(I recently wrote a book on writing call The Glorious Grind: Meditations on Crafting Fiction & The Writing Life and have decided to simply publish it in installments here.)
I recently taught a fourteen-week graduate level class on plot in fiction and came to see the wisdom in the old adage about how you never really fully grasp a subject until you have to teach it. To a group of very smart people. For three hours a week. For fourteen weeks. Until the class so consumes your mind you start practice lecturing aloud in the shower to your shampoo bottle and you start casually working the word “dénouement” into casual conversation.
In my class we read essays on plot and made outlines and I graphed the story of Cinderella on a white board, dissecting it for plot points as they led to the tale’s climax. We read a textbook called Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell. We workshopped one short story and one first chapter per student with an eye toward pacing and plot and establishing, then escalating, conflict. Finally, for the grand finale, we read Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky and analyzed it with an eye toward plot, discussing what worked for us and what didn’t.
By the end of the term I realized the plot and structure of any fictional work can be dissected and studied beneath a glaring light and with great care but, finally, at the end of the day, plot remains a mystery that goes far beyond its component parts. Plot is something that’s good to know about, like having a map on a road trip, but being cognizant of its many nuances will not necessarily lead an author toward literary nirvana.
So what is plot exactly? If you were to accost me on the light rail and ask me this question I’d think for a moment before saying something like, “Go away, I’m trying to stare out the window at this vibrant urban landscape.” But, if you persisted and kept pressing, I guess I’d say something like, “Plot is the chain of main events that occur in a story, with each link of this chain influencing what happens in the next link. The events need to be connected and placed in a meaningful order (though not necessarily chronological) or else you just have a random series of events. There needs to be evidence of cause and effect.”
The wonderful thing about fiction is the author is forced to create a sequence of events and then proceed not only to find meaning in those events as they relate to each other but to set them, as a whole, toward obtaining an outcome that satisfies the aesthetics and logic of the story itself. In fiction we find the kind of structured, plotted meaning to events that we don’t usually find in our real lives. Fiction helps us take the raw material of being alive—all the surreal events, all the joy and all the horror of a sentient existence—and reinterpret them within a written framework that leads (hopefully, if the author is doing their job) to a variety of revelations, from revelations of plot to revelations of theme to revelations of meaning. Plot is the engine that drives the reader through a story and brings us all—author and reader alike—to the revelatory moment we all yearn for, when everything finally clicks and the universe makes some kind of sense (even if that revelation is that the universe ultimately makes no sense at all).
A good plot is a line of dominoes, with each domino stood up and placed to strike the next domino at just the right spot.
In the nineteenth century a German novelist named Gustav Freytag created a diagram that analyzed the common elements of plot in stories and novels (a very German thing to do, right?). The diagram he created is called Freytag’s Pyramid and looks like this:
As Freytag saw it the plot of your standard story goes exposition, inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution, and dénouement.
Freytag’s Pyramid provides a helpful road map for the plotter but like all road maps the reader should be advised to use it only for occasional reference while keeping both eyes on the actual road. The pyramid’s shape, and the proportion of space due to each term/idea, can change drastically depending on the story at hand. For example, the novel you’re working on could require a lot of exposition, hit the inciting incident around page sixty, build slow-boil style for the next two hundred pages before reaching its boiling point (the climax), and then the falling action, resolution, and dénouement could all occur very suddenly, over the course of perhaps forty pages, with creates more a steady rising line—like a missile being launched into the sky at a forty-five degree angle—followed by a steep and sudden decline once the climax has been struck. That is to say, I believe most novels spend more time building the world and escalating the conflict within it than they do resolving that conflict once it boils over (and most short stories spend little to no time resolving conflict—you may get a line or two of dénouement but that’s it). An author who drags out falling action, resolution, and dénouement does so at the risk of losing all the tension they’ve worked so hard to build up and dampening their story’s emotional resonance.
I suppose you could say I subscribe to a get in, cause as much trouble as possible, and get the hell out again school of plot development. Which sounds like a simple philosophy when you set it down in a short sentence but does take some doing in practice.
That first page in a story is oh, oh so important. As is that first chapter. As is the first fifty pages of a novel. You have to accomplish so much while carrying the reader along with you for the ride. You need to establish point of view, tone, character, and setting all while refraining from too much exposition and moving forward toward the inciting incident that really gets the plot rolling. And you have to make it look easy. Like this entire windblown tale is as natural as anything, as if it all really happened somewhere, sometime, and now you’re simply putting it all down on paper.
