At least since Scheherazade wove 1,001 tales for King Shahryar, readers have fallen under the spell of master story-tellers. Though authors think a lot about how to craft their plots, readers don’t often give much thought to how a plot is built, beyond consuming it. We just love being on the roller coaster ride: What happens next? And next? How will the characters ever get out of that mess? And the next, even harder one? How will things turn out for the characters we come to care for?
What most readers want in plot is a fast-paced but also logical chain of events, including some twists and surprises. At story’s finish, everything should just feel right, as if events led to the place they naturally would. Enjoying and critiquing a plot of this familiar type feels easy and natural.
What happens, though, when a work we are reading doesn’t follow the typical plot conventions? Great literature often does not.
For one thing, some great works were written before plot as we know it was fully developed. Later writers of great fiction may experiment with plot structures or focus more on other elements of fiction like character or narrator perspectives. Some important works may even avoid bringing the plot to a firm finish or resolution, to make a point or for some other artistic purpose.
Such departures from convention may frustrate some readers who don’t expect them, making it hard for some who don’t find a fast-paced plot full of events, their favorite entry into a story. But unexpected or highly artistic uses of plot can be the very element that lifts readers to a more extraordinary aesthetic experience.
If you want the meaning and power of great literature to open up for you, it helps to consider and appreciate how a plot in fiction is built, not just read to find out what happens next.
The best plots don’t just grow; they are carefully built. Knowing the parts of a typical plot can help you see and enjoy when authors structure them well, or poorly, and also notice when they purposely avoid following conventional plot shapes.
First, What is a Plot?
A plot is a series of fictional events arranged in a particular order for the purpose of conveying a story and giving readers a particular aesthetic effect. Especially, plots function to keep readers interested to the end.
Thus, the plot in most works is not just a “story.” A story is nothing more than a series of successive events, but a plot is a curated series of logically interconnected events.
E. M. Forster, the author of A Passage to India and A Room With a View, has famously distinguished between “story” and “plot” this way:
‘The king died and then the queen died,’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief,’ is a plot. . . . Consider the death of the queen. If it is in a story we say ‘and then?’ If it is in a plot we ask ‘why?’
— E. M. Forster
Ronald B. Tobias, writer and writing instructor, reminds us that following a plot does demand something more of readers than just consuming a series of events:
“Story requires only curiosity to know what will happen next. Plot requires the ability to remember what has already happened, to figure out the relationships between events and people, and to try to project the outcome.”1
–Ronald B. Tobias
Plots also demand that we consider how and why events are connected, and how they relate to the goals and psychology of the central character, and often, to the major themes and ideas of the fiction.
Most plots hook their readers through inspiring interest in a central character, a.k.a. the protagonist. Plots begin by inducing readers to ask a central question: Will the protagonist find love, or defeat an enemy (the antagonist), or win fame, or save the maiden, or slay the dragon? The plot holds the reader back from reaching the answer too quickly, mostly by providing obstacles to the protagonist’s goal that continue to ratchet up in intensity or complication.
What Today’s Readers Expect of Plot
In fictional plots today, we have come to expect that everything told about in the story is relevant to the plot, but not too obviously–we don’t want to see the machinery while we’re riding the ride! We also expect that all the incidents will seem probable, not just possible, and all be connected to the plot. As Mark Twain put it in his famous and funny take-down of Cooper’s works in “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses”:
[The rules of literary art] require that the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone. . . .”
We expect that the action will “rise” (become more intense), that the obstacles to the protagonist will be more and more difficult, that eventually a climactic moment will occur after which the story MUST unwind and come to a clear resolution, conveying a definite ending to the plot.
Pyramid-Shaped Plots and Freytag’s Diagram
All of these expectations for plot were neatly diagrammed in the famous Freytag’s pyramid. Click here for one of many diagrams of Freytag’s pyramid you can find online.
Here are the parts readers will find in most Pyramidal Plots:
1. Central protagonist with a goal, desire, or problem. The reader forms a question: will the protagonist reach the goal, attain the desire, or solve the problem?
2. Description of the “normal” situation that is ongoing for the protagonist before the plot begins.
3. Initiating event: something happens to propel the protagonist out of the “normal” situation.
4. Obstacles: A series of events keeping the protagonist from reaching the goal.
5. Climax: The event that proves to be the turning point in the plot, after which the outcome for the protagonist could not be different.
6. Falling action—events that lead inevitably toward the resolution.
7. “Denouement” or resolution: the reader’s initial question about the protagonist is answered as the outcome becomes clear.
Most diagrams showing Freytag’s pyramid depict the climactic turning-point incident exactly in the center of the plot structure, but most fictions today place the climax much later in the narrative, sometimes just a chapter or two before the end.
As Readers, Notice the Pyramid
As reader, you can become aware of the parts of this classic plot shape, and look for them in the particular fiction you are reading. Does the writer follow this plot structure, or vary it somehow? Perhaps there is a series of little climaxes and resolutions, leading finally to an overarching climax after which all troubles are either resolved, or totally succumbed to.
