Plot (narrative)

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Plot and Story. Plot is the cause‐and‐effect sequence of events in a story.[1]

Plot refers to the sequence of events inside a story which affect other events through the principle of cause and effect. The causal events of a plot can be thought of as a series of sentences linked by "and so." Plots can vary from simple structures such as in a traditional ballad to complex interwoven structures sometimes referred to as an imbroglio. The term plot can serve as a verb and refer to a character planning future actions in the story.

In the narrative sense, the term highlights the important points which have important consequences within the story, according to Ansen Dibell.[1] The term is similar in meaning to the term storyline.[2][3]


English novelist E. M. Forster described plot as the cause-and-effect relationship between events in a story. According to Forster, The king died, and then the queen died, is a story, while The king died, and then the queen died of grief, is a plot."[4][5][6] Consider the following:

  1. The prince searches for Cinderella with the glass shoe
  2. Cinderella's sisters tried the shoe on but it does not fit
  3. The shoe fits Cinderella's foot so the prince finds her

The first event is causally related to the third event, while the second event, while descriptive, does not directly impact the outcome. As a result, according to Dibell, the plot can be described numerically as 1⇢3 while the story can be described as 1⇢2⇢3. A story orders events from beginning to end in a time sequence.[1] Teri Shaffer Yamada agrees that a plot does not include memorable scenes within a story which do not relate directly to other events but only "major events that move the action in a narrative."[7] For example, in the 1997 film Titanic, when Rose climbs on the railing at the front of the ship and spreads her hands as if she's flying, this scene is memorable but does not directly influence other events, so it may not be considered as part of the plot. Another example of a memorable scene which is not part of the plot occurs in the 1980 film The Empire Strikes Back, when Han Solo is frozen in carbonite.[1] Steve Alcorn, a fiction-writing coach, said the main plot elements of The Wizard of Oz could be summarized as follows:[8]

A tornado picks up a house and drops it on a witch, a little girl meets some interesting traveling companions, a wizard sends them on a mission, and they melt a witch with a bucket of water.[8]

Fabula and Syuzhet[edit]

The literary theory of Russian Formalism in the early 20th century divided a narrative into two elements: the fabula and the syuzhet. A fabula is the events in the fictional world, whereas a syuzhet is a perspective of those events. Formalist followers eventually translated the fabula/syuzhet to the concept of story/plot. This definition is usually used in narratology, in parallel with Forster's definition. The fabula (story) is what happened in chronological order. In contrast, the syuzhet (plot) means a unique sequence of discourse that was sorted out by the (implied) author. That is, the syuzhet can consist of picking up the fabula events in non-chronological order; e.g., fabula is <a1, a2, a3, a4, a5, …, an>, syuzhet is <a5, a1, a3>.[5][12]

Plot structure[edit]

The Greek philosopher Aristotle, writing in the fourth century BCE in his classic book The Poetics, considered plot or mythos as the most important element of drama, even more important than character. Aristotle wrote that a tragedy, a type of plot, could be divided into three parts: a beginning, where the plot is set up; a middle, where the plot reaches its climax; and an end, where the plot is resolved. He also believed that the events of the plot must causally relate to one another as being either necessary or probable. Of the utmost importance is the plot's ability to arouse emotion in the psyche of the audience, he thought.

Today screenwriters generally combine plot with plot structure into what is called a treatment, sometimes referred to as the three-act structure[11] in which a film is divided into three acts: the set-up, the confrontation and the resolution. Acts are connected by two plot points or turning points, with the first turning point connecting Act I to Act II, and the second connecting Act II to Act III. The conception of the three-act structure has been attributed to American screenwriter Syd Field who described plot structure in this tripartite way for film analysis.[13][14]

Freytag on plot[edit]

Freytag's pyramid
Main article: Dramatic structure

In 1863, Gustav Freytag, a German writer, advocated a model based upon Aristotle's theory of tragedy. This is now called "Freytag's pyramid," which divides a drama into five parts, and provides function to each part. These parts are: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement.


The first phase in Freytag's pyramid is the exposition. The exposition introduces the main characters of the story, especially the main character, also known as the protagonist. It shows how the characters relate to one another, their goals and motivations, as well as their moral character. During the exposition, the protagonist learns their main goal and what is at stake.2255


Freytag’s definition of conflict must not be confused with Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch's definition of conflict. Quiller-Couch uses the term to categorize plots into types (e.g., man vs. society). The main difference is that according to Quiller-Couch's mode of analysis, an entire story can be discussed in terms of its conflict. Freytag's definition of conflict refers to the second act in a five-act play, a point of time in which all of the major characters have been introduced, their motives and allegiances have been made clear, and they have begun to struggle against one another.

