Last month we examined some of the definitions and elements of
plot. This month we will continue the exploration. We are now on
dangerous terrain—not because plots themselves are particularly
perilous—but because the process of plotting is fraught with
multiple traps and the real possibility of falling into a sinkhole
from which you cannot extract yourself. Without a general
understanding—that is, a map—for plotting, a novel may meander off
and lose the reader completely.
I defined plot in this way:
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
In addition, I very clearly told you that there were a limited
number of plots to be had. With the definition above and those few
dozen types of plots, you would think the process of plotting would
be fairly simple, but of course, this is not true. Instead, the
process of creating a complex story that is harmonious and unified
turns out to be more complicated than many writers expect. This is
because plotting is merely one element of the writing, and it is
woven into other elements (characterization, point of view, scene
setting, etc.). Above all, plotting is inextricably bound with
another aspect of writing: structure.
Reading and analyzing the work of other skilled writers will help
you take in the form and structure of a novel, but it doesn’t work
like osmosis. You cannot put your head on a prized book and let the
elements just flow in, and merely reading a well-plotted,
effectively structured book won’t unlock the secrets. You must take
apart others’ work, section by section, for it is only then that you
can see the patterns. What do those patterns reveal? Despite wide
differences in character, setting, dialogue, tone, and style, the
structure of any one novel is not so very different from that of the
In the 1960s, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart commented that
he wasn’t sure how to define hard-core pornography, "But I know it
when I see it." A well-structured plot produces exactly the same
response. We know it when we see it, and if we are promised one plot
and don’t get it, we are left wanting: we may feel very disappointed
or cheated. Read some of the book reviews on Amazon.com: "I bought
this book because it was described as a rollicking adventure with a
little romance. Instead, it is packed with mushy, purple prose that
went on and on—and adventure? What adventure! This book was bad."
This is definitely NOT the response we want!
In order to avoid that sort of reaction, a writer needs to know
and understand where the story is going and to ensure that the flow
makes sense from beginning to end. If your gothic mystery turns into
a sci-fi adventure complete with alien landings, and the heroine
goes off on a quest that turns into an erotic encounter with
half-human aliens who help her solve the original mystery, you had
better bill the book as such or readers will be dissatisfied and
According to Aristotle, stories with effective plots show "the
successful change from one status quo to another, to the emotional
satisfaction" of the reader. That’s not very clear, is it? Sounds to
me like the process is left wide open. But Aristotle also went on to
talk about the structure of the work. He was referring to Greek
plays, but even after all these centuries, his basic analysis has
held up and is transferable to fiction. The human race has always
been storytellers. Since back in the Stone Age when our ancestors,
clad in animal skins, sat around the fire and related tales, certain
kinds of stories have remained constant. Novels nowadays (whether
genre or not) tend to impart those stories by using variations of a
structure sometimes referred to as Aristotle’s Story Arc. In its
simplest form, it looks like this:
- Initial setup: place, character(s), point of view,
- Character explication: wants/needs/intent are described
- Rising action: in other words, "stuff starts happening"
- Reversals: also known as "plot points" or complications
- Recognition: changes occur and choices have to be made
- Climax: when status quo shifts from one state to
- Falling action: as loose ends are tied up
- Denouement: resolution leads to the
Contrary to appearances, this is not a formula, but strangely
enough, most fiction contains these eight elements. If you aren’t
sure whether to believe me, go to a garage sale or used bookstore
and pick up a novel you’ve read before. Remove the spine so that the
pages are loose. Now skim along through the pages and separate them
into eight piles, each representing the structural bullets above. If
you lay out the book in front of you in its basic time sequence, you
will very likely see that the structure above holds true.
While you will find writers of "literature" toying with the
structure, in most forms of genre fiction it’s not that common for
items 2 through 8 to stray far from that basic order. The initial
setup might be delayed since authors often start in the middle of
the action (in media res) in order to hook you, then go back
and explain the character, setting, etc. In addition, clever authors
may employ some scene-telling from various points of view, so you
may see items 2 through 5 shifted around or literally shuffled
together. But the essential elements remain the same.
Any one or all of these eight phases of the book may be short—or
long. Some folks spend tons of time on the setup; others hardly tell
you a thing and let you discern it, as you are muddling through with
the character. You’ll find writers who are descendants of Dickens
and tell you scads of information at each and every juncture; others
are minimalist and give the barest sketches of detail. Sometimes the
Climax or the Resolution is understated; sometimes it’s explosive or
melodramatic or tragic. There may also be flashbacks, flash-aheads,
premonitions, or narrative explication outside of the structure, but
over and over you will find the development of the plot occurs
within the confines of Aristotle’s Story Arc.
Study and analysis of successful fiction may teach you more than
formal training. This is why reading is so important. In order to
learn about the elements of writing, an author needs to see examples
of good writing—and bad writing, too. I think I learned more about
how not to write from reading the slush pile at a publishing
house than I learned in my entire master’s degree program. Just take
two books (preferably one where the plot and structure are great and
another where you think the author missed the mark), and skim
through each with Aristotle’s Arc in mind. One of my pet peeves,
particularly with mysteries, is when the author’s execution of
points 1 through 6 is wonderful, and then the Falling Action skimps
on tying up the loose ends. Even worse, I have seen a number of
mysteries lately that skip the Denouement. The resolution is rushed,
leaving me with a vague sense of dissatisfaction. Granted, many of
the books are part of a series, but it could be a year before I see
the next book, and I’d like to finish the latest installment feeling
I got the whole story from at least that episode.
