Plot (narrative)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
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]

Current plot[edit]

English novelist E. M. Forster described plot as the cause-and-effect relationship between events in a story. According to Foster, 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 is the burning of the city of Atlanta in the 1939 film Gone with the Wind.[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]


Since plot is the underlying structure of a story, it is often created first when creating a novel or screenplay. In screenwriting, the term treatment refers to prose that contains the plot and provides the fundamental outline of the screenplay, and which has not yet been divided into scenes; in contrast, the term outline is an expanded version of the treatment which consists not only of the plot but also a few summary lines of each scene. Some writers use dozens of index cards when writing a plot, since they can be shuffled in different orders before being finalized.[9][10]

Fabula and Syuzhet[edit]

A fabula is the events in the fictional world, and then, a syuzhet is a window onto the events. The literary theory of Russian Formalism in the early 20th century divided a narrative into two elements: the fabula and the syuzhet. After that, Formalist followers transpose the fabula/syuzhet to the story/plot. Thereby, this definition is usually used in Narratology, in parallel with Forster's definition. The fabula ("Story") is what all happened in chronological order. In contrast, The syuzhet ("Plot") means how we know a sequence of discourse that was sorted out by the (implied) author. That is, the syuzhet consists of picking up the fabula events in non-chronological order; e.g., Fabula=<a1, a2, a3, a4, a5, …, an>, Syuzhet=<a5, a1, a3>.[4][11]

Plot structure[edit]

Generally, screenwriters combine plot with plot structure into treatment; this structure is referred to as the Three-act structure.[10] This structure divided the length of a film into three parts, namely, three acts. These acts serve the functions of Set-up, Confrontation, and Resolution, respectively. Each act is connected by two Plot points (i.e., turning points)-- the first delineating Act 1 from Act 2, and the second Act 2 from Act 3. This definition of the three-act structure is attributed to Syd Field, United States screenwriter, who redefined plot structure in this way for a film analysis in 1979.[12][13]

Previously, Aristotle (Aristotelēs), a Greek philosopher of the 4th century BC, had said that a tragedy can be divided into three parts in his classic book The Poetics. In 1863, Gustav Freytag, a German writer, advocated a model based upon Aristotle's theory of tragedy, what is termed "Freytag's pyramid," which divided a drama into five parts, then provided function to each part. Both models are described in the sections below.

Aristotle on plot[edit]

In his Poetics, Aristotle considered plot (mythos) the most important element of drama—more important than character, for example. A plot must have, Aristotle says, a beginning, a middle, and an end, and the events of the plot must causally relate to one another as being either necessary or probable. (Poetics 23.1459a.)

Of the utmost importance to Aristotle is the plot's ability to arouse emotion in the psyche of the audience. In tragedy, the appropriate emotions are fear and pity, emotions which he considers in his Rhetoric. His work on comedy hasn't survived the ages.

Aristotle goes on to consider whether the tragic character suffers (pathos), and whether or not the tragic character commits the error with knowledge of what he is doing. He illustrates this with the question of a tragic character who is about to kill someone in his family.

The worst situation [artistically] is when the personage is with full knowledge on the point of doing the deed, and leaves it undone. It is odious and also (through the absence of suffering) untragic; hence it is that no one is made to act thus except in some few instances, e.g., Haemon and Creon in Antigone. Next after this comes the actual perpetration of the deed meditated. A better situation than that, however, is for the deed to be done in ignorance, and the relationship discovered afterwards, since there is nothing odious in it, and the discovery will serve to astound us. But the best of all is the last; what we have in Cresphontes, for example, where Merope, on the point of slaying her son, recognizes him in time; in Iphigenia, where sister and brother are in a like position; and in Helle, where the son recognizes his mother, when on the point of giving her up to her enemy.(Poetics book 14).

Freytag on Plot[edit]

Freytag's pyramid
Main article: Dramatic structure

Gustav Freytag considered plot to be a narrative structure that divides a story into five parts. These parts are: exposition (of the situation); rising action (through conflict); climax (or the turning point); falling action; and denouement.


The exposition introduces the main characters of the story. It shows how they relate to one another, their goals and motivations, and their moral character. The audience may have specific and well-focused questions about any of these aspects, and they will eventually get answered. Most importantly, the exposition allows the audience to get to know the main character (protagonist). Similarly, the protagonist gets to know their main goal and what is at stake.

