The essentials to keep in mind when writing your next story.
As a reader, I’ve always been attracted to literary fiction, which is why when it came time to write my first book, I assumed my focus would be character-driven stories. I was not wrong.
I ignored all discussions about plot points and let my characters lead me in the direction of my story. And this worked great for a while. In fact, it worked wonderfully for my first book. I would be lying, however, if I pretended that the process was anything but painful. By the end, I was left questioning if I even wanted to write fiction again.
I am a stubborn person, however, so I knew there must be a solution I was missing. I decided to learn everything I could about The Hero’s Journey, the 3-Act Structure, and other types of plot templates, and add them to my creative writing process. Immediately, I saw a difference. I was able to finish a short story I’d been stuck on for months with the help of a plot diagram and a worksheet I found online in less than a week.
For my next novel, while I still let the characters guide me, I had a rough plot outline. Not only did I finish the book in a fraction of the time it had taken with the first, but it was more, dare I say, fun.
No matter whether you like to outline your novels before you write a single word, or let the story appear on the page when you starting writing, understanding the basic elements of plot can help you keep your reader engaged with your story from beginning to end. As an additional bonus, it allows you to write your book faster and more efficiently.
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What are the 5 basic elements of a plot?
The basic elements of plot come from Freytag’s Pyramid, which is a visual representation of the structure of a dramatic or literary work, such as a story, play, or novel. It is named after the 19th-century German novelist and playwright Gustav Freytag, and helps authors and readers understand the fundamental structure of a narrative and how it progresses from beginning to end. The model is often taught in ELA or English Language Arts.
This triangular diagram outlines the key components of a traditional plot structure and is divided into five main parts:
- Rising action
- Falling action
- Denouement (or Resolution)
Exposition is the beginning of the story. It’s where crucial background information is introduced before any major events or conflicts unfold. The exposition sets the stage for the rest of the story, providing readers with essential details about the setting, characters, and initial situation. This part of the story serves as a starting point or baseline, setting the stage for the upcoming developments in the narrative arc.
Exposition typically includes:
- Setting: A description of the time, place, and general environment where the story takes place. The setting helps readers visualize the story’s world.
- Characters: The exposition introduces the main characters and provides basic information about them, such as their names, relationships, character archetypes, and key traits.
- Backstory: The backstory reveals essential information about the characters’ pasts and any relevant events or experiences that will influence the plot. Be careful not to drown the readers in endless flashbacks, however. They’re still getting to know the characters and you need to keep the story in the moment and moving at this point.
- Initial situation and context: This is also where you set the stage for the central conflict by presenting the starting point of the story and establishing the tone and mood of the narrative.
- Foreshadowing: Sometimes, subtle hints or clues about future events are dropped in the exposition, creating anticipation and intrigue.
Exposition is crucial, as it provides the reader with the necessary context to understand the characters, their world, and the conflicts they’ll face as the story unfolds. It serves as the foundation upon which the rest of the plot is built.
Rising action is the next important part of the plot, where the narrative takes off from its initial setting and character introductions and launches straight into conflict, tension, and character development. This phase builds the momentum that propels the story forward.
The key elements of the rising action are:
- Inciting incident: The inciting incident is the spark that ignites the rising action, pushing the characters into challenges and enticing the reader to follow along as the story unfolds. The inciting incident is a fundamental element in the overall plot structure because it introduces the major conflict, dilemma, or problem that the main characters will grapple with throughout the story. It serves as the initial disturbance that disrupts the ordinary world of the characters.
- Setting the tone: The rising action establishes the tone and atmosphere of the story as it moves from the initial exposition into a more dynamic and engaging phase.
- Character development: Characters begin to evolve and respond to the emerging conflict and sequence of events, revealing more about their personalities, motivations, and flaws.
- Building tension: As the plot unfolds, tension and suspense increase, drawing the audience deeper into the story.
- Escalating obstacles: The main characters encounter a series of obstacles, each more challenging than the last, which they must overcome or adapt to.
- Complications: Subplots may emerge and interact with the main plot, creating additional layers of complexity in the narrative. A well-executed cliffhanger at the end of the rising action can keep readers eagerly anticipating the resolution of the story’s central conflict.
- Character relationships: Interactions and relationships between characters develop and change, influencing their decisions and actions.
Overall, the rising action is the bridge that connects the introductory elements of the story to the heightened conflicts, revealing the characters’ strengths and weaknesses as they embark on their journey toward resolution.
The climax is the dramatic high point of a story, the moment of greatest tension, and a turning point of the story, where the central conflict reaches its peak. This is where the story’s major questions are answered, and the main character faces their ultimate challenge.
Here are some key points to remember about the climax:
- Highest point of tension: The climax is the most emotionally charged part of the story, with conflicts and stakes at their maximum intensity.
- Central conflict resolution: It’s also where the primary conflict that has driven the story is resolved. The main character faces their most significant obstacles and comes out victorious.
- Character transformation: Often, the protagonist will undergo a profound transformation or realization during the climax, which can be emotional, psychological, or both.
