People are always stopping me on the street and asking, “What is plot? You look like a part-time writer, you should know!” I’m kidding. That never happens. But, if you came here for the basic definition for the plot, we’ve got that for you plus a lot more!
The Definition of Plot
In fiction, a plot is the cause and effect sequence of significant events that make up the story’s narrative. These events can include things like an inciting incident, mid-plot point, climax, and resolution.
But there is so much more to plot than this boring definition. So, today we are going to talk about what plot is all about. Let’s take a deep drive on plot and figure out how to use it for our own stories! We’ll start with types of plot.
Different types of plot
If you google “different types of plot” one of the first hits you’ll get is something like, “the 1,500 basic types of plot!” Needles to say, the subject of plot types can be confusing, and the truth is your plot is what you make it. You don’t have to conform to anyone’s pattern. But, if you help getting started there are plenty of plots diagrams you can use. For this post, we’ll cover the most beneficial ones.
Kurt Vonnegut’s Shape of Stories
A terrific source for outlining different plot types is the Shapes of Stories by famed writer Kurt Vonnegut. In case you’re not familiar, Vonnegut is the author of titles like Slaughterhouse-Five, and Breakfast of Champions. He also wrote a thesis, Shapes of Stories, arguing there were eight basic plot shapes that you could draw on a graph. He describes these story shapes as eight common character arcs.
Below is a short lecture Vonnegut gave on the concept:
The Eight Shapes of Stories
Man in a Hole:
With this plot your main character will get into some serious trouble. This trouble will upend your protagonist’s life and send them spiraling towards rock bottom. Through the plot of your story, the character will make their way out of trouble. By the conclusion the protagonist will be left off better than where they started, having crawled out of the hole.
The hole is usually metaphorical, but by all means, stick your character in a real hole if you want.
Boy Meets Girl:
Or girl meets boy. Like the hole from the example above, the person your character meets can be symbolic. Your character doesn’t have to meet a person; they can find something wonderful or life-changing. The character will experience the awesome benefits of this thing or person they found. Then, as it often does, tragedy strikes.
At some point in the story, your character will lose the wonderful thing they found, and they will become deeply depressed. We’re back in the hole. However, by the story’s conclusion the character will regain the thing they lost. What’s more, they will get it back permanently, and, like with Man in a Hole, they will end better than they started.
From Bad to Worse:
Are you a sadist? Well, do I have the plot for you! From Bad to Worse character arcs are exactly what they sound like. You start your character off in a terrible situation. Then things get gradually worse for them as the story progresses. By the end, your protagonist has lost all hope of things ever getting better. Because they won’t.
This kind of arc makes great horror stories. They also put your readers through the wringer.
Which Way is Up?
Life imitates art in the Which Way is Up story arc. Things are confusing; events are ambiguous. It’s difficult to tell whether a turn of fate will benefit or harm your protagonist. These stories hit close to home, as with a reader’s life, we’re not guaranteed a happy ending.
Great for thrillers and mysteries, this kind of story will keep readers on the edge of their seat.
In the beginning, there was light! Creation stories follow the pattern of a deity creating all of existence. God or some other deity will create humankind and then bestow gifts on them gradually, one at a time.
One day you get a garden, then the next you get some animal friends. Later, you might get a spouse. These are pretty common stories to all cultures as they helped people describe the mystery of life. They’re not quite as popular in modern culture, but maybe you’ll be the one to revive them.
If you were to say you were going “old testament” on someone, that person is probably in for a bad time. Because let’s face it, the Old Testament isn’t the most cheery tome. Whether it’s Lot’s wife, or Abel, or the “OGs,” Adam and Eve, there’s a lot of fire and brimstone raining down on people.
Old Testament stories build on the Creation story arc. A deity gradually rewards humankind. However, at some point humans suffer a sudden and drastic fall from grace. So, how would you update this story for a modern audience? Shrink it a little.
You don’t have to write about all of humankind. Focus your story on one character- your protagonist. They are blessed by the gods, or society, or just parents with a fat bank account, but they lose it all. Slowly, your hero will have to earn their way back into the garden.
