There is no story without a plot. The essential plot elements take readers through the narrative, telling them what’s happening and why it matters.
Plot is typically the first inkling a writer has about a new story and the first thing they outline when getting their thoughts on paper. It’s the key ingredient to compelling fiction.
What is a Plot in a Story?
Put simply, the plot is what happens. It’s the sequence of events answering the what and how of the six major questions we need to know about any situation (who, what, where, when, why, how).
To create a great story, you need to dedicate time to each of the five essential plot elements.
What are the Essential Elements of Plot?
Every plot has five elements. They are, in order of appearance:
- Rising Action
- Falling Action
Each is crucial to the narrative arc, helping to set up the action, keep the flow, and offer readers that satisfying tension release at the end.
The exposition opens the story. It pulls readers in by immersing them in the other literary elements, showing where the tale takes place and introducing the main characters. The exposition sets the stage for the rest of the narrative.
Although there is typically a tiny exposition at the beginning of each story, a good writer will sprinkle a little exposition throughout with literary devices like flashbacks, which introduce backstories.
Your rising action sequence builds suspense. You’ll find the meat of most stories here, where the characters embark on their quest and journey toward the final conflict near the end.
Everything about rising action generates tension. You’ll have a page-turner if you create an atmosphere where readers can’t wait to discover what happens next.
The climax marks the scene we’ve all been waiting for. It’s the boss battle where our hero finally overcomes the ultimate evil they set out to face, the ultimate conflict and resolution to your story.
Readers need a satisfying outcome to the significant pain point of the story. The climax delivers.
The falling action helps relieve the tension built up in the rising action. Though the climax resolves the issue, it should leave readers in a state of emotional upheaval.
Falling action lets them release it like a balloon, slowly squeezing the extra air. A good falling action sequence satisfies our emotions (even if the climax doesn’t turn out as expected).
The conclusion wraps the story up. People need closure, and the conclusion gives it to them.
Good conclusions don’t have to wrap things up in a nice bow. They can set the story up for a sequel or leave readers with an unanswered question they can’t stop talking about.
Director Christopher Nolan mastered the art of fantastic conclusions that leave people talking. People still debate whether Leonardo DiCaprio’s character escaped the dream world.
The Difference Between Your Plot and Your Story
The plot is what happens in your story, but every tale needs more than a “what” for a successful narrative.
Your story will include the other six literary elements: setting, characters, point of view, narration, theme, and tone.
Plot is the central ingredient around which the other elements revolve.
Using Plot to Craft a Compelling Story
Plot is one of the most crucial aspects of your manuscript. Readers want stories where exciting things happen.
When thinking of the plot structure, think of a mountain. The base sets the scene with the exposition. Climbing the mountain serves as the rising action – it’s a tough upward battle, but the harder it is, the more satisfying the view from the top will be. Then you reach the summit – the climax! All your struggles melt away as you see the satisfying views and feel proud accomplishment knowing you did it!
But you have to get down. The slow descent back down is the falling action, and the story concludes when you reach the bottom.
Here are three essential aspects of crafting a compelling plot sequence.
Use Non-Linear Plot
The best stories don’t always have clearly defined plot elements. The rising action melds together with the exposition, and the falling action flows directly to the conclusion so succinctly that you don’t notice it. They feature subplots, each with plot elements, tension-building, release, and conclusions, all interwoven to keep audiences engaged.
You’ll see examples of how the plot elements aren’t clearly defined in nearly every story you read because, in a good narrative, they flow together so seamlessly you can hardly tell where one starts and the other ends.
Building tension in a rising action sequence is the most crucial part of a plot. Nobody will care about your climax or conclusion if you cannot get them invested during the rising action.
To do this, you must build tension.
Tension comes from conflict and challenges. Your protagonist needs obstacles and setbacks. They need small wins and losses along the way.
Keep it Real
People hate stories that take them out of the narrative with fantastical plot resolutions. Every world has rules, and the plot elements must work within the framework of those rules.
Even fantasy tales with magic must have rules governing the use of magic, and everything happening in the story must follow those rules.
A plot diagram or outline is the easiest way to develop your plot. The most straightforward plots follow a basic pyramid shape, as illustrated in this plot development diagram:
The simple diagram will give you the basic building blocks of your story. As you build upon your outline, you will add more details, fleshing out the antagonist and developing the protagonist while creating character arcs for development and resolution.
Once you develop the basics, you must determine how to move your plot forward. How will your main character first encounter the villain? What obstacles will they encounter on their journey, and how will those move the story forward?
This part of the process combines the two most essential aspects of storytelling: plot and characters. Choose obstacles that challenge your main characters and allow them to grow. Humanize your villain through exposition while crafting intriguing character arcs for each member of your hero’s party.
These two story elements are so deeply interwoven that it’s nearly impossible to separate them once you get going. A good plot point will lead to character development, while a character’s choices move the plot forward.
Plot Examples: Understanding Plot’s Role Through Literary Works
Every story you’ve ever read has a plot. It defines what happened in the tale.
Let’s break down the plot using two literary examples: a fable and the hero’s journey.
The Basics of Plot: The Rabbit and the Hare
We’ll start with a story we all know and love from our childhood, Aesop’s fable The Hare and the Tortoise.
The exposition sets up the story with the hare’s constant taunting. The tortoise challenges the hare to a race to put an end to his constant ridicule.
Next, we approach the rising action, the race! The hare does not take it seriously, so he naps, while the tortoise constantly works towards the goal. Tension builds as the tortoise bypasses the sleeping hare – will he notice in time to win the race?
In the harrowing climax, the hare awakens from his slumber to discover the tortoise has overtaken him and is close to the finish line!
The falling action shows us that the tortoise wins the race, and the conclusion wraps up by giving the readers an important message: “The race is not always to the swift.”
This simplistic example shows how each plot element exists even in the simplest stories.
The Hero’s Journey Plot Outline
The Hero’s Journey story arc dates to ancient times. Many of your favorite novels, from Star Wars to Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter, follow the Hero’s Journey.
Here’s how the plot elements work throughout the narrative using the 12 steps of the Hero’s Journey as an example.
The first part of the journey is the call to action. It includes steps 1-5:
- The ordinary world
- The call of adventure
- Refusal of the Call
- Meeting the mentor
- Crossing the threshold
These elements make up the exposition and set us up for the rising action sequence. The ordinary world introduces us to the hero’s world while getting the call to action and refusing it until after meeting the mentor, setting up the quest, and giving readers an idea of what to expect.
Crossing the threshold begins the rising action sequence, which includes the next few steps
- Tests, allies, and enemies
- Approach to the inmost cave
- The Ordeal
These steps lead to the climactic scene, the big payoff at the end. This step in the Hero’s Journey is called “The Reward” or “Seizing the sword.”
The climax fades into the falling action sequence:
- The road back
In these two portions, the hero makes his way home, relieving tension and leading to step 12 of the Hero’s Journey, the triumphant “return with the elixir,” which serves as the story’s conclusion.
You Need More Than Plot
The Hero’s Journey case study shows us how vital the remaining literary elements are. It’s just a plot outline, telling you nothing about who the hero is, why he’s embarking on the mission, how it affects him and the village, or where the story even takes place.
A Compelling Plot Crucial To Your Story
Although you need more than a plot for a great story, you can’t have a story without a plot. Deciding what happens and when is vital to great storytelling.
Develop a great plot, and the rest of the story will fall into place.