Article Archive


PLOT—Part One: The Big Picture

by Lori L. Lake

Mark Twain once wrote, "Of course truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense." Twain was right. A novel needs to have a discernable internal logic—a plot—and without that, most people won’t want to read it. Of course there have been some famous works that lack this element; Finnegan’s Wake and Swann’s Way come to mind. Does anyone really know what the plots of those novels were? But barring the work of Marcel Proust or James Joyce, a solid plot and narrative structure are critical, particularly in commercial fiction.

So what is plot, and how can writers be sure they have nailed one? This article and subsequent ones in June and July will discuss aspects of plot to answer those questions.

E.M. Forster called a story a "narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence." A story, however, may not contain much of a plot. If you’ve ever had a five- or six-year-old child tell you about a movie she or he has seen, you will understand. "First it was dark, then a big ship came and these silver guys got out, then somebody ran and fell. There was lots of noise, explosions, gunshots, then—oh, and wait—at the beginning, two other guys got killed, and it was all bloody…" Such an accounting, even with the flashback, is episodic—jumping from event to event—like the structure of Dafoe’s novel, Moll Flanders. A story may be episodic, but the plot is insufficient and not fully developed if it does not contain more than just "and then…and then" throughout. It needs to contain an orderly logic that explains more than just the events; it also gives a coherent meaning to the story as a whole.

Forster’s famous line differentiating between story and plot goes something like this: ‘The King died and then the Queen died’ is story; ‘The King died and the Queen died of grief’ constitutes the beginnings of a plot. Story tells events, but plot inserts additional information, including the answer to the question Why? When you get to the end of a well-plotted piece of fiction, you understand character motivations, events, and outcomes.

Plot calls for conflict and for resolution of that conflict within a structure of time. It’s a meandering thread that winds all over, connecting even the most disparate or puzzling scenes from beginning to end, though not necessarily in chronological order. Plot moves the events of the story. It carries the story along, using momentum, action, puzzles to solve, and characters and details to understand. Plot is not static. Modern readers expect it to be compelling, educational, or entertaining—and sometimes all three at once.

Jane Smiley’s novel, A Thousand Acres, is an elaborate, modern example of a strong plot in a book that turned out to be both literary and commercial. A Thousand Acres depicts what happens when aging farmer Larry Cook decides to leave his land and worldly goods to the three daughters he raised on a large farm in Zebulon County, Iowa.

Did you notice that the story summary is accurate but isn’t very compelling? That’s because it is only a description—not a plot. Smiley reveals the plot as you learn about the conflicts and problems that occur in the aftermath of Larry Cook’s decision to cut his youngest daughter out of the will. The events that follow includes family strife, alcoholism, misunderstandings, adultery, death, destruction, and the unearthing of grim family secrets while what initially seemed to be a loving family comes unraveled. The action unfolds in such a way that the reader is never sure of what will happen next, but by the conclusion of the novel, the flow from beginning to middle to end is woven seamlessly into an artful tale that resolves the conflicts and "makes sense."

It is exactly that process of "making sense" that gets at the heart of plot. Plot is what happens when the writer develops a harmonious, interrelated pattern of events and actions that move through time in such a way that the story is fully depicted and engages the reader.

In the 4th Century, Aristotle wrote Poetics, which is considered the first book of literary criticism. He specifically addressed plot, character, language, thought, spectacle, and melody. He was the first to analyze and write down his opinions about plot, and one thing he determined that has tended to remain constant over the centuries is that fiction is a unified action made whole, which usually contains a beginning, a middle, and an end. Ancient writers favored that structure. So do modern writers—but since the late 19th Century, the beginning, middle, and end may not occur in a linear fashion at all. How many times have you read a book that began somewhere near the end, then circled back to the beginning or middle to continue with the story? Or consider the play Waiting For Godot for which there is obviously no ending. Many books and plays start the action without ever telling what came before, and one is left to assume what might have happened in the past to cause characters to become who they are and behave how they do. Anne Tyler’s book about the mixed-up Tull family, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, tells the story in fits and starts, from various characters’ viewpoints, yet by the end, the reader experiences it as a unified whole.

Aristotle also wrote that sub-plots tended to make tragic works inferior, and he discouraged their use. By Shakespeare’s time, however, a major plot (for instance, Beatrice and Benedick’s love story containing much verbal sparring in Much Ado About Nothing) and a secondary plot (Hero and Claudio’s love story) were often utilized. The two plots wove together, and the story line for each affected the other in a myriad of ways. Nowadays, of course, multiple plots make for more complex and richer fiction.

