How to write a plot

What Is a Plot?

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When we talk of a story’s plot, we typically refer to the sequence of cause and effect events that make up the storyline.

The plot is arguably the most critical element of a story, though it does have one particularly tough competitor in the shape of the character-driven narrative.

Character-Driven vs. Plot Driven Narratives

These two types of stories account for the narrative structures of the vast majority of books, movies, plays, and TV dramas. They represent two distinct approaches to storytelling. For students to get good at writing great plots, they should first learn to distinguish between these two perspectives on storytelling.

Character-driven stories focus primarily on the who of the story. They predominantly concern themselves with the inner lives of their protagonists and on how events in the outside world affect them psychologically.

In character-driven stories, we follow the struggles and experiences of the story’s characters which usually culminate in a climax that results in a profound change in the life or psychology of the main character. 

The key element of this type of story is character development, and it is commonly found in literary fiction.

THE STORY TELLERS BUNDLE OF TEACHING RESOURCES

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A MASSIVE COLLECTION of resources for narratives and story writing in the classroom covering all elements of crafting amazing stories. WEEKS WORTH OF WRITING LESSONS AND RESOURCES including:

  • Narrative Fundamentals
  • Complete Story Writing Units
  • Elements of Story Writing Introductory Unit
  • Creating great Characters & Setting
  • Advanced Story Writing Unit
  • Story Elements Unit Advanced

Famous Character-Driven Stories

  • The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
  • The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  • Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse
  • Raging Bull
  • The Godfather

Plot-driven stories focus more on the events that happen in a story rather than the psychological impact on the characters.

Though cause and effect are fundamental to plot-driven narratives, writers will frequently try to surprise the reader with plot twists to prevent things from becoming too predictable. For this reason, plot-driven stories are often jam-packed with action and can be complex in terms of storyline.

Here, external events drive the action rather than internal changes within the characters.

We find the plot as the main element of many Hollywood blockbusters and bestselling paperbacks.

Famous Plot-Driven Stories

  • Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien
  • Jurrasic Park by Michael Crichton
  • Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
  • Jaws
  • Speed

However, whether a story is primarily plot-driven or character-driven, it will require both well-drawn characters and a solidly constructed plot if it’s to be a good story. 

In the rest of this article, we’ll look at the main elements of the plot, some specific types of plots, and how students can create great plots for their own fantastic stories. 

We’ll also make some suggestions for activities that will help students hone their skills in these areas.

What Are the Main Elements of Plot?

There are six main elements of plot for students to identify and master. These are:

  1. Exposition
  2. Conflict or Inciting Incident
  3. Rising Action
  4. Climax
  5. Falling Action
  6. Resolution

Below, you’ll find an outline of each element in turn, but if you want to explore these elements in greater detail with your students, check out Our Complete Guide to Narrative Writing here

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1. Exposition

Exposition is all about laying the groundwork. In the first paragraphs, the writer sets the scene and introduces the main characters. The exposition orients the reader to the fictional world they are entering.

2. Conflict/Inciting Incident

Every story needs a problem to drive the plot forward. We call this the ‘conflict’ or ‘inciting incident.’ At this stage of the narrative, an incident happens, or a conflict occurs that sees the main character facing a challenge of some sort. This breaks the normality established in the exposition by setting in motion a chain of events that will form the story’s plot.

3. Rising Action

The conflict/inciting event sets off a sequence of causally linked episodes that gradually amp up the dramatic tension as the story builds towards the climax. This process of building tension through raising the stakes is referred to as the rising action.

4. Climax

The climax is the dramatic high point of the story where everything comes to a head. This is where the story’s conflict will ultimately be resolved, usually in a moment of high excitement.

5. Falling Action

As the dramatic tension gets released in the excitement of the climax, the narrative begins to wind down. As the dust settles on the climactic scene, we begin to see the consequences on the characters and the world around them.

6. Resolution/Denouement

Sometimes known as the denouement, the resolution is the plot’s final section where the conflict’s loose ends are tied up. This section has a finality as it serves to establish new normalcy in the wake of the recent events.

7 Basic Plot Types and Writing Prompts

In the book world, we commonly find plot-driven genre fiction topping the paperback bestseller lists. In fact, most of the popular fiction known as ‘genre fiction’ is plot-driven. 

Genre fiction comes in many forms, for example, science fiction, romance, fantasy, thrillers, and horror, to name but a few.

Whatever the genre, we find many of the same plot types recurring within the well-thumbed pages of these most popular of books. For students to write their own great plots, they’ll need to understand the time-tested 7 basic patterns that plots follow.

Let’s take a look at the most common of these plot types along with a writing prompt to get your students to write an example of each.

i. Tragedy

A genre with ancient roots, tragedies focus on events of great sorrow, suffering, distress and/or destruction. With roots in ancient Greek drama, tragedy treats the plot and the themes it raises with a serious and somber tone.

