First, an old analogy that will help you to understand how “plot” differs from “story”. “The king died. Then the queen died.” is a story. “The kind died, and the queen died of grief.” is a plot. The plot gives reasons and explanations, ties up loose ends and coincidences, and gives a story a satisfying conclusion.
The structure of a basic plot is usually made up of a beginning, middle, climax, and ending. Most good plots are a series of situations and reactions, leading to new situations and further reactions. The beauty of fiction is that you can develop the exact same plot starting point, but have a completely different story due to the vastly different reactions of different characters.
The best place to start a plot is shortly before a point where your main character has to make a choice or solve a problem, comes into conflict with someone or something, or is forced into a situation against his will. Whatever the situation, the character has to react, and the plot has been put into motion. Thereafter, as the character progresses, he has to overcome new obstacles on his way to a solution.
Depending on the length of your story, the middle is where you introduce sub-plots and minor characters.
Sub-plots can help to move the main plot along to its conclusion, by adding details and past information, usually something the main character wasn’t previously aware of. Sub-plots can also be used effectively to push the main plot off the tracks to add layers of obstacles, mystery, and suspense, to intrigue your reader and keep them turning the pages to find out how the story will be resolved.
Minor characters add an element of the unknown to the story. How will the main character react to them and their actions? Will they try to prevent the main character from reaching his solution? How do the main character’s reactions drive the story?
Remember to keep the story moving forward in situations and reactions. Something happens, a character reacts, their reaction causes a new situation.
The story climax
What was the choice the main character had to make at the beginning of the story? Where have your character’s actions and reactions led the story to? What do you need to introduce and change to bring this choice full circle at the climax?
Remember that there is a fine line in fiction between a clichéd plot where everything falls perfectly into place and the reader sees it coming a mile away, and a plot that mimics real life too much and just ends in the middle of nowhere without wrapping up any loose ends. Somewhere in between is a juicy plot that wraps things up just enough with a clever twist and leaves the reader on a quest for your next book.
Some books end with the climax. Many, however, contain a very short section following the climax that simply concludes the story and leaves some brief clues as to what may happen to the characters in the future. It helps to round off the story and give the reader the feeling that they’ve read about “real” people who have lives beyond the book.
This article was first published on BellaOnline in August 2006. © Elsa Neal
For more help with working out your plot, try:
20 Master Plots And How to Build Them by Ronald B. Tobias
Plot & Structure : Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot That Grips Readers From Start to Finish by James Scott Bell
The Plot Thickens : 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life by Noah Lukeman