What I’ve Been Wrestling With:
The Five Elements of Fiction: Plot.
This article is not going to be a recycled definition of what a plot is. We will discuss what a plot is, but instead, I am going to talk about the components that make a “successful” plot and share some techniques you can use to help improve the plot of your own story.
Firstly, just so that we all know what is being discussed, a Plot in a literary setting is defined as:
“...the sequence of events that make up a story, whether it’s told, written, filmed, or sung. The plot is the story, and more specifically, how the story develops, unfolds, and moves in time.”
Given this, what is a “successful” plot?
The term “successful” can be interchanged with satisfying, thematic, and rewarding and largely is attributed to your audience’s reaction throughout your story. There is a great deal that can go into the successfulness of your plot, but for the purpose of what is going to be discussed later in this article, think of this in terms of familiarity. There is a balance in having genre awareness and unpredictability. You should strive to create mystery, suspense, and revelations while maintaining emotional cohesion and balance. And finally, having a feeling of resolution that makes thematic sense.
As an example, Joseph Cambell’s hero’s journey is among the most recognizable story templates and has been used over and over. Possible, most famously, Star Wars and The Odyssey are its greatest champions.
The Basics of Plot Structure
Plot is often an all-encompassing term referring to the structure of your story, the type of conflict present, as well as the sequential events taking place. We have all seen the stock “mountain-esque” figure (Freytag’s Figure) showing the exposition (beginning), rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution (end). This figure can be useful at times, but it really only scratches the surface in story development. Don’t think of it as being useless, only the beginning.
Sometimes, when we are beginning our story, we need to start at the macro level before we can delve into the micro details. Having a general understanding of your story’s arc can help in breaking it down further. As an exercise, try outlining your story broadly, keeping in mind a specific scene tied to each component of the structure. From there, you can take the next step and begin working on a more advanced breakdown of your plot.
Advanced View of Plot Structure
So, you understand the basics of plot structure and maybe even decided to implement Freytag’s Figure, getting an idea for each major beat (introduction/hook, climax, and resolution).
Well, for some that might be enough to begin plotting their story’s scenes and writing, but it would be wise to assume even those people have a deeper understanding of advanced plot structure. When I say advanced plot structure, I am now talking about the more micro concepts relating to plot. A traditional view of this maps very well to the three-act structure and includes The Hook, The First Act, The First Plot Point, The Inciting Event, The First Half of the Second Act, Midpoint, The Second Half of the Second Act, The Third Act, The Climax, and the Resolution.
I am not going to go into each of these individually (perhaps later on), but a great article that goes into great depth reviewing and explaining each point is here. Developing a scene(s) around each of these plot points will help you in achieving a satisfying thematic arc recognizable to your reader.
Conflict and Tension Drives Plot
In closing, even if you have an understanding of the basics and advanced plot structure, you still need conflict. Conflict and tension are what will drive your plot. Conflict and tension keep the reader engaged keeping them interested and invested in the story’s resolution (the end). Balancing tension and resolution in and of itself is an art/science in storytelling. Just from a macro level, while considering your plot’s overall structure, consider what sort of conflict is present at each moment, and thematically present throughout your story. Some are more obvious than others, and others are more prevalent in different genres.
- Internal—Struggle with a force—or slack of—within one’s self. (Character vs. Self)
- External—Struggling with a force outside of one’s self. (Character vs. Character, Character vs. Nature, Character vs. Society)
Within each scene, there needs to be some sort of conflict and some sort of information gained. Think about what the reader knows, what they don’t know, and what they will need to know. This can become a balancing act as well and even be overwhelming to think of while writing, but before you begin writing the scene jot down where the tension will come from and ask, what is at stake?
Through practice, all of this will come easier.
So Try Wrestling With This:
Practice plotting out a story (a current work in progress or something totally new) using Freytag’s Figure. After that, try going further, breaking down your story’s plot using the more advanced structure. Think then of the conflict and tension between each beat. Let me know what you came up with and if this helps!