A Guide to Plot for Narrative Writers

Though some stories and novels are based on unrelated episodes (Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote), known as the “episodic story” or the “picaresque”, and some have a purpose to reveal what life is like for the protagonist without the use of a rising action/rising emotion sense of plot (Flaubert: “A Simple Heart”), known as the “slice of life” story (from the French, tranche de vie), most are traditionally plotted. Here’s a guide to plot for narrative writers.

Terms

Plot: the events, or significant actions, that take place in a story, which are motivated by:

  • conflict, meaning a problem big enough to cause an attempt to solve it (interior-psychological, exterior-in the world, or both). Conflict creates tension and compels the protagonist to act to attempt to resolve the conflict or solve the problem. 
  • desire or need, meaning that there is something the protagonist wants enough to attain it, to cause action. The protagonist has the motivation to act in the face of obstacles to attempt to achieve the desired end. 
  • obstacles, meaning that the protagonist’s desire is not easy to obtain, or the problem is not easy to resolve; in fact, it may never be obtained or resolved, but as the story moves toward the resolution, the character is determined to overcome the obstacles (again, these can interior, exterior, or both) in the way of achieving the desired end to the conflict or problem. 
  • story time. If you think about it, time doesn’t flow in a narrative the way it flows normally. After all, if it did, a story that covers a day in a character’s life would literally take 24 hours to read as each second is described! Story time refers to the way time flows in narrative. Typically: slower in description and faster in summary. 

Point of Attack: Means the point in time and action chosen to begin the story. In fiction, especially short stories, this is a point most often “in medias res” which is Latin for “in the middle of things.” It avoids the problem of extensive “explaining” of background, known as “exposition.” The trick is to pick a point of attack that will solve the problem of presenting exposition dramatically, in the context of action. The origin of the term is from Horace. Exposition is supplied later “through flashbacks and other devices for exposition” (Harmon & Holman’s A Handbook to Literature, 12th Ed. (253).

Resolution: It’s useful to think of resolutions as either complication resolved or situation revealed. Complication resolved completely “unties” the knot of the plot. Situation revealed resolutions stop the story when the reader has enough information about the protagonist to know that an interior change has been made, and doesn’t move on to finish resolving all the complications. “Misery,” and “First Husband, First Wife,” are examples of situation revealed resolutions. “How I Met My Husband” is an example of complication resolved – though it really contains both. The terms “complication resolved” and “situation revealed” come from Wallace Stegner and Henry James.

Narrative Structures

  • chronological narrative: A traditionally plotted story moves chronologically forward in time from the point of attack to the resolution (“Araby” by James Joyce, “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin, “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury, “How I Met My Husband” by Alice Munro). It may be interrupted by flashbacks and flash-forwards, but the general movement is forward.
  • non-chronological narratives: While many plots progress chronologically, this is not necessary. Other types of narrative structures include the following:
  • frame narrative: A plot that begins with a scene in the present, jumps back in time to relate the events of the story until it ends back at the same scene in the present is called a frame narrative. Suspense comes in part from wondering how the story will return to the “frame.” Examples of novels which use frame narratives include Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
  • non-sequential narrative: A story in which the scenes jump around in time to fill in bits and pieces has no special name I’m aware of, but might be called a non-sequential narrative. There are many creative ways to tell a story that cause the reader to have different psychological responses, such as suspense. But there’s nothing wrong with a good old chronological or sequential narrative. 
  • slice of life narrative (tranche de vie), the “plotless story”: A different approach to plot is called a slice of life narrative. Rather than creating a classic story of escalating emotional stakes, tension, and moving to resolution, the goal is to offer an objective, nonjudgmental presentation of the mundane incidents in life. “An objective of the naturalists. Slice of life is the English translation of the French tranche de vie, applied to the work of [Emile] Zola and the French naturalists,” says Harmon & Holman’s A Handbook to Literature, 7th Ed. (486). 

Beginner Mistake in Writing Short Stories

A character attempts to solve a string of serial murders. A character has to flee an apocalyptic disaster (bomb, plague, comet strike, war, zombies, or some combination) and find a mythical sanctuary, which he or she will find, and then must adjust to the new world, fight off an attack by evil forces bent on destroying the sanctuary, and finally take his or her place as leader of the new world order. Problem: Ten pages. All action, no development of character, too big for the form. Think small. Short Stories are Short. They take place over a period of hours, days, perhaps weeks, and develop in a limited number of scenes and settings.

Visualizing Narrative Structures

Dramatic Structure: The Freytag Pyramid (see below – my version is more like a hump) is another way to visualize dramatic structure. The intensity curve is of both action and emotion. It begins with exposition and the point of attack. The rising action adds conflict, leads to a crisis(also called climax). After the crisis comes the falling action, a briefer period moving toward conclusion, called denouement (French noue = knot. Denouement = the “unknotting” of the plot). The resolution concludes the story.

The “Freytag Pyramid” named after the guy who proposed it, is a good way to think of how drama works in terms of plot construction. Note it moves from unrest to maximum unrest, and then, in a shorter span of times, moves to some kind of rest. We can call this resting point either “complication resolved” (all worked out) or “situation revealed” (we get all we need to know to appreciate the complication, but the story stops short of resolving it for us. These two ending possibilities are also known as “resolution or revelation.” There are many other ways narratives can work than the Freytag – however, this concept IS classic, and gives a general outline on how to create a narrative that “goes somewhere”. Note that rising action does not have to mean chronological action!

The Freytag Pyramid
The traditional Freytag Pyramid is useful for conceiving the dramatic progress of a story.

Timeline: A timeline is one way to visualize plot. One way to think of dramatic structure is that at some point in the story an event occurs which diverges the character from his or her expected path in life. The character must choose a new direction – that either changes the course of life forever, or eventually, through effort, merges the course of events back to the path he or she expected in the first place (with some differences?).

The plot timeline (below) conceives of story as requiring something unexpected to happen that sets the protagonist on a new course. The suspense created as the story progresses has to do with how the protagonist will react. Will life get back to the intended path? Will the protagonist never be able to go back and the new path becomes the reality? Will the new path be accepted or not? 

Plot Timeline
The Plot Timeline helps visualize plot as the protagonist’s deviation from the expected path.

As you think of the stories you read, consider the Freytag Pyramid and the Plot Timeline’s unexpected path explanation of what drives the narrative and how they help explain how effective stories are constructed.

Resources 

For a superb and comprehensive explanation of literary terms, I recommend every writer purchase a copy of Holman’s A Handbook to Literature.

If you enjoyed A Guide to Plot for Narrative Writers, you might also enjoy my lesson, Four Principles for Beginning Creative Writers.

Although the lessons are free of charge, you can help support maintaining lessons on this site through the paypal link on the top right of this post. Thank you for your support! – Michael

For several decades I have conducted writing workshops of all kinds, and for 14 years I have taught writing on the faculty of Indiana University Southeast. Now I have decided to give back for these opportunities by making my lessons available online. I hope you enjoy this lesson, and the other lessons here on my writing Web site, michael-jackman.com. You may download and use any lesson here free of charge, provided you give credit as: © Copyright Michael Jackman. All Rights Reserved.

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