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Plot development in creative writing

Plot development in creative writing

On this page, we answer the question, “What is plot?” and talk about how to create a road map for your own fiction. At the bottom, you’ll find links to other fiction writing resources, including a free creative writing course.

What is plot and how to get where you’re going

A story’s plot is what happens in the story and the order it happens in.

For there to be story, something has to move, to change. Something goes from point A to point B.

This change could be:

What is plot? It’s the road map that takes your story from point A to point B.

What is plot – why happiness is overrated

There’s a reason why “Happily ever after” comes at the story’s end. It means nothing else is happening. Cinderella and her Prince Charming wake up late, eat a nice breakfast, and take a walk. A slow news day. Forever.

It would be different if it were:
“Happily ever after, except for one extramarital affair and its violent ending. ”
“Happily ever after until Cinderella discovered Prince Charming’s secret dungeon. “

Please don’t assume I’m some kind of evil fairy-tale witch, wishing ill on the fortunate couple. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with happiness. There’s just no story in it.

The story is how you get to the happy ending. Or how it turns sour.

For there to be a story, something’s got to happen. Narrative conflict is what makes it happen. This can be:

What is plot – how to stir up major trouble
What is plot – drawing your road map

Okay, so you’ve invented characters, and you’ve planned a conflict that will get them off their sofa and doing something interesting. How to organize your story?

Here’s a traditional way of looking plot structure:

Step 1) The reader gets to know your characters and to understand the conflict. You can accomplish this by showing instead of telling. Take a moment to review the difference between showing and telling here.

Step 2) You build up the conflict to a crisis point, where things just can’t continue the way they are. A decision has to be made or something has to change. This point is called the story climax. If the story is a road map, this is the major fork in the road. The character can turn left and wind up in Alabama with her ex-lover or turn right and end up back in Illinois with her husband and kids.

The story climax is when Cinderella discovers Prince Charming’s dungeon. Will she leave? Will she just pretend she doesn’t know? The rest of the story depends on what happens at this moment. The story climax can be a moment of great suspense for your reader. It determines how the story will end, the location of Point B.

Step 3) Show, or hint at, Point B. This is called the story’s resolution, and it all depends on how the climax played out.

Remember that this is just one theory of plot structure. But it provides a road map that will give your reader an interesting ride from Point A to Point B. Then, as you read and write more and more short fiction, you will develop your own sense of the best shape for each story.

What is plot – next steps

Choose one of the following links.

Are you taking the CWN Free Online Writing Courses? If not, do you want to? Click here.

Not sure how to start writing a story? Get advice here.

Would you like to see a complete list of CWN pages on how to write short stories?

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✍️ Plot Development Writing Exercises

Write a list of images you associate with your theme. Now do the same for each of your main characters. Keep these images in mind as a way to present your theme metaphorically through symbolic motifs.

Plot Development

Any Questions?

There’s one powerful motivator that led your reader to your book – curiosity. Our brain doesn’t stop asking questions because it knows that’s how it learns and evolves. Questions raise uncertainty. Unknowns. And if there’s an unknown, then humans want to make it known. There will be a big question that drives your story, so take a couple of minutes to consider the mother-question that propels your book from beginning to end.Your manuscript also needs to be powered by lots of little questions. Your book will need a variety of whos, whens, whys, and wheres to keep your reader engaged. In fact, every scene in your book needs to have a question define it. It’s what will keep your reader turning those pages. Review each of your scenes and identify the question/s hanging over it, because once you nail that, their mind will be asking the most important question of all – what happens next?

Plot Development

The Outsider

If you’re working on a novel or short story, write a pivotal scene from an outside observer’s perspective who has no role in the story.

Plot Development

Grab Your Red Pen

Pick a scene or passage you’ve written that you feel dissatisfied with. Take a short time – maybe 10 or 20 minutes – to read the passage as though it were someone else’s work. Take a red pen and make notes in the margins. If you didn’t know anything else about the story, where else could this scene go? Try to get a feel for how malleable the words and the story can be.

Plot Development

Lost The Plot?

How do you start a story – or get a story back on track? If you’re feeling lost or blocked, try templating to get your plot on course.Here’s what to do: bullet point your initiating incident, your rising action, your crisis, and your resolution for both your main plot and subplots. Make a table to see events running parallel, remembering subplots exist to enhance, complicate _ ultimately, compliment _ your main action. Listing like this highlights any irrelevancies, keeping your tale on track, and makes all you write intertwined and significant to your protagonist’s journey. Plan out using this framework as your reference.

Plot Development

A New Chapter

Pick up one of your favorite novels. Open it to a random page. Whatever chapter you land on, rewrite it your own way. Take it in a totally different direction than how it actually plays out in the book.

Plot Development

Pride, Prejudice, and Zombies

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.” So began Seth Grahame-Smith’s book, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which (you guessed it) re-imagined Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in a world with zombies. Sometimes one big twist is all it takes to get you thinking about a story in a different way. How would the introduction of zombies shake things up in your world? How would it affect the relationships between your characters? How would it change priorities? Which parts of your world would stay the same, and which parts would be different? Detail this in a short story of 1,000-2,000 words.

