Article Archive


PLOT—Part Two: Navigating Dangerous Terrain

by Lori L. Lake

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 reader.

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 next.

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 "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 even angry.

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:

  1. Initial setup: place, character(s), point of view, setting, etc.
  2. Character explication: wants/needs/intent are described
  3. Rising action: in other words, "stuff starts happening"
  4. Reversals: also known as "plot points" or complications
  5. Recognition: changes occur and choices have to be made
  6. Climax: when status quo shifts from one state to another
  7. Falling action: as loose ends are tied up
  8. Denouement: resolution leads to the ending

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 "keepers."

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.

Most people 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 and structure.

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 conflict begins.

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 first.

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.

Next installment:

PLOT—Part Three:
Making Plans and Consulting the Maps

© Lori L. Lake, 2003 - Associate Editor of Just About Write
From her untitled book about novel writing, a work in progress.
Not for distribution or copying without the express permission of the author. Lori can be reached at and welcomes questions and comments.

Back to Article Archive.