Plot (PLAWT) is the series of events that comprise a story’s main action. It is typically made up of a sequence of individual but connected elements that compels the main character(s) to embark on a journey. This journey can be physically or mentally and emotionally in nature, though it is often both. The plot’s primary journey leads to a climactic event and a resolution.
One of the defining features of a plot is that it includes more than a list of facts. The facts have a purpose that supports the overall journey of the character(s). Another hallmark of plot is the unfolding of a cause-and-effect relationship. Characters make decisions and experience the resulting consequences, good or bad. In other words, plot encompasses not just the what but the how and the why.
Plot derives from the Old French word complot, which refers to a secret plan or conspiracy. Plots have long been a central component of storytelling, with Greek philosopher Aristotle observing in the fourth century BCE that plot, which he called mythos, is the “soul” of all tragedy.
The Traditional Plot Structure
Modern interpretations and understandings of plot are largely based on the 1863 model devised by German author Gustav Freytag, called Freytag’s Pyramid. Freytag based it on Aristotle’s analysis of dramatic tragedy. Most plotlines follow the same basic structure made of five essential ingredients.
A story begins by introducing the protagonist and other key characters, their inter- and intra-relationships, the setting, and relevant background information. This is called exposition. In this section, the protagonist discovers their main goal, typically a problem that needs surmounting. For example, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the exposition introduces Harry Potter, his bleak life with the Dursleys, and the subsequent revelation of the wizarding world and Harry’s place in it.
The next phase is the rising action, which begins with an inciting incident or complication that triggers the ensuing series of events. Since the rising action propels the protagonist on their journey, the inciting incident usually comes with high stakes. The protagonist sees what they stand to lose by not accomplishing their goal, allowing them to start taking proactive steps toward said goal. Throughout the unfolding of the rising action, the protagonist encounters numerous obstacles. They often come in the form of an antagonist character and their disruptive actions. Such obstacles only strengthen—and occasionally frustrate—the protagonist’s determination. Tension tends to build as rising action progresses toward the next phase.
In Harry Potter, the rising action occurs when Harry and his friends begin to suspect primary villain Voldemort is alive and that he’s after the legendary Sorcerer’s Stone. They assume that Professor Snape, an openly antagonistic character that Harry encounters, is helping the dark lord.
This is the main turning point of the story, when all the events and emotions built up during the exposition and rising action come to a head. Naturally, these are the moments of greatest tension, conflict, and drama.
Most climaxes involve the protagonist making a major decision that seals both their fate and the outcome of the story. In some cases, climaxes are not the complex moral dilemmas they initially appear to be. These are called anticlimaxes, and they accomplish the story’s main goals through trivial actions. In Harry Potter, Harry and his friends fight their way through a complex series of barriers to protect the stone, only to discover that the seemingly incompetent Professor Quirrell was aiding Voldemort all along.
In this stage, characters’ actions resolve the story’s central problem, leading to a resolution. In Harry Potter, Harry manages to keep the stone away from Voldemort and drives him away (for the time being).
The final plot element is the official completion of the goal, solution to the problem, and end to the conflict. The denouement reveals the characters’ fates. The protagonist or the antagonist might win, or each could experience certain degrees of both triumph and defeat. Some stories wrap up by providing information on what happens to the central character(s) in the future. Harry Potter ends with Harry and his friends being rewarded for their valiant efforts and the school year coming to a close.
Other Elements of Plot
The Hero’s Journey
The hero’s journey is a variation of Freytag’s Pyramid. It was first codified in 1871 when anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor noticed that many classic stories contained the same basic plot elements. In the mid-20th century, scholar Joseph Campbell famously expounded upon this theory in his seminal exploration of The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In it, Campbell identifies the universal components shared by many stories of classic heroes and their epic adventures.
The hero’s journey, also called a monomyth, can get much more complex and involved, but it always possesses the same structural plot bedrock. It typically unfolds as follows:
- The hero ventures from the common, everyday world into an unknown region filled with supernatural elements.
- The hero encounters fantastic forces in this foreign realm.
