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What Is a Story Plot?
The plot is what happens in a story. However, a plot is not a simple sequence of events.
- A strong plot is centered on one moment—an interruption of a pattern, a turning point, or an action—that raises a dramatic question, which must be answered throughout the course of the story. This is also known as plot A.
- Every element of the plot—each scene, each line—exists in service of answering that question. There are myriad plot devices that can bolster the main story; these are considered subplots.
7 Types of Plots
The nature of the dramatic question informs the plot and what kind of story it will be. Are the characters threatened by something external or internal? What genre will the story be?
- Tragedy. In a tragedy, your main character should undergo a major change of fortune — almost always from good to bad, happy to sad. Tragic characters have to suffer.
- Comedy. In comedy, even though your characters have defects, their defects should never wind up being painful or destructive. Comic characters make it through unscathed.
- Hero’s Journey. In a “hero’s journey,” the hero of a story must undergo two things: recognition and reversal of a situation. Something has to happen from the outside that inspires the hero in a way that he/she didn’t realize before. Then he has to undertake a quest to solve the situation.
- Rags to Riches. Remember Cinderella? The classic fairy tale follows a simple rags-to-riches plot: the protagonist is downtrodden, impoverished, or otherwise struggling, and through a series of events--either magical, like in the case of Harry Potter, or more realistic, like in Great Expectations--achieves success. This type of plot often features a happy ending.
- Rebirth. The rebirth style of plot follows a character’s transformation from bad to good. The character will frequently have a tragic past that informs their current negative view of life, however, a series of events (usually set in motion by the protagonist or a narrator) will help them see the light. See: Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, or the Beast in Beauty and the Beast.
- Overcoming the Monster. Otherwise known as the good versus evil plot, this type of story features a protagonist (good) fighting an antagonist (evil). The protagonist can be a singular character or a group united in their mission. The antagonist is generally a big, bad evil (like Darth Vader in Star Wars) who continuously throws obstacles in the protagonist’s way—until the final battle.
- Voyage and Return. This plot is a simple point A to point B and back to point A plot. The protagonist sets off on a journey, only to return to his or her starting point having gained wisdom and experience (and sometimes treasure too). Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist is a beloved contemporary illustration of this plot.
How to Outline a Story Plot: Three-Act Structure
At its core, plot structure has three parts: a beginning, middle, and end. Each part has its own purpose and challenge. Aristotle was the first to formulate this now well-worn formula in Poetics. He put it this way: “A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end.”
In other words, your audience should be able to watch your story without being distracted with wondering what happened before the story started, what more happened after it ended, or how the characters got from the beginning to the end. Acclaimed dramatists Aaron Sorkin and David Mamet both consider Aristotle’s Poetics to be the primary guide to writing good storylines.
- Beginning. The beginning of your novel has to accomplish a lot. It must introduce the hero, the villain, and the world of the story, as well as the story’s dramatic question, and it must do this with enough energy to grab your reader’s interest right away. A prologue can be useful for seizing the reader’s attention.
- Middle. Your job during the middle of the story is to make the hero’s quest as difficult as possible so that at every moment it seems less likely that the hero will triumph. You must raise the stakes along the way and create obstacles of ever-increasing intensity while keeping your eye firmly fixed on your conclusion. The different plot points can include the basic plot, plus various subplots. The main plot of a story always has to build up to the resolution.
- End. The end of your story answers the dramatic question, which already has your ending hidden within it. For example, if your question is: Will Ahab catch the whale? Then your story’s finale will be the moment when he does. Often, tension evaporates in the middle of a novel, so it’s a good idea to write your ending first. It may not be perfect, and you can always change it later, but it’s useful to know the climax to which your characters are headed. Having that destination will help you stay focused during the “middle muddle.”
What Is Freytag’s Pyramid?
German novelist Gustav Freytag expanded on Aristotle’s concept of plot by adding two additional components to the beginning, middle, and end: rising action and falling action. Freytag’s dramatic arc, also known as Freytag’s Pyramid, includes the following:
- Exposition. This is the beginning of the story.
- Rising action. Once the story has begun, it is important to create tension by raising the stakes. You must raise the stakes along the way and create obstacles of ever-increasing intensity while keeping your eye firmly fixed on your conclusion.
- Climax (middle). The pinnacle of your plot.
- Falling action. The falling action occurs after the climax but before the end. Falling action frequently depicts the protagonist dealing with the consequences or fallout of the climax. The falling action is when the protagonist ties up loose ends and heads toward the conclusion. It is also referred to as the denouement.
- Resolution. This is the end of the story.
9 Ways to Raise the Stakes in Your Plot
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Whatever situation your hero is facing at the start of the middle section should become worse.
If the story itself falters, remember that the stakes have to grow increasingly higher for your protagonist. Throw obstacles into their path, even if you don’t know how they’ll surmount them. Sometimes, forcing your characters into a corner can stimulate your problem-solving skills.
- Create physical danger.
- Create secondary characters who bring new tensions to the story.
- Introduce new problems.
- Give a character a complicated history or situation.
- Create obstacles for your hero.
- Complicate things.
- Remind the reader of the stakes.
- Find ways to keep your protagonist moving from one location to another.
- Add time pressure, like a ticking bomb.
Margaret Atwood’s Plot Generator
The Handmaid’s Tale author Margaret Atwood provides an example of a plot, along with the various ways the story can change depending on which type of plot lines the writer chooses to follow.
The pattern of the story is this: John and Mary are living happily in their split-level bungalow. Based on this pattern, there are four different plots you could try:
- John and Mary are living happily in their split-level bungalow. And then one day, a strange green light is seen in the sky. And a canister descends to Earth right behind their house, and out of it comes a tentacled monster. What will they do?
- John and Mary are living happily in their split-level bungalow but then Mary begins to suspect: Is John cheating on her?
- John and Mary are living happily in their split-level bungalow. Then John discovers that Mary is mysteriously absent during parts of the night and has developed an alarming tendency to sleep in the bathtub with all the curtains drawn. What has happened? What are those strange white fangs that have appeared? Could it be that Mary is a vampire? What is John going to do? And what about the children? Have they inherited this tendency or not?
- John and Mary are living happily in their split-level bungalow, but they're running out of money. What are they going to do? “I know,” says John. “Let's rob a bank.”
3 Writing Exercises to Create a Good Plot for Your Story
Now that you have the elements of plot down, try your hand at writing your own story with the following exercise. In a notebook, write down:
- Ten events that might spark a story. They don’t have to be big: these could be things that happened to you or someone you know, or items you read about in the news.
- Ten characters. These might be characters you’ve already worked with, people you’ve seen but never spoken to, or perhaps historical figures that fascinate you.
- Ten classic stories: folktales, fairy tales, myths, or maybe family stories that were passed down to you. No need to detail them; just list a few words that sum up the story.
Now take one item from each list—one event, one character, and one existing story shell— and begin a new short story. What happens when you drop a character of your own invention into a very old folktale? How does your personal event permit you to play with the foundational folktale?
If you have an existing novel or short story you’re working on, keep these lists at hand for when you’re feeling stuck. Sometimes an uninvited character or outside narrative can illumine or clear a path in your story that’s worth following. Acclaimed author Margaret Atwood has spent decades honing her craft. In her MasterClass on creative writing, Margaret teaches aspiring writers how to develop plot, characters, and setting for their own literary works.
Want to become a better writer? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides access to exclusive video lessons taught by literary masters, including Margaret Atwood, R.L. Stine, Dan Brown, Joyce Carol Oates, and more.