New Testament stories follow the same track as their Old Testament counterparts, but humankind, or your hero, will overcome their fall from grace. Your hero is bestowed gradual gifts from some higher power, they experience a sudden loss of all those gifts, but regain them and achieve heavenly transcendence. This transformation is usually the result of your character’s internal growth.
Now to everyone’s favorite, a true Cinderella story. In this arc, your character begins at rock bottom, as low as they can be. They are probably born to a low station or suffered a devastating tragedy early in life. As bad things are for your hero, the one thing that can’t be taken from her is her resilience. She has hope that things can get better, but she at least knows they can’t possibly be worse.
And things do get better. Your character experiences pure ecstasy for a short while. They discover what it means to be truly happy, but nothing lasts forever. Eventually, the clock strikes midnight, and that carriage turns back into a pumpkin.
However, the experience of happiness has a lasting effect on your hero. She will never again be as low as she started at the beginning of the story because she now has the memory of being happy. At your story’s climax, your hero will regain what she lost and experience an everlasting happiness!
Most stories you read or watch probably fit into one of these eight types of plots, or character arcs. So, if you’re struggling with the direction you’d like to take your story, use one of these basic plot arcs as your guide.
What is plot structure?
Plot structure refers to the story beats, or series of events, that make up your story.
Above, with the shape of stories, we discussed character arcs. Now, with plot structure, we’re talking about story arcs. Like the shape of stories or character arcs, there are many different ways to approach how you structure your plot. Let’s start with the most common plot structure you’ll find.
Different types of plot structure
Freytag’s Story Pyramid
You probably know this plot structure, also called the story pyramid. It’s the plot structure you learned way back in grade school. Freytag’s Pyramid breaks down to five plot segments. They are as follows:
In a story’s exposition you establish the ordinary world. Introduce all of the main characters, and show them in their everyday life. Introduce the setting of the story as well as the mood, and maybe hint at the conflict. You’ll end this section with an inciting incident that shatters the ordinary world and begins the conflict.
This is where the plot starts to move. The inciting event has caused some significant problems for your hero. During the rising action, your character is trying, and failing, to solve their problem. The character’s action will get increasingly drastic. Rising action will take up the majority of your story.
This is the most thrilling part of your story; it’s the primary turning point. The climax is when the story’s main antagonist is finally confronted. The stakes are at their highest point. If your character loses, then they will die either literally or metaphorically. They will often have to overcome a character flaw to win.
This is a moment of final suspense when the hero seems to have lost. Freytag suggests as few characters as possible are involved at this point of the story and that there are fewer scenes than there were during the rising action.
Catastrophe or Denouement:
The logical endpoint of your story. There should be some catharsis for your reader and a tying up of loose ends. Your hero may die in sacrifice at this point, or they may be triumphant. All conflicts should be resolved. A denouement sees your story ending on a high note. However, if you’re writing a tragedy, you’ll end with a catastrophe.
Three Act Structure
Popular for its simplicity, this is another plot structure commonly used in Western storytelling. As the name suggests, the design is subdivided into three acts with five plot points interspersed between them. Here they are:
Act I – Setup:
The setup in this structure is very similar to the story pyramid’s exposition phase. The author will establish characters, setting, and tone. You want to show the characters in their everyday life. The setup will contain, or be concluded by, the inciting incident, which will disrupt your character’s life.
- Plot Point 1: this plot point ends your setup. It is a dramatic event that represents the point of no return for your hero. Once this happens, they cannot return to their ordinary life. Think of it like a cave-in that seals your hero within the story.
Act II- Confrontation:
Your character struggles to overcome their conflict set off by the inciting event. They will try one thing after the other, each time not achieving their goal and becoming more extreme in their measures.
- Mid Point: happens in the middle of your story. It is the most dramatic turn up to that point. It raises the stakes for the hero exponentially.
- Plot Point 2: This ends the second act of your story. The second plot point is when the hero prepares to confront their antagonist. This point will set up the final confrontation.
