Plots
and Story Structures

Here's a collection of story structures and plots to help develop your story:

Seven-element story structure

Based on Algis Budrys' Writing to the Point and others.

Here's the classic story structure. Note that the character goes through repeated attempts to solve or understand the problem, failing between each attempt (and learning something new), raising the stakes, and trying again with the new information:

  1. A character
  2. In a context
  3. Encounters or has a problem
  4. And tries to solve the problem
  5. But fails, then learns something new
    1. So tries and fails with greater stakes, and finally
    2. Tries and fails again, the stakes escalating with each attempt. After each failure, the character learns something new and applies this knowledge. This is the try-fail cycle, and a story is most satisfying with three.
      (In the idiot plot, the characters don't learn, or the failures arise from behaving foolishly.)
  6. Until reaching the climax, when things are as bad as they can possibly be, which leads to
  7. Success, or failure, or death: The best resolution and denouement uses outside validation: "Yep, Jim, he's dead," or "You've saved the world! Kisses and medals for everyone!"

Anatomy of a short story

A simplified way to look at story structure, by James Gunn:

  • Situation: "interesting character in difficulties."
  • Complication: The situation moves the protagonist to action; efforts to resolve the situation create rising action.
  • Climax: Point of greatest drama and emotional interest for reader. Also called "crisis," because pressures of the situation must be resolved: Do or die time!
  • Resolution: Problem solved! Or failure, or success that means failure in another way.
  • Anticlimax or denouement: Everything that comes after. Keep as short as possible.

We read fiction because the world around us doesn't make sense, so we expect fiction to make sense of things. If you change the natural story order that readers expect, it's a risk. Is it worth it? (Why did Memento do the story in reverse? Did it work for you?)

We are annoyed when things go too smoothly for the characters! Whenever the character acts:

  • Add conflict!
  • This might come from inside (doing something is a challenge for her: doesn't fit system of beliefs, or she doesn't understand the nature of the problem).
  • From outside (the previous action might raise conflict from other characters, or an outside force reacts against the action).
  • Ways to build your story:
  • Whenever possible, make things worse.
  • Don't make the solutions simple.
  • Make it clear that the bad things in the story have happened before and will again if the characters don't learn or change: Horror does this a lot, mysteries, and so forth. The movie Alien wouldn't be nearly as scary if the characters hadn't discovered the derelict ship; or later, if the monster weren't born.
  • A character who suffers is one we care about; one who inflicts suffering becomes a villain.
  • Complicate the problem when the character thinks she's solved something.
  • Make that solution present new problems.
  • Put the characters in jeopardy (anticipated pain or loss).
  • Consider using romantic tension.
  • Signs and portents (especially in horror and fantasy).

Shapes of stories

The W-plot is a very useful way to think about story structure visually. It's anchored by five turning points that make up each of the points of a W (see image to the right).

A series of events connects each dramatic moment or turning point in the story to the next point, and each segment (which doesn't need to be straight, of course) of the W represents a different phase in the story. You can imagine that a whole lifetime comes before the initial Trigger Event, but don't waste your reader's time with that.

Open at the main character's (MC) moment of crisis (the Initial Trigger Event), the defining moment in a person's life after which nothing will ever be the same. The problem the MC encounters can be external (danger!) or internal (personal issues, dissatisfaction in life, deciding to make a change or achieve a goal, or so forth).

Act or Scene 1 (or the first arm of the W) is all about things getting worse as the problem manifests or as the MC attempts to change their life, getting Campbell's "Call to Adventure / Refusing the Call / Finding the Mentor" (from Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey), and otherwise falling into a pit of worsening trouble, because they're not yet equipped to deal with it...

...until the 1st Turning Point. That's when the MC learns something, tackles a smaller problem or aspect of the bigger one, achieve a milestone on the road to happiness, or otherwise actively tries to solve their issue and either return to the happy state before the story started or move toward achieving the goal they were aiming for at the beginning of the story.

Act or Scene 2 is when the character recovers from the initial problem, crosses Campbell's "First Threshold," passes tests along the way, and prepares for encountering their greatest fears and the most dangerous antagonists they've ever faced at...

...the 2nd Triggering Event (middle of the W). This is the end of Act 2 in a longer work or Scene 2 in a short story, the point of no return. This is the moment when the MC discovers they haven't yet solved the problem, or trying to do so raised a new one, or discovers a bigger underlying issue, or so forth - many writing teachers call this the "rug-pull," when everything goes wrong at once...

...and the MC falls into a new, worse situation: Act or Scene 3. Here's when they either need to succeed or die trying.

The 2nd Turning Point is when the MC finally learns what they need in order to succeed, or survive, or defeat their demons, or so forth - or when they don't!

Act or Scene 4 can be the path to ultimate success, or a further decline if the MC doesn't get or learn what they need before facing the Final Confrontation, and the Climax and Resolution doesn't have to appear higher than the Initial Trigger Event if things go wrong!

For a more-realistic, less-literal-W, set of visualizations, see "Vonnegut Explains Drama."