But let’s return to the question, "What exactly is plot?" If you check the Internet or your library’s catalog for books about writing and plot, you will find that most writers, professors, and literary analysts agree that there are a limited number of plots. Some say 36; others, 25 or 40. Ronald Tobias wrote a book called 20 Master Plots (And How To Build Them) in which he outlines what he thinks are the top twenty.

"What?" you say. "Such a small number of plots? That’s not possible!"

But it is possible, and it does make sense that there are a limited number of plots to rely upon. Plot consists of pattern, and we are limited by how many overall patterns we can develop in fiction. The main plot pattern of almost every modern novel can be boiled down to one of only a couple dozen plot lines. Some of these include: revenge, discovery, transformation, good vs. evil, a quest, growth/maturation/coming of age, wretched excess, rescue, disaster, adventure, pursuit, overcoming insurmountable obstacles, greed/pride, solving puzzles/riddles, rivalry, sacrifice, friendship, loss/recovery, ambition, escape, temptation, love, forbidden love, the underdog, and rags-to-riches stories. (There are likely a few more, but these are sufficient basics.)

One of the most common plots of all time is about love. The largest segment of published fiction is, believe it or not, romance. Every romance includes the same general plot: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. Of course many authors play with the plot to conform it to their own vision. Perhaps it’s girl meets girl or boy meets boy. Sometimes maybe the boy gets a different girl in the end—or a kind-hearted alien. In addition, other plots—or dual plots—are often included (coming of age, rivalry, adventure, etc.) But the basic plot is similar, and the differences from book to book exist in the characters, details, and settings.

Another familiar plot example is found in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels. The main plot is the growth, maturation, and coming of age of the young wizard. Sub-plots abound: adventure, friendship, loss/recovery, the underdog, and good vs. evil. When twined together, the main and sub-plots make for a wild and rollicking good read.

Compare a very different book, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. It, too, is about growth, maturation, and coming of age. If you break down the elements of both Rowling’s and Salinger’s books, the main plot patterns are the same: each youth is misunderstood and attempts to make his way in the world in spite of uncaring adults. Through a series of confrontations with others, their stories move from beginning to end and to resolution. But it’s the thoughts and deeds of Harry Potter and Holden Caulfield that distinguish each book as unique.

As a youth, I was mad for mysteries, and I loved Earl Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason series best. Every one of his mysteries seemed new and different to me, and yet the plot to each was the same: somebody was accused of murder and faced insurmountable odds. Without the help of Perry, Della, and Paul, the innocent person would be convicted. Perry and his helpers researched, investigated, and confronted potential witnesses before finally unmasking the guilty party. How many other mysteries have been written based on exactly that same plot?

Not surprisingly, every one of the plots listed above can also be found in the first book ever printed, the Bible. Paraphrasing Ecclesiastes, there’s really "nothing new under the sun," just infinite ways for individual writers to create new variations using the old plots. This provides the possibility of falling in love with another author’s plots and ideas and using them as a springboard into new creations.

It is possible to take the general plot from practically any novel, exchange the characters for creations of your own, place the story in a new locale, add your own details and ideas, and generate a brand new, copyrightable literary sensation. Peter Benchley did this with his novel Jaws, which might be considered his take on Moby Dick. Dorothy Allison wrote Bastard Out Of Carolina, which one could argue comes directly from the tradition of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and Oliver Twist. And the example I used above, A Thousand Acres, is a surprisingly similar retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear, right down to Larry Cook’s three daughters’ names being reminiscent of Lear’s daughters. Regan, Goneril, and Cordelia become Rose, Ginny, and Caroline, and the arc of events is so similar that anyone who has read King Lear notices immediately. Yet A Thousand Acres, its themes, and the characters developed are richer and more fully realized than even Shakespeare managed. Jane Smiley may have lifted the plot, but she produced a fascinating new creation that is compelling and all her own.

To end this first installment about plot, let me quote the words of screenwriter Robert McKee from his book entitled Story: "To PLOT means to navigate through the dangerous terrain of story and when confronted by a dozen branching possibilities to choose the correct path. Plot is the writer’s choice of events and their design in time."

Next installment:

PLOT—Part Two: Navigating Dangerous Terrain
© Lori L. Lake, 2003
Author of the novels Different Dress, Gun Shy, Under The Gun, and Ricochet In Time.
From Lake’s untitled book about novel writing, a work in progress.
Not for distribution or copying without the express permission of the author. Lori Lake can be reached at and welcomes questions and comments.

Back to Article Archive.