Act III- Resolution:
The final battle or obstacle. The point where your character is truly tested. This act will change a fundamental part of your character’s life or personality as they overcome internal demons or external threats.
- Climax: The most intense part of your characters struggle. They may have a sudden realization of how to end the conflict, or they may have to overcome a deep-seated flaw.
Developed in Japan, Jo-ha-kyū is more of a concept than a structure. Still, it is used to structure stories, especially in theatre. In Jo-ha-kyū, things begin slowly, speed up gradually, and end fast. Jo-ha-kyū has three stages:
Just like the other two structures, this is an exposition phase that moves at a leisurely pace.
The story begins to intensify here. Things start to speed up at a gradual pace. The plot intensifies.
The story moves at break-neck speed to its conclusion. All the conflict and loose ends are resolved.
Kishōtenketsu is a Korean story structure that prioritizes a significant plot twist over a pattern of conflict and resolution. We’ll go over the four parts of this structure today.
The four components of Kishōtenketsu are:
This is an introduction to characters, setting, mood, and any other important information.
This is a development stage. The author expands on the characters and setting established in the introduction.
TWIST! The twist is the most crucial part of the story. The dramatic twist takes the place of any conflict a typical story would have.
The conclusion of your story. Everything is wrapped up, and things return to normal.
Story vs. Plot
So, what is the difference between story and plot? The two can be hard to define, but most people have decided that causality differentiates the two.
A story is a retelling of events in chronological order with no definable through-line. A plot is a series of events organized by cause and effect.
With a plot, on the other hand, there is a clear depiction of cause and effect. A story can be reported in a newspaper as- there was a five-alarm fire in an apartment building last night. One person died. Investigators believe faulty wiring was the cause of the fire.
A plot would show us how these events are connected. A slumlord, building owner fires his hardworking superintendent to cut costs. Therefore, the faulty wiring in Mrs. Jones’ apartment is never fixed. On a cold night, Mrs. Jones plugs in a space heater to stay warm. With no one to repair it, the building’s furnace has been broken for months. A spark from the outlet catches the drapes on fire. The flames spread filling the bedroom with smoke. Mrs. Jones suffocates, and the slumlord cashes in on his insurance policy.
Here we see the cause and effect pattern, and even a theme developing.
Elements of a Plot
The plot elements depend on the type of story you’re telling, and we’ve covered many of them already. Plot points, climaxes, raising, and falling action are all elements of different plots. Let’s cover a few essential factors that are common to most plot structures.
Setup & exposition:
Most stories will start by introducing characters, settings, and a mood. Authors may also hint at a coming conflict or theme in this section.
Action & confrontation:
A majority of the time spent in any story will show a character trying to overcome some conflict in their life. Usually, they try small actions at first; then, as they continue to fail, action will gradually become more drastic. These actions lead to an escalation of the stakes of the story.
Climax & conclusion:
There is a high point of every story. A moment where the stakes are highest and failure means dire consequences for your hero. The character either overcomes their conflict or is consumed by it depending on the story you want to tell.
Stories, like any work of art, need contrast. Contrast is what makes a story interesting. Ordinary characters can contrast with extraordinary events. The setup of your story will contrast with the conflict. You don’t always need conflict to create this contrast. In Kishōtenketsu arcs there is no conflict, but a jarring and dramatic twist is what creates contrast. Your character’s personality can create contrast. They may start the story as a coward and end as a hero.
Ok, there are about twenty-five hundred words on plot. We’ve discussed what plot is, the different types of plot, what makes a story different from a plot, and plot elements. I’d love to continue, but I, literally, have nothing left to say. So, if you have any questions about plot, please drop them in the comments. I’ll answer them. Promise.
If you want to read more about plot, here is an outstanding book, Story Genius, that taught me plenty!
Continued reading on plot
“In Story Genius Cron takes you, step-by-step, through the creation of a novel from the first glimmer of an idea, to a complete multilayered blueprint—including fully realized scenes—that evolves into a first draft with the authority, richness, and command of a riveting sixth or seventh draft.”
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