- In this new world, the hero achieves a decisive victory of some sort.
- In the end, the hero returns home, changed for the better by their experiences.
Catastrophe and Eucatastrophe
Catastrophes are an aspect of the denouement. They are common in the epic tragedies and comedies of antiquity. In tragedies, catastrophes are the ultimate resolution of the central plot, often involving a major character’s death. Despite their name, catastrophes aren’t inherently devastating or disastrous. In ancient comedies, for instance, the catastrophe is usually a happy one, with a central character’s marriage or another much-sought happily-ever-after.
A eucatastrophe is a catastrophe with an unexpectedly and almost implausibly happy conclusion, achieved via a sudden turn of events. When a character seems invariably doomed, a eucatastrophe overturns this ending and allows the character to avoid their ruin. J. R. R. Tolkien coined the word eucatastrophe, and his works contain many of them. At the climax of The Return of the King, Frodo seems permanently possessed by the Ring’s dark power. However, Gollum reappears and bites the Ring off Frodo’s finger. As the creature excitedly celebrates his reclaiming of the Ring, he loses his footing and plunges into the Fire of Mt. Doom—destroying the ring and inadvertently completing Frodo’s quest.
Deus Ex Machina
A deus ex machina is a plot device where an ostensibly unsolvable problem is suddenly solved through surprising and unlikely means. It’s like a eucatastrophe—the main difference being that eucatastrophes tend to have a more optimistic tone. Writers use these devices to shock readers, enhance comedic effect, or quickly introduce an ending. An example is H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds. All signs point to the Martians overtaking humanity until they’re all suddenly, inexplicably killed by bacteria. Because of the abrupt nature of this device, it’s not uncommon for readers to view a deus ex machina as illogical and contrived.
This is a secondary plot that unfolds in tandem with a story’s main plot. It may involve central characters, minor characters, or both. A subplot can occur independent of the main plotline’s action, or the two can converge at certain points with one affecting the other’s chain of events.
Subplots usually follow the basic structure of Freytag’s Pyramid and are common in most types of literature. An example of a subplot comes from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Protagonist Elizabeth Bennet’s cousin, Mr. Collins, asks her to marry him partway through the novel. She declines the offer, and as she pursues her romance Mr. Darcy, Mr. Collins develops a relationship with Elizabeth’s friend, Charlotte Lucas, whom he eventually marries.
A plot hole is an inconsistency that defies the rest of the story’s logic. Plot holes can take a variety of forms, including illogical or impossible events, contradictions in character or action, unresolved plots, or mistakes in continuity.
A plot hole can occur at any point. Often, they’re a subject of debate as readers wonder if the author knew they were making such a glaring error. In Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, for example, Chandler never reveals who kills the chauffer. Years later, when the script for the film adaptation was in progress, the screenwriters contacted Chandler directly and asked him for the identity of the chauffer’s murderer. “Damned if I know,” he said.
A plot twist is a dramatic change in the expected trajectory of a plotline. Plot twists are distinct from eucatastrophes and dei ex machina because they’re typically rooted in logic. Even though the twist itself is shocking and might call into question readers’ perception of prior events or characters, it still makes sense. Though they can happen at any time, plot twists most often appear during or after a story’s climax. In the real world, disclosing a plot twist to someone who hasn’t encountered the story is called a spoiler.
Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd contains one of the greatest plot twists in all of mystery writing—a genre known for plot twists. The book is a first-person narrative, which allows readers to presume the narrator is trustworthy as he relates the story of the title character’s murder and the attempts to solve the crime. In the end, the narrator reveals himself as the killer, altering readers’ perception of everything.
The Function of Plot
Plot’s function is simple but essential. It provides structure, builds tension and excitement, and keeps the reader engaged. Without plot, a story would be nothing more than exposition or a series of interconnected thoughts. There would be no momentum, rendering the story lifeless and didactic. Even in works that contain an abundance of commentary on their contents, some semblance of plot is necessary to capture the reader’s attention and hold their interest.
