What it is. How to chart it. How to find the right structure for your novel.
Plot structure is one of the trickiest and most vital things to get right in a story, but using the idea of a plot mountain can be a great way to solve your plot problems – and deliver a great experience for the reader.
Plot is loosely defined as a chain of events in a story – i.e. this happened, so that happened.
Notice that little word “so” – it means that Y happened, because X happened. That everything in your story is linked together, literally like links in a chain.
A linear, logical chain of events, though, isn’t all that exciting. You need a story arc – a plot mountain – to engage readers, to build tension and excitement.
A plot diagram (or plot mountain or story arc) will deliberately look like a triangle, with action and drama building to excite us before subsiding.
It mightn’t sound inspired. To most readers, a story is a living thing and you’re alive in those writers’ very dreamscapes.
Often, though, rules can help keep a writer on track. (And once understood, they can be bent and broken a little.)
Consider a plot mountain your roadmap for sustaining emotional momentum through the story – and let’s cover some points.
Plotting your foundations (your characters)
Any foundation for a good story is character.
It may veer on a cliché, but think of it as inverse pot-of-gold at the start of a rainbow. The more you bury early on, the more you can mine and dig up later over your plot mountain. Character is only the start of good plotting, but it is no less than that. The best stories are essentially character journeys.
Your protagonist will need to be human and compelling. Your protagonist will also be in need for a story arc to take place, so they must lack something. This is your foundation for a good story. Start here and think of both your character’s goal or goals, as well as your character’s motive(s).
This distinction between goal and motive is important.
J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter needs love and acceptance (motive), having grown up uncared for under his uncle and aunt’s roof. Then Hagrid appears and Harry ‘needs’ to escape to Hogwarts (goal). Harry’s goals change through the books (going to the Quidditch World Cup, winning the Triwizard Tournament). But his motivation is to fight throughout for peace and tolerance – and his overarching goal has evolved by the last book to be the death of Voldemort and peace for the wizarding community.
So map goal to motive as you plan for your character’s growth, their story arc and your plot structure – and take a look at our character building page for help, ditto how authentic characterisation is essential to help drive a plot forward.
Character needs may evolve as your hero or heroine grows, but goals and motive can’t be ‘illogical’ and cancel out the other (e.g. you write in a goal not in keeping with your character’s nature).
And remember any story is born out of your protagonist desiring something, rooted in overcoming weakness to get to a stronger new equilibrium. (We’ll get to this soon.)
Plotting your initiating incident
Having mapped out your foundation and novel beginnings, you can tie in your initiating incident. A good example might be Harry Potter receiving his Hogwarts letter. Out of the Cupboard under the Stairs, onto Hogwarts. And any initiating incident or call-to-action, no matter how over- or understated, must actually throw the character into a worse-off situation than the start in order to set your novel off on the right trajectory.
Story charts are called ‘story mountains’ in schools, after all, because stakes get higher and things need to get emotionally a lot tougher before they can wind down to a happy ending.
So the initiating incident you just kindled should spark drama. It should lead your protagonist into what we’ll (loosely) call a fraught setup where drama will unfold.
It looks as if Jon Snow’s going to the Night Watch will result in a quieter life than the trauma unfolding for his family in King’s Landing. Jon’s choice leads him to danger instead. And it looks as if Harry Potter will be safe at Hogwarts under Dumbledore’s watch. And it looks as if Jane Eyre will be settled and happy at Thornfield.
A good plot subverts such hope. Your drama builds from this.
The protagonist is placed, somehow, in some jeopardy that rivets us and pushes us to read more, so bear in mind your initiating incident carefully.
You’ll later need to subvert our sense of safety as you ‘bridge’ your way to your next plot points and remember your initiating incident should map back to earlier foundations (your character’s nature). Will they take up their call and be right for your plot structure and story arc?
Make sure it marries up to motive, with the person they are at heart. You need a protagonist to actively take this call-to-action up.
This is true even for reluctant heroes, i.e. Arthur Golden’s Chiyo in Memoirs of a Geisha or Suzanne Collins’ Katniss in The Hunger Games. Chiyo tries to run away at first, fails, but she finds other reasons to train as a Kyoto geisha and remain in her okiya. Katniss volunteers for the Hunger Games in her sister Prim’s place, with no choice but to fight to save her sister. Once she’s committed, she’ll fight to survive.
Some protagonists are more proactive and will create their own ‘call’, rather than fairy-godmother-summons. Jon Snow, for instance, opts to leave home and ‘take the black’ in A Game of Thrones. Jane Eyre is at first sent to school, then creates her ‘call’ because, bored years later, she advertises herself as a governess.
