Remember the last great book that you read, and how you got so swept up in the events that you could hardly put it down?
When a story is expertly crafted with realistic characters and believable plot points, it can become so addictive for readers that they may lose track of time! By understanding the key functions of plot, you can learn how to write your own compelling tale that keeps readers hanging on your every word.
What Is Plot?
Plot is the series of events that form a story. These events happen in a sequence, and more commonly, in a cause-and-effect pattern. In other words, Event A leads to Event B, Event B to Event C, and so on.
The logic of the plot makes your story believable, and it also helps your readers relate to the characters. Some stories are known as plot-driven stories, while others are more character-driven.
A plot-driven story is one wherein the sequence of events drives most of the story. Of course good ones also have compelling characters, but the plot takes greater importance over character development. Plot-driven stories are most common in science fiction, fantasy, and mystery genres.
Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is an example of a plot-driven story, as it is moved forward by events rather than revelations about the character.
Character-driven stories, on the other hand, also have developed plots, but focus more on character development and emotions, rather than a high concept plot. For example, in the film Marriage Story, not much action is observed—it’s simply a story about the unraveling of one pretty ordinary couple’s marriage, but it’s moved along by changes in the characters.
Primary Elements of a Plot
The main elements of a story’s plot include the following:
Once everything is set in place, you may also start to introduce the main conflict of the story.
The exposition is an integral part of the book because this is where your readers can decide whether or not they sympathize with your protagonist.
If written well, the exposition will lure your readers in so that when you introduce the conflict, they will understand why it matters to your protagonist and want him to win.
Once the conflict begins, the plot typically moves into rising action. Rising action is when writers raise the stakes higher and higher.
The main goal is to push your protagonist into greater problems, so that your readers become entrenched in the story.
The climax is the highest point of suspense and interest in the story. All the plot points build up towards this climax, where the protagonist either succeeds or fails in their quest.
After the climax, the plot typically tapers down to falling action, preparing the reader for the story’s ending.
Resolution / Denouement
The resolution or denouement is when the loose ends are tied up, and mysterious details in the story are unveiled or explained.
What Are the Different Types of Plot in Literature?
Although some writers shy away from plot structures in the fear of appearing formulaic, many stories still end up following the most common plot types.
According to Christopher Booker’s Jung-influenced analysis, some of the most common plot structures include the following:
1. Rags to Riches
The rags to riches plot is one of the most common plot structures in literature. Fairy tales use this a lot, with two usual formats:
The protagonist may start as very poor, and through a series of events, ends up coming into fortune; or,
The protagonist may start out rich, but ends up losing everything. Through the story, they may gain everything back and experience growth in the process.
2. Overcoming the Monster
This plot structure involves the protagonist defeating the bad guy. The protagonist usually needs to save everybody in the story from the antagonist, but he comes out of the whole thing as a hero.
3. The Quest
The main character goes on a journey which usually involves dangerous adventures, either to find some kind of treasure or solve a problem.
The protagonist is usually forced into this adventure, and needs to meet other people to help him overcome the obstacles in his path.
Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey is one of the popular plot structures that uses the Quest format.
4. Voyage and Return
The main character leaves for a journey to some unknown place, where they encounter danger and adventure. Ultimately, the protagonist returns home, having grown and gained a deeper understanding of themselves or the world as a result of the experience.
Tragedies trace the main character through a series of conflicts and end in a very bad place, sometimes death. Tragedies may feature the tragic hero, a literary device featuring a character who spirals downward because of their own choices.
The characters still run into challenges, but the mood of the story remains generally happy and fun throughout. These stories almost always conclude with a happy ending.
This kind of story is observed when an event forces the main character to change, often leading them to become a better person.
Examples of Plot in Literature
Here we will show you the different plot structures used in some of the most popular works of literature.
(Spoiler alert: If you have not read the books below, you may want to skip this section as we may be discussing their endings.)
Example #1: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
The Secret Garden is a good example of the Rebirth plot structure.
In this classic tale, Mary Lennox starts off as a very sickly girl. One day she hears the moaning sounds made by Colin, a spoiled, crippled boy who terrorizes all his helpers. She goes to find him and they become good friends.
Throughout the book, we follow the changes that take place first in Mary: as she spends more time outdoors exploring a secret garden with her friend Dickon, she becomes physically stronger and more cheerful. Later, with Mary and Dickon’s influence, Colin himself also experiences a similar transformation both physically and in his behavior toward other people.
The story ends with Colin being able to stand up and walk, an entirely different person.
Example #2. Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Alice in Wonderland is an example of the Voyage and Return plot structure.
In the story, Alice goes off to Wonderland, where she experiences countless adventures, some silly and nonsensical, others scary and full of suspense. Later, she returns home, having grown from her experiences.
Example #3. The Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
A classic example of the Rags to Riches plot structure, The Little Princess opens with scenes depicting how well-off little Sara Crewe is, to the point that her schoolmates and teachers already disdain her.
When her father suddenly dies in an accident, she is forced into servitude, but she handles it gallantly, remembering what her father had taught her about being a princess inside and out.
Toward the end of the story, a friend of her father shows up and takes her to be his child, bringing her closer to the life she once enjoyed.
Example #4. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert O’Brien
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH follows the Quest plot format, as Mrs. Frisby, a mouse, goes on a journey to find a solution to her problem of moving her house with her sick child. Along the way, she meets a surprising group of her deceased husband’s friends–rats, whom her kind never associated with–who tell her things about her husband that she never knew.
Towards the end, they go through challenge after challenge to achieve their goal of successfully moving Mrs. NIMH’s house to a new location.
Function of Plot
The plot shows your readers the events that take place, and these events are where your characters’ personalities shine through the most.
When you write your story, pay careful attention to your plot, making sure that the plot serves the purpose of your story.
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