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Plot is often misconceived as story and underestimated when writing. This leads to stories that are incomplete and unfulfilled; stories that fall apart and fail.
To tell a good story, it’s vital to understand the plot, how it works, and how to use it to your advantage.
First, let’s get into the proper mindset about plot.
- 1 Understanding Plot
- 2 Elements of Plot
- 2.1 Exposition
- 2.2 Rising Action
- 2.3 Climax
- 2.4 Falling Action
- 2.5 Resolution
- 3 Applying Plot
- 4 Join the Commaful Storytelling Community
To break any lingering doubts: plot is not story. Story is bigger than the plot. It contains every component working together.
Plot, on the other hand, is one of those important components. Simply, plot is the sequence of interconnected events. It’s highly dependent on how you withhold and reveal information.
But plotting is far from easy. It’s not a bridge you cross when you get there. A plot involves leading your reader from the beginning, middle, to the end with unity and purpose. Stories, no matter how unique, fall short without them. With a good plot, Edgar Allan Poe says, “no part can be displaced without ruin to the whole.”
If plot is so important, why do some writers decide to wing it and work on the fly? Plotting is daunting, especially to developing writers, and tedious even to professionals.
Let’s challenge that obstacle by breaking down how plot works.
Elements of Plot
There are pieces to plot that guide you into designing your structure. They are meant to give you the mastery of positioning information. Each element must be shaped as necessary stages as you tell your story.
Here you introduce your characters and the setting. With this piece, writers can fall into the bad habit of information dumping. Avoid being too explicit and remember that what you reveal in the exposition should carry through to the end of your story.
1. Determine Character’s Desires, Needs, Weaknesses, and Self-Revelation
A good practice is to already figure out who your protagonist will be by the end of the story. Who does he want to be? What does he need? How has he changed? Knowing the ending gives you a goal that the plot should follow.
2. Give Character a Ghost
John Truby uses the term “ghost” to loosely describe your protagonist’s backstory. It is a device either haunts him from the past or a great fear that holds him back. It contradicts the protagonist’s desire that should lead to his self-revelation.
3. Place Character in His World
Beginning a story involves entering a different world where your protagonist lives. World-building needs pacing as much as the journey itself to keep your reader visually entertained. Don’t reveal too much in the exposition but simply establish what’s normal to your protagonist.
Establishing a world that serves as an expression of your protagonist—his weaknesses, needs, desires, and obstacles—turns your setting into more than just a location or a background.
Here you welcome the inciting event that pushes the protagonist to focus on a goal. This should upset the balance of your protagonist’s life—his normal world. Connect his need and desire through an event that forces him to act, thus pushing the story forward.
1. Establish Character Desire
Your protagonist must react to the inciting event—the imbalance—and from there, discover his desire—restoring balance. Truby states, his desire is his goal that “provides the spine for the entire plot”. It spans through the entire story so it’s crucial to establish your protagonist’s desire at its lowest form. As your story progresses, increase the intensity, stakes, and importance of that particular goal. This builds tension for your conflict and urges a development for your protagonist.
2. Introduce Conflict
In his normal world, your protagonist is essentially paralyzed. There’s no need to change nor desire to act. If the inciting event comes as a device that jump-starts your protagonist out of paralysis, your conflict prevents him from moving forward to achieving his desire.
There’s internal conflict that focuses on the character’s struggles within himself. This includes mental, emotional, and physical limitations. On the other hand, is external conflict that involves a force, usually tangible, that collides with your protagonist. It comes in different forms such as another character or even his own world. Whichever conflict you decide, remember that the best opposition is the necessary one. This conflict should attack your protagonist’s greatest weakness.
You have increased the stakes of desire. You have formed a necessary conflict. Now, your protagonist finds himself at a turning point. How your protagonist decides the climax drastically affects his development and the rest of the story.
1. Present a Crisis
A climax is more than explosions or dramatic screaming. It is your protagonist’s choice in the face of his conflict, his great antagonist. An anticipated climax is made within a crisis. This involves a true dilemma where your protagonist must decide between either a pair of desirable choices or the lesser of two evils. This decision is made in the last effort to achieve his goal and reveals your protagonist’s deepest and truest character.
2. Make Meaning
In explaining story crisis, McKee emphasizes, “meaning produces emotion”. Meaning is made through an absolute and irreversible shift of value—positive to negative or vice versa—that is present during your protagonist’s crisis and is justified by the events leading to it (exposition, rising action).
Aside from a true choice, the climax is also a change. It requires a lasting impact on your protagonist and to your readers. A climax made with meaning produces emotion and impacts your readers until the end.
Some stories put the climax and self-revelation together as its resolution. But if your protagonist has yet to achieve his desire, then his climax results in a falling action. This section of the plot wears many faces that are appropriate to the decision made at the climax. It can be the consequences of choosing a lesser evil or the conditions of a desirable option.