Rising action[edit]

Rising action is the second phase in Freytag's five-phase structure. It starts with a conflict, for example, the death of a character. The inciting incident is the point of the plot that begins the conflict. It is the event that catalyzes the protagonist to go into motion and to take action. Rising action involves the buildup of events until the climax.

In this phase, the protagonist understands his or her goal and begins to work toward it. Smaller problems thwart their initial success and their progress is directed primarily against these secondary obstacles. This phase demonstrates how the protagonist overcomes these obstacles.


The climax is the turning point or highest point of the story. The protagonist makes the single big decision that defines not only the outcome of the story, but also who they are as a person. Freytag defines the climax as the third of the five dramatic phases which occupies the middle of the story.

At the beginning of this phase, the protagonist finally clears away the preliminary barriers and engages with the adversary. Usually, both the protagonist and the antagonist have a plan to win against the other as they enter this phase. For the first time, the audience sees the pair going against one another in direct or nearly direct conflict.

This struggle usually results in neither character completely winning nor losing. In most cases, each character's plan is both partially successful and partially foiled by their adversary. The central struggle between the two characters is unique in that the protagonist makes a decision which shows their moral quality, and ultimately decides their fate. In a tragedy, the protagonist here makes a poor decision or a miscalculation that demonstrates their tragic flaw.

Falling action[edit]

According to Freytag, the falling action phase consists of events that lead to the ending. Character's actions resolve the problem. In the beginning of this phase, the antagonist often has the upper hand. The protagonist has never been further from accomplishing their goal. The outcome depends on which side the protagonist has put themselves on.


In this phase the protagonist and antagonist have solved their problems and either the protagonist or antagonist wins the conflict. The conflict officially ends. Some stories shows what happens to the characters after the conflict ends and, or they show what happens to the characters to the future.

Plot devices[edit]

Main article: Plot device

A plot device is a means of advancing the plot in a story. It is often used to motivate characters, create urgency, or resolve a difficulty. This can be contrasted with moving a story forward with dramatic technique; that is, by making things happen because characters take action for well-developed reasons. An example of a plot device would be when the cavalry shows up at the last moment and saves the day in a battle. In contrast, an adversarial character who has been struggling with himself saves the day due to a change of heart would be considered dramatic technique.

Familiar types of plot devices include the deus ex machina, the MacGuffin, the red herring, and Chekhov's gun.

Plot outline[edit]

A plot outline is a prose telling of a story which can be turned into a screenplay. Sometimes it is called a "one page" because of its length. It is generally longer and more detailed than a standard synopsis, which is usually only one or two paragraphs, but shorter and less detailed than a treatment or a step outline. In comics, a pencil, often pluralized as pencils, refers to a stage in the development where the story has been broken down very loosely in a style similar to storyboarding in film development. The pencils will be a rough sketch. The main goals of pencils are:

  • to lay out the flow of panels across a page
  • to ensure the story successfully builds suspense
  • to work out points of view, camera angles, and character positions within panels

In fiction writing, a plot outline is a laundry list of scenes with each line being a separate plot point, and the outline helps give a story a "solid backbone and structure," according to writer Jenna Blum.[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Ansen Dibell, Ph.D. (1999-07-15). Plot. Elements of Fiction Writing. Writer's Digest Books. pp. 5 f. ISBN 978-0-89879-946-0. Plot is built of significant events in a given story – significant because they have important consequences. Taking a shower isn't necessarily plot... Let's call them incidents ... Plot is the things characters do, feel, think or say, that make a difference to what comes afterward. 
  2. ^ Random House Dictionary. "plot."
  3. ^ Oxford Dictionaries. "storyline."
  4. ^ Prince, Gerald (2003-12-01). A Dictionary of Narratology (Revised ed.). University of Nebraska Press. p. 73. ISBN 978-0-8032-8776-1. 
  5. ^ Wales, Katie (2011-05-19). A Dictionary of Stylistics. Longman Linguistics (3 ed.). Routledge. p. 320. ISBN 978-1-4082-3115-9. 
  6. ^ Forster, E.M. Aspects of the Novel. Mariner Books. (1956) ISBN 978-0156091800
  7. ^ Teri Shaffer Yamada, Ph.D. "ELEMENTS OF FICTION". California State University, Long Beach. Archived from the original on 2014-12-20. Retrieved 2014-12-20. 
  8. ^ a b Steve Alcorn. "Know the Difference Between Plot and Story". Tejix. Archived from the original on 2014-08-23. Retrieved 2014-08-24. 
  9. ^ Jenna Blum, 2013, The Modern Scholar published by Recorded Books, The Author at Work: The Art of Writing Fiction, Disk 1, Track 12, ISBN 978-1-4703-8437-1

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