Whether your protagonist knows an initiating incident could lead them to danger (as Katniss does), they still can’t help taking up the mantle. They’ll always choose to take up the call, and so it always maps back to intrinsic needs. Katniss needs to save her sister because she couldn’t live with herself if not in The Hunger Games.
And the rest of your plot is about mounting drama and the protagonist reaching their end goal.
Creating plot development
Plot development’s where you get to wreak havoc and brew drama, the clouds and storms gathering up the plot mountain. So play with scenarios and ideas.
Be sure everything is done right when you edit your plot, keeping all that happens to your protagonist relevant and necessary, and don’t meander, but do get your ideas down. Plotting should be fun and, like a first draft, you can edit and hone as you go.
As Edgar Allan Poe wrote, ‘no [plot] part can be displaced without ruin to the whole.’
You also need here to accordingly sketch your antagonist (if not fleshed out yet), and they’ll compete for the same thing as your protagonist.
According to storyteller John Truby in The Anatomy of Story, a good protagonist and antagonist compete for ‘which version of reality everyone will believe’.
Think of everyone in A Song of Ice and Fire vying for the Iron Throne. This is a story of many people believing they should rule – and George R.R. Martin’s multiple protagonists work as one another’s antagonists. Each has a version of reality they want to assert. And we’ve invested emotionally in all these characters and rivals, which is why A Song of Ice and Fire is so gripping.
Your story arc (or the bulk of it) is in fact about which reality will be established if your protagonist fails and the conflict resulting from this threat is the rising action. This is where your story tension, drama, poignancy and urgency will be born.
And there’s just no point in mismatching protagonist and antagonist, any more than you’d mismatch your love interest in a romance novel, if you want drama ensuing.
Create your character’s very antithesis, then.
Who’d be the worst antagonist for your protagonist to be faced with? Bring them to life. Which gifts would be the ultimate worst-case scenario for your protagonist to deal with? Give them those gifts. Make it personal and keep it human. This isn’t just about plot mechanics, either: a protagonist-antithesis means your character’s journey will end in real growth and change, that stakes will be heightened.
And a face often grips us more than a secret network, machine or monster. There are exceptions, i.e. Frankenstein’s Monster, or White Walkers, but there’s still a ‘humanness’ in really monstrous beings that makes them more sinister. Cersei Lannister is more ominous than Daenerys’ dragons in A Song of Ice and Fire. Cold Aunt Reed and petulant Blanche Ingram aren’t larger-than-life murderesses à la Cersei, but they’re larger-than-life threats to Jane Eyre and Jane’s hopes for happiness.
Bar a gripping (powerful, threatening) antagonist, there aren’t set rules for rising action, but a good story checklist of things to include could be:
Create your antagonist with care and add psychological ‘meat’ when setting up an opponent or supporting opponents, something for us to discover (their views, value set, etc.), and write in how something about them hinders your protagonist growing, flourishing, getting where they need to be;
Create ‘surprise reveal’ moments with care in your plot structure, sharing new information for characters, and with the result of ennobling or refining protagonist attitudes and goals;
Create a protagonist’s goal or plan and your antagonist’s counter-goal or plan, giving equal care to both, no matter your genre (e.g. Katniss Everdeen plans to survive the Hunger Games whilst the Capitol tries to crush her in various ways);
Create plot setbacks and comebacks, e.g. Jane Eyre’s seemingly found freedom and happiness on her engagement, before being thrust back (by discovering Rochester’s wife);
Create pieces of foreshadowing for readers to pick up on;
And create plot events and actions consistent with your protagonist drive, remembering your original character motivation as you weave it through your drama to keep its heart.
You’ll want to throw in allies, true and false, betrayals or misunderstandings, perhaps red herring threats and veiled or surprise threats. And any subplot characters should be dealing with the same issue or issues as your protagonist, or there’s no point to them (at least in your story terms).
If nothing else – be sure you’re building up your character’s desire for their goals. The stakes should be getting tougher. The choices should be getting harder. These things should be building throughout, so the goal becomes more urgent as plot jeopardy mounts in your story arc.
Remember that everything you map here needs to map back to character revelations, to shifting goals. This too maps up to story climax and to your protagonist’s emotional catharsis (when you’re mapping out ‘falling actions’ later).
