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Writing

How to Master the Art of Plot Development

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 4 min read

When a reader picks up a book, they want to be entertained by a great story. It’s a writer’s job to deliver that by crafting an engaging, page-turning plot—the main events of a short story or novel. The secret to developing a great plot? Start strong, keep it moving, and write a satisfying ending.

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What Are the Elements of a Good Plot?

In literature, a plot is the sequence of events that creates a story. A plot begins with an inciting incident—an event that forces the main character to take action and embark on a mission. Conflict and tension arise along the way to shape the plot into a narrative arc. Every plot has five elements that create the story structure, and each has an essential function.

  • Exposition: In the beginning of the story, exposition introduces the main character, setting, conflict, and themes.
  • Rising action: The rising action starts right after the period of exposition and ends at the climax. Beginning with the inciting incident, rising action is the bulk of the plot. It is composed of a series of events that build on the conflict and increase the tension, sending the story racing to a dramatic climax.
  • Climax: The climax of a story happens when the tension reaches a breaking point, forcing the protagonist to face the antagonist and resolve the conflict once and for all.
  • Falling action: After the dramatic confrontation of the climax, the falling action deflates the plot’s tension and gives the character time to unwind after the emotional scene.
  • Resolution: Also called a denouement, the resolution is the end of the story that ties up loose ends. The resolution shows the main character in their new normal, changed by the events of the story.

6 Writing Tips for Developing a Good Plot

Once you have a story idea that you want to develop, start fleshing out how the events of the story play out. For novel writing, you’ll ultimately need a word count of 75,000 to 100,000. To keep a reader engaged for that long, take time to develop a strong action-packed, character-driven plot.

  1. Sketch out a plot outline. Mapping out your plot ideas can streamline your fiction writing process and help you through periods of writer’s block. Start with a freewriting session. Brainstorm scene ideas, story points, and character information. Next, organize your basic ideas into an outline to get your basic plot structure down. Place your major beats into your outline. Create the scenes between these beats to create continuity in your storyline. But having an outline can keep a writer on track through the first draft. If you’re not sure how to start, try the snowflake method for outlining a novel.
  2. Dive right into the action. Your exposition has several important responsibilities. It identifies the main character, establishes the setting and the themes of your story, and launches the plot. You need to write all this in a way that hooks the reader and engages them through the entire novel. One way to do that is by diving right into the action, dropping your reader into the scene in medias res. This sets the pace from the beginning and creates a strong open that engages a reader.
  3. Lay the groundwork for the climax during the rising action. Now that you’ve set the stage, the rising action is where you really build the plot of your story, develop characters, and propel the tension towards the climax. Over the course of the rising action, drop reminders of the conflict that’s driving the plot. Accomplish this by raising the stakes with plot points—dramatic turning points that force the protagonist to make crucial decisions that send the story in new directions. Adding these surprising plot twists keeps the momentum moving. Plot points also help deepen character development by revealing their strengths and flaws.
  4. Create a rich narrative with subplots. A good story has several plotlines running through the narrative. Write subplots to weave in and out of your main plot. A subplot is a shorter side-story that introduces secondary characters, provides a backstory that informs a character's actions and motivations, and supports the themes established in the main plot. Think of the Harry Potter series. J.K. Rowling writes the story arc of Harry’s life complete with subplots. The main storyline of Harry learning to use his wizarding powers against Lord Voldemort at Hogwarts is supported by secondary stories, like playing on the quidditch team.
  5. Leave your readers satisfied. When the tension has reached its peak, it’s time for the climax to resolve the conflict. If you have great exposition and dramatic rising action, then this final face-off between the protagonist and antagonist should be a big payoff. Finally, write an ending that ties up loose ends and closes out character arcs. Readers will be glad they followed the story through to this satisfying resolution.
  6. Read other authors. All great writers employ their own writing style and creative process to develop a plot with the five structural elements. If you want to refine the writing process and learn how to develop a great plot, read other fiction writers. Pick a bestseller, like a Stephen King book, and study it as an example of a plot that plays well to a large audience. Read J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings to study how he creates an epic plot that stretches across a bestselling trilogy that has sold 150 million copies since it was first published in 1954.
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