A New Writer’s Guide to Plot Structure

One of the most important parts of any book is the development of a plot. Whether you want your reader to be excited about a life-or-death situation or simply want the reader in suspense about whether or not John and Mary will get back together, structuring your plot accordingly is vital to making sure that your novel keeps your reader turning the pages.

You might have heard about plot structure back in English class in grade school. Some of you might want to roll your eyes a bit when I mention it. But any good author should know about it and how to use it effectively. Most plot structures are centered on conflicts, which have four parts: Introduction, Rising Action(s), Climax, Resolution (or Falling Actions). For those of you who are unfamiliar, I’ll take a brief moment to define each and give an example:

  1. Introduction: When the problem is introduced. (A detective gets a new assignment regarding a recent murder.)
  2. Rising Action(s): Tension and suspense build as the problem grows. (Clues are found leading to the killer’s identity, but we also find out that he’s going to strike again, and soon.)
  3. Climax: The most critical moment of tension when the conflict is resolved. (We find out who the murderer is, and the detective subdues the suspect just before he strikes again.)
  4. Resolution: This is generally where the “loose ends” of any conflicts are wrapped up; it’s the transition from the climax of the book to the “happily ever after.” (The detective is awarded a bonus and high honors and gets to go on a relaxing vacation as a reward.)

Some books only have one main conflict, while other books have many conflicts. Some books will have even more complex structures, such as many smaller conflicts that are all part of a larger one. Regardless of the structure, however, each conflict should include these four parts, no matter how minor. So why is this information so important for your book?

The way you structure your plot will affect the way that the book “feels” to readers. More conflicts means a faster pace, and more ups and downs for the reader. If you want your audience on the edge of their seats, you’re going to want lots of conflicts to keep it fresh and exciting. Plenty of victories and defeats, triumphs and failures—these can either be individual incidents or all part of one large scheme. Alternatively, you might want readers to witness a coming storm; you see one large problem on the horizon, and your entire plot is centered on leading up to one enormous, tense, and powerful scene. It’s up to you to decide how you want your story told and to pace it appropriately!

Keep in mind that each conflict needs to be developed properly according to its length and significance. This is where many authors can get into trouble; there’s nothing worse to a reader than an underdeveloped main conflict (which feels disappointing) or an overdeveloped minor one (which makes readers impatient and want to move on). Improperly pacing your book, or using a bad structure for the story that you’d like to tell, can ruin what would otherwise be an excellent novel. While you may want your book to have a specific pacing, it’s best not to force something that doesn’t work into your novel to achieve it. After all, what’s worse—having a section not move quite as quickly as you’d like or having a section of your book that readers don’t feel fits into the book at all?

Advanced writers know how to properly use plot structure to have maximum impact on their readers. And of course, sometimes the rules can be broken; cliffhanger endings are a great example of this. Some authors will put the climax at the start of their book to hook the reader, and then work backward. Regardless of how you decide to structure your book, however, take some time to consider your story and the best structure that suits it. Write out the major conflict(s) and determine how to build up to each one—and how you want your reader to feel at each twist and turn. Don’t feel pressured to try to make your book’s structure more complex than it needs to be. Some of the best stories can be the simplest!

Best wishes in your writing endeavors; I hope this helps as you sit down to write a new story or edit an old one.