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What is Plot Structure in Literature?

    plot structure in literature

    What makes a story a good story? Engaging characters? A descriptive setting? Conflict and tension? A powerful message? A satisfying ending? (Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes.) Without plot structure, all of these elements would just sort of exist—and stories would be rather hard to follow. But what exactly is plot structure? Dive into this guide to find out.

    Plot Structure Definition

    In simplest terms, plot structure refers to the framework that organizes the events of a story. The key word here is organizes. Having a plot structure helps characters (and readers) get from point A to point B in a story, working through conflicts and points of tension along the way. However, the events alone are not the plot. It’s how those events are woven together to create a cohesive sequence of events that turns an idea or list of plot points into an engaging story.

    Everything from novels and short stories to plays and movies relies on plot structure to give shape to an engaging narrative. Rather than things simply happening, a plot structure adds an element of cause and effect. In short, plot structures typically follow a character as they encounter increasingly challenging scenarios they must overcome before achieving their goals or reaching a resolution.

    Plot Structure Pronunciation

    This two-word literary term is pronounced as follows: PLOT STRUHK-CHER

    Plot vs. Story: What’s The Difference?

    Plot refers to the sequence of events that unfold within a story. These events are arranged purposefully to establish conflict, build tension, and lead to resolution. Plot drives the cause-and-effect nature of a story, helping bring everything full circle for the characters and the audience. Additionally, it adds a sense of structure to the story, connecting each event and plot point in a cohesive way. Essentially, the plot answers the question, “What happens in the story?”

    Story, on the other hand, refers to a narrative on a broader level. It includes the sequence of events within the plot and the other vital narrative elements, including character, setting, conflict, and theme. These elements add to the text’s more profound layers of meaning and interpretation. Therefore, analyzing a story allows an audience to answer questions such as “Why does the story matter?” and “What does it mean for the characters and in a broader context?”

    While a plot may provide order and structure, all story elements work together to create a compelling narrative. Together, these elements evoke emotion, set a tone and mood, captivate attention, and convey meaning, breathing more life and personality into the plot. Ultimately, the story and plot play significant roles in crafting a meaningful and memorable experience for the reader.

    The 6 Main Elements of Plot Structure

    The classic plot structure includes six main elements, all working together to create an engaging narrative with a coherent structure. Let’s take a closer look at each:

    1. Exposition: This is where the author establishes the context for the story, including introducing the setting, characters, and essential background information. The exposition sets the stage for the rest of the story, allowing readers to enter the world of the narrative and better understand the characters, their relationships, and their motivations. Learn more about exposition here.
    1. Inciting Incident: The inciting incident is the event that sets the main plot in motion. It creates conflict, propelling the story forward and leading the protagonist to the first of many challenges that drive the narrative. Learn more about conflict here.
    1. Rising Action: This refers to the events that build tension and develop the conflict. Rising action engages the reader and keeps them invested in the story’s outcome, heightening suspense as it builds toward its climactic moment. Dive into rising action here.
    1. Climax: The climax is the story’s turning point, where the conflict reaches its peak. In this moment, the protagonist often comes face-to-face with their biggest enemy or must make a life-changing decision, making it a pivotal moment in the narrative. For more on climax read this guide.
    1. Falling Action: The falling action helps wind things down as the consequences of the climax begin to unfold. It helps bridge the gaps between the pivotal moment and the story’s ending, initiating a sense of closure for the characters and audience. Read more about falling action here.
    1. Resolution (Denouement): The resolution is the final part of the plot, where the story’s conflicts are resolved, the protagonist’s fate is revealed, and any remaining questions are answered. It provides a sense of closure and fulfillment for the reader. Check out this guide on resolution.

    What is a Plot Diagram?

    A plot diagram visually represents a story’s main plot elements. It helps illustrate the progression of events, showing the relationship between various plot points. Furthermore, this diagram allows readers to visualize a story’s highs and lows, with the highest point of tension often being the story’s climax.

    Perhaps the most popular version of a plot diagram used when teaching plot is the classic pyramid or mountain-like structure (also referred to as a “roller coaster” or “witches hat”) that follows Freytag’s Pyramid, a classic five-part plot structure created by German playwright and novelist Gustav Freytag.

    Can a Story Have More Than One Plot?

    A story can totally have more than one plot. In fact, the more complex the narrative, the more plotlines it will likely have. While most narratives stick to one main plot, these subplots can add depth to conflicts, reveal more details about characters, or establish plot twists in the main structure. For example, many narratives contain a love story arc for their main character, even if it’s not the story’s central focus. However, it makes characters more relatable and raises the stakes of the main conflict.

    Multiple plots can also give authors more room to explore various themes or aspects of a fictional world. As long as the numerous plotlines are cohesive and contribute to the overall narrative structure, having more than one plot often enhances a story.

    What is the Purpose of Plot Structure?

    Plot structure provides writers with a roadmap for a clear, compelling, and well-paced narrative that keeps readers engaged until the end. Plot structure helps authors to:

    • Organize Events: Helps to organize the sequence of events in a story, ensuring that they unfold in a logical way that is easy for readers to follow.
    • Build Tension and Suspense: Builds tension and suspense throughout the story, keeping readers engaged and eager to find out what happens next.
    • Propel the Story Forward: Provides a sense of progression as the story unfolds, with each part of the narrative leading naturally to the next.
    • Create Pacing: Controls the rate at which the story unfolds, adding to the overall emotional experience and impact of the narrative from start to finish.
    • Enhance Emotional Impact: Contributes to the reader’s emotional experience by building up to emotional climaxes, providing moments of relief, or delivering unexpected twists.
    • Provide Closure: Ensures all loose ends are tied up, questions are answered, and conflicts are resolved so readers can feel satisfied as the story ends.