- Revelations and decisions: Key revelations and critical decisions are often made during the climax. These decisions can affect the outcome of the story.
- Resolutions: Some storylines are resolved during the climax, setting the stage for the story’s conclusion. However, not all loose ends are tied up at this point.
- Turning point: The climax is a turning point where the story veers toward its conclusion. What happens here determines the story’s final outcome.
- Reader engagement: The climax is the part of the story that readers typically find the most engaging. It’s where they get the answers they’ve been waiting for and experience the highest level of suspense. The climax also fulfills the promises made through foreshadowing earlier in the story. It provides the payoff for the expectations created throughout the narrative.
- Conflict showdown: In action-oriented stories, the climax frequently features a showdown or confrontation between the protagonist and the antagonist.
The climax is a critical element in story structure. It provides the narrative’s emotional peak, leaving a lasting impact on the reader or viewer and setting the stage for the story’s resolution. It’s where everything comes together, and the story’s central conflicts are addressed.
Falling action is the segment of a story that occurs after the climax and leads to the story’s resolution. It’s a time of de-escalation, where the intense conflicts of the climax are winding down and the story is moving towards closure. During this series of events, the central conflict begins to find its resolution, and loose ends are tied up.
Here’s what you need to keep in mind with falling action:
- Conflict resolution: Falling action provides a space for resolving the main conflict or conflicts that have been central to the story. It shows how the climax’s events impact the characters and their situations.
- Final revelations: The falling action may include any final revelations or twists that enhance the story’s conclusion. These revelations can add depth to the resolution.
- Character development: Characters often experience further development during the falling action. They may reflect on the consequences of their actions, grow emotionally, or make decisions that impact their futures.
- Wrapping up: It is during the falling action that the reader learns what happens to the characters and their storylines after the climax. This may include their immediate reactions and the outcomes of their choices. Subplots and minor conflicts are also addressed during the falling action.
- Emotional impact: The falling action allows readers to emotionally disengage from the heightened tension of the climax and prepare for the story’s conclusion. It provides a sense of closure and catharsis.
- Setting the stage for the end: As the falling action comes to a close, it often leaves the reader with a clear sense of the story’s endgame. It prepares the audience for the resolution that is about to follow when the story ends.
In essence, the falling action functions as a narrative cooldown after the intensity of the climax, guiding the story toward its ultimate conclusion. It ensures that all necessary questions are answered, all central conflicts are resolved, and the reader gets a satisfying sense of closure.
Denouement or resolution
Resolution is the end of the story. It follows the falling action and, during this phase, the story’s central conflicts are ultimately resolved and the reader gains a sense of closure. The resolution provides answers to any lingering questions, ties up loose ends, and offers insight into the characters’ futures.
The denouement or resolution typically includes:
- Conflict resolution: The primary focus here is to provide a final resolution to the central conflict that has driven the story. This could involve the defeat of an antagonist, the fulfillment of a character’s goals, or the reconciliation of key relationships.
- Closure: The resolution offers a sense of closure to both the characters and the reader. It helps to answer any questions or doubts that may have arisen during the story, providing a satisfying conclusion.
- Bringing subplots to a close: Subplots and minor events of the story that have been woven throughout the narrative are typically concluded in the resolution.
- Narrative epilogue: Some stories include an epilogue in the resolution. An epilogue offers additional information about what happened to the characters after the main events of the story, potentially in the form of a glimpse into their future lives. To see an excellent example of this, consider bestselling author J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. In the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry discovers his destiny to defeat Voldemort. He does this at the end of the last book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. However, instead of just wrapping it up, Rowling provides a narrative epilogue that takes us nineteen years into the future with Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Draco seeing off their own children on the Hogwarts Express.
- Lasting impact: The resolution often reveals the lasting impact of the story’s events on the characters and their world. This can include showing how the characters have been transformed or how their world has changed.
- Final emotional tone: The resolution sets the final emotional tone at the end of the story. This tone can range from triumphant to bittersweet, depending on the nature of the resolution and whether you’ve written a happy ending.
The resolution is a critical component of storytelling, as it provides a sense of fulfillment to the reader and ensures that the story is brought to a satisfying and meaningful conclusion. It allows the reader to reflect on the characters’ journeys and the broader themes of the narrative, leaving a lasting impression.
Other important elements of a story
No discussion about fiction writing can be complete without an acknowledgement of some of the other literary devices and key elements of a story. While exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution are incredibly important to understand when you’re thinking about the plot of a story, your narrative remains incomplete without setting, characters, point of view, and theme to ground them in. Let’s briefly talk about these elements.
Setting is a critical component of storytelling, acting as the stage upon which the characters’ lives unfold, and influencing their actions, experiences, and interactions.
The physical environment within a setting encompasses the geographical location where the story unfolds. Whether it’s the bustling streets of New York or New Delhi, the serene landscapes of an English village, or the harsh, desolate terrain of a post-apocalyptic wasteland, the physical environment dictates the characters’ experiences and sets the mood for the narrative.
World building is a more expansive aspect of setting that extends beyond the mere placement of characters in a particular location. It involves the creation of an entire universe within the story, complete with its own rules, cultures, histories, and sometimes even languages.
