We’ve all been told how important the plot is to a story. Who? What? Where? When? Why? A successful writer uses these elements and more to draw in their reader with the plot, but does so artistically and systematically. Outside of character development and setting, a captivating plot consists of the following elements: conflict, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. While a narrative does consist of these items, successful writers have learned over the years how to craft these elements into one cohesive product, and at the same time, maintain each as identifiable story elements that can be analyzed and discussed on their own. Let’s investigate these components and see how they fit into the overall narrative, while breaking down their usage and looking at some classic examples.
Every story worth telling has some form of conflict, which can also be referred to as an inciting incident. The protagonist encounters some form of struggle. These conflicts can be seen in the following themes: character vs. self, character vs. character, character, vs. nature, character vs. machine, and character vs. society. These themes are fairly self-explanatory, but the ability to develop these plots into well written stories, takes years of practice. Some notable examples of these would be Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air (character vs. nature), which highlights a man’s the perilous encounters on Mount Everest, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love (character vs. self), which is a woman’s tale of self-discovery.
The rising action is where the story gains momentum. Much of the exposition has already taken place, the conflict has been established, and the character is now on course for the highly anticipated climax. The author’s goal here is to build suspense and keep the reader interested, while not rushing into anything obvious. This is typically where most of the story takes place. There should not be any set length or limit to the rising action, as it serves to build into the climax. In Star Wars, we see Luke’s family killed, followed by Luke meeting Ben Kenobi, Han Solo, and Chewbacca, and eventually ending up on the Death Star to save Princess Leah. All these events are slowly, but captivatingly built with detail and intrigue, and lead to the climax.
The climax is where the conflict has reached its peak and the action or event is the most intense. Compared to the rising action, the climax is short-lived and generally comes toward the end of the story. This is a significant turning point and what the author’s audience has been eagerly anticipating. The characters have been developed, the conflict has been established, and the action and suspense has been building. The fight between Scar and Simba in Disney’s The Lion King, is a fairly obvious example of a climax. We all saw it coming, but now it’s here. They must battle and there must be a winner, there can be no ties.
Our protagonist has defeated his enemy, hit the game winning home run, or kissed his true love after a series of sad or comical debacles. Now that the climax has taken place and the action has peaked, the story will naturally lose momentum. This portion of the story is quite sensibly called the falling action. Of course, this does not mean the story should lose interest or significance. The author can’t simply quit here. “What happens next?” is what the audience is now wondering. Once that home run has been hit, the author has a responsibility to tell us about the team’s celebration, or the upcoming wedding, depending on which story line you’re following here. In contrast to the rising action, significantly less time is spent in this part of the story, but it is still a critical component to the overall narrative.
Now that the majority of the story has been told, the author must find a way to tie up the loose ends. This is called the resolution, or what your literature professor may have referred to as the denouement. The reader’s questions are answered, the characters’ secrets are revealed, and the reader is (hopefully) satisfied with their choice to stay the course and finish the story. This is decidedly different than the outcome of the climax. The resolution can be a natural part of the narrative, or can come in the form of an epilogue, as seen in many different novels. It’s the pay off for all of your work and for the reader, who gets to enjoy the fruits of the character’s labor.
A story arc is is the path the story takes from beginning to end, and typically features the character’s change in good fiction. But to craft a truly great story, your novel should feature multiple arcs. In fact, every character in your novel should have their own story arc, as each character should be pliable and change throughout your story in some way.
Some planning must take place to interweave these story arcs together, and critical scenes where you have multiple characters which include either alliances or conflicts will be crucial to getting that done. What may be of little importance to character A may have an extreme impact on the arc of character B, or the trajectory of each character can be thrown astray in a high-conflict scene in major ways to weave two or more arcs together.
While each scene should develop your story’s plot, use them to also advance your arcs together in unexpected ways.
Authors spend their life crafting these skills with help from editors and publishers. It should be noted that including these five elements in not the entire formula for telling a story, and each element should stand on its own merit. Successful authors develop subplots, metaphors for their stories or characters, and other types of advanced literary devices. Knowing these building block elements will help put you on the right path for your narratives. Regardless, any story worth reading should contain these essential elements and they should always be well-developed and intentional.
Later articles will go into greater depth for each element to help you refine your craft and get the most from your story. For now, which of these elements is your strong suit and which needs work? Tell us below (and sign up here for free Master Lists for Novelists to help you flesh out your piece).