Creating a great plot may seem like an incredibly difficult task. There are millions and millions of stories out there and only a fraction of them seem to be praised and celebrated for their story, so surely they must have something special about them. Surely their plot is different in some way and makes them stand out from all the other millions of stories, right? Nope. The vast, vast majority of stories have the same plot when you break it completely down to its bare bones. In fact, those incredibly successful and praised stories are almost always those with the same 'standard' plot structure.
In this guide I will be going over that plot structure and how it can help you create or improve your own story. But while having no plot usually means your story won't be that great, having a plot doesn't automatically mean your story is fantastic either. Whether a story is great or not relies far more on writing skills than on the plot, as even the most bare bone plot can be amazing in the hands of a skillful writer.
But don't worry about all that too much just yet. Creating a plot is one of the first steps in the initial planning phase of your story, along with several other steps, like character creation. So tackle those steps first and then worry about how to translate your idea into a greatly written story.
So, what exactly is this 'plot' that the vast majority of stories supposedly share? Simply put, a plot is a sequence of events that affect each other. This is not to be confused with action, which is what drives the plot forward. Action does not automatically create a plot, it merely creates, well, action.
So how on earth do most stories share the same 'sequence of events'? There's no way a story like The Lord of the Rings has the same plot as The Lion King or Star Wars Episode IV, right? Of course there is. Each plot can be defined as follows:
- Somebody wants something.
- Somebody or something is in the way of realizing that desire.
- Desire is achieved (or not).
The Lord of the rings: Frodo wants to destroy the ring -> mean creatures stand in his way -> Frodo destroys the ring anyway.
The Lion King: Simba wants to be king -> Scar stands in his way -> Simba becomes king anyway.
Star Wars Episode 4: Luke wants to save Leia -> dark side gets in his way -> Luke saves Leia anyway.
Alternative Star Wars: Darth Vader wants to rule everything -> pesky good guys get in his way -> pesky good guys win. (But this isn't the plot, he isn't our point of view character.)
'But that's not fair, you simplified the stories way too much.' That's the point. Almost all stories can be stripped down until all you have left are those 3 points, which is a great starting point to work from. After you've got those 3 points down you can start to add meat to the bones, but you need bones to put meat on first.
If you still think your story is more complex than those mere 3 points you're very likely either wrong, lacking a plot (and thus wrong) or one of those very few stories which follow a different plot structure. Is the latter a bad thing? Maybe, maybe not. But I honestly can't think of a (popular) good story example which doesn't follow the 3 steps. That doesn't mean there aren't any examples out there though.
This doesn't mean some plots aren't more complex than others. Some plots include elements like 'requirements', 'threats' and others, but we'll delve deeper into those later.
Some plots get more complicated when multiple characters can be seen as a protagonist, but even then all you have is multiple versions of those 3 steps. Even the antagonist follows the 3 steps, as I showed in the 'alternative Star Wars' example above, but since the story is usually told from the protagonist's point of view those steps aren't considered the plot, they're merely part of the 'being in the way' part.
So couldn't we just simplify it further to merely 'somebody wants something' and 'somebody gets it or not'? Technically you could, but the 'something/somebody is in the way' part is crucial to make a story great, without obstacles a story becomes boring really fast. It also doesn't make for a very long story, unless you write a very long journey in between it, but as mentioned before, action does not equal a plot.
It's time to get started with actually creating a plot. We know the 3 points we have to follow and we'll delve deeper into other points you may wish to include, but first we need to start with a story goal. The story goal is the thing that affects the most characters and elements in your story, in many cases it is the thing your protagonist wishes to achieve. Destroying the one ring, becoming king and saving Leia are the goals in The Lord of the Rings, The Lion King and Star Wars Episode 4 respectively.
Once you have a story goal it becomes much easier to add more and more to it until you have a complete story, but let's take it slowly, one step at a time. You may have a goal, but there has to be a desire as well. Why does your character want something? 'No reason' is not the answer you're looking for here. Your characters have to seem real and alive and we all do something for a specific reason, so the goal should have a reason behind it as well.
