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Every great writer begins with one question: how can I write a powerful plot? In this article, we’ll take a close look at the plot of a story. What is a plot? What are its component parts? How to plot a novel, and how different is it from plotting a short story?
Before we learn how to write a plot, we must establish what a plot is in a story.
The plot of a story is a sequence of events told in relation to one another. It is made up of three parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end. But any sequence of events can’t make for a good plot.
A good plot pays attention to the central conflict of your story. It begins with an introduction, also called an exposition, and ends with a resolution. Your job is to handle this in a way that brings out the central conflict of your story.
Now you may be tempted to ask, how does a plot outline differ from a story? It’s all about one key difference between a plot and a story: causality.
A story is a series of events arranged in chronological order. That means, one event occurs after another, from point A to point B. There doesn’t have to be a logical relation between these events. They can be as random as the daily schedule of a honeybee!
A plot structure, however, is more about causality than chronology. Events in a plot are tied together by a cause-and-effect relationship. One event leads to another, which in turn leads to the next one. So, a plot is a chain of events where each scene is caused by the previous one, and causes or effects the next one.
Many impactful story moments are not a part of the plot. A story can have emotional and dramatic scenes that make the reader feel happy, sad, or hurt. But if such a scene doesn’t directly cause the next one, then it’s not a part of the plot.
The plot of a story, therefore, is about how exactly the conflict unfolds, in a logical and cause-and-effect manner. Remember that the important scenes in your story should be a part of both the plot and the story.
When you plot a novel, make the key, valuable scenes have some effect on how other events unfold. This way, your emotional scenes have a meaning beyond their dramatic value.
Let’s put a spin on the classic example given by E. M. Forster in his book Aspects of the Novel (1927).
The queen died. A month later, the king died. This is a story.
The queen died in battle. A month later, the king died of grief. This is the plot in the story.
In the second sentence, there is a clear causality in the three events. The first event, the battle, causes the queen to die. This second event, in turn, causes the third one— the king dies of grief.
Now that this is clear, let’s move closer to our question: How to write a plot? But before you can learn to plot a novel, there’s something else you need to know.
There are seven major types of plot. Depending on the story you’re telling, the plot will fall into one of these broad categories:
Now that we’ve visited the major types of plot, it’s time to learn about the most widely used plot structure of all: Freytag’s Pyramid.
There are three major types of plot structure: linear, episodic, and parallel. Of these, the linear plot is the most popular and widely used. It began in ancient Greek drama and Aristotle was the first person to give a plot structure definition.
Aristotle mentioned in Poetics that a plot has a beginning, a middle, and an end. He also outlined the purpose of exposition and the proper way to handle resolution.
Gustav Freytag developed upon Aristotle’s theory of the plot in his book Technique of the Drama (1863). He added two more parts to Aristotle’s plot structure, giving us the five elements of plot:
These five elements make up Freytag’s Pyramid, which is the most popular type of plot structure. We’ll take a brief look at other types of plot structures, but for this article, we’re sticking with Freytag.
Master these five ingredients, and your intrigue du roman will always come out perfectly cooked!
The exposition is where the writer reveals the basics of the story. It shows the reader some of your characters, establishes a setting, and provides some backstory. While writing a plot, the basic information belongs in your exposition.
The climax of your story needs some ground work. A writer does this in the exposition, where they carefully select what and how much they want to reveal.
As soon as you’ve set the rhythm in exposition, it’s time to disturb it. This is what happens in the inciting incident. The inciting incident is an event that breaks the regular pattern of your characters’ life and sets the action in motion.
Whatever your main conflict is, this event should bring it out. The plot is intimately connected to conflict, so remember to arrange plot events around the central conflict of your story.
A plot example of the inciting incident can be Mr. Bingley’s arrival in the novel Pride and Prejudice. The event sets the action in motion and also brings out the central conflict of the story.
Rising action creates suspense, develops tension, and generates interest in your story. It builds on the base prepared in the exposition. Characters are revealed gradually and conflict keeps increasing.
Rising action holds the reader’s interest until the climax. For this reason, it’s the make or break section of any novel. In this section, subplots are introduced to complement the main plot. Here’s a plot structure example:
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 is supposed to court.
Climax is the high point of the novel where all conflict reaches its breaking point. It is the moment of revelations, confessions, betrayals, and victories. The reader’s attention should be unwavering at this point.
A great climactic moment is one where all major and minor conflicts of the story together come to a head. This is probably a good time to remind you that there are two major types of conflict: external and internal.
The success of your story hinges on the climax. So, the question of “how to write a plot” is actually “how to write a climax!”
Falling action takes place after the main conflict is resolved. It ties up all the loose ends of the narrative and leads the story towards a resolution.
In this section of the plot structure, the protagonist tries to reinstate world order. The major tension in the story is relaxed and smaller conflicts are resolved gradually.
When you plot a novel, remember that the action isn’t over yet. Even if the action is reaching its end, it’s important to develop this properly. If your novel ends too abruptly, it will put the reader off.
So, falling action is a gradual process of plot thinning that eventually leads to the resolution.
The plot of a story is concluded in the resolution. Ideally, it should leave the reader satisfied. Many recent novels leave the ending open, so the plot does not have a resolution at all. In cases where the writer wants to leave their reader with the central tension of their book, they don’t offer a resolution.
But if your novel is an adventure or a hero’s journey, it’s better to end at a good resolution while writing a plot.
“All’s well that ends well.” Shakespeare emphasized the importance of a good ending, and we should pay heed to the bard!
Now that you know the components of a perfect plot, we’ll take you through some tips of plot writing. We’ve arranged these according to the different elements of plot we have seen above.