Jane Eyre follows this plot structure. The overarching plot is designed to answer the question “Will Jane successfully define, and then find, love?” This large pyramidal plotline is divided into a series of smaller pyramids covering different times of Jane’s life. Part I answers: Will Jane find love as a child? Part II answers: Will Jane find love with Mr. Rochester? Part III answers: Will Jane find love with St. John? The end of the novel brings a resolution to the overarching question we started with.
Many longer works have one or more sub-plots, that is, parallel tracks of incidents that run alongside the main plot. In the denouement, the subplots usually intersect with the main plot so that all is unified and resolved. Dickens’s Bleak House follows this model. Its main plot is centered on the story of Esther Summerson: Will Esther overcome the emotional abuse in childhood and find love and self-acceptance as an adult?
Beyond that central plot of Bleak House, there are almost too many subplots to count, such as “What will happen to the Man from Shropshire?” and “Will Lady Deadlock’s secret be discovered?” In the end, Dickens twines all the plots together as the characters interact. The subplots all relate thematically as well, since all the characters are adversely affected by the big enemy in the novel, the oppressive and outmoded Court of Chancery.
Plot Should Spring from Character
Thinking about plots as constructed, not just as a series of incidents the author happened to think of, can help you appreciate truly masterly plot structures over those that are clichéd and mediocre. What makes a plot outstanding? It’s not just about surprises and plot twists, although we do like those. Even more, a good plot is about the central character.
Consider whether the plotline seems to spring naturally from the psychology of the protagonist, from her goals, her wounds, her mistaken beliefs, her arsenal of strengths. If the central character of a fiction seems like a cardboard cutout, devised just to undergo a series of sensational events imagined by the author, then the plot is poor, no matter how many clever obstacles, twists, and surprises it contains.
Author K. M. Weiland explains this relationship brilliantly and in detail in her book Creating Character Arcs: The Masterful Author’s Guide to Uniting Story Structure, Plot, and Character Development. In the first chapter of her excellent book of instruction for authors, she writes this observation:
“Too often, character and plot are viewed as separate entities—to the point that we often pit them against each other, trying to determine which is more important. But nothing could be further from the truth. Plot and character are integral to one another. Remove either one from the equation (or even just try to approach them as if they were independent of one another), and you risk creating a story that may have awesome parts, but which will not be an awesome whole.”2 — K. M. Weiland
Many, many works follow a pyramidal plot shape, especially popular fiction and Hollywood movies. They do it for one reason: it works. This plot shape feels comfortable to us now, and if decently done, will reliably hold readers.
However, there are quite a few great works that are not built this way. Don’t be thrown if a classic work doesn’t have the type of plot you expect; instead, prepare to enjoy a different kind of story-telling.
Episodic fiction is a very old way of telling stories and is still used today. Instead of a series of events connected through cause and effect that build to a single climax, Episodic Plots recount a series of events that may not seem logically connected, but that occur to the same memorable central character, or that may be joined together by one central theme. A knight, for example, could begin a journey and encounter a series of almost-random adventures. In one episode he slays a two-headed monster, in another he fights a dragon, in another he matches wits with a wizard, and at last fights an evil knight to free a maiden, and so on.
You may have heard of Picaresque fiction, which describes the miscellaneous adventures of a roguish but lovable or admirable central character. Picaresques are episodic. Daniel Defoe’s famous novel Moll Flanders is based loosely on the picaresque, which was especially popular in Defoe’s time.
Cervantes’ even more famous novel Don Quixote provides another example of episodic plot structure, which is not surprising since this novel is a parody of romantic tales of knights and their quests, themselves structured as episodic plots. Much more recent examples are Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, a series of tales based on the central theme of people settling on Mars, and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, a series of episodes about different people who play a role in the American music industry over several decades from the 1980s into the near future.
In a lot of famous artistic fiction, especially short stories, there are very few events at all; the drama occurs mostly inside the mind and heart of a protagonist, who undergoes a total change of mind or belief by the end of the story. Sometimes just a single experience can lead to a revelation for a character.
James Joyce was the first to use the term “epiphany” to describe the revelation experienced by his central characters, borrowing the term from the Christian feast of Epiphany when the Christ child was revealed to the three Wise Men. The stories in his famous collection Dubliners for the most part follow the “epiphany plot” model.
In an Epiphany Plot, the protagonist begins the story with one belief about life, self, or the world, and ends it with a very different one. For instance, in Joyce’s “Araby,” the lonely romantic twelve-year-old boy, envisions his simple crush on the girl next door as a highly romantic knightly tribute to courtly Love. He feels ennobled beyond the ordinary life he lives in a poor district of Dublin, inspired to make some respectful tribute to his love object. But his thwarted effort to buy the girl a gift at the Araby bazaar, which turns out tawdry rather than romantic, ends in the boy’s intense self-disgust at being tricked into thinking “Love” was a worthy motive for his obsession.