A good story has consequences to not achieving the goal of the protagonist, this creates tension and makes both the reader and the protagonist more invested in the goal itself. If there's no real consequence to whether or not the protagonist achieves the goal the protagonist likely won't care all that much about achieving it, which generally doesn't make for a great story.
In Lord of the Rings the consequence is obviously the victory of evil and the destruction of all that's good, in Star Wars it's both the loss of Leia and the the victory of evil. In The Lion King the consequence is that Scar becomes king, which doesn't seem like a bad thing to Simba at first.
Consequences don't have to be obvious to the characters, but it's generally a good idea to have some bad consequences for the reader so there's tension and thus a reason to keep reading. Consequences can be unexpected, which is often something that's tied into the end (or resolution), but we'll delve deeper into the end later as there's plenty to cover.
In most cases a good story means the characters have to risk losing something or somebody they hold dear. It could be something as simple as money, their pride or a friendship, but it could also mean the ultimate sacrifice of life. Either way the risk of losing something a character holds dear leads to a more interesting story. Let's take Lord of the Rings as an example, Frodo, the Fellowship and entire armies are willing to put their lives at stake to ensure the ring is destroyed. If none were willing to risk their lives they would've simply perished or they would've had to find a different way to destroy the ring. One thing people often bring up as a plot hole is that they could've simply used the Eagles to destroy the ring, without arguing whether this is true or not it's clear this wouldn't have made for a very interesting story.
The thing your character risks doesn't have to be that dramatic though, the story of a business person working their hardest to realize a new business venture can be an incredible tale, even if the only risk the person takes is some spare money, a little pride and a dream. It's all about the 3 points mentioned at the start after all.
While not achieving a goal might lead to a loss of something, the journey of trying to achieve the goal can lead to other profits besides merely achieving the goal. New friendships, learning who you are, making a difference in somebody's life or just picking up an idea you could use in the future are just a few examples of what a character might get out of pursuing their goal.
Sometimes these other profits could be worth far more than what realizing the goal would ever grant, whether they're expected or not. For example, a person may put an incredible amount of effort in trying to make somebody else fall in love with them, but eventually the person fails to do so. However, along the way the person got to know a helpful friend better and that friend turns out to be a far better match than the initial person could've ever been.
Sometimes achieving a goal means something else will be required of the character. For example, finding the legendary treasure requires finding the legendary treasure map first and pursuing a business venture might require longer work days and thus less time spend at home. Each requirement can be seen as a sacrifice and in many ways it's similar to the 'at all costs' point made earlier, except that requirements have to be fulfilled no matter what, while the 'at all costs' points are sacrifices made when the goal isn't achieved.
You can see requirements as more layers of obstacles in the way of achieving the main goal and thus more layers of story and character development, but don't feel like you must have this element in your story and don't worry too much about adding them right away in the planning phase. In many cases these requirements will occur naturally while you write, like the main character seeking help to achieve their goal as they can't do it on their own or simply being unable to 'find the legendary treasure without the map'.
Threats are events that show the consequence of failing to achieve the goal might actually happen, perhaps sooner than expected. For example, the protagonist may have thought there were 3 weeks remaining until the enemy attacked, but for one reason or another the enemy decided to attack 1 week earlier, catching the protagonist by surprise.
Threats are a great way to add tension, but they're also a great way to balance out the requirement elements mentioned in the previous point. If your protagonist completes a lot of requirements it may seem like everything is going smoothly, perhaps too smoothly, especially if the requirements aren't that much of a sacrifice.
At the same time requirements are a good way to balance out a large amount of threats, but you'll generally reach over-saturation sooner with requirements than with threats as a story that goes too smoothly gets boring faster than a hero who faces an obstacle around every corner. Too much of any is usually bad though, so don't overdo it.
