When you sit down to write, it might be tempting to leave plot behind and find your way aesthetically. But ignore plot at your peril. It’s best to at least be aware of the basics of plot structure, so you know what you are ignoring or subverting.

Consider the classic story arc.

Often phrased differently or expanded on, it points to the same classic pattern.

  • Establish Protagonist

Introduce the protagonist in their ordinary world, and establish the setting. Something is not quite right, something is off-balance in the character’s ordinary world.

  • Inciting Incident

A key event that shakes the character’s world and thrusts them into the main action of the story. The protagonist might receive a real or metaphorical ‘call to action’.

  • Rising Action

The protagonist is no longer passive and letting things happen to them, they become an active agent in pursuit of their goal. They are met with realistic and relevant obstacles and antagonistic forces. At some point, which may be around the middle, the protagonist realises they have gone too far and there is no going back. They undergo strong internal conflict and an inner journey.

  • Climax

The action build to an anticipated climax, where it will become clear whether the protagonist achieved their goal or not. They might die trying.

  • Resolution

A new ‘ordinary world’ is established. It is very different from the first, and it has been changed by the story. If the protagonist survives, it is clear they have been transformed by the journey.


Let’s try to map this very briefly with the story of Macbeth.

  • Establish Protagonist

We meet Macbeth, he is established as a general in the army under the Scottish King, Duncan.

  • Inciting IncidentImage result for macbeth

Macbeth meets three witches. They prophesise that Macbeth will become King of Scotland. This triggers the main action of the story.

  • Rising Action

With the aid of Lady Macbeth, Macbeth kills King Duncan. He becomes blood-thirsty and tries to kill his friend Banquo’s sons, whom the witches also prophesised would become kings. He visits the witches again, who warn him of Macduff. With yet more murder and growing madness, Macbeth realises he has gone too far to turn back. “I am in blood stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.”

  • Climax

Macbeth meets Macduff on the battlefield in a classic showdown. Macbeth is killed.

  • Resolution

Malcolm, the new king of Scotland, is crowned and he declares his good intentions and desire for peace after all the bloodshed.

If you’re struggling to form a plot, you could use this classic hero’s journey as your base-line, and then graft your own ideas and reshape the structure. Many great books have very simple plots. And some give the illusion that ‘nothing happens’. Something happens, and if nothing happens you can be sure the protagonist has gone on a journey and undergone substantial inner change. Perhaps a complete change of values and perspective.

What’s stopping your character from getting what they want?

Bad things that happen to your character can’t be random. They need to be relevant obstacles preventing your protagonist from achieving their goal. What’s the worst thing that could happen to them at the worst moment, within the structure of the story? Perhaps go with that. Introduce struggle and conflict, and the result will be heightened drama.

Why do I need conflict?Image result for sword fight

You need worthy adversaries and relevant obstacles. You will struggle to write a good novel if you have a main character wandering around stuck in a vague melancholic haze, not knowing what they want and remaining passive. Or rendered passive by the burden of their existence and the complexity of the world. This rarely gives the reader insights into the character. Difficult situations reveal character. Stephen King notably suggested simply putting your character in a difficult situation and seeing how it plays out. The conflict of your story can be mostly internal, or very subtle – you don’t have to include the bloodshed of Macbeth – people can be extremely violent to each other without becoming physical.

Within the conflict there also needs to be something to lose. You’ve probably heard this piece of advice before: raise the stakes. What is at risk? It may be life or death, or it may be anything that is held to be extremely important for the character that they cannot bear to lose it.

Is there a formula?

Plot doesn’t mean formula. Nor does it mean bowing to established conventions. You must know the form well in order to deviate from it or subvert it. Writers benefit from familiarising themselves with story arc and the form of the novel. But it’s not something that should overwhelm or become a priority. It certainly shouldn’t induce anxiety to the point where a writer feels they must have some sort of checklist for each chapter and for the whole book. These elements are for you to integrate; a writer’s unique inspiration, skill and emotional investment are what make a novel.

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