The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died, and then queen died of grief is a plot. —E. M. Forster
3 Essential Plot Structures And Why You Should Ignore All Of Them And Trust Yourself
The most common questions I get from writers are about Plot Structure: What is plot structure? Is the plot structure of a comedy different from the plot structure of a tragedy? Do I really need to create a structure for my story? There are a lot of different models and suggestions for ways to plot a novel. This guide is intended to give you an overview of some of the most common terms people use when they talk about plot structure, and to give you a new way of thinking about structure that will, I hope, help you think about plot events strategically. (This overview is specifically about plots in the Western storytelling tradition, and is not meant to be a comprehensive overview of all types of storytelling structure.)
First, it’s important to understand what we mean when we use the term plot. The most common plot structure definition is simply that plots are the events in a novel or story and the order in which those events are placed. Plot refers to the “what happened” piece of your story.
Not all plots are told chronologically. Some plots tell events out of order and, in fact, beginning en medias res—or at the point of highest action—and then flashing back to the beginning, is a technique that is thousands of years old and still feels fresh today. And, of course, as you write your story, you will leave out lots of time-related details. You don’t need to show the character waking up, going to the bathroom, brushing her teeth, then trudging through the kitchen, and so on, unless those events reveal something about the character or they get interrupted in some exciting, relevant way. Rather, those events need to be relevant to the outcome of the events.
What Is Freytag’s Pyramid?
Gustav Freytag was a German novelist and playwright who came up with a structure for analyzing the structure of plays. This was based on his studies of Shakespeare’s plays and Aristotle’s Poetics. Gustav’s analysis was based on a protagonist versus an antagonist, and it was foundational for our understanding of five-act structure. Some people call this a dramatic arc. If you are the kind of person who likes to see a nifty plot structure diagram, my English teacher drew it like this:
Freytag’s Pyramid Explained
Exposition: You set the scene and establish the characters.
In the rising action: This kicks off with an inciting incident. The protagonist experiences an initial problem and situations are introduced that increase the tension.
The Climax: The protagonist experiences a Turning Point. If things were going well, they turn against the protagonist. If things were going badly, they start going well.
The Falling Action: The antagonist goes after the protagonist. This is shorter than the first half.
The Denouement: This is French for the Unraveling. You know, the Ancient Greeks, they were always destroying themselves. This is why the ending is a catastrophe. In a comedy, it’s the opposite—heroes end up better than they started off. But the ending is basically the end of the tale.
This structure is a very simple way to think about the way stories are told. Unfortunately, it’s a bit too simple. In most stories about ninety percent of the action takes place between the inciting incident and the climax, and this structure doesn’t provide much insight into that part of plot making.
What Is Three Act Structure?
The three acts in Three Act Structure are known as the Setup, the Confrontation, and the Resolution. It has been described in different ways over centuries, first by Aelius Donatus in the fourth century A.D. and also—famously—by Syd Field in his seminal 1979 book Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. In its simplest form, the definition of Three Act Structure is a storytelling structure that divides the piece into three parts, or “acts” that can be loosely understood as the Beginning, the Middle, and the End.
Three Act Structure Explained
Act 1: This is where the exposition happens. the characters, their relationships, the setting—all of that is set up. After a while, the inciting incident shows up. The protagonist tries to deal with it, which creates a more dramatic situation. That results in the first plot point, which is the end of the act. This is the moment that signals that life will never be the same again for the protagonist.
Act 2: This is where the protagonist tries to solve the problem, only to find that this attempt leads to new problems. This act closes with plot point 2, which is an emotional low for your character. It’s a disaster that has been brought about by their initial choices.
Act 3: This is where the climax happens—the scene or sequence in which the main conflicts are brought to a point where they must be finally resolved. For example, in a Marvel movie, this is the final faceoff with the enemy. By this point, the protagonist has learned what they need to know to solve their initial problem.
Three Act Structure is an improvement over Freytag’s Pyramid in that it adds a layer of complexity. After all, plots are not just events that happen and in what order. As I pointed out earlier, plots must be related to the outcome. And the outcome, of course, depends on the character. This structure contains not only the idea of events happening, but nods toward why they happened; that is, the choices that the character made.
What Is The Hero’s Journey?
This idea was outlined by Joseph Campbell in his book, The Hero Has a Thousand Faces. His argument is that the same “monomyth” appears across cultures. All over the world, people tell the same story in different ways. Basically, a hero leaves the Ordinary World on a quest and eventually returns in triumph.
The Hero’s Journey, Explained
You can think of these as
The Departure Act
The Initiation Act
The Return Act
Christopher Vogler took this idea and turned it into a book about screenwriting, called The Writer’s Journey. He broke these three acts into twelve steps, which go:
The Ordinary World: This is the exposition, where you establish characters and what normal life looks like for the hero.