Without further ado, here are our top twelve tips to write a bestselling plot:
Think of it like this: the lives of your characters have a pattern. Wouldn’t you say that Pride and Prejudice has a different rhythm from God of Small Things? This rhythm resonates through the novel and gives it a unique feel.
Your job while writing plot is to pay attention to this. The exposition reveals th
e pattern of your characters’ life. Once you set the rhythm in motion, you can then disturb it, retune it, or break it, depending on the pace you want.
The introduction is also the place where you need to grasp the reader’s attention. So make sure to write in a way that pins the reader to the page. Here’s a brilliant example of writing exposition:
“It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
1984 by George Orwell
The line conveys the setting while also gripping the reader by adding the unusual clock hour. Writing plot isn’t simply writing a chain of events. If you want to write a good plot, you need to add interesting story elements to the mix.
From here on, the tension in the story is on a steady incline. Don’t go for anything drastic: just tune the daily life of your characters around the central conflict. What do they think about it? What decisions do they make? Complicate the narrative by letting your characters some free rein.
Populate the story with multiple subplots that are connected to the main plot. This helps keep things interesting while the tension builds within the main players of your story. But make sure that the subplots you add contribute to the main plot in some way.
The storyline of Legolas and Aragorn in Lord of the Rings is a great subplot example. It keeps the reader engaged while the conflict between Frodo and Sauron plays out.
This works even better if the characters love each other and are somehow set against each other! Use your characters’ motivations and desires to build tension in the story.
A classic example of this is Pride and Prejudice, where the fights and resentments between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy build dramatic tension.
Use narrative devices like eavesdropping, half-heard information, notes and wrongly understood messages to purposefully stall the characters from re-thinking their decisions.
Give your characters something to lose. If they have more to lose, they fight harder for it. This reveals their personality and makes the reader fall in love with them.
Plus, higher stakes also make the action more interesting. There’s a reason the city-saving superhero movies are so enjoyable!
This always makes the climactic moment that much more interesting. When a character has to achieve something in a limited amount of time, the reader’s excitement increases.
Remember the rhythm and pattern we talked about? It’s time to revisit that.
Does your climax result in massive changes to the characters’ lives and their world? Then the falling action needs to show the reader how these changes are received.
This is the moment where you bring back a pattern to the lives of your characters. Remember that this can’t be the same pattern you began with. Your plot has changed your characters, and the rising action is your place to show it.
Don’t leave anything unattended. Falling action reminds the readers of the events that occurred before the climax. They revisit the rising action and begin to ask questions like “Wait, what happened to…?”
So, make sure to tie all the loose ends!
The best way to write a tightly packed plot is to write the ending first. This way, you know exactly where it ends: sprinkle away that foreshadowing! This also helps to write a better beginning, and develop the right subplots.
The readers always enjoy when an end brings the lead characters back where they began. It leaves them with a sense of satisfaction, which is what you’re going for in a resolution!
This also helps you highlight how the characters have changed through the course of the story. A perfect end to a perfect plot!
Writing a plot for a novel is a challenging feat. You need time, practice, and a whole lot of patience. Here are five helpful tips to help you write the perfect plot for your novel:
Plot feeds on conflict. If you want to learn how to plot a novel, you need to learn the intricacies of conflict. The plot of a novel especially needs substantial conflict.
Most popular book series build subplots and storylines around one central conflict. So, make sure that the main conflict of your story has enough material for one — or more — books.
How to plot a novel? Like a snowflake, of course!
The snowflake method is a widely known way to design a novel. The snowflake begins with a sentence. The writer expands on this to make a paragraph, and develops the story further. While writing plot, you can use this model as reference.
Begin with a central conflict. Build a three act plot structure around this conflict. Once you have a plot skeleton, you can work on detailing the finer points.
There are various methods of creating a plot. It can be linear, episodic, or parallel. You need to choose the plot structure that suits your novel best.
Few writers choose the episodic plot, but if you must choose the plot structure depending on the requirements of your story outline.
A plot outline is extremely important for a novel. It is a humongous task that keeps getting away from you. So, make sure to keep referring to a master story outline.
Of course, you don’t have to restrict yourself to the plot you set out with. Accept the fact that as you go along, your plot will change. Characters will change, scenes will be deleted, and events will stop making sense in the way you planned them originally!
The plot outline helps you navigate this. When you begin, it is a sheet to brainstorm with. But as you go along, it becomes a rough guide that you can refer to as needed. The plot of a story is always mutating, but that doesn’t mean there’s no order to this chaos.
Often, “how to write a plot” is a query that is also “what to do with your characters?” A good plot gives just enough agency to its characters to still retain a dramatic structure.
Events in a plot are carried out by agents, and they are your characters. Often, a characters’ story arc begins to interfere with the role you intended them to play. What do you do when this happens?
Well, there is no one right answer. When writing plot, you have to kill your darlings one at a time. Neither forced character arcs nor a thread-thin plot is going to help your novel. Keep your plot outline at hand, and get ready to make some difficult choices!
Every writer needs a good novel editor, not only to remove grammatical errors from your novel but also to provide valuable suggestions. A developmental editor’s job is to do exactly that!
A developmental editor tells you what parts you need to improve on, and parts don’t work at all. Although, keep in mind that a novel editor’s role comes in after you have written a significant part of your novel.
Novel editing is (obviously) the last step of writing a plot. It fleshes out what you’ve already written and polishes it to make your book a bestseller. If you’ve made it this far, you’re certainly on the right track.
We wish you all the best on your plotting adventures. Good luck!
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