How to Write a Plot
You have envisioned a great story. You know what it’s going to be about, what you want to say through it and all the other great imaginative threads that your spiderweb head is spinning right now. Suddenly, a faraway din of your own voice grows louder and louder and finally you hear it clearly.
“What about the plot?”
There is a jumble of conflict, elements of a plot, technical jargon and the endless questions about how to write a good climax. Along with that, there is again the confusion regarding terms you have heard before. Exposition? Resolution? What are these? Photography terms? There’s the creeping doubt about whether you would be able to write a good plot. Ugh. Chills.
Even if it is a P(lot) of work, calm down. We’ve got you covered.
A plot is your sequence of events told in relation to each other. It begins with an exposition and ends with a resolution. This is done in a deliberate fashion to bring out the main conflict of the story. A lot of people get confused between plot and story. A story is a series of events in chronological order, one event after the other. Let’s look at an example:
Story: Katie wanted to go to the Coldplay concert. She brought a new outfit.
Plot: Katie brought a new outfit because she wanted to go to the Coldplay concert.
Now that we have cleared this up, let us see what do we exactly mean when we say “write a plot“.
So how do you write a plot? You start by identifying the elements of a plot and then working your way upward. That will make sure that you churn out a good plot.
Elements of a plot
A plot has 5 major elements, along with “conflict”. The events of a story are divided into three parts: the beginning, the middle and the end. This idea of a plot having concrete elements was first conceived in the book, “Technique of Drama” by Gustave Freytag. The visual depiction of all these elements together, “Freytag’s triangle” is named after him.
Introduction or Exposition
The exposition of a plot has the basic elements of the story such as the setting and the introduction to the characters. The major conflict of the story is usually revealed in the exposition. It is not necessary that there be only one conflict in the story, but smaller conflicts that supplement the major conflict usually occur in the middle. The exposition also has details of how your fictional world functions (workings of the government in a dystopian world) and the backstory (what happened before? Why is this character here?)
How to write an exposition?
The exposition of the plot is where writers tend to sink their claws into the attention of the reader. If the exposition does not grasp your audience’s attention, then they will put the book aside in disillusionment. There are a lot of ways through which you can pin your reader to the page. One way is beginning with a striking line, a mixture of antithesis and a bright description. For example:
“It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen”.
– 1984, George Orwell
Introducing your characters intimately in the exposition itself also immediately strikes the attention of the reader. Let us take an example of Charles Dickens’ novel “David Copperfield”:
‘I was born at Blunderstone, in Suffolk, or ‘there by’, as they say in Scotland. I was a posthumous child. My father’s eyes had closed upon the light of this world six months when mine opened on it.’
One more example of this is the introduction of “Death” from “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak.
“First the colors. Then the humans. That’s usually how I see things. Or at least, how I try.
Here is a small fact.
You are going to die.”
How to write the exposition
The exposition does not have to be poetic, literarily heightened always. You have to take care of how you want your audience to know your character, or how you want the relationship between characters to be depicted. Be as implicit as possible and adopt ‘show, not tell’. For example, if you want to say that the atmosphere was tense, you could say, ‘the air in the room strained our shoulders’. If you are writing a horror story, you may want to begin with an incident that has been happening for a long time, a sort of continuation of the mind of the character on paper. For example: ‘This time, I did not see any crows. I did not have feathers choking my throat when I screamed’.
Rising action in a plot creates suspense, tension and interest in the story. The make or break element of the plot, it is usually during the first third of the book, where the deeper traits of the characters are introduced. The exposition has set the base for a rising action to build on. The conflict of the story is in a crescendo at this point, unveiling the motives of the characters to do what they do during the course of the narrative. The rising action holds the reader’s interest until the climax, which is the turning point of the story. To supplement the major conflict, smaller conflicts also start to appear during this part. A few examples of rising action will make it more clear:
- In the novel “Anna Karenina”, the rising action of the story is when Vronsky starts developing feelings for Anna, who is already married, instead of Kitty, who he was supposed to court.
- In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel, “Crime and Punishment”, rising action begins from the onset of the novel when Rodion, his anti-hero protagonist murders a man.
How to write a rising action
Creating a rising action from the tensions and troubles between your characters is one way to go about it. Pit them against each other, or even against their loved ones in the book to heighten the conflict. Use your characters motivations and desires to create a compelling rising action that will be driven through the mind of your protagonists. For example:
- In the novel “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen, both Miss Elizabeth and Mr Darcy are driven by their pride and prejudice about each other. Each refuses to bow down from their set attitudes towards each other and this is what leads them to nearly not marrying in the book.
Use small devices like eavesdropping, half-heard information, notes and wrongly understood messages to purposefully stall the characters from re-thinking their decisions. For example:
- In Jane Austen’s “Persuasion”, Lady Russell convinces Anne not to marry Wentworth.
- In “Pride and Prejudice”, Elizabeth hears Darcy calling her ‘tolerable’ when she is hiding behind the stairs with her friend, Charlotte.
