The Importance of Plot
Plotting. If there was one thing I could say gives writers the most trouble, it would be plotting. Did your stomach knot up a little there? Don’t worry, you’re not alone! Whether you’re an outliner or a by-the-seat-of-your-pants-er, at some point every writer of fiction must address the structure of their novel. After all, it is the scaffolding by which everything else in your story hangs.
Professor and author James Hynes in his lecture on plotting a novel says, “Literature is the creation of order out of chaos.”
As writers of fiction, we must pluck, seemingly out of thin air, the most important elements that will make a story work and create order out of chaos. Indeed, John Gardner in The Art of Fiction writes, “Plotting is the hardest job a writer has.”
Plot and structure in the novel have been around for as long as storytelling has. The earliest surviving work on dramatic theory comes from Aristotle’s On Poetics in 335 BC. In this work, although he is speaking specifically about a Tragedy, a type of play, the essentials of storytelling ring true for all types:
We maintain, therefore, that the first essential, the life and soul so to speak, of Tragedy is the Plot; and that the Characters come second–compare the parallel in painting, where the most beautiful colours laid on without order will not give one the same pleasure as a simple black and white sketch of a portrait.
Plot vs. Story
It’s important to note a distinction about plot and story. It may seem like these are the same things. But there is a difference, and it bears calling attention to it because it highlights the significance of plot.
EM Forester in his book Aspects of the Novel says this about the difference between story and plot:
A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality: “The king died and then the queen died” is a story. But, “The king died and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it.
Additionally, he notes, “If it’s in a story we say, and then? If it’s a plot we ask, why?”
Plot is based on cause and effect, on causality. One thing leads to another and builds on and on. If our novel lacks this causality, then our chapters feel episodic, and there is a kind of disjointed feel, as if the chapters are only vaguely related to one another. A well-designed plot keeps our readers asking why, keeps them turning the pages. It’s not just about what happens next, it’s about the result of what happens next too.
There are varying types of plot diagrams. In your outline, you can break up your story into acts, usually between three and five. There are also myriad of things you might add like pinch points and reversals. For the sake of this post, however, we’ll focus on a basic plot structure using the time-worn classic Freytag’s Pyramid and the three act structure.
Act 1 (25%)
Exposition: Sets up the story, builds the story world/setting, introduces the main characters, sets the stage for what is to come. This is status quo for our hero. Life is as it’s always been. Nothing has happened yet.
Take the opening line from From Crime and Punishment:
Towards the end of a sultry afternoon early in July a young man came out of his little room in Stolyarny Lane and turned slowly and somewhat irresolutely in the direction of Kamenny Bridge.
In this bit of exposition, we get a sense of the time and place (July, Stolyarny Lane), and we understand something about our character: he is irresolute about approaching the Kamenny Bridge, and he lives in a little room.
The exposition should be long enough to orient the reader to where the story is taking place and who the main players are. They should also understand something about what makes our main character tick, what her personality is like, and what she wants.
Before you begin plotting, have a firm understanding of what has happened before the story begins, even if you don’t include that information in the story. Grasp the causality of what led up to the moment when your story begins.
For example, if you’re writing a story about a poor man who lives in the little room ala Crime and Punishment, you’ll need to understand how he got there. Was he always poor? Or have hard times befallen him? Some of this information might be meted out in flashbacks, but even if not, know where your character came from and what drives him forward.
Inciting Incident: Something changes, conflict is introduced into the story. This is what sets the story in motion.
In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov kills the elderly pawn broker.
In Jane Eyre, Jane is kicked out of her aunt’s home and sent to the Lowood School for Girls.
In The Lion King, Scar convinces Simba to go into the elephant graveyard.
Act 2 (50%)
Plot Points and Rising Action: Plot gets more exciting, there are more obstacles, complications, digressions.
This is where our story really begins. After the inciting incident, our main character will be thrown into a conflict (also known as the first plot point) and the primary conflict begins. Our protagonist decides on a plan of action to achieve his goal. The “battle” has begun, and the “fighting” will intensify until the climax.
Here is where an understanding of why our character is committed to this battle comes into play. We must know his or her motivation. What are the internal and external forces involved? Here’s a simple example:
A woman, heartbroken at the death of her lover (internal) sets out find out who did it (external).
Obstacles are continually thrown in her way, each building on one another, perhaps, both thwarting her efforts and making her more determined.
Just before reaching the climax, a complication is added, the second major plot point, which is in essence throwing a giant wrench into our character’s plan. It’s the last straw.
Climax: most dramatic scene of the story, rock bottom, the s*&% has hit the fan
As a result of the building conflict and that final wrench, this is the most intense moment of the story. Everything has come to a head, and the decisive moment is at hand for our main character.
Act 3 (25%)
Falling Action: Made up of the events directly following the climax.
The smoke clears. We see the outcome of the climax. Is it good or bad? Perhaps a mix of both? Often, writers may use “victory at a cost” where the goal is achieved but someone dies in the process.
Resolution: All conflict is resolved.
The protagonist wins out over the antagonist. The murderer is arrested. The detective is lauded for solving the mystery. The lovers reunite.
Denouement: Often showing characters after order has been restored; end of the story.
Some writers revisit the characters and show them as they are now that the crisis is over. It’s important to note though that although order has been restored, our main character is not the same as he was in the beginning of our story. He has changed. Whether that change is for better or worse is up to you.
Some writers question whether plotting can be too formulaic, too predictable. Perhaps, but remember that the reason it’s been around so long (335 BC!) is because it works.
Consider this passage from James Scott Bell’s book Super Structure:
If you go to a doctor and need a shot, you want him to give you what has been used over and over with success.
You don’t want a doctor who says, “So, I was playing around this morning with some baking soda, water, pepper, and chicken entrails, and I’d like to see if that’ll work for you. What do you say?”
Use what works.
There are, however, some ways to make your plot feel a little different while still sticking with the same general Freytag’s Pyramid.
For example, you could tell a single story told from multiple points of view, switching between chapters, and still following the same exposition, inciting incident, rising action, etcetera.
You could tell several separate stories that come together at the end for the climax. In The Return of the King, the third book in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, there are three separate story strands: Aragorn and Legolas; Mary and Pippin; Samwise, Frodo, and Gollum. They all meet up together for the climax, which is the explosion of Mount Doom.
Perhaps you might want to tell two stories from the past and present that are woven together. Think of the movie Julia and Me, in which the story is told through both present day food blogger Julie Powell and past cooking legend Julia Child.
So how do we do it? How do we organize our story?
If you like a hands-on approach, get a stack of index cards and put each scene and chapter that make up each act on a card. This method allows you to physically arrange and rearrange the cards so that it best suits your vision for the story. Then, you take out that first card and begin writing.
I use Scrivener, which is essentially the same thing just in a digital version. Here’s a partial screenshot from one of my novel’s outline in which I juggled two points of view from past and present:
I know writers who use Excel worksheets to outline their plots. Others may simply type it into a Word document. Adriene Mishler from Yoga with Adriene says, “Find what feels good.” So, do that. Find what feels good in plotting. The more comfortable you are, the more enthusiastic you’ll be about the process!