Simply put, a plot is “the main events of a play, novel, movie, or similar work, devised and presented by the writer as an interrelated sequence.” As opposed to a timeline, which depicts events in a purely chronological order, the sequence of events in the plot is chosen specifically by the writer. It can jump forward or backward in time as the writer sees fit.
Strictly speaking, a plot is only the building blocks of a story. This happens, then this happens, then this happens. It doesn’t include themes, thoughts, feelings, or motivations.
Another thing that differentiates a plot and a timeline is what’s included. A timeline should contain everything that happens within a given period, whereas a plot should only contain necessary information—the narrative of the story. If a scene or event doesn’t add value to the progression of the narrative, it should not be included. Perhaps, as the writer, you’ve invented this scene to better get to know your world or characters, or you’ve written it thinking it would be needed, but later found out it wasn’t.
How to Write a Plot
You may start with an idea for a story, and from that idea grows a premise. You may want to write a story about a young woman who moves from America to London to start a new life, or about an orphan who sets out to discover his parents’ killer, or even about a father doing everything he can to save the life of his dying child. These are all story premises.
From that premise arises the plot. Ask yourself: what happens in the story? What happens first? What happens because of that? What happens next? What is the final result? A helpful tool for beginner (and even more advanced) writers is a plot diagram, which helps you follow plot structure.
What is Plot Structure?
Every narrative is laid out in a similar manner—a manner that has worked for centuries of storytelling. This is the “how” of mapping out your story. You may have heard of the “Three Act Structure,” but it can be divided even further into five parts, maybe even six.
Every story starts somewhere. Exposition is a basic introduction to the story’s cast and plants the seed for the main conflict.
For example, the night Dumbledore drops Harry Potter off with his relatives is an excellent way to start, as it introduces the Dursleys’ attitude toward magic, a few of the magical characters like Dumbledore, McGonagall, and Hagrid, and the main conflict: Lord Voldemort and his mysterious disappearance. Furthermore, Harry’s trip to the zoo and releasing of the snake there also falls under exposition, as it demonstrates his miserable life and how he wishes to escape it. After that, comes the Catalyst.
2 Catalyst/Inciting Incident
There is always something that spurs the characters into action, taking them from the “everyday life” into the main story.
Continuing with our Harry Potter analogy, this would be the hundreds of letters from Hogwarts arriving for Harry, then, more finitely, Hagrid’s arrival at the hut-on-a-rock to hand-deliver Harry’s letter and take him away to get his supplies.
3 Rising Action
The rising action is what follows the catalyst and leads up to the main conflict, the climax of the story. This series of events should continue to escalate until it reaches its peak in the third act.
Following Harry’s arrival at Hogwarts, he makes new friends and new enemies, joins the Quidditch team, and begins to unravel the mystery of the philosopher’s stone. These events are all leading him up to the climax of the story: the battle against Voldemort.
This is the biggest event of the story, the “peak of the mountain,” as it were. Everything builds up to this, and everything afterward is just the result of it.
This would be Harry’s battle against Quirrell and Voldemort in the last chapter. Everything Harry and his friends have done up until this point has been to prepare them to go down the trapdoor, and everything afterward is a result of Harry’s success.
5 Falling Action
After the climax but before the final resolution of the story, subplots and mini conflicts must be taken care of. You can’t be leaving any loose ends. As a result of the climax, how are these loose ends wrapped up?
Harry defeats Quirrell and is taken to the hospital wing, where he recovers. Whilst there, he and Dumbledore discuss everything that has happened to get him where he is. Harry finds that his friends are also alright, and he deduces that Dumbledore had intended for him to go down the trapdoor, as a “test” of his drive to fight Voldemort. Harry then attends the Year End feast and Gryffindor wins the House Cup, thus defeating his rival in Malfoy.
Sometimes so short you can’t even pick it apart from the story, this is the conclusion, the final wrapping of the story.
In other words, this is the moment that Harry and his friends are boarding the train to head home at the end of the school year.
The above six steps can be drawn as such in a diagram which demonstrates how the intensity of the story should rise, then fall again.
