Headaches and bad faith is all that I’ve got
First I misplaced the ending
Then I lost the plot
While it isn’t the most famous of the band’s songs, it is nonetheless a poignant reminder never to lose focus of what is truly important in life or, for that matter, in story writing. Since the song is stuck in my head and since I talked last month about character development, I thought now might be a good time to discuss the importance of plot in a story.
So, some of you might ask, what is a plot? A plot is a just fancy word for the series of events that get your character or characters from the beginning of the story to the end of the story.
Imagine for a moment that a story is like a photograph. In a photo, you have a main subject on whom you want your audience to focus and you have the subject’s surroundings. Likewise the story’s main character (also known as a protagonist) is the story’s subject and the plot is what happens around and to the protagonist. Your main character should be interesting enough to capture the audience’s attention over any other part of the story, but your subject should also become even more interesting when viewed in the context of the larger picture of events (the plot).
Do you think that the hobbit Frodo in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series would have been proved as strong of a character if he had not endured the journey through the Mines of Moria, the death of Boromir, the trek through Mordor, or the hike up Mount Doom so that he could destroy the One Ring? I don’t.
Likewise would the namesake character of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series ever have been able to solve the riddle of the Deathly Hallows if he and his friends had not spent the past six years studying and surviving all of the magical mysteries of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry? Rowling’s books are known the world over first for her title character Harry Potter and second for the extraordinary world and the intricate series of events into which he is continually thrust. In short, stories must start with memorable characters and end with intricate, well-crafted plots in order to survive in the imaginations and memories of readers.
No matter the story type (genre), all plots revolve around characters faced some form of conflict. The conflict can come from an inner conflict like a personal moral crisis (“Should I really do this?”) or an external conflict such as fighting in a war, dealing with a bully, winning over the dream girl, etc.
Some say that there are only a certain number of basic plots in all of literature, and that any story is really just a variation on these plots. I will only say that any plot you choose must have a clear conflict at its core in order to drive the story forward. I’ve included several of others’ “basic” plot examples to help you choose which situations you want your characters to undergo. Feel free to mix and match these plots so that they best suit your story.
The 7 Basic Plots:
[wo]man vs. nature
[wo]man vs. [wo]man
[wo]man vs. the environment
[wo]man vs. machines/technology
[wo]man vs. the supernatural
[wo]man vs. self
[wo]man vs. god/religion
The 20 Basic Plots (As discussed by Ronald B. Tobias in his book 20 Master Plots):
The 36 Basic Plots (As discussed by Georges Polti in his book The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations as translated by Lucille Ray):
Crime Pursued by Vengeance
Vengeance taken for kindred upon kindred
Falling Prey to Cruelty of Misfortune
Enmity of Kinsmen
Rivalry of Kinsmen
Involuntary Crimes of Love (think: Oedipus unwittingly marrying his mother and like problems)
Slaying of a Kinsman Unrecognized
Self-Sacrificing for an Ideal
Self-Sacrifice for Kindred
All Sacrificed for Passion
Necessity of Sacrificing Loved Ones
Rivalry of Superior and Inferior
Crimes of Love
Discovery of the Dishonor of a Loved One
Obstacles to Love
An Enemy Loved
Conflict with a God
Recovery of a Lost One
Loss of Loved Ones
You can find out more about these and other plot examples by visiting: http://www.ipl.org/div/farq/plotFARQ.html
Short stories usually have a single plot while longer stories like novellas (stories between 17,501 and 40,000 words long) and novels (stories 40,001 words and longer) tend to have a main plot that drives all story characters toward a certain ending as well as several subplots that challenge and change each character individually.
Whether a writer needs one plot or more than one to drive a story, there are certain events that help guide each plot. Aside from an essential conflict, all story plots require some form of the following sequence: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement.
Exposition. In this case, exposition means an introduction to the story and the characters. In order for readers to understand the events of Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling had to first show them Harry’s world. She does this by weaving descriptions of characters, places, and history into the story.
Rising action. This is term used for the series of plot events that cause more and more conflict to develop in the story. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, for example, we watch young Harry go with Hagrid to take something out of a vault at Gringotts Wizarding Bank and bring it to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry for safekeeping. Then someone breaks into that same vault to try to steal the mysterious object that Hogwarts teachers are now protecting. After that several other strange and scary events happen at the school like the appearance of a troll in a girl’s bathroom or the death of unicorns in the Forbidden Forest. It is up to Harry and his friends to find out why these events are occurring and to put a stop to the villain behind them.
Climax. The climax is the most exciting and important part of the story, to which all of the story’s rising action finally leads. The climax usually occurs near the story’s end. In the book Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the climax happens when Harry confronts the dark wizard Voldemort for the first time and tries to keep him from taking the Sorcerer’s Stone from Hogwarts.
Falling action. The plot events that lead from the story’s climax to its end are collectively called the falling action. When Harry finishes recuperating in the hospital after his confrontation with Voldemort and then he and his friends win the house cup at the school’s end-of-year feast, this is the falling action.
Denouement. Also called the conclusion, a denouement is the final outcome of the main plot. Again using Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for my example, the book’s denouement would be when we see Harry part ways with his friends at the train station and begin his summer holiday.
The type of fiction you write will determine the depth of the plot you’ll need. Some stories like mysteries and thrillers require a very intensive plot with many twists and turns. Other stories like mainstream romances follow a simplified plotline: the female protagonist and the male protagonist meet each other (exposition), they fall in love (rising action), some problem tests their new relationship almost to the breaking point (climax), they find a way overcome the conflict and fix their strained relationship (climax/falling action), and they end the story with renewed love for each other (falling action/denouement).
No matter what story you decide to write or what characters you want to use, using and expanding the basic principles of plot structure will help you craft a well-written, believable story. I hope this article has helped your understanding of plot and its purpose in a story.
Until our next meeting, may we each rewrite our world for the better!
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