1. Take Character to Therapy
Literally, or figuratively. The climax has made an irreversible change whether within your protagonist or the world he lives in. This induces an internal check-in of his psyche. What are his new weaknesses? Does his need still drive his desire? Is he one step closer to self-revelation or two steps back? Give your protagonist the resources to reexamine his character and events that will realign his goals.
2. Enter Another Conflict
What if your protagonist made the appropriate climactic choice? He is in the happily ever after. Look back at self-revelation you established beforehand and the desire made during the rising action. Have they been achieved with meaning? Are they balanced in your protagonist’s new world?
Tip the scales. Call up another necessary conflict that will test your protagonist’s true character. Prove or disprove the meaning of his actions.
Here is the final element, the closing piece. Because it follows the high-intensity events of the climax and the exhale of the falling action, the ending of your story needs to be composed to not bore your reader.
At the same time, the resolution is a courtesy to your reader. It’s their cue that the story has ended, and your protagonist is ready to part ways. You don’t need to cut all loose ends, especially if you have thoughts for a sequel, but rather signify that your reader can close the book content.
1. Remember Conflict
Move on, but don’t forget. The defeat of your antagonist isn’t a one-time battle. Your protagonist may have achieved self-realization and is basking in the glory of happily ever after but remember he’s different from the character in the exposition who now has a permanent shadow. This can dispel the disinterest of your reader by teasing an underlying threat to the newly achieved balance.
2. Show Effects
Maybe your plot doesn’t involve a life-altering conflict and your protagonist simply found success in his self-revelation. Wring that success by satisfying the curiosity of readers by depicting how your protagonist and his world has changed.
The elements of plot have changed over time, from Aristotle’s simple and unified plot of the beginning, middle, and end to Freytag’s Pyramid whose elements we referenced and discussed. There are also various minor additions to modern plot structure that can increase your understanding and use of this story component.
When it comes down to plotting your story, it takes a thorough evaluation of how you should design your plot that will serve your story most appropriately. Even with different structures, the essence of a good plot is an organic plot.
An organic plot is casually connected where every event is essential, and every action is well-paced. It is a progression of actions that lead to your protagonist’s self-revelation and justifies the change. Most of all, an organic plot comes naturally from your protagonist. It is fitting to his desire and his actions, and there is an undeniable unity in its sequence.
Let’s look into Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games to frame the elements of plot and how to use them.
Exposition: We are introduced to Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist, and her dystopian world of District 12 and Panem. As readers, we are not yet aware of Katniss’s desire and self-revelation but Collins hints at Katniss’s love for her sister Prim and her skills of archery and hunting.
Rising Action: At the Reaping, Prim is chosen for the Hunger Games. Katniss volunteers in her place. She meets her fellow tribute, Peeta, and by the beginning of the Games, establishes her desire in its lowest form: survival. In the Hunger Games, Katniss faces different conflicts. This shifts from dodgy allegiances with Peeta to the threat of the Careers, tributes trained for the Games. One of her biggest oppositions is the death of a young girl, Rue, who parallels Prim that drives her into grief and depression.
Climax: These conflicts, compounded, increases the intensity of her desire to survive the Games into surviving the overarching classism of Panem. Then the crisis arrives with the Capitol’s announcement of two victors from the same district. Katniss finds Peeta and keeps him alive. With only the two of them left, the Capitol retracts their statement and orders a single victor. Katniss, having witness unjustified death and loss in a matter of days, makes her true choice: she plans to commit double suicide with Peeta that will leave the Hunger Games with no winner. This action forces the Capitol to declare two victors for the first time in history—a memorable and meaningful moment for the country—while revealing Katniss’ true character; she is a rebel.
Falling Action: Katniss and Peeta are pronounced victors. They get to come home in glory. Katniss has achieved her goal of surviving the Hunger Games. But her mentor, Haymitch, warns her that the Capitol remembers her act of defiance and urges her to keep up pretenses to remain safe.
Resolution: Katniss and Peeta agree to pursue their fake romance as false appearances under the Capitol threat. In exchange, they live freely as victors.
The Hunger Games is a multi-faceted story of classism and revolution. With this breakdown o f plot structure, we see the essential events and follow the spine of the plot to its completion. Other plot structures specify the different elements that make The Hunger Games complex and meaningful, as both a single book and with the rest of the trilogy.
Now you understand the relevance of plot and its mechanics that are necessary yet ever-changing. Never underestimate the weight of plot to the success of your story without undermining an organic plot. With all these in mind, plotting is, without a doubt, a scary process in writing.
The key is to remain flexible. Plots are not formulas. They are not dictations to conform your story into. They are guiding principles arranged in a scheme that parallels how we humans solve our own problems. That means, plot is innately familiar to us and it’s not a concept that’s far from achieving.
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