The Call To Adventure: Basically this is the thing that happens that invites the character to go on their quest.
The Refusal of the Call: The protagonist makes some excuse and tries to weasel out of the quest.
Meeting the Mentor: Here’s your Gandalf or Obi Wan moment where the hero meets someone who will help them move forward on the quest.
Crossing the First Threshold: Remember when the hero refused the call? Well, now the call makes the hero an offer they can’t refuse.
Tests, Allies, Enemies: Bad guys show up. Good guys show up. Stuff happens.
Approach to the Inmost Cave: Okay, something has happened to reveal that our hero has to go all the way. Right into the lion’s den.
The Ordeal: This is the biggest test of all, the hero must face their biggest fear.
The Reward: The hero gets what they came for! Wow, amazing. But wait—it doesn’t solve their problem. Actually, things are worse than they thought.
The Road Back: Uh, the road is longer—they have to deal with the consequences of what they did before.
Resurrection: This is the final test, one that looks impossible for our hero. But against all odds, our hero meets the test and is victorious.
Return with the Elixir: The real elixir is that this hero has been reborn in knowledge. They understand their life in a new way. The value of home, for example, the beauty of safety.
This might seem like a lot to take in at once, so let’s roll through an example of a Hero’s Journey really fast. You’ll be able to figure out the title of the example pretty easily.
The Ordinary World: I live in Kansas! Gee whiz, this lady is mean to my dog. I wish I could be someplace beautiful where I didn’t have any problems!
The Call To Adventure: *somewhere over the rainbow* a cyclone appears!
The Refusal of the Call: I’m not a witch at all!
Meeting the Mentor: Oh yes you are, honey. You got the shoes for it.
Crossing the First Threshold: Now go break them in on this yellow brick road. The wizard will help you.
Tests, Allies, Enemies: Yikes!/ Oh, hi, nice to meet you!/ Yikes!/ Oh, hi, nice to meet you!/ Yikes!/ Oh, hi, nice to meet you!/ Yikes!
Approach to the Inmost Cave: Oh we made it! Yay! *Oz Voice* No you have to go get the broom of the Wicked Witch of the West.
The Ordeal: “These things must be handled delicately. Come along, freaky little monster pet!”
The Reward: WE DID IT!
The Road Back: WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU’RE NOT A WIZARD?
Resurrection: I’ll never get home now! No, you will! You could have gotten home at any time but I didn’t tell you because you needed to miss your Auntie and Uncle to really value them.
Return with the Elixir: There’s no place like home!
Once more, the analytical structure has added a layer of specificity. There are now names for more of the kinds of things that can happen between acts—Tests, Allies, Enemies. And after the Ordeal, there’s a Reward, but that’s a false ending. But these beats: Ordinary World, Call To Adventure—those are simply other names for the exposition and inciting incident. The Ordeal is the Midpoint, or the end of Act 2. The Resurrection is the climax of Act 3, and Return With the Elixir and the end of Act 3.
That’s right—this is the most important point about these different plot structures: THEY’RE ALL THE SAME THING! And they’re all just fancy terms for what we all already know!
David Mamet’s book Bambi v. Godzilla, which is all about screenwriting, he tosses off this little aside. He says, Everyone knows how to write a plot, it goes like this:
Once Upon a Time
And Then One Day
And Just When Things Were Going Well
When All Of A Sudden
And They All Lived Happily Ever After.
That is so easy to remember, and it’s so true.
Let me explain what I think he means:
Once Upon a Time. You can call it Act One, You Can Call it Ordinary Life, you can call it exposition.
And Then One Day: You can call it an inciting incident, you can call it the call to adventure and crossing the first threshold.
And Just When Things Were Going Well: You can call it tests, allies, enemies that ends with approach to the inmost cave, or you can call it Act One’s series of decisions that ends in a plot point.
When All Of A Sudden: You can call it the end of Act Two, You can call it The Road Back.
And They All Lived Happily Ever After (or, like, died): End of Act 3 or Return with The Elixir. It’s all the same.
My point is: You already know Western Foundational plot structure. You’ve known it since you were five years old. If you have a character, and the character has a problem, you’re on your way to writing a story. If you want something to happen, make things get worse, maybe by introducing a villain, or make them get better, maybe by introducing a friend. Proceed until things get really awful for your protagonist. Then make them a little worse. Then make them horrible—the worst possible thing. Then have them solve the problem...or fail.
So now you know the terms, and you have the choice to use them or not. But the structure should feel natural to you.