I. What is Plot?
In a narrative or creative writing, a plot is the sequence of events that make up a story, whether it’s told, written, filmed, or sung. The plot is the story, and more specifically, how the story develops, unfolds, and moves in time. Plots are typically made up of five main elements:
1. Exposition: At the beginning of the story, characters, setting, and the main conflict are typically introduced.
2. Rising Action: The main character is in crisis and events leading up to facing the conflict begin to unfold. The story becomes complicated.
3. Climax: At the peak of the story, a major event occurs in which the main character faces a major enemy, fear, challenge, or other source of conflict. The most action, drama, change, and excitement occurs here.
4. Falling Action: The story begins to slow down and work towards its end, tying up loose ends.
5. Resolution/Denoument: Also known as the denouement, the resolution is like a concluding paragraph that resolves any remaining issues and ends the story.
Plots, also known as storylines, include the most significant events of the story and how the characters and their problems change over time.
II. Examples of Plot
Here are a few very short stories with sample plots:
Kaitlin wants to buy a puppy. She goes to the pound and begins looking through the cages for her future pet. At the end of the hallway, she sees a small, sweet brown dog with a white spot on its nose. At that instant, she knows she wants to adopt him. After he receives shots and a medical check, she and the dog, Berkley, go home together.
In this example, the exposition introduces us to Kaitlin and her conflict. She wants a puppy but does not have one. The rising action occurs as she enters the pound and begins looking. The climax is when she sees the dog of her dreams and decides to adopt him. The falling action consists of a quick medical check before the resolution, or ending, when Kaitlin and Berkley happily head home.
Scott wants to be on the football team, but he’s worried he won’t make the team. He spends weeks working out as hard as possible, preparing for try outs. At try outs, he amazes coaches with his skill as a quarterback. They ask him to be their starting quarterback that year and give him a jersey. Scott leaves the field, ecstatic!
The exposition introduces Scott and his conflict: he wants to be on the team but he doubts his ability to make it. The rising action consists of his training and tryout; the climax occurs when the coaches tell him he’s been chosen to be quarterback. The falling action is when Scott takes a jersey and the resolution is him leaving the try-outs as a new, happy quarterback.
Each of these stories has
- an exposition as characters and conflicts are introduced
- a rising action which brings the character to the climax as conflicts are developed and faced, and
- a falling action and resolution as the story concludes.
III. Types of Plot
There are many types of plots in the world! But, realistically, most of them fit some pattern that we can see in more than one story. Here are some classic plots that can be seen in numerous stories all over the world and throughout history.
a. Overcoming the Monster
The protagonist must defeat a monster or force in order to save some people—usually everybody! Most often, the protagonist is forced into this conflict, and comes out of it as a hero, or even a king. This is one version of the world’s most universal and compelling plot—the ‘monomyth’ described by the great thinker Joseph Campbell.
Beowulf, Harry Potter, and Star Wars.
b. Rags to Riches:
This story can begin with the protagonist being poor or rich, but at some point, the protagonist will have everything, lose everything, and then gain it all back by the end of the story, after experiencing great personal growth.
The Count of Monte Cristo, Cinderella, and Jane Eyre.
c. The Quest:
The protagonist embarks on a quest involving travel and dangerous adventures in order to find treasure or solve a huge problem. Usually, the protagonist is forced to begin the quest but makes friends that help face the many tests and obstacles along the way. This is also a version of Campbell’s monomyth.
The Iliad, The Lord of the Rings, and Eragon
d. Voyage and Return:
The protagonist goes on a journey to a strange or unknown place, facing danger and adventures along the way, returning home with experience and understanding. This is also a version of the monomyth.
Alice in Wonderland, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Wizard of Oz
A happy and fun character finds a happy ending after triumphing over difficulties and adversities.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Home Alone
The protagonist experiences a conflict which leads to very bad ending, typically death.
Romeo and Juliet, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Macbeth
The protagonist is a villain who becomes a good person through the experience of the story’s conflict.
