On Plot Structure & Plotting

Many stories written by amateur writers have no real plot structure at all - the stories will fluff and ramble on with the occasional interjection of excitement as the author deems fit. The stories are mainly just long chains of Stuff That Happens and don't really go anywhere or add up to anything. While these types of stories can be fun to write, they aren't particularly interesting or engaging to read. So, here's some information and pointers on working out a proper plot structure for your story.

Table of Contents

Your typical basic plot structure.

Most stories out there on the market follow a similar plot structure - and for a good reason: it works. The plot can be divided into a few basic stages:

The beginning. At this point the audience gets their first glimpse of the world of the story. The beginning should effectively set the tone of the story, as well as introduce the audience to the source or cause of the main point of conflict/drama. Generally, the primary protagonist will be introduced at this point as well. Beginnings must strike a careful balance - they must give audiences enough information that they generally understand what's going on in the story and become curious to find out what happens next, but if there's too much detail and the story fails to launch in a timely manner, the audience can get bored and lose interest. (Generally, a good rule of thumb is that if it's not going to become relevant in the next chapter or two, the audience doesn't need to know yet.) The beginning typically ends with something that changes the status quo for the protagonists.

For example, the beginning of The Hunger Games introduces us to our main character and shows us what kind of person she is, shows us what kind of world she lives in (an oppressive and dystopic one), and ends with her younger sister being reaped for the games.

The miniplots. This comprises the bulk of a story where most of the adventure, discovery, plot twists, and general shenanigans happen - for example, information is gathered, relationships are forged and/or broken, the items are found and/or lost, and the journey is made. There is no "right" number of miniplots - the number can vary depending upon how long a story the author wants. Each miniplot should cause a change to the characters' situations that brings them closer to the story's climax. Also, miniplots can be nested within each other, or can run parallel to other. Most stories have a bit of both going on.

Let's look at the Harry Potter books, for an example of how this can work. The major conflict centers around trying to stop Voldemort - which finally happens at the end of the seventh book. All seven books contain an individual plot apiece that ultimately moves the characters toward the final conclusion in the seventh book, and each individual book is similarly divided into a series of miniplots with each chapter containing a miniplot that moves the book's individual plot forward. Some miniplots take more than a single chapter to complete - for example, the miniplot in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets where the characters get what they need to create the Polyjuice Potion and use it to sneak into the Slytherin common room.

The climax. This is the point where the story's main conflict comes to a head and is sorted out - for example, it can be that the final battle takes place, the lovers sort their feelings out, the criminal is chased down and apprehended, or the treasure found. A good climax delivers on promises made or implied during the rest of the story - if an epic battle is implied to be inevitable, then people will feel disappointed if the climax is anything less than epic.

The ending. The brief bit that happens after all of the drama is settled down. We see how things have been changed by the events that transpired in the climax, and we are typically given a sense of the general direction things will be taking from here. Those who survive the plot get on with their lives. Characters might talk about and reflect upon what happened, make plans for the future, or just be briefly shown how they get on living after everything that happened.

Also, subplots!

Aside from the main conflict in the story, there can be other conflicts and plot threads going on as well. For example, a story primarily about saving the world can also have a secondary conflict or plot thread concerning the relationship of some of the protagonists - for example, Arwen and Aragorn's relationship in Lord of the Rings, or the assorted relationships in Bones. (Not all subplots need be romantic, of course - they can be about anything you want.)

A good subplot adds something extra to the story for people to become interested and invested in and can potentially add twists and complications, but beware: if the subplots are given too much focus or if there are too many of them, people can start to feel like the subplots are causing the main plot to drag on or stall, and as a result grow bored and annoyed. If your story is ostensibly about the protagonist solving a mystery, those who got into the story to watch a mystery being solved are not going to be very pleased if the mystery plot is put on the back burner so the story can focus on the characters' burgeoning romance.

Plotting your story.

When you're plotting out your story, you need to ask yourself: what is the central conflict, and how do the characters progress toward resolving that conflict? What tangles them up along the way, and how do they overcome these snags? (The protagonists saving the day in a straightforward manner with no twists, complications, or setbacks makes for a boring story indeed.)

