In the last lesson, we covered the basics of plot and how to frame the major dramatic question. Now let’s look at how structure frames the plot (in a good way). The plot is the sequence of events in a story that answers the dramatic question. The structure, or narrative structure, is what keeps the events in good order. Structuring your plot correctly is key to a story that reader’s want to continue.
Think of it this way. Each story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Sounds simple right?
Aristotle’s Poetics and His Discourse on Plot Formation
This model has existed for over 2300 years. Aristotle’s Poetics first analyzed the structure of Greek and epic poetry. (His discourse on comedy has since been lost). A tragedy consists of six parts: plot, character, thought, diction, melody, and spectacle.
Aristotle also put forth that a well-formed plot must have a solid beginning, middle, and an end. There is a central problem that the protagonist must face; the “big dramatic question” if you will. These three sections also have distinct roles in successful storytelling that work to reveal, and answer, the “question.” Doing so leaves a unified plot with (hopefully) no loose ends.
Examining the Plot Structure
Let’s look at each of the three main sections and see what unravels.
The first job of your story is to get the story to start at the right time and place. It also has to accomplish three things. The reader should be dropped into the middle of the action and be provided with the necessary details to get up to speed. It also establishes the basis of the “big dramatic question.”
The exposition at the beginning of your story introduces the theme, settings, characters, and circumstances. You want to feed the reader with enough information to understand what’s going on and why. It’s important to strike the right balance between too much information as the reader does not have to know everything. Too much information slows down the story and can lead to boredom later in the book, but too little will lead to confusion. Feed the reader information on a need-to-know basis. Integrate the information with ongoing activities throughout the rest of your story.
Let’s take the prequel of Karin Slaughter’s The Good Daughter. The novel begins on Thursday, March 16, 1989, as Samantha Quinn rushes down her driveway.
Samantha Quinn felt the stinging of a thousand hornets inside her legs as she ran down the long, forlorn driveway toward the farmhouse. The sound of her sneakers slapping bare earth bongoed along with the rapid thumps of her heart. Sweat had turned her ponytail into a thick rope that whipped at her shoulders. The twigs of delicate bones inside her ankles felt ready to snap.
Now, knowing this is a mystery/thriller, the reader’s first inclination is to think that she is running from someone. It’s intriguing enough to keep the reader moving forward with reading it. It’s not the big question, but the reader is already asking, “why is this girl running so hard?” By the end of the chapter, the reader will wish she had kept running. It opens with a lot of drama.
However, the exposition set the tone for the rest of the book by a) dropping the reader into the middle of the original action and b) providing just enough information to understand the protagonist’s later quest. She shows the night’s events through the main character. This character knows what is happening, but not why. Thus, setting up the central conflict of the story.
Slaughter also starts the story on the night that is the focus of the entire novel. The exposition leads the reader to ask, “Will Charlotte and Samantha find out what really happened twenty-eight years ago and finally be able to heal?” Depending on your point of view, the question could even be: “Who is the good daughter.”
Another example is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The story starts in the middle of a new development for the characters—a new, wealthy Mr. Bingley has moved into the area near the family. Mrs. Bennet is already thinking of marrying off her daughters to him. The reader ends the introduction by getting a sense of the big dramatic question: “Will the slightly cynical and elusive Elizabeth/Lizzie get married?”
If the reader is intrigued (and not too traumatized), they will want to get to the interesting stuff in the middle of the book.
When structuring your plot, the middle of the book has the most work to do. It has to further develop the characters, situations, and get to the heart of the story. It’s where the core action takes place. Where the protagonist’s path towards his or her goal (“What happened?”) is increasingly blocked by conflicts.
In the middle of your book, it is where the conflict increases and increases until it can increase no further and thus reaches its climax. The climax being the turning point that changes the protagonist’s fate.
German novelist and journalist Gustav Freytag wrote out a 5-act dramatic structure that has come to be known as Freytag’s pyramid. The acts include exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement. The rising action, climax, and falling action generally happen in the middle of your story.
Here’s a visualization of Freytag’s Pyramid. I’ve followed it with a helpful breakdown of each segment.
- Exposition. Material usually established at the beginning of your novel that introduces the characters, provides the theme, establishes the setting, and provides early clues of the upcoming conflict.
- Rising Action. An increase in tension or uncertainty developing out of the conflict that the protagonist faces in the novel. The rising action may include multiple subplots that ebb and flow as the story progresses.
- Climax. The moment of the greatest tension, uncertainty, or crisis.
- Falling Action. The conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist finally begins to unravel. This section may contain a moment of final catastrophe that causes an emotional reaction in the audience.
