What Is Plot? Definition and 3 Ways to Plot Your Story
It’s been said that there are a finite number of stories in the world. It’s also been said that there are more stories in the world that we can ever imagine. Both of these things are true.
New writers often find themselves overwhelmed by the indescribably vast landscape of plot. Maybe you have an idea for a great main character, or a place where you want to tell your story from, or even some glimmers of things you want your characters to be doing in these places. But is that enough for an entire story? Not quite. Your story needs plot—the structural road map that will carry your readers through to the very end.
What Is Plot in a Story?
First of all, what is plot? In the English language, the word plot has two meanings: the first, a secret ploy put into action, usually to nefarious ends — for example, a plot to overthrow the king; the second is the course of events, actions, and reactions in a narrative such as a novel, short story, play, or film.
While this first definition may be surprising, it’s actually not so different from plot as we understand it in story structure: a person or body of persons putting into motion a chain of events that will help them achieve their goal. When we talk about plot in story, it is simply the sequence of events, normally a series of causes and effects that hurtles our protagonist and everyone around them towards the climax of the plot.
There are a few different ways to map out the plot of your story, but in the end all stories follow a pattern of action and reaction. The protagonist takes a step forward, makes a choice, creates something, or puts some new energy into being—this is the action. Then, the reaction: the protagonist’s action triggers an effect that they didn’t expect, or an effect they did expect but that has unintended consequences. In response, the main character takes another action. And the plot pushes back, again and again and again.
How these actions and reactions progress will naturally fall into the rhythmic patterns of storytelling that we call story structure.
Why Do I Need Story Structure?
It’s not uncommon for new writers (or even experienced writers) to have some hesitancy when it comes to formally structuring their work. There’s often the fear that letting your plot fall into a recognizable pattern will make it somehow less original, less distinct, less yours.
It’s understandable to feel this way, but the truth is that all successful stories will naturally follow these patterns because they speak to the rhythms of storytelling that we all have within ourselves. When the plot of a film or novel deviates too far from these plot structures we will usually feel it in our bones; something in the story isn’t working. The plot will begin to feel too rushed and chaotic or too slow and drawn out, and in either case we’ll begin to lose our sense of immersion. We start to disconnect from it without entirely understanding why.
Story structure is really just a clear, approachable way of looking at why stories affect us the way they do, why readers and viewers become so invested in the rhythms of these stories, and how we can recreate those rhythms in our own work.
The 7 Universal Plots
Most scholars agree that there are a certain number of plot archetypes which all stories across all mediums follow. What they tend to disagree on is exactly how many plot types there are. Aristotle, John Gardner, Kurt Vonnegut, Christopher Booker, Ronald Tobias, and Georges Polti are all scholars and authors who have tried to compartmentalise the diversity of story. They’ve suggested that all stories are born from a handful of different plot archetypes.
Today, most writers agree on the “seven story format,” which states that there are seven grand overarching plots that contain within them all the stories in the world. Many stories will fit snugly into one of these well-worn patterns that have been shaped and perfected over time; others will draw from two or more of these plot archetypes.
Let’s look at these seven universal stories.
1. The Quest
In a Quest plot type, the protagonist begins with a very clear objective; this may be of his or her own choosing, or it may be something that is thrust upon them. In any case, the main character goes on a journey and faces a string of nearly insurmountable obstacles in order to reach their all-consuming goal: a physical object, a sacred place, an achievement that they can see and feel.
The Lord of the Rings is a classic example of a Quest plot, in which the main character goes through a series of trials in order to reach an object of great power. King Arthur’s story of the Holy Grail and King Solomon’s Mines are other Quest stories.
In contemporary settings, a quest can also be for things like intercepting a hastily sent email, gaining entry into a prestigious institution, or finding a rare copy of a valuable book.
2. Voyage and Return
These types of stories were popular in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. They feature a protagonist who goes off to discover a fascinating new place, full of treasures and creatures barely imaginable, before returning safely home with a wealth of new stories to share.
The Hobbit’s well-known alternate title There and Back Again makes it clear that we can expect it to follow this age-old pattern. Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, and Where the Wild Things Are are other classic examples of the Voyage and Return.
Although this plot type lends itself very well to fantastical settings, that doesn’t always have to be the case. A protagonist can “voyage and return” to an unfamiliar country, cultural landscape, or class of society.
3. Rags to Riches
This plot type tends to follow this arc not once, but twice: the protagonist begins in a place of disprivilege before coming upon a sudden change in fortune—whether that manifests as money, influence, attention, or love. Then—usually due to their own rash actions—the protagonist loses their newfound glory and has to work to get it back.
