at stake here; it’s also critical that they clearly understand the conflict.
- The climax, or turning point. You’ve been building up to this moment all story long. This is the moment that matters most, the moment a character’s choice determines the outcome of the conflict. The big conflict must be addressed here. If you did it right, this is the worst (i.e. best) moment of tension in the whole story, setting your readers on edge, which means now it’s time for . . .
- Falling action. It’s time to wind everything down, nice and easy. Here’s where you address all the other problems and questions you’ve brought up, filling in the holes. More importantly, this is also where you explore the results of your characters’ decisions. Think consequences, folks; every choice your characters made have had an effect, and however they resolved the conflict, here’s where we see what happened after.
- Resolution. Now, in the resolution, you’re establishing “normal” all over again—but the new normal, incorporating the changes and experiences of your characters. Your readers can sit with your characters a little in their new normal, emotionally wrapping everything up so your reader can put the book away without flipping back through the pages to see what they missed. It’s a scene-closure with enough finality to deserve those two words: The End.
We all learn in different ways, so I’ve also created a visual representation of plot. FYI, I cannot draw.
Historical Note: One of the earliest writers to talk about this structure was Gustav Freytag, the German author who wrote in the middle of the 19th century. His structure became known as Freytag’s Pyramid, and he was the first to talk about these five components of plot. Learn more about Freytag’s Pyramid here.
The Components of Plot: Examples
In my experience, examples drive a point home. Let’s look at a few stories and break down their plots.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J. K. Rowling
Also known as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to those who know only the American version.
- Exposition: We’re introduced to the Dursleys, to Harry, and to Hogwarts.
- Rising action: We learn about Voldemort; there’s a troll loose in the dungeons. Our heroes realize this all has to do with Voldemort, and are determined to stop him at any cost.
- Climax: Holy crap, it’s Quirrel! All the conflict and questions have led to this point; we see Ron’s skills with chess and Hermione’s unusual intelligence combined with Harry’s flying skills to lead to this amazing moment, in which Harry has to make a choice: to side with evil and possibly get his parents back, or choose to continue to suffer that grief and fight the evil bad guy.
- Falling Action: Harry wakes up in the hospital wing. The major issue of the story was addressed in the climax, but now, Dumbledore wraps up the few loose ends, tells Harry what happened after, and shares some of the consequences of Harry’s decisions. (“What happened down in the dungeons between you and Professor Quirrell is a complete secret, so, naturally the whole school knows” is one of my favorite lines in any book ever.) Oh, and the Gryffindors Win Everything.
- Resolution: Harry’s friendship is renewed. He’s heading back home, looking forward to next year, and while there are still questions and challenges ahead of him, enough has been resolved that the reader can put the book down with a contented sigh. (Or in my case, turn right back to page one and start again. Ahem.) Harry’s new normal has been established.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- Exposition: We’re introduced to the town of Maycomb, to the Finch family (Atticus, Scout, and Jem), and to the setup of racist neighbors in the deep south of 1930s America.
- Rising Action: Atticus, a lawyer, agrees to defend Tom, a black man, on charges of raping a white woman—placing him in direct conflict with pretty much everybody in the town.
- Climax: The courtroom scene. Ouch. Racism wins out over justice, and it looks like Tom is going to be executed. This is horrible, but unfortunately, the only logical conclusion of all the build-up.
- Falling Action: Consequences abound. Tom gets shot in jail; horrible-guy Ewell tries to take revenge on Atticus by killing Atticus’ children; and Atticus’ racist neighbor saves the children’s lives.
- Resolution: In this moment, through Scout’s eyes, we reach a complicated and painful but honest conclusion: everyone (even racist neighbors) is a person with good and bad to them, and injustice is unfortunately a deeply ingrained part of the system. No, it’s not a happy ending by any means, but once again, everything that’s going to be resolved is resolved, questions have been answered, and the reader knows it’s time to put the book down. Scout and Jem’s new normal has been established.
The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett
This isn’t as well-known a book, and it’s tricky because it’s the second book in the series, so I’ll give a little more detail.
