“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
― Anton Chekhov

Stages of a Traditional Plot

1. A CRISIS OR TURNING POINT sets the plot in motion. This can be a quiet event (a journalist, while photographing bridges in Madison County, Iowa, falls for a local woman).

Or it can be brutal (a curator in the Louvre is murdered).

Whatever the case, it must have a profound effect on the life of the lead character as well as those around him. Thus, the plot begins at the moment of CHANGE.

2. THE LEAD CHARACTER resolves to deal with the issue thrust upon him. This becomes the GOAL, also called STORY LINE or PLOT. He/she must have HIGH STAKES in the outcome. His goal must be so clear that it can be expressed in one DRAMATIC QUESTION.

Will the photographer win the love of the woman?
Will a Harvard professor solve the murder at the Louvre?

The lead character—also called the PROTAGONIST—can be introduced before, during, or after the crisis.

3. OPPOSING FORCES/COMPLICATIONS stand between the protagonist and his goal. Without these forces, the story isn’t worth telling. In DaVinci Code, the professor is also a suspect. In Bridges of Madison County, the woman is married with children. These forces can be financial, bureaucratic, technical, natural, supernatural or internal as well as human. The leader of the opposition—if human—is called the ANTAGONIST. The antagonist doesn’t have to be evil. What’s important is that he is as strong if not stronger than the protagonist.

4. CONFLICT ENSUES, with escalating complications. No sooner does the protagonist overcome one obstacle than he is confronted by another. He seems to be losing the battle, maybe even his/her life. The STAKES escalate. If not, no one cares if he wins or loses.

5. A FINAL SHOWDOWN or CRISIS occurs between protagonist and opposing force(s). In this comes yet another complication. This is often the darkest moment. The CLIMAX occurs at the end of the struggle, when all tension is released.

6. THE DENOUEMENT or RESOLUTION ties up the loose ends. The bad guys are dead and lovers go off into the sunset—or maybe not.

In each stage, the author employs many other techniques to hold the reader’s interest:

1. Tension, high emotion and suspense (the fear that something dreadful will happen).
2. A colorful cast of well-developed characters.
3. An intriguing but flawed protagonist (Scarlett O’Hara, Hannibal Lector, Emma Bovary).
4. A strong sense of time and place. Exotic is always good.
5. A subplot that parallels the main plot.
6. An antagonist that is brutal or evil—or such a good guy that readers like him.
7. An unexpected twist that takes the reader by surprise.
8. Romance—sexual or otherwise.
9. A time bomb (a complication that must be resolved by a certain time).
10. Cliffhangers at the end of each chapter.

Clarifications and Caveats

The above list is a composite drawn from six books by agents, editors and creative writing professors. It is a barebones outline of plot only and should not be confused with other elements of a novel (e.g., setting, point of view, characters).

Although the plot unfolds in stages, with each item leading to the next, none of the above—except possibly the last—exists in pure form. Crisis, struggle, conflict, tension and complications can be present in almost any stage.

Different writers may assign different names to the above items—climax instead of resolution, conflict instead of struggle, complications instead of opposing forces, etc.

Some self-help books on writing, as well as textbooks, begin with protagonist as the first stage, and they may have a list of five to ten stages instead of the six listed here.

The word “crisis” can have different or shaded meanings. In the first item it means turning point or moment of change. In item 5 it means a time of great danger.

Exceptions and Variations

Critics can always point to exceptions. The Dirty Girls Social Club and The Naked and the Dead have multiple protagonists, each narrating his/her own story. Other novels make it difficult to determine the protagonist. Consider The Great Gatsby, in which a character, Nick Carroway, relates the story of Gatsby and the lovely Daisy Buchanan as well as his relationship with them. Is Nick the protagonist, or is it Gatsby? Similar situations exist in Sophie’s Choice and Titanic. In yet other novels, the protagonist doesn’t appear until almost midway into the book. For example, an FBI agent shows up after the locals have bungled the investigation.

Then there is Gone with the Wind, one of the most beloved novels of all time.

1. The incident or crisis occurs at a plantation soiree in which Scarlett O’Hara is stunned to learn that her dream lover, Ashley Wilkes, is betrothed to “that fat cow,” Melanie. Worse, war has been declared, and Ashley is going off to war.

2. Scarlett’s self-esteem is at stake. Her dream is shattered. Her determination to resolve the issue can be expressed in one dramatic question—Will Scarlett win Ashley’s love?

3. No matter how hard she tries, she fails, thanks to all the opposing forces—the war, Melanie, Ashley himself, Scarlett’s family and Rhett Butler.

4. Complications escalate—the Yankees are coming, Melanie is pregnant, Tara is burning, Ashley is missing and may be dead.

5. Then comes a final showdown in which Ashley, back from the war, tells Scarlett he doesn’t love her; he loves Melanie. Alas, Scarlett has lost her struggle.

Most novels end at this point or shortly after, but Gone with the Wind takes a dramatic plot turn. Will Scarlett and her family survive the hardships of war and occupation? This sets off yet another series of complications and struggles. When that issue is resolved—favorably—there is yet another turn: Will Scarlett find happiness with Rhett Butler?

In today’s market, Gone with the Wind would probably have ended with Scarlett’s rejection, followed by a sequel or two. Thus, beginning authors would be well-advised to stick with only one dramatic question.

Outline Your Plot

The stages presented above can be used as a template for your novel. Simply write them down and fill in the details. Better yet, present them to yourself as questions.

1. What is the incident that sets your novel in motion? Two or three sentences should suffice. Be sure to include time and place as well.

2. How does the incident dramatically impact your lead character?

3. What goal grows out of this incident? Express it as a dramatic question.

4. What are the consequences for your character if he fails? Stakes must be high, and must be more than just the likelihood of death.

5. What complications and/or forces stand between your protagonist and his goal? Make a list and a one-sentence description of each.

6. Assuming that most of the above forces are human, what are their motivations and stakes? Every character must be strongly motivated, with something to lose/gain.

7. Most pages of a novel are devoted to (a) the character’s scheming and planning and (b) his confrontations with the opposition. What methods will your character use? What are his strengths? Also, write a sentence for each confrontation.

8. Where will the final confrontation occur and with what or whom? What final complication will he face? This should be the most difficult of all.

9. What is the outcome?

10. What are the loose ends that must be tied up? 

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