Examples: Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Prompt: A story opens with the hero’s untimely death. Can the student go back and tell the story of how events led to such a tragedy?

ii. Comedy

For the ancient Greeks, comedy represented the dramatic opposite of tragedy. Where tragedy is serious and somber, comedy is light-hearted and humorous. Comedy has many subgenres, including parody, farce, satire, slapstick, romantic comedy, screwball, and even dark humor.

Examples: A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.

Prompt: There is a man who, due to a rare condition, cannot lie. No matter how desperately he wants to avoid telling the truth, he just cannot lie. What happens next?

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iii. The Quest

As its name suggests, the quest plotline involves a journey of some sort to find a particular person, place, or item. Sometimes the quest is in pursuit of fame or fortune. Often, the thing being sought isn’t as important as the drama that happens along the way.

Examples: The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark

Prompt: A young girl escapes from her unhappy home and her mean stepmother in search of a better future. Write what happens to her.

iv. The Voyage and Return

In some ways similar to the quest, except there is the added element of the return home. Typically, the hero enters a new land (often magical) where things are very different. Eventually, the hero, changed by events, returns home. Having learned some important lessons, they bring that new knowledge or discovery back home with them.

Examples: Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L Frank Baum

Prompt: A prince is engaged to be married to a princess. She has been kidnapped by an evil rival. The prince must journey to find her with the hopes of bringing her home.

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v. The Monster

In this type of plot, the hero must eliminate the threat posed by some sort of beast or evil entity such as a dragon, vampire, ghost, or demon. By destroying this monster, the hero will restore order and safety to the world.

Examples: Dracula by Bram Stoker, Jack and the Beanstalk (Traditional)

Prompt: The sea beast arises from the dark depths of the oceans and develops a taste for human flesh. The hero must find a way to stop this evil predator before his whole village is wiped out.

vi. Rebirth

Here, we witness the events leading to the redemption and rebirth of the main character who previously struggled with their place in the world. At the end of this type of story, there is a shift where the world is restored to a balance.

Examples: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, Lion King

Prompt: A cruel orphanage owner stumbles across a foundling in the forest. This event sets in action a chain of events that leads to the orphanage owner’s redemption. Write what happens.

vii. Rags to Riches

This plot type charts the hero’s rise from humble origins through adversity to the heights of fame and fortune.

Examples: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, The Pursuit of Happyness

Prompt: A neglected child escapes from her unhappy home and struggles to provide for herself in the cold, uncaring city. One day, she meets an unlikely benefactor, beginning a sequence of events that will forever change her life. Write what happens.

How to Write a Great Plot: A Step-by-Step Process

Step 1: Generate Some Ideas

A story begins with the seed of an idea. Students can begin this process by deciding on one of the basic plot types above and then brainstorming a list of five events that might ignite a story.

Encourage the students to draw on their own life experiences, that of their friends and family members, and on things they’ve read about or seen on the news, for example.

Step 2: Create a Premise

Once they have the initial germ of an idea, it’s time to get the premise written down. The premise is a few sentences that express the proposed plot of the story in simple terms.

Step 3: Choose Characters and a Setting

Now it’s time to create the characters and choose the settings for the tale’s action to be played out. Writing brief character profiles, including some bullet points of their backstories can be a great way to help the student build believable characters. 

For settings, creating a collage from photos, pictures, and illustrations can be an effective way to inspire vivid descriptions in the student’s work.

With these elements in place, the students can begin writing the exposition part of their stories.

Step 4: Introduce the Central Conflict 

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No problem = no story!

Whether it’s called the central conflict, problem, or inciting incident, the student now needs to introduce it to anchor the plot and begin creating tension in the story.

At this point, examining this element in well-known stories in the same genre will be helpful for the student.

Ask the students to think about their favorite books and movies. Can they identify the central conflict in each? 

Step 5: Map Out a Path to the Resolution

With the central conflict firmly in place, a set of logical cause and effect dominoes now need to be set up to take the plotline up the ladder of rising action to the climax and subsequent resolution.

Storyboarding is a highly effective way of helping students visualize their plot arc before committing to writing. Remind students of the importance of ensuring each scene connects causally.

When the climax has been reached, the dust will settle in the falling action to reveal the consequences of the actions and see a new normalcy established in the resolution.

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The End

Following the structural elements laid out above, in combination with the conventions of a basic plot type chosen from the seven types above, students should be well-placed to construct a well-ordered plotline.

If the above description of how to write a great plot seems too prescriptive at first, it’s worth noting that there is considerable creative freedom within the structures described in this article.

The plot types listed above have been identified from the shapes and patterns of thousands of our favorite tales told across the centuries, rather than being templates that are laid out to be studiously followed. As humans, we are pattern-recognizing machines. It is in patterns that we find meaning.

Once students get used to these underlying structures, they can begin to let their imaginations run away with them, safe in the knowledge that a coherent story will emerge from their bursts of creativity.