Common Plot Structures by Genre
English journalist and author Christopher Booker devoted much of his career to studying plot and how writers use it. He identified features that are near-universal in their application based on the type of work in which they’re found—all of which also adhere to Freytag’s Pyramid.
In a comedic work, the character has a dilemma they must work out. They then encounter several obstacles as they attempt to solve their problem, with each being more outlandish than the one before. At the climax, a revelation resolves the central dilemma and explains the absurdity of the earlier obstacles, resulting in a happy ending. Throughout the entire work, humor is a primary component.
Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest is an example of a classic comedy plot. In it, John “Jack” Worthing invents a fake brother named Ernest, whose identity both he and his friend Algernon assume. This results in a series of increasingly chaotic and farcical encounters, until John learns that he really is a man named Ernest. Then, he and Algernon, now revealed to be biological brothers, win the hearts of their respective love interests.
In a tragedy, a likable, respectable character wants more out of life—something typically forbidden to them. To satiate this need, the character focuses intensely on their goal. When this objective is obtained, things go well…at first. But then, things inevitably go wrong, and the character commits a series of irreversibly damaging acts to try and amend their misdeeds. They lose control of the situation, the antagonist closes in, and tragedy, typically death, ensues.
Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a tragedy that holds to this plot structure. At first, Macbeth is a revered Scottish general. After a group of witches tells him he will someday take the throne, he grows consumed with this ambition. This is supported by the machinations of his power-hungry wife. Macbeth murders King Duncan and assumes his place. But fear, guilt, and paranoia follow, and Macbeth commits more murders to cover his tracks. Civil war erupts, chaos reigns, and Macbeth’s enemies overthrow and behead him.
Popular in all literary genres—especially dramatic works, fairy tales, and redemption stories—the protagonist falls under threat from a dark force. At first, things proceed well, and the threat dissipates. However, the dark force comes back stronger, imprisoning the protagonist in a state of distress. It takes a great force of will—sometimes in the form of a secondary character’s intervention—for the protagonist to break free and earn redemption.
Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is a story of rebirth. Ebenezer Scrooge lives his life under the dark forces of greed and misanthropy. As a result, he experiences great success and wealth. Then, mystic forces intervene when three ghosts visit him and force him to confront his cruelty. After seeing the damage he has caused, Scrooge chooses to change and is thus redeemed.
Overcoming the Monster
In this type of plot, the hero squares off with a monster, which can be literal or metaphorical. At the beginning of the story, the hero learns about the threat of the monster and answers the call to fight it. The journey to the confrontation goes well, though the hero realizes they may be outmatched by the monster. There is an epic battle with all signs pointing to the hero losing. But, the monster is slayed and the hero escapes, often being rewarded in some way after claiming victory.
Many myths involving humans and/or deities battling monsters follow this kind of plot. So too do adventure and spy stories; Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, for example, all stick to a general overcoming-the-monster narrative.
Examples of Plot in Literature
1. Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
Brontë’s classic novel follows titular character Jane from her dismal childhood to her shockingly eventful adulthood.
- Exposition: Brontë establishes Jane as a headstrong, resilient orphan who attends a sinister boarding school.
- Rising Action: Now a young woman, Jane arrives at Thornfield Hall, the grand manor of the coarse Mr. Rochester, to work as a governess. Jane and Rochester develop romantic feelings for one another, and they get engaged.
- Climax: Jane and Rochester are about to marry when Jane learns that Rochester’s first wife is not dead as previously assumed; she is alive and violently insane. Long ago, Rochester imprisoned her in her third-floor bedroom at Thornfield, where she remains.
- Falling Action: Jane leaves Thornfield Hall and begins a new life with her cousins. She comes into a great inheritance left to her by her deceased father.
- Denouement: With Rochester’s voice haunting her, Jane returns to Thornfield Hall and finds the place in ruins after Mrs. Rochester set the house on fire and committed suicide. Mr. Rochester has lost his hand and eyesight. With Mrs. Rochester dead, he proposes to Jane, and she accepts.
2. Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
One of the most famous works by Woolf, the novel spans a single day in the life of high-society woman Clarissa Dalloway as she prepares for a dinner party. Mrs. Dalloway is an example of a story that relies primarily on exposition and commentary while having enough plot to keep the story moving forward.
- Exposition: Clarissa Dalloway and the people in her orbit—including the sensitive poet and WWI veteran Septimus Smith—face a seemingly normal day in June 1923.
- Rising Action: As Clarissa makes plans for a formal party that evening, her friends go about their respective days. Each character reflects on their life and choices.
- Climax: Tormented by posttraumatic stress disorder and fearing that his soul is tainted, Septimus commits suicide.
- Falling Action: At her party, Clarissa learns of Septimus’s suicide and excuses herself to mull over his death. She begins to identify with Septimus’s desire to die and feels content with his decision because she thinks it allowed him to save his soul.
- Denouement: Clarissa goes back to the party. Her acceptance of Septimus’s death brings her happiness, and it is palpable to the others in attendance.
3. Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games
Collins’s novel—and its sequels—has become a new classic in young adult literature. In it, protagonist Katniss Everdeen goes on a hero’s journey as she tries to survive a violent tradition.
- Exposition: Collins introduces Katniss and life in the post-apocalyptic North American nation of Panem, comprised of 12 (formerly 13) Districts. Preparations are being made for the annual Hunger Games, an event wherein one adolescent boy and one adolescent girl from each District take part in a violent televised battle until only one remains. Every adolescent in Panem is eligible, and the participants (called “tributes”) are randomly chosen through a lottery drawing.
- Rising Action: During the selection, Katniss’s little sister, Primrose, is chosen as the girl tribute for their District. Katniss volunteers to take Primrose’s place, something that has never happened before, and the organizers allow it. Katniss and Peeta (the boy tribute) leave to train for the Games at the Capitol. The Games begin, with nearly half of the tributes dying at the outset, and Katniss spends her time trying to avoid the violence.
- Climax: When only a handful of tributes remain, the Games organizers announce a rule change: for the first time, a pair of tributes can jointly win the Games. Working together, Katniss and Peeta are the last two standing. But the rules are changed once more, and the pair is expected to fight to the death.
- Falling Action: In defiance of the rules, Katniss and Peeta agree to eat fatally poisonous berries instead of killing one another. Stymied, the organizers name them mutual winners.
- Denouement: Katniss and Peeta return home, where they are celebrated as heroes. However, Katniss wonders if the Capitol will retaliate against her and Peeta, setting up a sequel novel.
4. Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad
This 2016 novel tells an alternate history wherein the metaphorical Underground Railroad is also manifested literally. The story follows two young slaves as they try to escape their plantation.
- Exposition: Cora is a slave on a Georgia plantation. Her mother, Mabel, escaped some years prior and made Cora an outcast.
- Rising Action: Cora and a fellow slave, Caesar, escape via the Underground Railroad. They are chased by a slavecatcher named Ridgeway, who successfully catches Cora. A Railroad operator named Royal rescues Cora, taking her to a farm with other freedmen.
- Climax: Ridgeway reappears, burning the farm down and killing Royal. He takes Cora to an abandoned Railroad station near the farm, where she pushes him down a flight of stairs.
- Falling Action: Cora runs through the underground tunnels, hoping to put as much distance as possible between her and Ridgeway.
- Denouement: Cora emerges from the tunnel and comes across a westward-bound wagon. The driver, Ollie, offers her a ride, and she gets on.
Further Resources on Plot
A professor at Carson-Newman University diagrammed Freytag’s Pyramid, explaining each stage in depth.
The University of Kansas’ Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction examined the hero’s journey in great detail, especially as it applies to written and performed works of science fiction.
How to Write a Book Now has an in-depth article on Christopher Booker’s basic plot points.
Vulture compiled a slightly tongue-in-cheek, encyclopedia-style rundown of every plot ever.
The Write Practice has a “cheat sheet” for writing plot and story structure.
- Deus Ex Machina
- The Hero’s Journey