How to master plot development: 8 steps

Plot development means ensuring that your novel contains what makes stories enjoyable to read: Action and event, change, wonder and surprise. Here’s how to improve your plot-writing skills:

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Plot development means ensuring that your novel contains what makes stories enjoyable to read: Action and event, change, wonder and surprise. Here’s how to improve your plot-writing skills:

1. Know the crucial elements: What is plot?

2. Write plot exposition leaving readers hungry for what comes next

3. Make sure each stage of plot development serves its function

4. Play with linear vs non-linear plot

5. Develop your plot and characters through even the simplest actions

6. Use subplots to develop characters and themes

7. Summarize and learn from plot examples in literature

8. Read great authors’ plotting advice for more insight

Let’s delve into each of these steps a bit deeper:

1. Know the crucial elements: What is plot?

‘The main events of a play, novel, film or similar work, devised and presented by the writer as an interrelated sequence.’ (OED)

Definitions of literary terms such as plot are useful because they remind us to focus on what matters. Plot consists of ‘main events’, whether character-based (trysts, confrontations), society-based (uprisings, coups) or world-based (drought, flood). Plot develops out of the relationship between cause and effect, action and reaction. It is what gives us rich and rewarding ‘interrelated sequence’.

The best plots offer us both the predictable and the unexpected. Reading Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), we might react to the plot thus:

‘Of course Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy’s first impressions of each other change, I expected an eventual romantic attraction. But I didn’t see George Wickham’s elopement with Elizabeth’s youngest sister coming.’

Elements of plot

We can divide the plot of a story into 3 broad parts:

  • Exposition: The introductory part. We meet principle characters, themes, setting and more
  • Development: The development consists of both rising action (increasing complications and/or narrative tension) and falling action (decreasing complications and/or narrative tension, as plot arcs resolve)
  • Resolution or Dénouement: The novel or story reaches a conclusion, primary questions are resolved

Although the bulk of the development takes part in the middle part, many stories contain development in every stage of the plot. Your story may develop from exposition to conclusion – you don’t have to restrict when change and expansion happen.

2. Write plot exposition leaving readers hungry for what comes next

Although your plot exposition is not the main developmental part, you can at least hint at how your plot will develop. Read this opening example, from Jeffrey Eugenides’ 1993 debut, The Virgin Suicides:

‘On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide – it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese – the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.’ (p. 1)

The exposition leaves us wanting to know and understand more. Who are these ‘Lisbon’ daughters? Is Lisbon the city in Portugal or the sisters’ surname? Why would they all take their lives, and who is narrating? In one paragraph, Eugenides gives his story plenty to develop. The stage is set for more of the Lisbon sisters’ lives and motivations to unfold.

Eugenides’ exposition introduces some characters’ names while leaving others unknown. We read of ‘Therese’ and ‘Mary’. We haven’t met their parents (note Eugenides’ use of the word ‘daughter’ rather than ‘sister’). All these elements make the opening intriguing. Who are the Lisbon parents and why are their daughters this troubled?

3. Make sure each stage of plot development serves its function

Each stage of plot development serves vital functions. Exposition:

  • Locates a story in time and place (establishes setting)
  • Introduces characters and the main events of the story
  • Gives us some idea of what the primary themes are (for example, for Eugenides’ novel, themes of family (and sisterhood in particular), grief and the darker side of suburban life)
  • Delves deeper into cause and effect: We know what the tragic fate of the Lisbon sisters is in Eugenides’ novel from the start, but we don’t know why
  • Develops characters and themes: We grow to understand how events and actions shape characters’ choices, and understand more of what the story says about its themes

Good dénouements or plot endings:

  • Draw a story or novel to a satisfying close. They answer our biggest remaining questions
  • Deliver on implicit promises made throughout the story. For example, from the opening of Eugenides’ novel, we expect to learn more about what might have led the Lisbon daughters to their actions

When writing each part of your plot, think about the functions above: Does each stage of your story give the reader what she needs to make sense of (and enjoy) the interrelated whole? Does each stage contribute adequately to building the whole tale?

4. Play with linear vs non-linear plot

The ‘interrelated sequence’ of our plot definition above could create a linear or non-linear sequence. Sure, you can start with Harry’s commute to school, the physical bullying he faces, and the bruise he arrives home with. Yet you could also show Harry arriving home from school sullen with an inexplicable bruise; his parents’ horror followed by a scene showing what happened.

A non-linear structure (like the latter example above) creates extra tension because we see effects before their causes. When these effects are terrifying or unsettling, in particular, or when they have a strong emotional component (as in Eugenides’ non-linear plot opening), our desire to know the cause is that much stronger.

Play with how your plot unfolds. If you do present one or more plot event out of chronological sequence, the resulting deja vu when your narrative time-frame catches up with later events can create satisfying structure.

5. Develop your plot and characters through even the simplest actions

Plot works largely by invisible means. For large-scale plot development, individual parts of your story – character’s actions and conversations – should move it along.

