Here, you'll learn how to design the plot of a story. You'll also find templates to plan a story plot for a literary novel, a thriller, detective fiction, horror, romance, and more.
Plot is what happens in a story and the order it happens in.
For there to be story, something has to move, to change. Something goes from point A to point B.
This change could be:
This change could even be the realization that nothing will ever change. (Point A = Your character dreams of escaping her small town. Point B = Her dream of escape is shown to be an hopeless.)
What is plot? It's the roadmap that takes your story from point A to point B.
There's a reason why "Happily ever after" comes at the story's end. It means nothing else is happening. Cinderella and her Prince Charming wake up late, eat a nice breakfast, and take a walk. A slow news day. Forever.
It would be different if it were:
Please don't assume I'm some kind of evil fairy-tale witch, wishing ill on the fortunate couple. I don't think there's anything wrong with happiness. There's just no story in it.
For there to be a story, something has to happen. Narrative conflict is what makes it happen, propelling your character from Point A to Point B.
This can be:
Einstein once said, "Nothing happens until something moves." If your characters are getting comfortable too early in the story, it's time to stir things up.
How do you come up with an interesting conflict for your story? It's often a good idea to start with your main character...
Or maybe there's a specific type of conflict you feel inspired to write about, and you're building your story from there. Perhaps you already know that you want to write about divorce or a battle with cancer or child abuse. That's great, but be careful not to skimp on character development.
Remember that the more real you can make your character for readers, the more deeply readers will care what happens to them. We lose sleep worrying over the divorces and illnesses of our friends, not those of strangers.
Okay, so you've invented characters, and you've planned a conflict that will get them off their sofa and doing something interesting. How to organize your story?
Classic plot structure looks like this...
1. Beginning (Act 1): Readers get to know your characters as you set up the story conflict. Often the beginning of a story will show an event, known as the "inciting incident" that disrupts the main character's ordinary world and forces the character to take action. For example, maybe the story opens with your main character, Betty, squabbling with her husband the way she does every night. Their squabble is interrupted by a phone call from an ex-boyfriend Betty still has feelings for. This phone call is an inciting incident that causes Betty to question her marriage.
2. Middle (Act 2): You build up the conflict to a crisis point, where things just can't continue the way they are. A decision has to be made or something has to change. This point is called the story climax. If the story is a roadmap, this is the major fork in the road. The character can turn left and wind up in Alabama with her ex-boyfriend or turn right and end up back in Illinois with her husband and kids.
3. Ending (Act 3): You show, or hint at, the result of the story conflict.
Short stories often begin right before the story climax and end right afterward. Instead of showing the result of the character's journey (e.g., the character returns to Illinois, has a joyful reunion with her husband and kids, and then resumes her old routine), a short story might just hint at where things are headed (e.g., you show the character buying a bus ticket to Illinois and end the story there).
In novels, there's more room for the build-up and resolution.
Story structure is often compared to the shape of an arc because of the way the action builds to a peak.
Not all stories fit this shape exactly, but, generally, there's a sense of a clear line or path that traces the character's journey from Point A to Point B. And what gives the line its shape, what propels the character's journey, is the story conflict.
The story's plot is the sequence of events that take place: what happens.
Its theme is the general ideas that the story explores.
For example, the plot of the Harry Potter novels involves Harry's struggle to save the world from the evil wizard Voldemort (story conflict: Harry versus Voldy).
An important theme of these novels is the power of love.
The plot of Pride and Prejudice shows how the relationship between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy evolves from mutual dislike to love.
Themes of Pride and Prejudice: well, pride and, um, prejudice.
You don't necessarily have to decide your story's theme ahead of time. As you're writing, certain ideas will start to come up again and again, and these will become your theme.
If you want to write novels, you probably also love to READ novels, so you already have an idea of how they're put together. But here's a good exercise. Take several novels similar in genre to the one you want to write, and analyze their structure. For each of the novels, make a list of all of the scenes in that novel.
What you're doing is working backwards, turning those novels into outlines that you can use as examples.
Looking at each outline, pay attention to...
Of course, your novel will be different from anyone else's. But even very different works of literature tend to follow certain common patterns.
You may even find that you can use another story's structure as the basis for your own.