- Denouement or Conclusion. The Ending of your story that reveals what happens to the protagonists after the story’s conclusion. This section is also often the resolution or catastrophe. It’s an event that unties that the complexities of the plot. Some endings are abrupt while more modern works may include denouements that are quite
This model has a perfectly straight up and down example. However, many mystery novels do have more of a zig-zag approach. One clue is introduced and then that subplot is solved. Rinse and repeat. The protagonist may solve 20 mysteries before reaching the climax, in which they solve the big, overarching mystery. This is a great way to keep the reader’s attention. Just make sure that all of the little mysteries are leading to something. This is especially true when you involve a subplot.
A subplot is a secondary, or subordinate plot, in a novel, short story, or play. The length of novels allows for a more complex main plot, containing more twists and turns than a short story would allow. Authors often use subplots to describe the hidden compulsions or desires of the characters.
When structuring your plot, the subplot should run alongside the main plot of the book. It may concern the protagonist, or it may focus on a plot that is not quite related to the main character, but it’s not unrelated to the main plot. Sometimes it may even serve to parallel the main plot.
For example, the potential match between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy is not the only marriage match to be made in Pride and Prejudice. In Romeo and Juliet, the fight between the Capulet and Montague families plays a vital role in the main plot. Without that subplot, Romeo and Juliet would just be too angsty teenagers with supportive families who can’t understand why they just don’t get together.
Your middle shouldn’t contain a jumbled version of events. Every action should happen as a result of your characters, good and bad. Each event should be tightly linked to the event before. This is where the following should occur:
- crisis—the point where the tension hits its maximum;
- climax—where the tension or action breaks;
- consequences—the fallout.
When the tension and the action reach the highest point (the climax) the reader should be surprised, but not too surprised. A good novel will have telegraphed at least some hint earlier in the book, even if it is small. However, red-herrings, or false clues, to purposely read your reader astray are also great for a good crime mystery. You just need to be sure to embed hidden clues in plain sight, slipping them casually without being too obvious.
A famous example of a climax is when Romeo kills himself because he thinks Juliet is dead and Juliet then wakes up and kills herself in response. Everything from the introduction of the story and central conflict (their families) leads up to this pivotal moment.
Another example would be Pride and Prejudice, which is the moment when Elizabeth and Lizzy finally come together and admit their love for each other.
In Slaughter’s novel, the tension and conflict increase as the events occur. One of the sisters returns to town and the climax begins. The internal conflict of our narrators increases as they learn that rather than avoiding the night’s events from thirty years ago, they must work together to figure out what triggered the chain of events that is still impacting their lives.
The ending is where everything comes together. The consequences that occurred are addressed in the conclusion, where the ultimate ramifications of the story are played out. A good ending should answer the reader’s questions, tidy up loose ends, and ease up on the tension.
It’s important that the conclusion is believable and organic. It needs to grow out of the clues that you previously laid out in the middle. You don’t want your reader thinking that the ending came out of the blue or felt tacked on.
In contemporary fiction, the endings are often the shortest part of your book. Just remember that it is also the lasting impression that you will leave your reader with. How many times have you heard something like, “That movie/book was excellent until the ending…what was that all about?!” Make an ending that should feel inevitable but unexpected. However, if the reader goes back and looks at the clues you left behind, it all makes sense.
Most importantly? In the ending your novel, be sure to answer the big dramatic question.
Tying It All Together
Fortunately, you do not have to figure out all of the myriad details before you start writing your book. You may have some firm ideas of where the book is going and may outline a piece before starting. As the author, you also want to have a firm idea of what your “big dramatic question” will be, even if you do not have all of the details.
Start by taking down notes on how your story should be divided. Where does it start, what’s the big climax, and where should it end?
In The Good Sister, for example, the author started with the past traumatic event (that impacted the whole storyline). The climax was the two sisters meeting and discovering the truth (facing the killer). The ending was them coming to terms with their past. It’s a very simplified version of the book, but it’s a start.
If you want to write your thriller, you at least need to have an idea of what will happen before you start typing. If you’re not big on outlines, at least start with some basic ideas.
- What was the main plot (the crime)?
- Who will the hero of the piece? How were they impacted by the event?
- When will the novel start?
- What is the climax? What big events may lead up to it?
- How will the characters be impacted by the climax?
- Do you have an idea of how the novel will end?
- What is the “Big Dramatic Question” of the novel?
Your answers also don’t have to be set in stone. Sit down and start writing out your first draft based on these answers. Just let it all pour out.
The plot is often developed over time and multiple drafts. You may sit down with your first draft and see what’s missing. You may realize that you didn’t give any motivations to the killer or that your main character never really addresses the climax.
Start with the big dramatic question as you start your work and then go re-read your work to ensure that you not only answered it with a yes, no, or maybe, but that you dropped enough clues so that the reader can find them.
There are many conventional, and unconventional, forms of plot structures. Luckily, they all boil down to the basic elements. All include the general demands of a beginning, a middle, and an end.
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