- Exposition: We’re introduced to Discworld (a flat world that moves through space on the back of a giant turtle); to wizard Rincewind (a “failed” wizard because a sentient spell has lodged itself in his head, preventing him from learning any other magic); Twoflower (a career tourist who’s the epitome of everything wrong with career tourists); and the Octavo (a book of sentient magic apparently determined to keep Rincewind alive).
- Rising Action: Did we mention the world is ending? The great turtle appears to be heading directly into a star and to her death. Everything is going nuts because of this, from the laws of magic to political and economic structures. It’s chaos everywhere as society breaks down around these characters.
- Climax: An idiot tries to use the Octavo for his own ends, and boy, does that blow up in his face. Just as the great turtle reaches the red star, this idiot’s botched magic goes awry and nearly ruins everything. But then, the spell hiding out in Rincewind’s head makes itself known, leading to one hell of a showdown, and the end of the world is diverted by inches.
- Falling Action: The turtle finally swims away from the red star (having fetched from it a bunch of brand-new baby space turtles); the world returns to normal, including economy and magic; the Octavo’s rogue spell has left Rincewind’s head, allowing him to finally learn other spells; and the career tourist, Twoflower, has decided he’s had enough travel.
- Resolution: Twoflower and Rincewind part ways and Rincewind re-enrolls in the same university that threw him out years before, having come full circle. The reader can put the book down. Yes, there’s more to learn and more characters to follow, but this particular story is resolved and a new normal has been achieved by all.
The Six-Word Story
Remember “For sale: baby shoes, never worn?” I’m insane, so I’m going to tackle this six-word story, too.
- Exposition: This person’s normal: selling items, presumably no longer needed. It’s an ordinary, everyday circumstance everyone can relate to.
- Rising Action: Baby shoes? That could be a happy thing; assumedly, the baby grew out of them. Of course, this raises the stakes. Used baby shoes could be no good for a child, after all, so now we’re not sure we want to purchase them.
- Climax: Never worn. And in this moment, everything comes to a head. It’s the worst possible direction this little story could have taken, and while it answers all the little questions (such as shoe-size; it’s probably newborn), this one moment is the gut-punch in the middle of the story. It even carries a cost with it—and oh, such a horrible cost.
- Falling Action/Resolution: In six words, we don’t have a ton of resolution, but we can come to the conclusion that this seller has a new normal: childless, and selling the items that remind this grieving parent of that child.
(By the way, K.M. Weiland has an incredible database of stories in which she breaks down the plots of movies and books alike. Check it out and enjoy.)
Plot Questions to Ask Yourself
So how do you achieve this amazing plot structure? There are a few simple questions to ask yourself about every scene that can help you whittle away problems and connect what needs connecting.
- For Exposition: What is “normal” at the beginning of this book? Remember, your character needs to grow and change, and the loss of this normal is part of the price paid.
- For Resolution: What is “normal” at the end of this book? After the storm passes and the water calms, what has changed? If you’re writing a series, here’s where you’re establishing what “normal” will look like in the beginning of book two. (Note: you can move this step to the end, but I find it’s really helpful if you know where you’re going as you plan.)
- For Rising Action: What’s at stake? What’s the cost if your protagonist blows it? If you can’t answer this, your reader won’t be able to, either. It needs to be built up enough that your reader cares. It can be good to keep a list of the issues and questions you’re creating in here; there’s nothing more satisfying than to have all the little loose ends wrapped up later.
- For the Climax: How does it all come to a head in the climax? This needs to emotionally be the crux of everything you’ve built up to, and the stakes need to be in genuine danger. If there’s no real threat, then there’s no reason for your reader to care; this climax has to matter, even if it’s about something as simple as selling enough magazines to send a little girl to camp.
- For Falling Action: What’s left to resolve? Be sure to check that list. Yes, you can leave some things unexplained, but there needs to be a reason for it. If your reader feels like there are plot holes—or worse, that you just forgot stuff—she will be quite frustrated. If you craft your falling action right, then your resolution will feel like coasting—naturally, gently—to a stop.
Do you struggle with any of the components of plot? Let me know in the comments.
It’s time to apply this personally: take fifteen minutes and tackle your work in progress. Take one of the components of plot (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution), and show that point in your story. When you’re done, post your practice in the comments. Don’t forget to leave feedback for your fellow writers!