Helen Fielding did this when she wrote her popular novel, THE DIARY OF BRIDGET JONES. As she explains:
"When I first started writing the Bridget Jones novel, I just had a collection of columns, and no plot, really. And simultaneously PRIDE AND PREJUDICE was going out on the BBC, and I was infatuated with it, and so I just stole the plot, and hung my columns on it, and then the book increasingly began to mimic and nick stuff from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. But it’s a very good plot."
Although Fielding used Jane Austen's plot, the main character she imagined and her writing style result in a very different book.
In Henry James's novel THE AMBASSADORS, the main character is sent to Europe to bring back an American expatriate, but his mission is complicated when he falls in love with the lifestyle of the young man he's supposed to bring back.
This exact same plot description also applies to Patricia Highsmith's crime novel, THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY. But the characters and the styles of the novels couldn't be more different.
Not long ago, I was watching Hitchcock's movie REAR WINDOW when I realized that Woody Allen's movie MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY has a very similar plot. Both movies are about couples living in New York City who begin to suspect that a neighbor has committed a murder. In both movies, one partner in the couple is fascinated by this, while the other partner is not... until halfway through the movie, where the second partner becomes interested too, and the shared interest ends up strengthening the relationship.
The styles and specific details of the movies are completely different, but the basic plot is the same.
Many adventure and fantasy novels use a story structure that is sometimes called "Mythic Story Structure" or "The Hero's Journey". J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is an example of a book that follow this structure.
Important: This is just one model of plot structure. You can use it to get ideas, but don't feel like you have to hit all of the plot points.
Typical stages in a Mythic Story Plot
1) The ordinary world. Here, we see the hero in their everyday life before the adventure begins (e.g., Harry is a miserable orphan living with his dreadful relatives).
2) The call to adventure (a.k.a. inciting incident). Something happens that requires the hero to leave his ordinary world (e.g., Harry receives letters from Hogwart's wizarding school).
3) Refusal of the call. Initially, the hero may resist the call to adventure. (In HARRY POTTER, it is not Harry but his uncle who tries to keep Harry from accepting the call to adventure).
4) Meet the mentor. The hero encounters a mentor who provides guidance, wisdom, or a special object or talisman to help on their journey. (e.g., Harry Potter receives a visit from Hagrid, who tells Harry that he's a wizard).
5) Crossing the threshold. The hero commits to the adventure and enters a new, unknown world. (e.g., Harry passes through a magical portal into Diagon Alley, which is part of the wizarding world.)
6) Tests, allies, and enemies. The hero meets allies and enemies and encounters various challenges and tests. (Harry begins adapting to life at the magic school, forming friendships with Ron and Hermione, who become his closest allies. He also encounters school adverseries, including Draco Malfoy and Professor Snape. His courage is tested when he sees Malfoy bullying another student, and later when Hagrid needs help with a dragon. These experiences reveal Harry's talents and strengths, but also get him in trouble for breaking school rules.)
7) Approach to the innermost cave. The hero prepare for their greatest challenge in a hostile location. (Armed with an invisibility cloak and a flute, Harry sneaks into the forbidden third-floor corridor and passes through a trap door to a secret chamber.)
8) The ordeal. This is the story climax, where the hero faces their greatest challenge and experiences death and rebirth in some form. (In the secret chamber, Harry battles Professor Quirrell, who is possessed by Voldemort, then loses consciousness.)
9) The reward. After surviving the ordeal, the hero achieves a great victory and often obtains a significant reward. (Harry wakes up in the hospital to learn that he has successfully stopped the villain from obtaining the philosopher's stone. He is also rewarded with a championship cup for Gryffindor in the school competition.)
10) Return with the elixir. The hero returns home transformed with newfound wisdom. (Harry returns to his horrible relatives, but the situation feels much more tolerable now that he knows he's a wizard and can return to Hogwarts in the fall.)
You can use one of these structures and still have a very original novel. Your characters, your imagination, your writing and perspective will make your novel unique.
You can use the templates below as a starting point to develop your own story plots. Click here for printable versions.
Be sure to join our free email group to get story ideas and tips sent to your inbox. You also might enjoy:
Our 8-week course on character development
Our guide to mystery writing
How to outline a story plot
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