Create high stakes. The more intense the nature of the loss of something for the character, the higher his/her urgency to pursue something, leading to the climax. For example:
- In “Crime and Punishment”, Rodion battles with his inner conscience of whether he should confess to the crime or not. If he does, he will be put in jail. If he does not, the memory will haunt him for life.
Division of rising action
Divide your rising action into longer and shorter rising action. The longer rising action is because of the main conflict in the plot. The shorter rising action is in several sub-plots, through the backstories of the characters and the central themes of the novel. For example:
- In “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett, the longer rising action is the story of Skeeter writing a novel about the reality of the coloured help in 1960’s Mississippi. The shorter rising action is the relationship of Minny, the maid with her employer, Celia, the bond between Aibileen and Mae Mobley and the tensions over marriage between Skeeter and her mother.
And lastly, do not reveal the suspense during the rising action. The suspense is what drives the reader to go towards the climax in the anticipation of knowing what is going to happen.
The climax is the make or break of the fate of your characters, and quite possibly of your book too. A stupendous climax only results from a tension-oozing rising action, which we discussed earlier. Do we overstate the climax ? Probably was, before writers began to experiment with it. The anti-climax is the most infamous of these experiments, leaving readers hanging like birds on a wire. Nevertheless, let’s see how we can structure a climax, often touted as one of the crucial elements of a plot.
How to write a climax
The first and most obvious way is to increase the external conflict. External conflict may include conflict between characters or conflict between characters and their immediate environment. For example:
- In ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’, the conflict between Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort is what drives the plot. The climax occurs in Book 7 when Harry finally confronts Lord Voldemort for the final battle.
You could also add time constraints (within an hour, a pathogen which has no cure will be released into the river) or add complications and increased obstacles in the path of the protagonist.
Internal conflict is another way to amplify the effect of the climax. The tussle in the protagonist’s mind between what they have done and what they should do is a way of portraying inner conflict. For example:
- The classic ‘to be or not to be: that is the question’ by the tormented Hamlet has been used as an answer to the existential crisis that we have had for the course of more than 300 years. Hamlet is conflicted between killing his uncle to seek revenge for the death of his father and his doubts about the truth of the ghost (his father) and his revelation.
Use the surroundings in your book to your advantage. Portray your character’s inner workings through their environment and the setting. For example:
- In the ‘Harry Potter’ series, JK Rowling paints the image of a large castle, revealing the smaller rooms, the hallways and the staircases over time, instead of all at once. “Hogwarts” creates an atmosphere of great mystery, mirroring the secrecy of events about Harry’s life and constant questions about them in his mind.
Falling action takes place after the main conflict is resolved. It helps to tie up all the loose ends of the narrative and lead the story towards a resolution. The falling action is when the protagonist attempts to restore order as it was before. The characters can now relax a little because their main struggle is gone and the smaller conflicts that were tied to it are slowly dissolving.
How to write a falling action
The falling action, however, is the best time to introduce a plot twist. If you think all is well now, well, think again. Anything can happen when you are at your most vulnerable, which adds more excitement to the story. Some examples of falling action can be:
- The hero dies in the climax, maybe while trying to save the world. Suddenly, during the falling action, it is revealed that the hero did not really die but their fake death was a plan to thwart and defeat the enemy.
- When the hero has won the war and now they must clean up the ravages and restore order to the country.
The audience wants to see the struggle of the protagonist fulfilled during the falling action. For example:
- In “Romeo and Juliet”, after the families discover the bodies of the young lovers, they decide to set aside their differences otherwise the sacrifice of their children would be in vain.
“Alls well that ends well”. Shakespeare emphasized the importance of a good ending and I think as devoted students of his work, we should pay heed. The end of a plot resolves all the motivations and intentions of a character. The ending or the resolution is more of a placid element of a plot. It hints at the future of the characters and what fate holds in store for them. The protagonist has resolved his/her/their conflict long back and now has a sense of purpose in life.
How to write a resolution
A resolution should be like a much-needed act of closure for both the characters inside the novel and the audience. The most common end that writers bestow on their protagonists is a happy one. Happy is subjective here, it could mean only the resolution of once conflict. Maybe there is an impending journey through another. For example:
- In “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott, the girls are filled with joy when their father comes back home from the war and each of them finds the love that they desire.
An interesting way to end is through an anecdote in the past. This could remind the protagonist of the most striking moments of their life. For example:
- In Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Lowland”, Gauri recalls the first time she ever met her now-dead husband, Udayan. After living her life affected by this one incident, we are taken back into the past. There is no question of turbulent politics or conflict. It is the recollection of a time when they lived the small moments.
On this note, I will end this article here. Constructing a plot is, after all, a personal journey which you craft with your own perception. You could check out our blog for more tips and tricks on all kinds of writing. There is NaNoWriMo coming up and we are very, very excited to be of any help to all those who will roll up their sleeves (to avoid ink stains). So read a lot, research about your stories and characters and don’t forget to hydrate.
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