The Secret Garden, A Christmas Carol, The Grinch
As these seven examples show, many stories follow a common pattern. In fact, according to many thinkers, such as the great novelist Kurt Vonnegut, and Joseph Campbell, there are only a few basic patterns, which are mixed and combined to form all stories.
IV. The Importance of Using Plot
The plot is what makes a story a story. It gives the story character development, suspense, energy, and emotional release (also known as ‘catharsis’). It allows an author to develop themes and most importantly, conflict that makes a story emotionally engaging; everybody knows how hard it is to stop watching a movie before the conflict is resolved.
V. Examples of Plot in Literature
Plots can be found in all kinds of fiction. Here are a few examples.
The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham
In The Razor’s Edge, Larry Darrell returns from World War I disillusioned. His fiancée, friends, and family urge him to find work, but he does not want to. He embarks on a voyage through Europe and Asia seeking higher truth. Finally, in Asia, he finds a more meaningful way of life.
In this novel, the plot follows the protagonist Larry as he seeks meaningful experiences. The story begins with the exposition of a disillusioned young man who does not want to work. The rising action occurs as he travels seeking an education. The story climaxes when he becomes a man perfectly at peace in meditation.
The Road not Taken’ by Robert Frost
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Robert Frost’s famous poem “The Road Not Taken,” has a very clear plot: The exposition occurs when a man stands at the fork of two roads, his conflict being which road to take. The climax occurs when he chooses the unique path. The resolution announces that “that has made all the difference,” meaning the man has made a significant and meaningful decision.
VI. Examples of Plot in Pop Culture
Plots can also be found in television shows, movies, thoughtful storytelling advertisements, and song lyrics. Below are a few examples of plot in pop culture.
“Love Story” (excerpts) by Taylor Swift:
I’m standing there on a balcony in summer air.
See the lights, see the party, the ball gowns.
See you make your way through the crowd
And say, “Hello, ”
Little did I know…
That you were Romeo, you were throwing pebbles,
And my daddy said, “Stay away from Juliet”
And I was crying on the staircase
Begging you, “Please don’t go”
So I sneak out to the garden to see you.
We keep quiet ’cause we’re dead if they knew
So close your eyes… escape this town for a little while.
. . .
He knelts to the ground and pulled out a ring and said…
“Marry me, Juliet, you’ll never have to be alone.
I love you, and that’s all I really know.
I talked to your dad -- go pick out a white dress
It’s a love story, baby, just say, ‘Yes.'”
These excerpts reveal the plot of this song: the exposition occurs when we see two characters: a young woman and young man falling in love. The rising action occurs as the father forbids her from seeing the man and they continue see one another in secret. Finally, the climax occurs when the young man asks her to marry him and the two agree to make their love story come true.
Minions have a goal to serve the most despicable master. Their rising action is their search for the best leader, the conflict being that they cannot keep one. Movie trailers encourage viewers to see the movie by showing the conflict but not the climax or resolution.
VII. Related Terms
Many people use outlines which to create complex plots, or arguments in formal essays. In a story, an outline is a list of the scenes in the plot with brief descriptions. Like the skeleton is to the body, an outline is the framework upon which the rest of the story is built when it is written. In essays, outlines are used to help organize ideas into strong arguments and paragraphs that connect to each other in sensible ways.
The climax is considered the most important element of the plot. It contains the highest point of tension, drama, and change. The climax is when the conflict is finally faced and overcome. Without a climax, a plot does not exist.
For example, consider this simple plot:
The good army is about to face the evil army in a terrible battle. During this battle, the good army prevails and wins the war at last. After the war has ended, the two sides make piece and begin rebuilding the countryside which was ruined by the years-long war.
The climax occurred when the good army defeated the bad army. Without this climax, the story would simply be a never-ending war between a good army and bad army, with no happy or sad ending in sight. Here, the climax is absolutely necessary for a meaningful story with a clear ending.