What is plot? How do you create a powerful, spellbinding, plot that keeps your reader reading and coming back for more of what you write?
If you’ve been writing for any length of time you’ve probably already heard the definition E.M. Forster gave:
“The king died and then the queen died.” Is a story.
It coveys two facts but no reason why either event happened, nor reveals anything that links the two events together. Most of us can relate to similar telling in our own lives. “How was your day at school?” “Had a test in English, Bobby sprayed milk out his nose, have a ton of homework tonight.”
But Forster goes on to define a plot:
“The king died and then the queen died of grief,” is a plot
It may not be much of a plot, but ’it is a plot because it tells you WHY the queen died. A story, with a why is a plot. With that said when you write a short-story, novella, novel, or major multi-book saga, you cannot have a string of unrelated plots either.
A plot is a series of events that ties the story together. It reveals the why of events that happen in the story and links the story together. It is NOT random.
A story can be enjoyed mindlessly, like watching a big fight scene in a movie, or a chase scene. In this case it’s not the why that keeps you interested it’s the story. But after the big action scene what keeps you interested? It’s the plot that keeps the story moving, it requires you to remember events, times, and to use your intelligence to piece everything together and figure things out.
Yet plot is not the same in every genre. In mysteries, you need to hold back some of the whys, such as, who did it, or how was the person killed, who was the person that was killed, why was the person killed, was the right person killed. In horror stories sometimes the identity of the creature is held back, or who is the killer.
If you compare building a plot to building a house, plot would be the foundation and frame of the house to which everything else is attached. Without the plot the story would collapse under its own weight.
Where plot tells why things happens, plot structure shows how it happens. The minimum, basic plot structure has three parts: beginning, middle, and end. A more realistic, basic plot structure has at least five points, Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Resolution (or denouement).
Exposition introduces your characters: your characters’ regular, mundane lives, settings, mood, and contains the Inciting Incident that forces the character(s) out of their normal lives into the story, whether they want to go or not. The Inciting Incident should happen early in the story, ideally no later than 12.5% of the way into your story. Some say a page number but it really boils down to the length of your story. Short stories the hook comes sooner, longer stories have more time.
But don’t waste too much time hooking your readers because you risk the chance your readers will become bored and put down your book. Once they put down your book out of boredom the chance of them coming back to it drops and the chance of them buying your next book is slim.
Rising Action is a series of progressive complications that push and pull the main character into and through the middle of the story until the climax near the end of Act III. Rising Action is a series of crises that build higher and higher with slight ebbs between the next progressively intense crises.
Climax, should happen near the end of Act III. It should be the most intense crisis in the entire story leaving your readers breathless. By the time you reach the climax all your subplots should be resolves or merged with the main plot. You want your climax to leaver reader wowed so they tell their friends about how great you story is. The climax must be the peak of your story that keep your readers coming back for more.
Falling Action is the fallout of the climax, what happens after the hero defeats the villain, after the detective arrests the killer, after the mystery is solved. Any subplots that have not been resolved by now need to be resolved. It’s that moment after you have punched the bully in the nose who has been tormenting you all school year, and he runs away crying.
Resolution (denouement) shows a glimpse of the hero’s new normal life. It’s leaving the reader with a nice finish, and loose ends tied up. It’s showing the bully turning away as you walk by him, it’s seeing the criminal having the jail doors slammed in his face, and it’s showing the lovers walk off together hand in hand. You don’t have to end your stories this way, but if you want satisfied readers who come back to buy more of your books, you’ll consider an appeasing resolution.
This is the basics of plot which is needed to create a compelling and interesting story. Plot can be simple or deeply complex. Others have added additional points they believe belong in a story. See the Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell for the seventeen parts he believes it should contain, or read our Story Structure Series.
One thing to keep in mind is the longer the story, and the greater its expanse, the more subplots you will need to keep the story interesting and moving. The hardest part of your story is the middle and in long stories one of the best way to help fill the middle is to have a number of related and well developed subplots.
Basic Three Act Structure has a beginning, middle, and end.
The middle of Act II (the 50% mark) is the point of no return. To show that better many writers divide Act into two parts, Act II A and Act II B, with the point of no return separating them.
The books below I have found extremely helpful in understand plot. I have listed them in the order of I found most helpful left to right. Hope they help you as much as they did me. If there are any resources you have found helpful please share with everyone.