    The bottom line? Without a strong plot structure, a narrative would feel confusing and ultimately unsatisfying. Luckily, the elements of plot structure work together to provide clarity, meaning, and emotional impact to the sequence of events in a story.

    Classic Plot Structures

    Not all plot structures are alike. However, over the centuries, various types of plot structures have been reused and recycled. While not all stories fit perfectly into one of these “classic” plot structures, they provide authors with a foundation to build their narrative, ensuring a tried-and-true structure for a cohesive story.

    Let’s take a look at the following classic plot structures:

    1. Freytag’s Pyramid (Five-Act Structure)

    Freytag’s Pyramid divides a story into five parts: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. This pyramid structure is the baseline for the classic plot diagram, starting without the exposition, peaking at the climax, and ending with the resolution.

    Example: William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a famous tragedy that follows Freytag’s Pyramid. It starts with the exposition of the feud between the Montagues and Capulets, escalates with the rising action of Romeo and Juliet’s forbidden love, reaches a climax with their deaths, and concludes with their families reconciling.

    2. The Hero’s Journey (Monomyth)

    The Hero’s Journey is a popular plot structure used in everything from myths and legends to modern novels and movies. While broken down into 12 distinct phases, the essence of the Hero’s Journey structure is that a protagonist embarks on an adventure into the unknown where they face trials and tribulations, experience a transformation, and, ultimately, return home changed in some way (often for the better).

    Example: The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien is a classic example of the Hero’s Journey. The journey begins with Bilbo Baggins leaving the Shire. He then faces numerous challenges and temptations on his quest to destroy the Ring, experiences personal growth, and ultimately returns home (with the ring in hand) as a changed individual.

    3. Booker’s Seven Basic Plots

    Another way to analyze plot structure is through the lens of Christopher Booker’s seven basic plots, each of which outlines an archetypal structure. While each story may have its own settings, characters, and conflicts, the plot can ultimately fit into one of seven structures:  Comedy, Tragedy, Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, and Rebirth.

    Example: The classic Cinderella fairy tale is an example of a rags-to-riches plot. She starts as a servant who is forced to do all the chores and is treated poorly by her stepmother and step-sisters. With the help of her fairy godmother, she attends the royal ball and captures the prince’s heart, only to return to her life of servitude when the clock strikes midnight. However, thanks to her glass slipper, she ultimately achieves her happily ever after, princess status and all.

    4. Three-Act Structure

    Perhaps the most basic of all plot structures, the Three-Act Structure divides a story into three parts: Act One (the setup), Act Two (the confrontation), and Act Three (the resolution). More specifically, Act One establishes the characters and conflict, Act Two develops the conflict through rising action, and Act Three resolves the conflict and provides closure. In simplest terms, this three-act structure can be broken down into a beginning, middle, and end.

    5. In Media Res (Starting in the Middle)

    Unlike the other more linear classic plot structures that start at the beginning of a story, those following in media res structure (which, in Latin,  literally means “in the middle of things”) begin amid the action. Often starting with a dramatic scene or pivotal moment, an author uses this plot structure to immediately hook the reader’s attention. From there, they rely on literary devices such as flashbacks, dialogue, and expository backstories to fill in any blanks.

    Tips for Teaching Plot Structure

    • Teach the Vital Terms: Before diving in, make sure students understand the essential plot structure terms like exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. Provide students with clear definitions and engaging examples, emphasizing their importance in analyzing and understanding narratives.
    • Scaffold as Needed: If students are struggling with plot structure, start by teaching and providing examples of one element at a time, allowing them to build their confidence. Providing students with guiding questions and graphic organizers can offer additional support.
    • Reteach to Refresh: If your students are already familiar with plot structure, it’s worth giving them a quick overview of the basic plot elements to activate their prior knowledge. Show a quick video or have students label the parts of a plot diagram to refresh their memories before diving into a text.
    • Refer to Popular Plot Lines: Leverage students’ existing knowledge and interest by illustrating plot structure elements using familiar stories like fairy tales or children’s movies. These connections help add context while engaging students before analyzing new and more complex texts.
    • Compare Plots: Have students compare and contrast plot structures of different stories, identifying similarities and differences in structure to deepen their understanding. This comparison can help students expand their understanding of how plot elements contribute to the overall story.
    • Use Animated Shorts: Animated short videos offer a fun and engaging way to help students visualize plot structure elements and their overall impact on the story. Additionally, videos will captivate the visual learners in the room, aiding in their comprehension. Another great tool? Picture books!
    • Start with Short Stories: Begin teaching plot structure with short stories that have clear and concise plot structures. This allows students to analyze plot elements in a manageable context before moving on to longer texts with more complex plots.
    • Draw It Out: Encourage students to visually represent plot structure through diagrams, storyboards, or graphic organizers, helping them visualize the sequence of events. This hands-on approach helps them organize their thoughts while reinforcing key concepts.

    Additional Resources for Teaching Plot Structure

    Read this guide for teaching plot with short stories.

    Teaching plot as part of narrative writing? Here’s a step-by-step approach for how to teach narrative writing. 

    Provide more content to plot structure with this plot breakdown of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s (Philosopher’s) Stone.

    Keep students engaged with the following videos:

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