To create fully fleshed-out characters, you need to understand the physical, psychological, and emotional dimensions of each major character. This includes defining their physical appearance, quirks, and mannerisms, but more importantly, it means understanding their psychological makeup.
Furthermore, the interactions and relationships between characters play a significant role in the story’s development. The dynamics between characters can create tension, provide comic relief, or evoke emotional responses. These relationships are influenced by the characters’ unique personalities and backgrounds, offering countless possibilities for character-driven subplots and conflicts.
Here are the types of characters commonly found in narratives:
- Protagonist: The central character around whom the story revolves. The protagonist faces challenges, embarks on a journey, or undergoes significant development throughout the narrative.
- Antagonist: The character or force that opposes the protagonist, creating conflict and tension in the story.
- Secondary: Supporting characters who contribute to the plot but are not the main focus.
- Static: Characters who remain unchanged throughout the story in terms of their personality and beliefs.
- Foil: A character whose qualities or attributes contrast with those of another character, typically the protagonist, to highlight specific traits.
- Stock: Characters who embody common, often stereotypical, traits and are readily recognizable in various stories.
- Dynamic: Characters who undergo significant development and change throughout the story, displaying depth and complexity.
Point of view
Point of view or POV is a critical element in fiction writing that defines the narrative’s perspective and the lens through which readers experience the events and characters in a story. It influences the story’s word choice, which details are revealed, and the level of intimacy readers have with the characters and their emotions.
Several different points of view are commonly used in literature, each offering distinct advantages and challenges:
- First-person point of view: In first-person POV, the narrator is a character within the story, using the pronouns “I” and “we.” This perspective offers an intimate connection with the narrator’s thoughts, emotions, and experiences, allowing readers to understand the story from a single character’s viewpoint. However, it limits the narrative’s scope to what the narrator knows or perceives.
- Second-person point of view: This POV employs “you” as the pronoun, directly addressing the reader as though they were a character in the story. Second person is relatively rare in fiction and is often used for instructional and self-help writing.
- Third-person limited point of view: In this perspective, an external narrator provides insights into one character’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences while referring to the character as “he,” “she,” or “they.” Third-person limited allows for a more comprehensive view of the story’s world compared to first person, but it maintains an emotional closeness to one character. It can switch between characters within a scene or chapter, but is usually confined to one character’s perspective per chapter or section.
- Third-person omniscient point of view: A third-person omniscient narrator knows the thoughts, emotions, and experiences of multiple characters. This perspective provides a broader and more objective view of the story, with the narrator possessing extensive knowledge about the characters and events. It can offer insights into different characters’ perspectives within the same scene.
- Third person objective point of view: This perspective maintains a detached, observer-like narration. It only reveals observable actions, dialogues, and behaviors without delving into characters’ internal thoughts or emotions. Readers must infer the characters’ feelings and motivations from their actions and words.
- Epistolary point of view: Epistolary narratives are constructed from documents, letters, diary entries, or other written forms. They offer an intimate and personal connection to the characters but may limit the narrative’s breadth.
Conflict is the driving force that propels a story forward, creating tension, drama, and intrigue. It’s a fundamental element in storytelling that introduces obstacles, challenges, and problems for the characters to overcome. Without conflict, a narrative would lack depth and struggle, making it uninteresting and flat. Conflict must always be resolved by the end of a story.
There are two main types of conflict that can be present in a story, or in different parts of a story, including:
- Internal conflict: This occurs within a character’s mind as they grapple with their emotions, doubts, or decisions. Internal conflict often involves personal struggles, moral dilemmas, or inner turmoil.
- External conflict: This involves a character’s struggle against an external force, which can be another character, nature, society, or any obstacle in the story’s world. This type of conflict includes character vs. character, character vs. nature, character vs. society, character vs. technology, and character vs. fate or destiny.
Themes aren’t always explicitly stated, but woven into the fabric of the narrative. They can usually be identified by examining the story’s central conflicts, character arcs, and recurring motifs or symbols. Themes can be broad, such as love, courage, or the passage of time, or they can be more specific, like the corrupting influence of power or the consequences of environmental neglect. For example, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet touches upon the themes of love and sacrifice, while you can see the search for identity in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Need to fix a broken novel?
Understanding the five essential elements of plot is crucial to writing a story that starts strong, ends well, and keeps readers captivated in the middle. However, sometimes you may find yourself in the middle of a messy draft that’s grown five legs and two heads, and you have no idea what to do with it or how to go on.
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Natasha Khullar Relph
Founder and Editor, The Wordling
Natasha Khullar Relph is an award-winning journalist and author with bylines in The New York Times, TIME CNN, BBC, ABC News, Ms. Marie Claire, Vogue, and more. She is the founder of The Wordling, a weekly business newsletter for journalists, authors, and content creators. Natasha has mentored over 1,000 writers, helping them break into dream publications and build six-figure careers. She is the author of Shut Up and Write: The No-Nonsense, No B.S. Guide to Getting Words on the Page and several other books.
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