Writing a novel? If you’re writing during National Novel Writing Month—NaNoWriMo—you’re probably too busy writing to read about plot structure, narrative structure, dramatic structure, storylines, or narrative arcs right now.
So many terms. So little time.
But listen up. Plot structure can mean the difference between 50,000 words worth of beautiful descriptions, action-packed scenes, and witty dialogue—and an actual story.
Keep plot structure in mind as you write your novel, whether you’ve outlined or not.
Follow a Freytag pyramid. A Fichtean Curve. Triangles, boxes, timelines, snowflakes. Whatever.
Every novel has some sort of structure. And almost all novels follow a similar pattern no matter which diagram or explanation you prefer.
Sure, exceptions exist, especially in literary fiction, and you can find loads of variations. Plus, the order of things can be switched around (think flashbacks). But even short stories, TV shows, and movies follow a pattern of storytelling that’s older than you, your parents, and your grandparents combined.
Plot structure goes way back to Aristotle and ancient Greece. But it goes even further back, long before written language or Greek tragedy or novels, to the days of early humans sitting around a fire swapping stories.
Even the stories you tell your friends follow a basic plot structure.
You: OMG you should have seen what happened last night!
Your friends: What?
You: Well, I was at that place with so and so, and it was so cool. Awesome people, great party. And we were doing something. You know. Like, everything was cool. But then, something happened!
Your friends: OMG! What did you do?
You: Well, the only thing I could do was a xyz or I would have been caught. And it backfired! I was so afraid someone would see us.
Your friends: Seriously? And then what happened?
You: You won’t believe it. I was, like, totally freaked. And then I did this other thing! And it only got worse. I tried one thing and then another and nothing worked. And then I ran out of options. I was totally stuck.
Your friends: Oh, man. How did it turn out? That’s seriously sick.
You: I know, right? Well, So-and-So finally figured it out, and just in time. It was crazy trying to get out of that mess! But nobody saw us. Or if they did, nobody cared.
Your friends: OMG! Good job. Lucky you!
You: Right? I fixed everything up real quick and got the hell out of there. Then we went to another party and just chilled.
Your friends: Phew! What a relief.
In this little story (fill in the details with your imagination), you have:
Exposition: “I was at that place with so and so, and it was so cool.” You tell your friends where you were, what it was like, and who you were with. In other words, you explain the setting and introduce the character(s). This is sometimes called the “set up” or “introduction.”
Then, you introduce a turning point or inciting event. What was a normal situation is no longer normal. “Something happened!”
The stakes are also stated: Someone might see you and your friend.
Rising action: “Something happened,” and you have to get out of it. This is your goal or journey. A series of crises or conflicts occur as you try to reach your goal. Something “backfires” and every attempt fails. Meanwhile, your friends (readers) are dying to know what happens next.
Climax: “So-and-So finally figured it out, and just in time. It was crazy trying to get out of that mess.” This is the final battle or conflict. The peak of the action wherein the “enemy” is vanquished, the problem solved, or the goal reached.
Falling action: “But nobody saw us. Or if they did, nobody cared. I fixed everything up real quick and got the hell out of there.” Now you wrap things up and explain any missing elements, how it went in retrospect (now that you’re safe and all is well), and how you felt.
Resolution or denouement: “Then we went to another party and just chilled.” Things calmed down. The night was saved, and you still got to enjoy yourself. Your friends (readers) breathe a sigh of relief.
It looks something like this:
Who would want to listen to your story (or read one) if it’s missing any part of a basic plot structure?
If you don’t explain the setting, your friends will interrupt you. “Wait a minute. So where the hell were you when all this happened?”
If you skip the rising action, you won’t have any tension or excitement. “So I went to this party and this thing happened. I got it figured out, though.” YAWN.
If you skip the climax, your friends will have to ask for it. “So, how did you get out of that mess?”
If you skip the falling action, your friends will stare at you. “You gonna leave us hanging? So what did you do after that? How did it all work out?”
If you skip the resolution or denouement, it’s a sudden, screeching halt. Your friends (readers) want to know for sure that everything turned out fine. Plus they’ll want to share their opinions (like other characters in the story might) before changing the topic or listening to someone else’s story.
Make sure your novel has a basic plot structure.
And if you’re stuck during NaNoWriMo or anytime you’re writing, you just might be missing something. (Hint: it’s often a goal/quest or an inciting incident, but sometimes it’s conflict.)
Comments and questions are always welcome.