The difference in these two story arcs is that the first time the protagonist is usually given their “riches” as a twist of fate, while the second time the protagonist is forced to prove themselves worthy of the riches. Cinderella is a classic Rags to Riches plot, as is the fable of The Ugly Duckling, and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess.
We tend to think of these reversal-of-fortune plots as stories of wealth and class, but they can also come in the form of newfound respect, beauty, or influence.
Many of these stories have their roots in Christian mythology, but today Rebirth stories are simply a character arc so dramatic as to affect a complete transformation. Usually these plot types begin with a deeply flawed character who, rather begrudgingly, begins to see the error of their ways and how they can become a better person.
A Christmas Carol is a classic archetypal example of how a thoroughly dislikeable man can, through powerful experiences and deep personal introspection, become someone who makes a positive impact on the world. Beauty and the Beast and The Snow Queen are faerie tales that also follow this plot type.
Today’s screenwriters know that the ability to make people laugh sells better than just about anything; it’s rare these days to see a film or TV series, no matter the genre, that doesn’t have some lighthearted moments in it.
In classic literature, however, the term “comedy” refers more to a continuous push and pull of dramatic irony—the reader or viewer always knows more than the characters, and we watch with bubbling delight as the cast of players gets themselves into one predictable scrape after another. In many ways, classic comedies show us our own flaws and give us permission to recognize those flaws as part of being human.
That’s not to say that comedies can’t have surprises—often the clever twists and unearthing of hidden secrets are the most satisfying parts of a well-written comedy. But no matter what path they take, the distinguishing characteristic of literary comedies is that they always have happy endings.
Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a classic example of comedy. P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster, and Bridget Jones’s Diary are other stories that follow these patterns.
Contrary to comedies, tragedy plot types show us our human failings and how they can be irreparably damaging. They usually follow a character with a major flaw or weakness that leads to their inevitable undoing. Often these are weaknesses that we can find within ourselves, which makes the protagonist’s downfall all the more resonant and compelling.
The Great Gatsby is an example of a modern tragedy, in which the choices the protagonist thinks will lead him to the love of his life are the same choices that send him hurtling towards his ultimate collapse. Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray and the quintessential tragedy Romeo and Juliet are other stories that show the power of human limitation.
7. Overcoming the Monster
The lifeblood of folk myths, this plot archetype shows an inspiring but very human character facing an opponent made out of nightmares. The “monster” in this case might be a literal creature from the dark; it might be a person behaving monstrously, like a serial killer in a thriller novel; or it might be a monster that lives inside of us, like mental illness or addiction.
Classically, however, the monsters faced were very real otherworldly antagonists. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a famous example of an Overcoming the Monster story, and the legends of Beowulf and Saint George and the Dragon are ancient stories that have influenced our idea of monsters today.
Drawing on Plot Archetypes to Create Your Own Story
These seven plot types have existed since the first cave drawings appeared out of charcoal and firelight—since our ancestors spun stories out of shadows so they could hold onto the light a little longer. Many, many more stories will be written in the generations to come that follow these ancient rhythms.
But don’t feel that you need to limit yourself to just one of these structural outlines. Many successful stories draw from several of these archetypal patterns to create something powerful and new. The Wizard of Oz, for example, follows a character who explores a strange and wondrous land (Voyage and Return), goes in search of a mysterious power in order to help her friends and return home (the Quest), and faces a fearsome witch with her own reasons for taking our heroine down (Overcoming the Monster). This classic tale weaves together several plot archetypes to create something that readers have returned to again and again for generations.
When you begin writing, these seven plot types will give you an idea of the patterns that storytellers have followed and recognized as great universal truths. Your work will probably draw on several or even all of them as it becomes a part of the neverending tapestry of story.
How to Plot Your Story Using the Three Act Structure
Now that you’re an expert in plot and story structure, let’s look at how to apply that to your own writing.
Human beings have always liked the number three. It’s the number from which our brains begin to recognize pattern, and so over the centuries that number has gained a lot of sacred significance in cultures all over the world. We see it in Christian mythology’s holy trinity, in the triquetra and three sacred trees of the Celts, in three wishes, in three crossroads, in the three witches of Macbeth, and in the three stages of life. “Three” feels complete. This is why the three act structure has remained such a powerful part of our storytelling consciousness for so long.
The First Act
Despite being a third of the plot’s structural blueprint, the first act only takes up about a quarter of the plot. However, it packs in quite a lot of important information for such a small section.