*Keep in mind that if you intend to leave your story on a cliffhanger for a subsequent book, you should introduce a new conflict/subplot within the Falling Action or Denouement stages, during or after wrapping up other conflicts and subplots (or by reminding readers of a subplot that cannot be resolved within the current book and must become the next main focus). For example, after the main conflict of The Hunger Games (the games themselves), Katniss must deal with the fact that she and Peeta will be stuck keeping up the charade of their love story. The way this subplot is kicked up in intensity is by Peeta finding out that she has been faking her feelings for him, whereas he is truly in love with her.
Types of Plots
Expanding on a story premise, there are five main plot types, in which the events within a story accomplish a goal.
A comedy could be defined a few different ways. First, any story with a happy ending (and thus not a tragedy or drama) could be considered a comedy. Second, stories which are humorous or satirical are also considered Comedy. Third, there are comedies about finding true love known as New Comedy or Romantic Comedy.
Examples: The Princess Bride; Tangled; Much Ado About Nothing; Pride and Prejudice
2 Overcoming the Monster
This type of story typically involves a hero and a villain (often a monster of some kind). There is often a decisive fight near the end within the monster’s lair. Sometimes the hero also recovers a treasure or rescues a captive.
Examples: Jurassic Park; Little Red Riding Hood; The Phantom of the Opera; Frankenstein; The Hunger Games; Dracula
As expected, the Quest plot type involves a hero going on a journey to obtain a prize that is far away. Oftentimes, they return home with the prize as well.
Examples: Percy Jackson; The Lord of the Rings; Monty Python and the Holy Grail; Finding Nemo
4 Rags to Riches
The hero starts out commonplace, poor, or downtrodden by life. They are often miserable but have the potential for greatness. The story follows along their journey to wealth, importance, and happiness.
Examples: Great Expectations; Cinderella; Jane Eyre; Holes
There are two additional variations of this plot type: Failure and Hollow Victory. Failure consists of the hero (seeking success and wealth for selfish reasons) losing what they have gained. This is called a Tragedy (such as MacBeth). The Hollow Victory consists of the hero fulfilling his goals, but in such a way that leaves him frustrated with his success, as he is still not satisfied.
The hero, in some way, is trapped in some way and is rescued by another character’s loving act. This may be a prison caused by a villain, by a dark power, or by the character’s own negative emotions. One problem with this plot type is that often the hero/heroine plays a passive role in the story as they are saved by someone else. A way to combat this issue is by making the redeeming character the hero, or have the hero choose for themselves to change (i.e. Belle [the hero] saving the Beast; Scrooge choosing to change himself [after advice from Marley’s interference]).
Examples: A Christmas Carol; The Secret Garden; How the Grinch Stole Christmas; Beauty and the Beast
Similar to Comedy, this is defined by its ending. In tragedies, the hero does not resolve their inner conflict. (See the Rags to Riches variation: Hollow Victory.) The goal is not achieved and/or the hero is destroyed in some way.
Examples: Romeo and Juliet; The Picture of Dorian Gray; The Great Gatsby; 1984
7 Voyage and Return
Like the name implies, the hero goes on a journey, but unlike in a quest, there is not typically a goal to be met or prize to be won. They enter a strange world, are then met with danger and must escape, and return to the safety of home. In some cases, the hero learns a valuable lesson along the way.
Examples: Alice in Wonderland; The Wizard of Oz; The Odyssey; The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
A basic plot in which an outsider is discovering the truth behind a horrendous event (such as a theft or murder). This plot type is different in that oftentimes the main character has no inner conflict to resolve—it’s all outer conflict. However, there are ways to combat this by inserting a moral dilemma, thus giving the hero (usually a detective) a personal stake in the matter.
Examples: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes; Murder on the Orient Express; Chinatown
9 Rebellion Against “The One”
The hero rebels against the all-powerful enemy who controls the world. This is the most basic story structure for Fantasy and Science Fiction, and it can often be submersed into other plot types, depending on the progression and the ending.
The One may be portrayed as benevolent, but the hero feels that the One is at fault for a lack of control or a slight against them, therefore fighting back. In some cases, the hero loses and once again becomes part of the rest of the world; in other cases, the hero succeeds in overthrowing The One despite its power, thus resulting in a freer world.