Basic plot structures

Based on Robert Heinlein:

  1. Boy Meets Girl / Girl Meets Boy / Boy Meets Boy / Multiform Meets Girl / etc.
    A Romance: meets, loses, seeks, finds but has to work for it, finds love or doesn't.
  2. The Clever Tailor.
    Based on the fairy tale: an individual triumphs over enormous odds through cleverness.
    Similar: "Rags to Riches."
  3. The Person Who Learned Better.
    Includes coming-of-age and personal growth stories; based on epiphany, seeing through the veil into that which was previously hidden. Often centered around an over-arching metaphor that reveals the "whatness of things."

Nancy Kress:

  • Sacrifice
  • Rise and Fall
  • Transformation
  • Revenge
  • Chase
  • Quest
  • Romance
  • Competition

More:

  1. Secret Princess (think Cinderella and Jupiter Ascending)
  2. The Idiot Plot. One not to use! We quickly grow impatient with fools. Events unravel because the character is foolish or unobservant.

"The big subjects"

Dorianne Laux and Kim Addonizio

  • Family: inspiration and obstacle
  • Death and grief
  • The erotic
  • The shadow
  • Witnessing/observing
  • Place

MICE

For a fuller discussion of Orson Scott Card's "The MICE Quotient," see this page.

  • Milieu : situation, place-time, world. It's all about the world - planet, society, environment, etc. (Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity; much fantasy). In this kind of story, drop us directly into the world.
  • Idea : concept, question, theory. It's all about the idea - start by raising a question, end with answer (mystery).
    • Why did this beautiful and ancient civilization disappear? In Arthur C. Clarke's "The Star," it's because their sun went nova.
    • What's this monolith on the Moon and who buried it? ("The Sentinel.")
  • Character : person. All about a character's transformation, coming of age, coming to terms, learning better. Really, all stories are character stories, but as opposed to an idea story where too much character development gets in the way of the story, this type requires deep, comprehensive, and believable characters more than other types.
    • Begins at moment protagonist encounters Gunn's "complication"; something drives her to find a way to become happy again, whole, without pain, free… whatever is causing her pain drives her to action.
    • Begin as close to moment of change as possible. In a character story, we quickly grow tired of a character who seems unable or unwilling to change.
    • Plot of this type often arises from character's resistance to change.
  • Event : action, plot. Something is wrong in the world and must be corrected or understood.
    • A monster is terrifying the populace!
    • The prince is visited by his dead father, the king!
    • A boy is born into the role of the Kwisach Haderach!
    • A powerful and ancient enemy has reappeared at the time when the Ring of Power has been recovered!
    • Starts at the moment of change or difference. Protagonist is pulled into the story: Frodo discovers that Bilbo's ring is the key to overthrowing Sauron, but by fulfilling his destiny he will end up diminishing the magical peoples of Middle Earth.

Any of these can be the center of your story.

Conflicts

Aristotle:

  1. Individual against individual
  2. Individual against nature
  3. Individual against him- or herself
  4. Individual against society
  5. Individual against the gods
  6. Individual against machine

June and William Noble:

  • Vengeance
  • Betrayal
  • Catastrophe
  • Love and hate
  • The chase
  • Grief and loss
  • Rebellion
  • Persecution
  • Self-sacrifice
  • Survival
  • Rivalry
  • Discovery/Quest
  • Ambition

Story types

Damon Knight:

  1. The story of resolution (the hero has a problem and solves it)
  2. The story of revelation (something hidden is revealed: "The Lottery")
  3. The trick ending story (surprising twist)
  4. The story of decision (ends in a decision, not necessarily action "Cold Equation")
  5. The story of explanation (explains a mystery)
  6. The story of solution (solves a puzzle)

Jerome Stern

  • Trauma (starts with a crisis)
  • Specimen (centers on an unusual person)
  • Gathering
  • A Day in the Life
  • Onion (layers within layers)
  • Journey
  • Visitation (a stranger comes to town)
  • Aha! (reader's surprise)
  • Bear at the door (outside threat)
  • Blue Moon (unusual event changes everything)

Science Fiction story types

James Gunn:

  1. Far traveling
  2. The wonders of science
  3. Humanity/the individual and the machine
  4. Progress
  5. The individual and society
  6. Humanity/the individual and the future
  7. War
  8. Cataclysm
  9. Humanity/the individual and the environment
  10. Superpowers
  11. Superman/superwoman
  12. Humanity/the individual and the alien
  13. Humanity/the individual and religion/spirituality
  14. Miscellaneous glimpses of the future and past

Fantasy story types

Kij Johnson:

  1. Far traveling
  2. The quest
  3. Strange powers
  4. People and the powerful/omnipotent other
  5. People and/or animals
  6. People and magic (or other unscientific sciences)
  7. The individual and society
  8. Wonders we can touch
  9. The power of one
  10. Good vs. evil
  11. Balance
  12. Questioning reality

Stay tuned - this page will continue to grow. 

Updated 6/5/2016

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