Other authors have recently discussed this theory of plot and
structure with me. While some writers tend to agree, others take
issue, saying art cannot be condensed in this way. I would argue the
point using photography as an example.
From experience with a camera and from seeing many pictures, we
have all developed a sense of what an effective photograph looks
like. We know it includes pleasant lighting, proper framing of the
people or objects, clarity, and depth of field, and it catches the
eye while engaging the mind. We’ve all seen blurry photos taken out
of the car window or shots of the side of the washer snapped by five
year olds. It’s immediately apparent that such photos aren’t
Three people with cameras at a wedding will snap
a variety of pictures of the wedding party, but once all the shots
are developed and compared, the majority will be remarkably similar
in the way they are composed. The ones that go in the garbage are
dark or blurry, contain bizarre facial expressions, seem angled
strangely, or are off-kilter in some way. The photos in the keeper
pile show people pleasantly posed, grouped with some border around
them, and the photos are focused clearly.
viewing the pix will select the very same photos as keepers and toss
the others. Why is that? The three camera hounds didn’t confer in
advance about how they’d take the pictures, and nobody put up a list
of the Standard Operational Procedures, and yet, with only slight
variation, everyone seems to have a common agreement as to which
pictures are good enough to keep and which are not.
Whether we are talking about painting or musical composition or
writing or photography—all of which are subjective in so many
ways—there is still an underlying form beneath each piece. In novel
writing, that form takes shape in the way the structure reveals the
plot. So it’s not just the plot that clues us into the story. Plot
and structure work hand-in-hand to fulfill the promise your story
displays at the outset. The natural question now would be: How then
does a writer develop and work with the plot?
Once a writer selects a plot—or multiple plot lines for the
story—characters must be imagined to carry out the plot; and in
rapid succession, those characters need to find themselves in the
middle of a muddle. If all’s right with your fictional world, there
won’t be much of a plot, and few people will want to read your work.
Conflict is truly the stuff of which fiction is made, and the
resolution or handling of the conflict is what gives a story
narrative drive and compels the reader to keep reading. As in
Aristotle’s Story Arc, the protagonist runs into problems; conflicts
worsen with others, self, or both; things get complicated and messy;
and some (or all) of the protagonist’s needs, desires, or goals are
thwarted or satisfied. If you choose to, you can have more than one
round of such conflicts before the final denouement.
As you keep all that in mind, here are four ways you can jump
into your story’s plot without falling on a landmine:
From the beginning – Or, as said in Alice In
Wonderland: "‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said gravely,
‘and go on till you come to the end: then stop.’" Start with the earliest event that affects your characters
and carry the story forward chronologically.
Many writers find this easiest because the
time sequence is clear and easy to write.
May be too simplistic. Modern readers are
sophisticated, and many enjoy sorting through a labyrinthine plot
Before the main character knows what’s happening – We, the readers, see the character going about
his or her business in some interesting way, long before the
Great for establishing a narrative point of
view and for showing setting, character, and tone. Gives background
that is useful for the unfolding of later events.
May lack immediacy. The writing needs to be
very attractive or the reader may grow impatient while awaiting the
complications. "Interesting" is the key word here. If it’s not
engaging and compelling, the reader won’t read on.
In media res – Start right in the
middle of the action with little or no exposition about how the
characters got into the pickle in which the reader finds them.
Later, by narration, dialogue, and/or flashbacks, you can firm up
the events that occurred previous to the opening scene.
Readers may be hooked because the drama or
action dial is set at high from the beginning. Allows for creation
of complex structure because of the need for showing the effects of
both past and future events.
Depending on the type of scene, it may be
difficult to maintain intensity. If that is the only excitement of
the book, the reader may be disappointed as you have raised their
expectations of the level of conflict and action. We’ve all read
stories that started out with a bang, then slid down into
insufferable pages of not-so-interesting back story. It’s important
to avoid that.
From the end – Start near the end.
Describe the outcome based upon prior events not yet told, then go
back and tell the story.
Properly done, this can rouse the curiosity
of readers causing them to wonder how in the world the character
managed to end up in the final situation.
Usually only works if the final outcome was
negative or especially quirky. It’s a gamble to tell the end
Openings, at the very least, pose these three questions:
1. What kind of plot can the reader expect? (This is a major
reason why the synopsis on the back ought to be carefully crafted so
that it reflects what really happens in the book.)
2. Who are the characters, and in what way will they (or the
author) tell the story? (Point of view is critical here.)
3. Is the rendering of this plot interesting enough to compel the
reader to read on? (Perhaps the most important question of all.)
But what happens after the opening, and how can a writer keep
track of the plot and structure? Stay tuned for answers to this
question and practical ideas for plotting in next month’s conclusion
to this three-part article.
PLOT—Part Three: © Lori L. Lake,
2003 - Associate Editor of
and Consulting the Maps