How does one do this? Well, almost inevitably, the first fifty to a hundred pages of any first draft will turn out to be the roughest in the entire manuscript. At the beginning of a story the author is still trying to set the proper tone, get to know their own characters (and no matter how much prep work you’ve done you won’t fully get a sense of your characters until they start speaking and interacting with each other and the world built around them (it’s the difference between a walk-through practice and playing in a game) and generally get a lock on the novel itself. I’ve noticed this awkwardness in every rough draft I’ve ever written and come to expect it, which helps calm me down during the inevitable panic attacks regarding the quality of my work. During those first hundred pages you’re laying the groundwork for what’s to come and exploring the wilderness of your new world—you’re going to get a little smelly, just like all the wild-eyed explorers before you. Don’t worry about it. Instead, focus on what lies ahead and if you’re properly setting up the story to succeed down the road.
The nimble plotter is not just writing in the present, page to page, they’re writing with an eye toward the future as well, setting up the story to evolve and surprise and resonate. Your main character is this way at the start of a story so he can be this other way by the story’s end. The world you’re introducing the reader to is like this to start out with so it can change (or be perceived in a changed light) to be like so by the last page. The plotter isn’t a gambler—why leave something so important to chance?—but is more like a savvy investment banker, eyeing the trends, both visible and invisible, in their narrative with an eye toward growth down the road, growth that will eventually lead to a big payoff when they cash out and write that final sentence. You’re good old Johnny Appleseed, planting your seeds on every page!
Ah, you say. But what if I have no clue where this story is going? How am I supposed to write toward its payoff when I have no clue as to what that payoff might be? What if I don’t even like using a rough outline?
Guess what? That’s all totally fine! Just keep writing and writing and keep your author radar on high alert for opportunity. Maybe you find yourself introducing a crazy dog into your story on page eighty? That’s cool, maybe the dog will pay off in an unexpected way. It happened to me and I couldn’t have been happier with the result. Maybe this character has a weird hobby you didn’t even think they had. That’s great, maybe it will lead to developments in the plot that wouldn’t have been there otherwise. You never want to go into the first draft of anything—story, essay, poem—feeling too tight, feeling like you know it all and you know exactly where you want to go. This is the path toward dullness. Toward bad sex. Bad movies. Stilted plot points you can see coming from a mile away. Be confident and keep a guiding hand on your story but remember the universe is a strange place, with strange vibrations in it, and that being capable of channeling those vibrations is what makes an artist an artist and where the true art of creation lies, not in rigorously adhering to a diagram some German made in the nineteenth century.
You’ll probably cut your entire first chapter or rewrite it so thoroughly by the time you’ve finished revising it’s all but unrecognizable. (There’s a theory that if you cut the first two and half pages of your average short story rough draft BOOM there’s where your story actually begins.) You may even need to cut the first three chapters, who knows? It doesn’t matter. There’s always more words inside you—you will never run out.
The most important thing to remember about getting into a story is that you’re not really doing it alone—you’re bringing the reader along with you. That first chapter should really pop, really showcase your authorial voice and intrigue the reader with possibilities to come (they’re also viewing the story like an investment banker of sorts—they’ll invest time if they want to know what happens next, if they care about the character(s) they’ve been introduced to and want to see how they make out). Also, that first chapter should end with a strong hook of some kind that immediately makes them want to turn the page to the next chapter. It doesn’t need to be a splashy plot-ish hook, either. I don’t mean you need to go all serial novel on it and leave your poor character hanging from a cliff or getting shot at.
No. Just give them something they haven’t quite seen before, a bit of flashy bait they don’t recognize until they’ve swallowed the hook.
 I had a surprisingly hard time finding books that focused primarily on plot in fiction.
 Thank god, right? Something needs to slow the rise of powerful fiction writing software. When the machines begin writing transcendentally beautiful novels we’re all fucked.
 Exposition is setting the scene by providing the details up front the reader needs to know. We meet a detective who is tracking a serial murder and learn about her and the case.
 Also known as the complication, the inciting incident is the event that disturbs the world of the main character and get the plot rolling along. The detective receives a mocking letter from the murderer addressed personally to her.
 The climax is when a main character is forced to make a big decision that will define how the story turns out and perhaps defines them as a person. From here on out, there’s no turning back. The detective solves the chain of clues and decides to investigate the murderer on the murder’s home turf without calling for backup.
 The events that occur as a result of the climax-the shit has truly hit the fan here and the reader senses the end of the story is nigh. After a long game of cat and mouse, the detective finally enters the bad guy’s hideout and a shootout ensues.
 The story’s main conflict is resolved in some way. The detective finally apprehends or shoots the bad guy.
 Everything is wrapped up. The detective gets a medal and, exhausted, decides to retire. Epilogues are chock full of dénouement.