Basic Plot Structure 101

I’ve been obsessing over plot structure recently. And, I’ve made some discoveries and had some major “aha!” moments. So perhaps you can take a shorter route there, I’ve decided to try and share with you what I’ve learned about basic story structure.

Plot Structure

So, first we start with our lovely diagram (yes, I drew it myself). You can see the basic plot arc that looks basically like a really lame mountain range. This is basic 3 Act Structure. But, seeing as how I’ve always been annoyed that the 3 Acts ends up Act 1, Act 2 part 1, Act 2 part 2, and Act 3, I prefer the four parts, as used by Mr. Brooks (more on him later).

Part 1: The Set-up. This is where your characters and ordinary world are introduced, and lasts roughly the first 1/4 of your book. You start off with a Hook, which may be accompanied, or followed by the Initial Incident, that is, the first event in the book that is a big deal for your protagonist. It will be dramatic (sometimes called “The Call,”) and much of the first part is the Argument phase as your protagonist decides how to respond to the initial incident that has changed his world. This is not to be confused with the First Plot Point, sometimes known as the End of the Beginning, which ends Part 1. The First Plot Point changes the hero’s world profoundly, such that s/he is thrust into “The New World” phase of Part 2, and defines the conflict that will carry the rest of the book.

Part 2: The Response. This is where you show your protagonist encountering the New World and how they respond to the challenges presented by the First Plot Point and the conflict of the book (often in the form of challenges raised by the antagonist). The protagonist now has a quest and conflict, but he doesn’t know where to go or what to do. S/he will usually react in the same ways they always have – they haven’t experienced profound change yet. This section ends at the Midpoint, which can either be a false victory or a low point. The Midpoint provides information that profoundly changes the protagonist and the understanding of hero and reader.

Part 3: The Attack. No longer wandering lost, the protagonist now actively pursues the antagonist and searches out ways to defeat challenges, warrior-like. S/he also understands that they need to change to succeed. The Antagonist, however, gets increasingly stronger, providing more challenges. This act ends after the Crisis or the Second Plot Point, which provides all the information the protagonist needs for the climax, and is often the lowest point for the protagonist (The All is Lost / Whiff of Death). The terms of the climactic final battle are usually clear by this point.

Part 4: Resolution. Action increases and speeds up as the protagonist and your reader are hurtled along towards the inevitable climax. The protagonist accepts that s/he may not succeed, but is willing to fight to the last against the antagonist, or sacrifice themselves to the cause if necessary and to achieve their goal. The climax hits, and the protagonist battles an often losing battle, until he takes hold of all that he’s learned (over the course of the book) and hopefully the solution to achieving his/her goals. After the smoke clears from the battle, there is some indication of the new state of the world post-climax, providing understanding and closure for the protagonist and reader.

So, totally and completely clear, right? 😉

Don’t worry. That’s why I’m providing you with some books to go and learn more. They’re not paying me anything to recommend their books, I swear. But these three books are where I’ve learned a huge amount about plotting, and which I highly recommend. In no particular order:

The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master. By Martha Alderson. (2011).

I like this book for clearly explaining and going over the general structure, and specifically each “Energy Marker,” as she refers to the main plot points.

Story Physics: Harnessing the Underlying Forces of Storytelling. By Larry Brooks. (2013).

He also has “Story Engineering,” but I haven’t read that one, so can’t recommend it. This one I like for the explanation of some of the other elements of plot, and while I don’t find his plot structure arc the prettiest, it does have a few helpful other points I hadn’t considered before. He also uses examples from other books to help illustrate how plot works – especially when and why it works really well.

The Story Template. By Amy Deardon. (2011).

I love lists and clear charts, and this book has lot. It goes through with free-writing exercises to understand and plot your own work, but (especially in re-write phase), I found the Comprehensive Template Cheat Sheet of Chapter 9 awesome. Here she breaks down in list-form all aspects of the plot – including how layers work together – and gives you a check-list either for when you’re plotting (or as I was, restructuring) a novel.

So, are you a plot structure expert? What did you find the hardest element to master? What tips about structure do you have for other writers out there? Any books or resources you’d recommend?

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