Remember, you can divide your story into as many miniplots as you like along the way, but you also need to remember that your story is ultimately about resolving the central conflict one way or another - and that once your central conflict is over, so is your story... unless you can procure a new central conflict.

A new central conflict needs to be just as interesting and exciting as the one or ones before it - and to do that, it must bring something original and new to the table. If a new arc or installment feels like a retread of an old one (for example, having the villain come back doing pretty much the exact same thing as last time, or having the romantic lead break up so that pretty much the exact same romantic drama can play out again), people will get bored and lose interest in your story.

It should also fit the same overall tone and style as its predecessor. People who were hooked on a first installment or arc because of the adventure and comedy probably aren't going to stick around if the next part suddenly turns into a full-on romantic drama. It's not what they started reading or watching the first installment to see, and if they had been really wanting that type of thing they'd have probably started reading/watching something else instead.

If you intend to have a story that runs beyond one arc or installment, foreshadowing or introducing some of the elements that will be involved in the next major conflict before the current one is resolved can make it feel less like the new conflict was dropped utterly out of nowhere. For example, if the next planned plot is supposed to involve a major conflict with the trolls up north, a miniplot or subplot in the first arc could involve having to deal with those trolls before the major conflict actually begins, at which time it could be revealed that trolls have been causing more trouble lately and that it's suspected that things will get even worse soon. And if that's not possible, even a simple mention of trolls being troublesome can go a long way.

Also, your big reveals need to make sense in retrospect.

A "big reveal" is a revelation of a previously-unknown fact that puts things we have seen previously into a whole new light and/or changes things for the characters in a big way.

The last thing you want is for your big reveal to look like you pulled it out of your butt on a whim or for it to feel like it's there simply because you'd otherwise run out of ideas and desperately needed to inject some drama into your story.

One way to avoid this is to depict things in the story that upon first viewing won't necessarily definitively point to what we find out in the big reveal, but upon looking back at it it'll all make sense. For example, if one wanted reveal later on that a character was actually a vigilante superhero, one might write early on that the character has an unusually strong handshake and show characters having a hard time getting in contact with the character or the character being late or even missing dates and appointments. If one wanted to reveal that a character was a vampire, one might simply never have the character around during daylight hours, and perhaps show the character giving reasons to be in other places any time someone suggests having dinner.

One can also look at prior plot elements and happenings in the story and reinterpret them to fit a reveal made up on the fly - but those who do this need to take care that they properly think it all out so that it ends up making sense and doesn't leave behind a lot of plotholes. One can also throw out things that might be indicative of something that one hasn't quite decided upon yet and work it it up into something absolute later - but again, the author needs to keep careful track of what's been tossed out thus far to make sure it all adds up and makes sense in the end.

In any case, a well-executed reveal can give the story re-watch or re-read bonus, as it allows people to go over the story again while being able to see the clues that hinted toward the reveal for what they are, giving them a fresh perspective on the story.

Beware of and avoid filler.

Filler is any scene or passage that doesn't end up pushing one of the major plot threads forward in some way, or doesn't end up with a character learning or finding something that enables or motivates xir to do something that pushes one of the major plot threads forward. Filler is unnecessary, and as such, you should cut it out. For more information on things that should be cut from your story, read Stuff You Should Cut From Your Story.

Also, you might be interested in:

What To Do When You Have A Character, But No Plot
Writing Better Prompts, Starters, & Beginnings: A Few Pointers
Plot & Story Development Questions
Things Your Fantasy Or Science Fiction Story Needs
Borrowing & Sharing Ideas In Fiction - When It's Okay, And When It Isn't

On Showing vs. Telling
Tips For Describing & Summarizing Your Story & Pitching Your Plot Ideas
How To Increase The Fun Factor of Your Fiction
Tropes Used in Successful Fantasy & Speculative Fictions That Inspire Creativity in Fans

Back to Plots & Plot Construction
Go to a random page!