The plot is a connected sequence of events that make up a novel, poem, play, film, television show, and other narrative works.
The plot includes the cause-and-effect relationship between the events. This means that it focuses on the details of what happened in the story as well as why and how those things happened. It is these details that make the story worth reading. It’s a crucial element of narrative works and some, but not all, poems.
Definition and Explanation of Plot
The plots of narrative works have been detailed and deconstructed since ancient times. Writers have come up with numerous ways to describe what the plot is and how it comes together. It will vary from work to work, but most plots include the elements of Freytag’s Pyramid.
Freytag’s pyramid was created by German writer Gustav Freytag in the 19th century. He argued that all plots could be broken down into five parts. They are exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement. He created the pyramid in order to describe and define 19th century plays that were usually divided into five parts already. Today, the pyramid is used to help new writers and literary students understand one of the main ways the stories come together. It is also applied to other narratives, such as those found in television shows and films.
- Exposition: the first part of the plot and the section of the story in which the audience learns details about the characters, setting, and their relationships to one another. The historical details are also set out during this section of the story.
- Rising Action: the complicating event or events that create problems for the characters and lead up to the climax. Some believe this part o the story to be the most important as without it, the climax would never occur, or would the falling action and dénouement. In a play, the rising action spans between two and three acts.
- Climax: the central turning point of the story. It is where the story peaks in tension and the reader should be most engaged and excited about the story. Usually, something happens during the climax that redefines the narrative and paves the way for the falling action and dénouement.
- Falling Action: the series of actions that follow the climax. It is usually the hardest part of the pyramid to stop due to the fact that it can take several different forms. It ends with the resolution.
- Dénouement: French for “outcome.” It refers to the part of the plot that ties up the loose ends and reveals what happens to the characters next. It appears at the very end of the story and might be a chapter, a page, or a sentence.
Other Plot Structures
Freytag’s pyramid is not the only way readers and writers use to understand plots. Another commonly referenced structure is found in Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. This non-fiction book describes five stages that Booker suggests are found in all stories. They are: the anticipation stage, the dream stage, the frustration stage, the nightmare stage, and the resolution.
The stages follow the heroes from the start of their journey to minor challenges in which they gain confidence, to the confrontation with the conflict, the period in which the heroes fear they won’t be able to overcome the “villain,” and finally to the resolution in which the hero triumphs.
While these stages feel as though they’re describing an epic poem like Beowulf or an equally dramatic novel with traditional heroes and villains, these stages are capable of defining almost any story. The “villain” doesn’t have to be a person, it could be a state of mind, a social issue, a political obstacle, or a conflict with the natural world. That means “facing” the villain could mean one is coming to terms with their past, learning how to move forward with their life, facing a hard decision and more.
Examples of Plots
There are many possible examples one might come up with to define what a plot can be. Below are a few of the most common and wide-ranging.
- Tragedy: a tragedy is a dark story in which a tragic hero, someone whose likable but with a flaw, makes a mistake and faces the consequences of their actions. For example, Macbeth.
- Rebirth: this kind of plot follows a character who has a significant change of heart over the course of the narrative. For example, Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.
- Quest: in this kind of story, a hero goes about completing something specific. For example, Frodo’s quest in The Lord of the Rings which takes up all three novels. There are often supernatural elements in these stories.
- Overcoming the Villain: also known as “overcoming the monster,” this plot includes a hero fighting their way through obstacles until they overcome something in their path. This might be a traditional villain or monster or it might be a metaphorical one, like addiction, family estrangement, discrimination, or others. Beowulf is a popular traditional example.
- Comedy: in a comedy, the characters face conflicts that are more absurd and funny than they are frightening. These become increasingly outrageous as the story progresses. For example, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
- Rags-to-Riches: these plots take someone in disadvantaged circumstances and follow them as they come close to becoming rich before losing everything. It is often the case that this process leads them to the realization that they don’t need “wealth,” whatever form it takes, to be happy. Cinderella is a traditional example of a rags-to-riches plot.
Related Literary Terms
- Conflict: a plot device used by writers when two opposing sides come up against each other.
- Climax: the point at which the main character is forced to contend with the central conflict of the story.
- Foreshadowing: refers to the hints a writer gives a reader about what’s going to happen next. It’s a common literary device that’s used every day.
- Cliffhanger: a narrative device that’s used to end a story abruptly before an action or segment the plot is concluded.
- Flashback: a plot device in a book, film, story, or poem in which the readers learns about the past.