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Plot Basics—The Events of Story

May 22, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified June 3, 2012

Fiction is a rich mix of elements that combines to make stories of different flavors. Stories can be sweet or bittersweet, humorous, dramatic, or tragic. They can tug on the emotions or challenge the mind.

Stories may race from high point to high point or the pace may be languorous. Readers may actually feel the insistent beat of a story’s events or may be too caught up in those events to feel the rhythm, even if that rhythm drives them to the climax.

I’ve written quite a few articles on character, one of the most important elements of fiction, but I haven’t focused much on plot, another key element. As a matter of fact, before this article, I had no article tags for plot. So I’d like to touch on plot, on story events, just a bit. Because there are many factors that go into plot, I won’t be able to do plot justice in a single article, but I’d like to introduce some of the areas that deserve your attention as you write. We’ll delve into the specifics of each area in subsequent articles.

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A simple definition of plot is that it’s the story line of your novel. Plot is the what of story. Plot might, out of necessity, include who and when and where, but it’s the story events that truly define plot.

Plot is what you relate when someone asks you what a book or movie is about.

Plot can be a one liner—A guy has to prove he didn’t kill his wife. Or plot can be the rambling explanation that lasts for 20 minutes when you’re trying to tell your best friend about the great movie you saw last night.

For writers, there are many, many, many considerations that produce a satisfying and complex plot. You could, of course, simply begin writing your story. But if you want a cohesive plot, there are basics you’ll want to consider, some before you begin writing. Others may require more of your attention while you’re writing, and still others you may not be able to work on until the first draft is complete.

Each of these story areas deserves its own article, but for our purposes, let’s just mention these areas so you’ll know what you should be looking at as you write.

The choices you make for each of these story areas and sub-elements will flavor and direct your story. Your choices for these plot areas will drive the story, compelling it forward to the places you decide it must go.

Each plot choice you make influences the story direction and the impact on the reader.

The failure to make choices for these areas could leave you with an aimless story, one that goes nowhere or has no purpose or has competing purposes. The failure to make choices, allowing a story to ramble on its own, can produce a story that readers will find easy to abandon, even if they give it a chance to start with.

Stories don’t merely happen simply by throwing a couple of characters into a setting. You must write the story. You must show the reader what’s important, where to focus. You must create a mood and choose words to elicit an emotional response from the reader.

You create the path for characters to follow, a path that readers will also willingly follow.

A few of the plot elements to consider in order to create stories that readers will want to lose themselves in—

the place to start the story—location, time, and the event that kick-starts the story’s engine

the place to end the story (both climax and denouement)—location, time, and event

places in the story to change direction

tipping point—the protagonist’s point of no return

the number and timing of high points

number and location (in the story’s timeline) of setbacks for the protagonist

number of major events

events of sufficient interest to keep the reader’s attention

type of story—not the genre, necessarily, but the feel of the story in terms of dramatic, comedic, light-hearted, character driven, plot driven

choice of setting to match plot

choice of protagonist and antagonist that will inspire each other to great and greater deeds

character goals and motivations sufficient to drive the story

stakes strong enough to keep characters motivated

emotional highs and lows for characters and readers

plausibility—making sure events are possible and believable

sensible resolution

satisfying resolution

choices of secondary characters to complement protagonist and antagonist

choice of the appropriate character to instigate each event

choice of characters to be present at each event

types of emotions to induce in the reader, especially at high points and at the beginning and end of the story

opening hook and chapter hooks

conflict—sources of conflict and methods to escalate conflict

pace—choosing the right scene and chapter length to set up the intended pace, balancing dialogue and narrative to vary pace, choosing the amount of exposition to influence pace

complexity—number of side plots and plot threads that need to be woven in for variety

So many elements to look at and choose from and balance. Is it any wonder that some books and movies bore the audience? If writers don’t plot in ways that move their readers, that don’t engage them and keep their attention, readers will turn away.

Readers looking for story will not finish your novel if nothing happens in it. Remember that story is someone doing something somewhere. And that something that characters are doing needs to be an interesting something. It has to be intriguing or compelling or fascinating.

Story events have to be more interesting than watching a tree grow. And you have the duty, as writer or editor, to see that readers are pulled into story events and propelled along the same path as characters are.

Adventure tale or character-intensive novel, your story has to start somewhere, go somewhere, and end somewhere. Your characters have to do things and cause other things to happen. Events have to change your characters or reveal the inner character that was there all along.

Story events may take your character to a new physical locale or to a new psychological place.

Story events must compel and propel characters into reactions, into doing something they never would have done without those events pushing them.

Story events must challenge your characters.

Story events must change the status quo.

Story events must engage the reader.

Borrowing from Conan Doyle, who borrowed from others, you need to remember that something must start the story—the game is afoot—and that something must happen, several times, to increase tension and up the stakes—the plot thickens—as the story progresses.

Plot, the events of story, should take characters and readers to a new place or a new understanding of life or themselves. Think change. Plot events should change your characters and maybe your readers.

Plot should introduce new events and new reactions to those events.

Plot should move and take both characters and readers to lands or circumstances or emotions or challenges unknown to them.

Plot should entice and compel. Your plots should ensnare your readers and firmly place them in a world or circumstances unfamiliar to them.

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11 Responses to “Plot Basics—The Events of Story”

  1. Karen says:

    Thank you Beth for addressing this subject!
    A Plot is a rather layered journey in which I am trying to master as I progress as a writer.! Keep those articles coming. I and others appreciate your help.

  2. Karen, I plan to keep ’em coming until the words dry up. Thanks for letting me know that they’re helpful.

    And my apologies to all for being delinquent in presenting something on plot. It’s amazing the number of topics on writing that we can visit.

  3. I happen to be a voice-driven and character-driven novelist naturally, so I’m always keeping an eagle eye on plot. It really is a balancing act.

    Even in YA works with a literary bent, a solid plot is necessary to keep the story moving at the brisk pace readers (and editors) expect.

    Thanks, as always, for your million dollar posts. Knowledge is courage!More than once, parts of your posts have come to mind as I finish my revisions. You just might find yourself on my acknowledgements page. : )

  4. Emily, I agree about the balancing act. Though writers favor either plot or characters in their approach, we’ve got to cover both elements sufficiently in order to create full stories.

    I’ll be looking for your stories in the bookstore one day soon, I’m sure.

  5. Thanks Beth!

    I always tell my writer friends it’s WHEN, not IF we get published. We have to stay positive and keep believing, keep writing!

    I’m so excited for Round Two, especially with the improvements in my ms. I think it’s Steven King who says we have to write a million words? I find that nothing improves writing, like writing.

  6. Oops! That’s StePHen King.

    Don’t want to dis the King! : )

  7. So true. We can’t expect to get better without actually writing and then writing some more. (Though I think Elmore Leonard said it was John D. MacDonald who first talked about the million-word thing.)

    Laughing about not dissing the King—people might think you’re talking about Elvis.

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