It's hard to structure a plot. If you can think of it off the top of your head, so can the audience. —David Mamet
In the workshops I’ve given across the country, I’ve met a lot of writers who feel comfortable developing character, but struggle with plot. Many people ask what a plot even is. Simply put: A plot is the stuff that happens in a story and the order in which it happens. You may not realize it yet, but you already know how to write a plot. You work with plots every day.
In his book, Bambi v. Godzilla, David Mamet points out that the foundational plot for any story is 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.
I’m pretty sure that this looks pretty familiar. Some people write about five act structure; Mamet’s setup is exactly that.
Once Upon A Time
At the beginning of any novel or story, it’s important to show what ordinary life for the protagonist is like. This is the life that is about to get interrupted. Usually, we get a sense of the main characters, the setting, and the usual emotional state of the protagonist. We might get a hint of relevant backstory, but it’s important not to back up your story too much or explain too much at the beginning.
Some stories begin in medias res—that is, at the point of highest action—-and then return to an introductory scene. That’s great! If you’re afraid that an ordinary day will seem boring to the reader, feel free to open with an exciting moment. Not every scene has to be in chronological order. However, it’s important to establish a scene in which the protagonist’s “before” is shown, or else the “after” will not have any resonance.
And Then One Day
This is the moment that your high school English teacher called the Inciting Incident. It’s the Thing That Happens that sets the character on the path. And Then One Day, an invitation to the ball arrives at Cinderella’s house. And Then One Day, a cyclone sweeps Dorothy away to Oz. And Then One Day, Heathcliff arrives at Wuthering Heights.
This is the first step on the journey that will take your character down the path toward their ultimate fate, so it is basically where your story “begins”. It’s the interruption of the protagonist’s routine. Pro tip: Don’t wait a long time before giving the reader this scene. If you do, it will seem as if nothing is happening in your novel.
And Just When Things Were Going Well
This is the point where, for lack of a better phrase, things get real. For example, Cinderella gets all of her work done, and the mice have made her a dress—but the stepsisters rip it up! This is the Midpoint. It’s a scene of huge emotional importance that takes place approximately halfway through your novel. Usually, this is a moment in which something goes horribly wrong, and the main character has to face the truth about what they are willing to do to get what they want. Stepsisters ripped up your dress? You’re going to the dang ball anyway because you deserve it. The rest of the story is about the character moving forward with their new beliefs intact. After that moment, Cinderella never sees herself in the same way again.
When All Of A Sudden
After this emotional pain, your protagonist regroups and goes in pursuit of her goal once again. The deal might get a bit better, but it’s definitely going to get worse again. A lot worse.
Cinderella’s fairy godmother shows up, bibbity-bobbity-boos a dress and a couple of glass shoes, and Cinderella goes to the ding-dang ball where she meets Prince Charming. But the clock strikes midnight. She as to get out of there before the last toll of the bell, because at that moment the spell will be over and she’ll be left in rags. So she heads home, and she’s perfectly happy. She has a glass slipper and her memories. But the prince is looking for her. He sends out the Duke to try the glass slipper on every maiden in the kingdom. Naturally, he ends up at Cinderella’s door. Her stepmother is suspicious and, all of a sudden, Cinderella finds herself locked in her attic room.
All seems to be lost. But it isn’t. Not quite. The protagonist is about to make one final attempt to get what she wants. That attempt will either work...or it won’t. That outcome means you’ve arrived at the ending.
And They All Lived Happily Ever After
Or they all, like, die (Romeo and Juliet) or some other ending. Once you reach the end of your novel, your audience has moved on, too.
Once Cinderella pulls the other glass slipper out of her pocket, it’s Game Over. She doesn’t pack up her stuff or take a nostalgic stroll through the garden; she leaves and counts on the mice to catch up with her later.
They all lived happily ever after (or, like, died) doesn’t require much filigree. Maybe a nice moment of Dorothy in Kansas, an image of Cinderella on her wedding day (or, as in the original fairy tale, the lovely image of her stepmother and stepsisters dancing to their death in heated iron shoes), or a moment where Macduff carries in Macbeth’s severed head and everyone says “hail” to the new chief, Malcolm.
These are the signpost moments that will guide you through your work. The big scenes. Knowing these can make it much easier to navigate your way through your story.