Writers should be cognizant of their story’s structure during the writing and editing stages of a work. But what are the main elements of plot? More importantly, how is structure balanced with originality?
February 16, 2022 · 6 Min Read
Plot structures can and do vary. However, most novels with popular appeal conform to a variation of the tried and true. Readers want to be oriented, but they also want to experience tension. They expect tangible conflict, a clear climax, and an ending that doesn’t disappoint.
Plot is the ebb and flow of events that make up a story. Any character action that alters or moves the story along can be considered part of the plot.
Although some conceptual frameworks—such as Freytag’s Pyramid—have slightly different interpretations of plot structure, stories almost always contain the following elements: 1.) an opening and expository phase, 2.) an inciting incident, 3.) rising action, 4.) a climax, and 5.) a resolution.
For example, fantasy and crime writing may have different tropes, but most well-written fantasy and crime novels contain some variation of the above pattern. This is due to the expectations that most readers have when they read fiction. Tension, the suspension of disbelief, worldbuilding, conflict, and characterization all impact the quality of a story. A novel with a haphazard or nonsensical structure undermines many of these elements.
1.) Opening and Exposition
The opening of a novel should set the stage for the rest of story. It is a brief encapsulation of the norms of the world and the protagonist. Openings should therefore have an expository slant. Who is the protagonist? What are his perceptions? What is his world like? These are the types of questions that are answered during the opening of a novel.
However, the best openings do not overburden the reader with information. Throughout the opening, the story’s inciting incident should be sufficiently foreshadowed to maintain reader interest. We touch on excessive exposition later, but the writer should use the least amount of information possible to orient the reader at the start of a story. There are few things as grating as a lump of unsolicited information—especially when delivered right at the beginning of a novel.
2.) Inciting Incident
The inciting incident is the event that upends the norms of the opening. It is the crisis that propels the protagonist from the familiar into the unfamiliar. It is marked by urgency and conflict. In a way, the inciting incident is the real beginning of a story.
If a novel is about a politician being implicated in a murder, then the murder may be an inciting incident. If a story is about a boy becoming a knight, then his village being torched may be an inciting incident.
Inciting incidents may or may not be surprising, but they should always remove any allusions of safety for the protagonist. Remember, safe writing is the bane of good fiction. The inciting incident should be nothing less than drastic. It should be definable, and it should act as the catalyst of greater uncertainty. These events have a forcefulness to them; the protagonist has no choice but to push forward to enact change.
3.) Rising Action
As the name implies, the rising action phase of a story builds on the inciting incident. Its chief concern is the development and increase of conflict. What’s at stake for the protagonist? What are his obstacles? Who is he contending with? Good fiction always contains great conflict.
The rising action phase is also marked by character growth. It is difficult to portray growth when an environment is stagnant. However, the outworking of external events (such as those in the rising action phase) makes change easier to convey.
Rising action intensifies conflicts, fleshes out characters, and raises the stakes in anticipation for the next plot element: climax.
The climax is the peak of conflict. It is where the outcome of the protagonist and other characters are decided. In theory, it should illicit the greatest degree of reader engagement.
Books that are action-oriented usually have climaxes marked by final battles, duels, or physical confrontations. The climax of a romance novel may see a couple with a complicated past reconcile for good. A crime novel’s climax could be marked by the unveiling and confrontation of a murderer. There’s no set pattern, but a climax should be confrontational, and its outcome conclusive.
The resolution establishes the new normal of the story world. Although the conflict has been resolved, its affects have indelibly altered the characters and the status quo. The world can’t return to its pre-inciting incident state—if it does, then the story was for nothing.
The resolution allows the reader to enjoy the protagonist’s victory. Triumph in this sense is determined by what has been gained. How has the protagonist changed? How has the world been bettered? What calamity has been avoided? What friendships have been made? Once the reader has been made to enjoy these changes, then the story is over.
Common Plot Structure Mistakes
Too Much Exposition During the Opening Phase
Exposition, also known as backstory, is crucial for any novel; however, too much of it too quickly can severely hamper reader enjoyment. Backstory and contextualized information should be delivered throughout a novel in manageable doses.
That being said, the reader has to be oriented from the first page. This necessity often leads writers to introduce too much information during the introductory scenes of a work. Dense information without action can be difficult to read. Openings with dense information can turn readers away before they’ve even reached the second chapter. For more information on exposition in writing, have a look at Manuscript Mentoring’s article on the topic. You may also find How to Write First Chapter helpful.
An Underwhelming Inciting Incident
An inciting incident should upend the norm. Its consequences should be unavoidable. In short, it should signify a clear departure from what went before. Writers often struggle to write inciting incidents that have real consequence. Remember, readers read fiction to escape the ordinary—so characters and events should be extraordinary.
A fireman quitting his job to work at a different fire department is not an inciting incident. A fireman being retrenched and losing everything is, however. A fisherman unable to go out to sea because of inclement weather is not an inciting incident. However, a volcano erupting on the fisherman’s island, covering it in lava, is an apt inciting incident. A librarian who decides to sleep late one Sunday is not an inciting incident; however, the librarian suddenly developing papyrophobia (the fear of paper) is an inciting incident.
Novels that lack a clear inciting incident usually lack forward momentum. There are exceptions, of course—such as certain works of literary fiction. However, to be an enjoyable read, most stories need something to go badly wrong with either the protagonist or the world (or both).
A Lack of Conflict During the Rising Action Phase
Safe writing is one of the more prevalent structural mistakes that writers make. The topic is worthy of its own article—indeed, many books on writing have it as a central subject. Safe writing is writing that lacks conflict. It usually manifests in both a lack of microtension (sentence-level conflict) and overarching plot conflict. It is the direct result of the writer trying to avoid awkward situations for their characters. This cannot be stated enough: a reluctance by the writer to explore raw emotions severely hampers a story. Good fiction is conflict; without tangible awkwardness, meaningful conflict cannot be conveyed to the reader.
A lack of conflict during the rising action phase—a period that should be marked by progressively greater conflict—is detrimental to any story. The writer should ensure that enmity, surprise, and uncertainty pervade their novel—especially after the book’s catalyst (the inciting incident) has taken place.
There is no template that can guarantee a great story. Writers should understand the basic elements of plot as well as the expectations of the reader; however, a story will ultimately stand or fall on the strength of its ideas and, depending on the genre, the tightness of its prose. Structurally, if the writer can maintain tension and the suspension of disbelief, then the story already has a strong foundation. Exposition should be kept to a minimum; the norm should be upended. Change in the world or the protagonist should be present as the story progresses. There should be a satisfying climax that ties up the novel’s loose ends. Understanding the basics of plot structure can help to achieve this—but ideas should never be relegated in favor of a strict formula.
It can be difficult to compose a cohesive story that manages to balance structure with ideas. Manuscript Mentoring’s developmental editing service is ideal for writers that need editorial feedback on plot structure and story composition.