There’s a theory that no story, when stripped down to its bare bones, is an original story. In some way, every plot barrows from another, to the point where all fiction overlaps or ties to other pieces of fiction. This is because the natural projections and movement of plotlines we find interesting boil down to a few shorthand formulas and tropes. Ever heard of The Hero’s Journey? This is plot in its most basic and raw form. It charts the growing build of tension, the climax of this tension, and the euphoria we feel when some sort of resolution is offered to the problems posed by the plot.
Pinning Down a Problem
The core of a plot is the problem the characters of your story must react to. It can be any problem that pops into your head - there’s a lion loose at a charity banquet, someone keeps scratching up letters into windshields, socks keep mysteriously disappearing, your protagonist gets panic attacks. In fact, there may even be multiple problems going on at the same time. The problems of your plot are not always material, external forces. As many authors have proved, sometimes the most memorable plots thrive on problems that are internal, emotional, relational, existential, and abstract (ie. anything written by John Green ever.) These types of plots are often called character-driven.
On the other hand, you have action-driven plots. These are the plots full of explosions, high-speed car chases, strives for survival, violence, or any conflict physically occurring in the outside world. No plot needs to be exclusively character-driven or exclusively action-driven. In fact, a great deal of depth can be added to your story by having a mix of both. A story with a lot of action gains more meaning when the action ties to your characters’ inner worlds. A story with a lot of interiority gets less stagnant when progressed by physical action.
Tried and Tested
As mentioned before, a lot of people will tell you that there are really only a few types of plots floating around. Seven is the most common number I’ve seen. Like days of the week, each one of these basic, common plotlines has a different effect on the ebb and flow of tension in your story. Picking one could be helpful in brainstorming the framework of your story and its sequence of events. Here’s a quick summary:
The Monster Plot - Protagonist overcomes the villain, monster, or some external dark force threatening the land
The Glass-Slipper Plot - Low-class protagonist works their way up to social success
The Bullseye Plot - Protagonist has one crucial mission, usually to obtain something, and must overcome roadblocks to get it
The Homecoming Plot - Protagonist is whisked off to some strange, unfamiliar place and must find a way back home
The Comedy Plot - Funny miscommunications and mishaps shake up the protagonist until all is sorted out and sunny
The Tragedy Plot - Protagonist reaches their downfall due to some fatal flaw or mistake they cannot change
The Butterfly Plot - Protagonist experiences something or someone that completely changes their perspective
Make it Your Own
These plotlines are here simply to help in charting the end goal of your plot. A good story (and a good writer) isn’t too strict about how the protagonist gets there and is able to form these plotlines into something of their own creation. When it comes to a good plot, the more original the better. Nobody wants to read a plot they can all too easily predict. It’s best to push the boundaries of the genres and types of stories you decide to write. Every writer has something unique to bring to the table, so be sure to add your own interests, influences, experience, and style into the mix, and you’ll create a plot that readers love.
A good plot gradually draws the reader in. It attracts the reader, tugs on their heart strings until a piece of themselves is invested in your story. It surprises the reader. It leaves them in suspense with the promise of resolution.
The plot is the skeleton of your story. Plot, like bones, are often mistaken to be dead, material structures that provide a framework for the other aspects of the story. And while it definitely does provide your story’s structure, your plot, again like bones, is alive, mobile, and receptive tissue. This means that your plot is not meant to be something strictly laid out and predictable, even to the writer. As a writer, you should not suffocate your plot or the flow of the story’s journey as you form your story. Instead, it’s best to hold your plot’s hand with a general sense of where you’re going and be open to all the nooks and crannies you’ll discover along the way.