For example, in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866) the author tells us a lot about his poor protagonist’s mental state and situation through even the smallest action. These details feed directly into the plot.

On the first page, Dostoyevsky implies Rodion Raskolnikov’s poverty and difficulty paying rent by describing how he tries to avoid his landlady when leaving his lodgings:

‘He had successfully avoided meeting his landlady on the staircase. [Whenever leaving …] he was obliged to pass her kitchen … and each time he passed, the young man had a sick, frightened feeling, which made him scowl and feel ashamed. He was hopelessly in debt to his landlady, and was afraid of meeting her.’ (p. 1)

The beginning action of avoiding his landlady is developed to show both Raskolnikov’s financial situation and his emotional response to it (his fear and shame). Right from the start, Dostoyevsky gives detail. Starting with ordinary actions such as heading out of doors, he develops his character’s mental state and circumstances.

Similarly, as you draft and revise, think of what even simple actions (such as how a character leaves their place of residence) can reveal, how small details of action and dialogue can make the events of your novel interrelated, effectively.

6. Use subplots to develop characters and themes

Although the grand, main plot of your story might involve a single confrontation between protagonist and antagonist, subplots are where many of the more interesting and surprising plot developments lie.

Take J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, for example. While the central confrontation will happen between Harry and Lord Voldemort (we know this from Book One), Rowling uses subplots to develop individual primary and secondary characters, often with surprising outcomes.

The truth of Ron’s pet rat, the mystery of Harry’s Godfather, the secret past of potions teacher Severus Snape and other subplots all enrich the primary conflict, giving additional turns of plot that alternate shock, surprise, heartbreak and comic relief.

How do you use subplots to aid overall plot development?

  1. Use subplots to develop your themes. Themes of lust for power and its corrupting effects run throughout Rowling’s series. The cruel substitute teacher Dolores Umbridge (first encountered in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2003)) abuses her position, inflicting sadistic punishment on her students.
  2. Create subplots that complicate the main arc of your story. In the early chapters of Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov meets a drunken man in a bar, who is later trampled to death by a horse and cart. These events fatefully lead Raskolnikov to meeting the man’s widow and her prostitute daughter. This in turn leads to complications. Raskolnikov confides his criminal deed in the dead man’s daughter, unaware there is someone eavesdropping on him from the apartment next door.

7. Summarize and learn from plot examples in literature

Plot examples from famous books give us plenty of insights into how to develop stories.

To actively improve your plotting skills, create plot summaries of your favourite novels as you read. Ask these plot questions:

  • What does the author’s exposition introduce, what settings, characters, major story events?
  • How does the author develop the initial characters, events and themes you encounter? What happens to the characters and why?
  • At what point in the story are there the most number of concurrent unknowns in the plot (e.g. in a murder mystery the identity of the killer and the meaning of unsolved clues)
  • How does the author resolve these unknowns, resolve primary and secondary plot arcs? What questions are answered and how?

Take William Faulkner’s famous short story A Rose for Emily, for example.We could summarize the plot thus:

Exposition: Introduces character Emily Grierson, a recluse, and her death (the main or inciting event of the story).

Development: More of Emily’s strange behaviour detailed, as well as her living arrangements. She is presented as indomitable (‘So she vanqiuished them [the tax collecters], horse and foot, just as she had vanquished their fathers thirty years before the smell).’

Faulkner also introduces the character of Homer Barron. The townspeople speculate about his relationship with Emily Grierson as he takes up residence with her.

Denouement: More details of Emily’s death, including the shocking resolution. The townspeople break down a sealed door on the top level of Emily’s home and find the decaying corpse of Homer Barron on a bed. They also find the still-fresh imprint of Emily’s head on the pillow next to his.

Faulkner develops the plot throughout, introducing secondary characters whose presence adds to the mystery and intrigue of Emily Grierson and her secretive, isolated life. In true Southern Gothic fashion, the story develops to shock us with an eerie, disturbing end.

8. Read great authors’ plot development advice for more insight

Whenever you come across an insightful or practical view on how to plot a novel or plot development, write it down. Some authors’ views:

‘I always write a draft version of the novel in which I try to develop, not the story, not the plot, but the possibilities of the plot. I write without thinking much, trying to overcome all kinds of self-criticism, without stopping, without giving any consideration to the style or structure of the novel, only putting down on paper everything that can be used as raw material, very crude material for later development in the story.’ Mario Vargas Llosa

‘Every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its dénouement before anything be attempted with the pen. It is only with the dénouement constantly in view that we can plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points tend to the development of the intention.’ Edgar Allan Poe

‘You can’t build a plot out of jokes. You need tragic relief. And you need to let people know that when a lot of frightened people are running around with edged weaponry, there are deaths. Stupid deaths, usually. I’m not writing ‘The A-Team’ – if there’s a fight going on, people will get hurt. Not letting this happen would be a betrayal.’ Terry Pratchett

Plan plot and character effectively using Now Novel’s Idea Finder – a structured series of helpful prompts. Create a helpful blueprint for your story or novel now.