Pinpointing your character revelations
Character revelations are key to great plotting, as otherwise it all grows rather mechanical – and plotting and characterisation are such infused, melded, twisted-together processes, after all. There isn’t one without the other.
It’s been said we often do the best we can with the information we have. As such, your protagonist needs ‘surprise reveal’ moments where some new information is shared for their character growth and for plot development to happen. So, as mentioned, rising plot tensions should accommodate ennobled motives and, sometimes, slightly altered goals for a compelling story arc.
Again, Harry Potter has several important revelations over his series and these change his goals and the nature of them. Growing up in Hogwarts, Harry gradually grasps his power to make a difference. He starts teaching Hogwarts students defensive magic. Trying to save Sirius, Harry learns even his best efforts ‘playing the hero’ can lead to tragedy. Harry then works with Dumbledore to become less a moving target than an active fighter, as he learns more about Voldemort’s origins, how to anticipate him as Voldemort anticipated Harry’s efforts to save Sirius.
Such revelations should marry up with key plot points (or plot events).
There aren’t set rules, per se, as to when character revelations should appear, how often and which ones. It’ll all depend on story and your characters. But it’s important to punctuate your plot chart with revelatory moments, building in importance for growing urgency.
Revelations are a story’s heartbeat, meat and blood.
Plotting your story climax or crisis
Plot events can be climactic, but there’ll typically be one major climax or crisis. (There are exceptions.) Choose it, build to it, plot it carefully.
It’s Clarice Starling’s showdown with Buffalo Bill, Jane Eyre’s ghostly summons across the moors back to blinded Rochester. In the simplest terms, Robert McKee defines any story climax, in Story, as ‘absolute and irreversible change’. And in John Bell’s Plot and Structure, story crises are transition points called ‘doorways of no return.’
So a story climax is (structurally) also something that’ll set up for a resolution, for falling action and a new order of things. Bear this in mind, especially if you’re feeling confident enough to create multiple major crises (more of a plot mountain range). And whilst your protagonist may have gone through many other big challenges and changes, this should be irreversible, and there should be some self-revelation tied up here.
Clarice Starling’s self-revelation is one of self-belief. She’s not ready to take on Buffalo Bill, but she does. She beats him. And she learns she could beat him. This question of her aptitude hung on Clarice’s many conversations with Hannibal. The story’s been leading us to this point.
A crisis (as above) is the peak of your story arc, and pinnacle of a protagonist’s self-revelation. And the rest is about winding down, dealing with the emotional aftermath.
Plotting your resolution or new equilibrium
Your protagonist’s world is, very simply, either better or worse now the story climax is over. From this, you’ll plot your resolution as your story arc falls.
Your protagonist has either achieved their goals after their battles and evolution and self-discovery – or not – and so there also needs an emotional catharsis. Your story mustn’t lose heart simply because we’re winding down. Your falling action plays a vital cathartic role for both your characters and your readers.
Clarice Starling, for instance, defeats Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, becomes an FBI agent. She has saved her first victim in Catherine Martin, or ‘lamb’, after the lambs’ cries that have haunted her sleep before now (because Clarice couldn’t help or save them).
Think again of Robert McKee’s ‘absolute and irreversible change’, John Bell’s ‘doorways of no return’. Clarice’s door, if you will, has opened onto a new life and Clarice can’t go back to the lesser life experience she had.
This is the new equilibrium. You’ll create the same for your characters as you wind down. In this instance, Clarice is an agent, and Buffalo Bill is gone. But Hannibal is at large. There is still danger in paradise, and scope for Thomas Harris’ sequel, Hannibal.
In A Game of Thrones, the climax is Eddard Stark’s beheading. And with the demise also of King Robert, the new equilibrium is set for dystopia under King Joffrey Baratheon, with Sansa Stark his hostage, and Arya Stark on the run, as Robb Stark rallies in the north. A Game of Thrones sets the stage for its sequel, A Clash of Kings.
In romantic Jane Eyre, Jane is happily united with Rochester. The new equilibrium is a happy ending, but after the novel’s crisis (her refusal to marry Rivers, hearing Rochester calling on the moors), the build-up to Jane’s new equilibrium, her happy reunion with Rochester, is cathartic because it is written as such. The same is true in Memoirs of a Geisha. Chiyo (now called Sayuri) writes readers a dreamy fairy tale end after her final talk with the Chairman, her emigration to America.
So, when you’re ending your tale, think of the new equilibrium you’re establishing and don’t deprive readers of a cathartic end just because you’re in a hurry now to finish plotting.
We know how hard writing is, but we’re rooting for you.