There are a few more points to cover, some of which lead up to the ending, but first we must decide what kind of ending we want. So what kind of endings are there? Happy and unhappy are the obvious ones and they're likely the oldest forms. Ancient Greek drama had comedies and tragedies, which simply meant a story with a happy ending or an unhappy ending. However, the Greeks also had 'satyr play', which is somewhat similar to tragicomedy. Tragicomedy today means the story didn't end with the completion of the main goal, but the ending is happy nonetheless. An example of this could be the one I mentioned earlier in the 'profit' point, where a person pursues one person for love, but on the way gets to know somebody who turns out to be a better match in the end.
So if we have tragicomedy there must be an opposite as well and there is, but unfortunately there's no word for it in English. Let's call it 'cometragedy' for the purpose of this guide. An example of this would be that the person in the previous example succeeds in dating their crush, only to find out they're not a match for each other at all by the end. So that gives us 4 options:
- Comedy: Happy ending
- Tragedy: Unhappy ending
- Tragicomedy: Unexpected happy ending
- Cometragedy: Unexpected unhappy ending
If you include all the previous points in your plot you likely have a lot of action, tension and other story elements, but most stories have an event or a series of events that lead up to the climax (which is not the end). These events could include all events throughout the story that affect the climax, but you could also see them as a final push right before the climax. Both work, it's kind of up to you to see which method you prefer.
If you use the first method the rising action could be a series of events as follows: princess is kidnapped, hero sets out to save the princess, villain sends minions to fight the hero, hero needs and finds help to fight the minions, villain and hero prepare for war. The war itself will be the climax of the story as it'll determine whether the hero succeeds or not. Alternatively it could be another part of the rising action, the hero might lose the war, but find a different way to save the princess and the world.
If you're going for the second method the rising action events would be limited to 'villain and hero prepare for war', perhaps including 'hero needs and finds help to fight the war'. The story would still include the other points, but you could consider those to be part of one of the previous points we've covered, like 'requirements' and 'threats'.
What's the difference between each method? Nothing much really, it's mostly a difference in naming each part of your plot and thus keeping things organized. Some prefer many tiny elements to make it easier to shift things around, other prefer to cover everything under larger parts and may then divide them further within those larger parts, some may choose a completely different way of keeping track of everything, whatever works best for you is what you should go with.
After all the build up it's time for the climax, the ultimate event that will likely define whether the protagonist will fail or succeed their goal. The climax isn't the same as the ending, but it can be very close. The final battle between two huge armies will likely define which side wins, but a business person meeting with potential investors won't necessarily define whether the business venture will succeed or fail.
Either way the climax will be the point with the most tension, it's the big pay off for the reader and it's what everything has lead up to. The climax is usually bigger than any of the threats and requirements that have come before, but they don't always have to be. However, it's easier to pull of a great climax when it is indeed bigger.
After the big climax comes a series of events that lead to the ending. This series could be very short, especially since sometimes the climax is pretty much the event that decides whether the goal is achieved or not. However, sometimes there are a few more things that need to be resolved. For example, the good army might win the battle, but the hero might still need to defeat the main villain.
So not all stories will have a real falling action part, many simply have a climax and a resolution, sometimes with a small part that describes what happens after. What you will have will depend on what you want from your story.
The resolution is the final event that will define whether the goal is completed or not. Does the hero defeat the villain? Does the business person manage to pursue the business venture? Is love found in the end?
As mentioned the resolution is sometimes part of the climax, but sometimes it could just as easily be a separate, lesser climax or a completely unexpected event.
The resolution could also include a 'life after' part, something that shows part of the lives of the heroes after achieving their goal or failing to do so. For example, in The Lord of the Rings it's setting sail for utter West (among others), in Star Wars it's partying, award ceremonies and dancing Ewoks.
Whether you include a 'life after' part or not, the resolution is pretty much the end of your story. Hooray, you've done it. Now all you need is to fill in the middle, actually write the story, perhaps even fill in the beginning and do a lot more. Sorry. But you now have a strong starting point, you have a plot.