Rebecca Mikkelson, Editor-in-Chief, and Brandi Spencer (formerly B. C. Marine), Secretary Authors 4 Authors Publishing
First, what is a plot? The basic definition is: (n) the main events of a play, novel, movie, or similar work, devised and presented by the writer as an interrelated sequence. Whether you pants or plot down to the very last detail, your manuscript must follow a plot structure, so what does that entail?
Basic elements of plot structure
Please first bear in mind that this is a single blog post—we’ll cover all that we can without getting bogged down for pages upon pages. So what elements go into plotting a novel? Here are the basic elements of what will occur within Act I, Act II, and Act III of your story.
Hook: This will be obvious—the hook is where you draw your reader into the story, usually within the first line, but at the very least within the first few paragraphs.
Plot Turn I: In other words, this is your inciting incident. This is going to be the conflict introduced into the story that sets the whole plot into motion. For example, a war could break out, or someone could find out there’s a question of their parentage.
Pinch Point I: Your first pinch point should lead into Act II of your book; this will be a conflict that starts making the character’s goals hard for them to achieve.
Midpoint: This is when your protagonist or main character (they’re not always the same as we explain in our blog series on characters) turns from simply reacting to the conflict around them to proactively working to solve the conflict.
Pinch Point II: This is going to be another obstacle for your character encounters to make their goals harder to reach.
Plot Turn II: This is the point in the story where the conflict turns in your character’s favor—or against them, depending on how you’ve planned your series—and they should have the tools need to go into the climax.
Climax and Resolution: This should be where the conflict that’s building throughout the book and through the midpoint will come to a head and you can start working toward the resolution. As things resolve, you should be tying up and loose ends that won’t be following through to your next book to become the main conflict.
Four types of plot structure
There are more than four different types of plot structure, but we’re going for the basics here. Heck, tomorrow you could develop your own type of plot structure that becomes popular in ten years that we’ll all be writing blog posts about.
Dramatic or Progressive Plot
A progressive plot structure is one of the most common ones. This plot is told chronologically and establishes the conflict within the first chapter and continues to build the conflict until the climax occurs (much in the same way I laid out the basic elements of plot structure above). After the climax, it will resolve any remaining threads created throughout the story that won’t carry into the next book as the main conflict.
This type of plot is told, well, episodically. This means that it has several different stories that build up to the climax of the book, much in the same way that a TV series that actively character builds for on or several characters in each episode while working eventually toward to climax of the season. Think of Brooklyn Nine-Nine and how Jake consistently becomes a better person and better police officer in each episode as he learns something new about himself or a life lesson.
Flashback plots will start in with the climax as its hook and then flashback to tell the story. Think of those TV episodes that start at the end of the episode and we get flashes of things that happened “earlier that day” or “twenty minutes ago.” and we understand how the climax came to be.
This is a plot structure that has two interweaving plots that are linked by similar goals, events, or characters. For example, you could be writing a historical fiction about the French Revolution where one character is a commoner trying to throw off the yoke of the nobility and the other character is a noble who wants things to change but doesn’t want to meet Madame Guillotine.
Many genres have specialized plot structures with their own spin on the basic elements. These structures go hand-in-hand with the four types, rather than replacing them. For example, you can write a parallel romance or a flashback mystery. How strict the structures are varies from genre to genre and even from element to element with genres. Let’s look at some of the genres we frequently see at A4A. Any one of them could take a whole post itself, so this will be a brief run-down of the essentials.
The most immutable element in a romance plot is the HEA or happily-ever-after; the story must end with a positive resolution to whatever relationship stage the couple is in. The other elements help to support the relationship toward that HEA. That’s why the second-most important thing is to have the main characters meet (your inciting incident) as soon as possible in the story—the story can’t focus on their relationship if they don’t know each other. If there are events that need to happen before their meeting, you may have to tell the story out of chronological order. All the points in between that are normally attributed to the protagonist are applied to the couple instead.
Much like romance revolves around a relationship, mystery revolves around a question. You want to raise the main question that will run through the story (your inciting incident) as soon as you can, ideally in the first chapter. Though “who?” is the most common question thanks to subgenres like murder mysteries, “what?” “where?” “why?” and “how?” can also work. And of course, whatever question is raised needs to be answered in the end. For all the plot points in between, you generally match up high points with epiphanies or solid clues, and setbacks with red herrings.
Paranormal and Horror
Paranormal and horror both work on a similar concept: things are not what they seem. At first, they function similarly to a mystery, with questions and doubt raised in the inciting incident. However, answering the question is not the end of the story. That’s because answering the question involves a follow-up: what is the protagonist going to do about it? If the initial mystery is the harder question, it will typically be answered at Pinch Point II, with Act III revolving around the protagonist’s solution. If the initial mystery is fairly simple but requires more work to find a solution to, it will be answered at Pinch Point I.
Hero’s Journey (Sci-Fi, Fantasy, & Adventure)
The Hero’s Journey is a cycle that was first attributed to Joseph Campbell. It’s usually seen in series and classic mythos, which is why it’s a popular structure for speculative fiction and adventure. It breaks the Three Act structure into twelve parts, but the key feature is in the turning points between acts. The first one takes the protagonist away from their normal world, and the second one returns them to it. Unlike the other genres mentioned, this is not a strict structure, as speculative fiction is defined more by its setting and inhabitants than the plot. It just so happens to be a common structure.
Mix and Match
Remember how I said that the genres are layered onto the four plot types? They can also be combined with each other. If, say, you’re writing a mystery romance, you have to incorporate the plot structure of both mystery and romance. Since both genres require involvement from the inciting incident, it must do double duty: the question of the story must be raised in the same scene where the characters meet.
Join us next week for our latest installment in our Misused Advice series, where we’ll talk about filtering.