The first act does three very important things from which our story can emerge: firstly, it introduces us to the world of our characters. In fantastical settings this includes our worldbuilding—our understanding of the world’s mechanics, politics, systems, beauties, and struggles. Much the same can be said of historical fiction; the first act helps the reader understand the story’s time and place, along with the strengths and limitations that come with that time and place.
Even in contemporary settings we’ll see the world of our protagonist, where they spend their time, who they spend it with, and their relationship to the world around them. This is called exposition, and without it as the foundation of our plot our story can’t exist.
The second is the inciting incident—the moment where our plot is launched into motion. This can be the arrival of a new character or a new piece of information, a disaster that changes the landscape of the protagonist’s world (physically or emotionally), a birth, a death, a choice—something that irreparably ruptures the characters’ world into a before and an after. This is where our story begins.
Lastly, the first act introduces us to our dramatic question. This is directly related to the inciting incident; it creates a question in the reader’s mind that the writer promises to answer by the time the plot reaches its close. Will the hero manage to save the city from imminent destruction? Will the boy reach the girl he loves before it’s too late? Will the heroine manage to escape and find her way back home? Amidst the twists and turns the plot takes as it reaches its conclusion, this dramatic question stays with us continuously until the very end.
The Second Act
The second act is our major player; it takes up about half of the plot, or the second and third quarters. Once your main character has been thrown into a new set of circumstances by the first act, the second act will raise higher stakes and throw more obstacles in the protagonist’s way.
In a way, the second act almost functions like an entire story arc unto itself. The protagonist spends the first half of the second act reacting to their altered world and being forced to make new choices that will power the direction of the rest of the plot. Around the middle of the second act (the middle of our plot) we reach the midpoint—a false climax that forces our characters into a new kind of action. In The Wizard of Oz, for instance, the midpoint comes when the central characters finally reach their ultimate goal of seeing the Wizard to ask for his help—only to find that the Wizard is not at all what they expected, and they now have a whole new journey ahead of them.
After the midpoint of your plot, into the second half of the second act, your characters will begin to shift from simply reacting as best they can to what they have been given to taking action against it. The choices they make in this third quarter of your plot will bind them to their fates for good, even if they don’t know it yet. Things start to happen much quicker as the characters gain the strength to fight for everything they stand on the precipice of losing.
The Third Act
Contrary to the first act, which starts off gentle and slow-burns its way towards the second one, the third act erupts with a roar. In this final quarter of the plot, all the writer’s carefully arranged pieces are falling into place. The point of no return for your characters has come and gone like an exit in a rear-view mirror, and now there’s nowhere to go but forward full force towards the plot’s climax.
Where the first and second acts have been a series of choices that your protagonist has made, the third act focuses on the protagonist owning the consequences of these choices and fully committing to seeing them through. This takes us to the climax of the plot—the final piece that will have readers clinging to the edges of their seats, the moment that answers the dramatic question once and for all.
Then, once the dust settles, the characters are left with the new world they have created and the new adventure of trying to find their place in it. Freytag called this the falling action and denouement, which we’ll look at below.
How to Plot Your Story Using Freytag’s Pyramid
Originally laid down by Aristotle and later expanded on by novelist Gustav Freytag, Freytag’s Pyramid is a roadmap of storytelling composed of five pieces: Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Denouement. This plot structure is also called the “Dramatic Arc,” and has much in common with the three act structure, approached in a slightly different way.
The exposition’s role is to immerse your readers in the world of your story. This means establishing your central characters and setting, and giving them a clear idea of what your protagonist’s “normal” world looks like. How they spend their days, the struggles that they face, the things they take for granted. What they have to lose.
This section shouldn’t take up a huge amount of real estate in your plot, but it’s essential. It’s the foundation on which the rest of your plot, themes, and character arcs are built.
2. Rising Action
The rising action kicks off with the first pivotal moment: the inciting incident. This is the moment where an external force careens into the protagonist’s everyday life (which we introduced in our exposition). In Harry Potter, this is the arrival of an innocent-seeming letter written in vibrant green ink. In Pride and Prejudice, the plot kicks off when an eligible new bachelor moves into the neighborhood. The inciting incident is the nudge that gets the plot rolling towards a storm your characters will never see coming.
After the inciting incident the events of the plot begin to gain momentum as the characters react to the new circumstances they’ve been thrust into. Sometimes called “progressive complications,” this portion of the plot is about building up the stakes for your characters. Its role is to force the protagonist to make increasingly difficult choices in order to achieve what they want—and what they want might very well change over the course of the plot.