Inciting Incident[edit]

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. "The Most Dangerous Game," a novel by Richard Connell, demonstrates two examples of inciting incidents.

In the first example, the protagonist went to the rail when he heard gunshots:

"An abrupt sound startled him. Off to the right he heard it, and his ears, expert in such matters, could not be mistaken. Again he heard the sound, and again. Somewhere, off in the blackness, someone had fired a gun three times."

In the second example, the protagonist drops his pipe, and it falls into the ocean:

"Rainsford sprang up and moved quickly to the rail, mystified. He strained his eyes in the direction from which the reports had come, but it was like trying to see through a blanket. He leaped upon the rail and balanced himself there, to get greater elevation; his pipe, striking a rope, was knocked from his mouth. He lunged for it; a short, hoarse cry came from his lips as he realized he had reached too far and had lost his balance. The cry was pinched off short as the blood-warm waters of the Caribbean Sea dosed over his head."

Rising Action[edit]

Rising action is the second phase in Freytag's five-phase structure. It starts with a conflict, such as the death of a character. Rising action involves the buildup of events until the climax.

"Conflict" in Freytag's discussion must not be confused with "conflict" in Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch's critical apparatus to categorize plots into types (e.g., man vs. society). The difference is that according to Quiller-Couch's mode of analysis, an entire story can be discussed in terms of 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.

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.


In this phase, two or more people or groups disagree. This disagreement leads to the climax.


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 results in neither character completely winning or 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 "bad" decision or a miscalculation that demonstrates their tragic flaw.

The climax often contains much of the action in a story—for example, a defining battle.

Falling Action[edit]

According to Freytag, the "falling action" phase consists of events that lead, in most cases, to a happy ending. Character's actions resolve the problem.

In the beginning of this phase, the villain has the upper hand. It seems that evil will triumph. The protagonist has never been further from accomplishing their goal. For Freytag, this is true both in tragedies and comedies, because both types of plots demonstrate how good wins over evil. The outcome depends on which side the protagonist has put themselves on. This may or may not be immediately clear to the audience.


In this phase the protagonist and antagonist have solved their problems and either the protagonist or antagonist usually wins the conflict and the conflict officially ends. Some stories shows what happens to the characters after the conflict ends and/or shows 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, often used to motivate characters, create urgency, or resolve a difficulty. This can be contrasted with moving a story forward with narrative (or dramatic) technique; that is, by making things happen because characters take action for well-motivated reasons. As an example, when the cavalry shows up at the last moment and saves the day in a battle, that can be argued to be a plot device; when an adversarial character who has been struggling with himself saves the day due to a change of heart, that is 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 called a "one page" (one-page synopsis, about 1-3 pages in length). It is generally longer and more detailed than a standard synopsis (1-2 paragraphs), but shorter and less detailed than a treatment or a step outline. There are different ways to create these outlines and they vary in length, but are essentially the same thing.

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 very loose (i.e., the rough sketch), the main goals being to lay out the flow of panels across a page, to ensure the story successfully builds suspense and to work out points of view, camera angles, and character positions within panels. This can also be referred to as a "plot outline" or a "layout".

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 Jenna Blum.[14]

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. ^ a b 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. ^ Seger, Linda (2013-12-01). "CHAPTER ONE: THE INDEX CARD APPROACH; THE OUTLINE; THE TREATMENT.". Making a Good Script Great (3 ed.). Silman-James Press. ASIN B005KC48VU. 
  10. ^ a b Aalto University. "Treatment". CinemaSense. Aalto University. Archived from the original on 2014-08-24. Retrieved 2014-08-25. 
  11. ^ Wales, Katie (2011-05-19). A Dictionary of Stylistics. Longman Linguistics (3 ed.). Routledge. pp. 320 f. ISBN 978-1-4082-3115-9. 
  12. ^ Holland, Patricia (2004). The Television Handbook (2nd. ed.). 29 West 35th Street, New York, NY 10001: Routledge. p. 119. ASIN B00IGYVBGY. 
  13. ^ The Telegraph (2013-12-12). "Syd Field – obituary". Telegraph Media Group Limited. Archived from the original on 2014-08-23. Retrieved 2014-08-24. 
  14. ^ 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

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]