Works that Defy Traditional Plot Structure
So far we’ve discussed several types of plot, the popular Pyramidal structure, the Episodic plot, the Picaresque, and the Epiphany plot. Now it’s time to observe that many truly great works of fiction we cherish as classic don’t follow any of these plot shapes at all. Some may push and pull against traditional plot form to create new kinds of art; some may continually stray from their plots entirely in order to focus on some other element of fiction.
Joyce’s Ulysses, for example, possibly the most famous novel ever written in English, is vaguely episodic. It recounts a series of incidents that happen to the two main characters in the course of a single day. However, Ulysses is structured more like a piece of music than as a series of episodes. The pacing and emotional tone rise and fall as different incidents occur, playing out for the readers the emotional quality, the actual feel, of living moment by moment. The book swells and sinks like a symphony, coming to the climax only in the very last chapter (almost literally with Molly’s yes yes yes!), just as a symphony saves its biggest moments for last.
Earlier, I stressed that good plots spring from the goals of a single central protagonist, but there are some memorable fictions that don’t follow that rule at all. In Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” for instance, the whole village becomes the central character, as the narrator gives readers a birds-eye view of the strange goings-on of all the inhabitants living in a small village on that particular June day.
Likewise, Gabriel Garcia Márquez makes an entire town the protagonist of many of his fictions. Thus, his works don’t focus on the psychology and development of one character, but rather on the culture and beliefs of a whole group of people. The short story “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” and the novel 100 Years of Solitude follow this method.
Some novels are too big to contain a single plot. Tolstoy’s War and Peace, for instance, tells the story of many characters who were affected by the Napoleonic invasion of Russia. Individual plot lines roll out and then suspend themselves as the narrator sweeps to yet a different scene of action, then returns many chapters later to take up the thread of a dropped character’s narrative.
Melville’s Moby Dick is another novel that does indeed contain one central plot, but also includes so much other material that doesn’t bear on the plot directly, or at all. This compendium of tall tale, friendship story, travelogue, tongue-in-cheek fake science, tribute to the bravery of whalers, and stunning romantic tragedy based on Ahab’s quest to destroy the white whale is ultimately a huge meditation on the meaning of life and the possibility of gaining and communicating real knowledge.
Readers have to approach this type of novel just as they would listen to an interesting friend when out to lunch or having a few beers at the bar. Just let him talk about whatever comes to mind, knowing that the thoughts of a friend like Herman Melville will be golden.
Some Great Fictions Don’t Have Plots
Occasionally a great work of fiction never lets the plot get started at all. In Virginia Woolf’s lovely short story “Kew Gardens,” the central character is really the garden itself, which as a non-human object, can’t really have a goal or a plot line. Instead, the garden witnesses a series of humans drifting in and out of the beautiful scene. As a whole, the story makes the point that while humans are attempting to fashion their own stories using ineffable and ineffective words, it is wordless nature that is truly solid and enduring.
In the famous eighteenth century novel Tristram Shandy, the central character sets out to tell the story of his life, but by the end of the novel, he has gotten only as far as the year he was four! The narrator keeps getting diverted by random charming thoughts or just by silliness. Mostly he claims that to explain himself, he must explain what his family was like before he was born, so the bulk of the book recounts various humorous incidents about his father and his uncle that occurred before he was born. These incidents provide the real center, humor, and humane warmth of the tale.
To read and enjoy a work like this, readers must be captivated by something other than plotline—they must notice and enjoy the charm, the humor, the thoughtful ideas they gain from spending time with author Laurence Sterne.
Final Advice for Appreciating Plot in Great Fiction
1. Readers love a good Pyramid Plot, and there’s nothing wrong with that. So, on the first read, go ahead and succumb—enjoy the roller coaster ride! However, upon looking back at story’s end, take a moment to analyze how artistically the plot is structured. Especially note how well the plotline integrates with other elements of the fiction, such as the central character’s goals and development, or the author’s themes.
2. Notice whether the story you are reading has a different plot type from the pyramidal, whether episodic, picaresque, epiphany, or some other shape, and alter expectations accordingly. Enjoy each type of fiction for its unique qualities, rather than expecting every fiction to serve up a series of intensifying events at breakneck pace.
3. Recall that some great works of fiction don’t feature plot as their central element. Most fictions do have interesting plots, but they may also be jam-packed with many other fictional elements to be read, enjoyed, and pondered on their own terms.
Plot is a wonderful, enjoyable element of fiction, but to read for plot alone is to miss the most remarkable aspect of great literature: spending time with the great mind of a wonderful writer. Relax and settle in with a good book, don’t just race through. Then you may gain a new way to look at the world, not just enjoy a good yarn.
How to Read Fiction Series
1Tobias, Ronald B. 20 Master Plots: And How to Build Them. F+W Media, Inc.: 2012. p. 14.
2Weiland, K.M. Creating Character Arcs: The Masterful Author’s Guide to Uniting Story Structure, Plot, and Character Development (Helping Writers Become Authors Book 7). PenForASword Publishing: 2016. pp. 15-16 .
ames Joyce by Alex Ehrenzweig, 1915, cropped.[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Herman Melville By Joseph O. Eaton and an unknown etcher (Library of Congress) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.