Throughout these progressive complications your character becomes more and more invested in the events of the plot and begins making active choices rather than reactive ones. It’s these choices that lead us to the plot’s climax.
The climax is the emotional crux of the plot, for both the main character and the reader. It’s the thing that will keep the reader huddled up in their blankets with a flashlight long past their bedtime. This is the moment where the protagonist has to make one last big, dramatic choice that changes their world—externally or internally—forever. It could be when a driven career woman finally decides to give up everything to be with the man they love, or the moment when a damaged, conflicted hobbit fights with his own desires inside the fires of Mount Doom. The climax is the point when everything you’ve built since the opening of your plot comes together.
If the writer has done their job well in the exposition and the rising action, the reader will be fully engaged in this moment and will experience it with your characters right beside them.
4. Falling Action
After the wild, earth-shifting storm of the climax, the landscape of the protagonist’s world will be forever changed. This might be on a larger scale, or it might simply be in their own perspective and values. The falling action shows us how they adapt to this new world and ties off any lingering questions still unanswered. This is also the place where the writer can take a little more time to explore theme and any lessons they want the reader to come away with.
You can think of the falling action like reverse exposition. Like the initial exposition, it shouldn’t take up a lot of space in your plot, but should show your readers what the characters have learned as a result of the story and where they’re headed next.
The denouement is the resolution, or closing, of the plot. It’s the final scene, moment, or idea the readers see before they finally close the book. In Shakespearean work, this is often when the last character standing faces the audience and shares with them one final pearl of wisdom. This is a small moment, but it should leave the reader feeling that the plot has tied off effectively.
Once you’ve written your denouement and given all of your characters an “ever after” of some sort or another, communicated your theme and tied off any last uncertainties, you get to indulge in one of life’s greatest, most luxurious pleasures:
Writing The End.
How to Plot Your Story Using the Snowflake Method
If the idea of pre-designing your plot from start to finish seems a little scary, you’ll love Randy Ingermanson’s snowflake method of story plotting—an approachable, organic way to explore the world of your plot before committing it to the page. It was inspired by a mathematical formula and works because unlike the three act structure and Freytag’s Pyramid, the developmental stage more closely follows the way stories are actually born.
It Begins With an Idea
Keep it short and snappy and hold onto it because later, once your story is written and polished, it’ll become your sales pitch. Something like… ehhh… a teenager travels back in time to prevent his parents from breaking up. Doesn’t sound too bad, does it?
Check Out Your Characters
You’ve already got three: the kid and two grownups. Write out one or two lines about your protagonist. Maybe he’s creative but also really wants to look cool, so let’s say he plays guitar in a garage band. Give him a name. It can be something silly — you can always go back and change it later. How about… Marty McFly.
Take a Look at Your Settings
You’ve got two so far: the modern day and the time we travel back to. We’ve decided that Marty plays in a band (it’s probably not very good), and maybe he’s looking for a chance to play live. Maybe a talent show or something, so he can impress a girl. Then there’s his parents’ time: think sparkling, pastel-toned nostalgia. You’re writing this all down, right?
A teenager travels back in time to prevent his parents from breaking up. Now we know a little more about the teenager, but how does he go back in time? A spaceship? Nah, let’s keep it believable. How about… a car. A really fast car.
Can you see the plot beginning to glimmer in the rough?
Story. Characters. Setting. They begin as simple, unrefined shapes that grow in depth and dimension as you allow more details to come through. The idea behind the snowflake method is that, like a real snowflake, it begins as a tiny crystal and grows layer upon layer.
Write a sentence or two about each of these three components. Then go back and expand each one into a paragraph. By this point you’ll start picking up on other characters waiting in the wings of your plot; give them each a paragraph or two. Get to know them, gently, one layer at a time. You’ll be astonished at how much of your plot is there waiting for you to uncover it. But—and this is important—you need to write it down. It’s through the act of writing that you dig away the raw material to reveal the plot hidden underneath.
Once you’re able to see the roads of your plot more clearly, write a few paragraphs each about your beginning, middle, and end. Then, when you’re ready, when your crystalline plot is humming with possibilities, begin. It’s that easy.
Bringing Plot Structure Into Your Own Story
The three act structure, the dramatic arc, and the snowflake method have all worked well for writers who have used them to create powerful stories. Every writer is an individual, and the one that works best for someone you know or admire might not be the one that feels most natural to you. It’s only through trying, doing, creating, and writing that you’ll learn how to bring your own stories into being.