Definition of Plot

Plot is a literary device that writers use to structure what happens in a story. However, there is more to this device than combining a sequence of events. Plots must present an event, action, or turning point that creates conflict or raises a dramatic question, leading to subsequent events that are connected to each other as a means of “answering” the dramatic question and conflict. The arc of a story’s plot features a causal relationship between a beginning, middle, and end in which the conflict is built to a climax and resolved in conclusion.

For example, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens features one of the most well-known and satisfying plots of English literature.

I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.

Dickens introduces the protagonist, Ebenezer Scrooge, who is problematic in his lack of generosity and participation in humanity–especially during the Christmas season. This conflict results in three visitations by spirits that help Scrooge’s character and the reader understand the causes for the conflict. The climax occurs as Scrooge’s dismal future is foretold. The above passage reflects the second chance given to Scrooge as a means of changing his future as well as his present life. As the plot of Dickens’s story ends, the reader finds resolution in Scrooge’s changed attitude and behavior. However, if any of the causal events were removed from this plot, the story would be far less valuable and effective.

Common Examples of Plot Types

In general, the plot of a literary work is determined by the kind of story the writer intends to tell. Some elements that influence the plot are genre, setting, characters, dramatic situation, theme, etc. However, there are seven basic, common examples of plot types:

  • Tragedy: In a tragic story, the protagonist typically experiences suffering and a downfall, The plot of the tragedy almost always includes a reversal of fortune, from good to bad or happy to sad.
  • Comedy: In a comedic story, the ending is generally not tragic. Though characters in comic plots may be flawed, their outcomes are not usually painful or destructive.
  • Journey of the Hero: In general, the plot of a hero’s journey features two elements: recognition and a situation reversal. Typically, something happens from the outside to inspire the hero, bringing about recognition and realization. Then, the hero undertakes a quest to solve or reverse the situation.
  • Rebirth: This plot type generally features a character’s transformation from bad to good. Typically, the protagonist carries their tragic past with them which results in negative views of life and poor behavior. The transformation occurs when events in the story help them see a better worldview.
  • Rags-to-Riches: In this common plot type, the protagonist begins in an impoverished, downtrodden, or struggling state. Then, story events take place (magical or realistic) that lead to the protagonist’s success and usually a happy ending.
  • Good versus Evil: This plot type features a generally “good” protagonist that fights a typically “evil” antagonist. However, both the protagonist and antagonist can be groups of characters rather than simply individuals, all with the same goal or mission.
  • Voyage/Return: In this plot type, the main character goes from point A to point B and back to point A. In general, the protagonist sets off on a journey and returns to the start of their voyage, having gained wisdom and/or experience.

Aristotle’s Plot Structure Formula

Though this principle may seem obvious to modern readers, in his work Poetics, Aristotle first developed the formula for plot structure as three parts: beginning, middle, and end. Each of these parts is purposeful, integral, and challenging for writers. It

can be difficult for writers to create an effective plot device in terms of making decisions about how a story begins, what happens in the middle, and how it ends. Here is a further explanation of Aristotle’s plot structure formula:

  • Beginning: The beginning of a story holds great value. It has to capture the reader’s attention, introduce the characters, setting, and the central conflict.
  • Middle: The middle of a plot requires movement toward the conclusion of the story, as well as plot points, obstacles, or various subplots along the way to maintain the reader’s interest and infuse value and meaning into the story.
  • End: The end of a story brings about the conclusion and resolution of the conflict, generally leaving the reader with a sense of satisfaction, value, and deeper understanding.

Freytag’s Pyramid

In 1863, Gustav Freytag (a German novelist) published a book that expanded Aristotle’s concept of plot. Freytag added two components: rising action and falling action. This dramatic arc of plot structure, termed Freytag’s Pyramid, is the most prevalent depiction of plot as a literary device. Here are the elements of Freytag’s Pyramid:

  • Exposition: the beginning of the story, in which the writer establishes or introduces pertinent information such as setting, characters, dramatic situation, etc.
  • Rising Action: increased tension as a result of the central conflict.
  • Climax (middle): pinnacle and/or turning point of the plot.
  • Falling Action: also referred to as denouement, begins with consequences resulting from the climax and moves towards the conclusion.
  • Resolution: end of the story.

Differences Between Narrative and Plot

Plot and narrative are both literary devices that are often used interchangeably. However, there is a distinction between them when it comes to storytelling. Plot involves causality and a connected series of events that make up a story. Plot refers to what actions and/or events take place in a story and the causal relationship between them.

Narrative encompasses aspects of a story that include choices by the writer as to how the story is told, such as point of view, verb tense, tone, and voice. Therefore, the plot is a more objective literary device in terms of a story’s definitive events. Narrative is more subjective as a literary device in that there are many choices a writer can make as to how the same plot is told and revealed to the reader.

Three Basic Patterns of Plot – William Foster-Harris

In his book, The Basic Patterns of Plot, Foster-Harris presented three types of plot.

  1. Happy Ending Plot: These plots end on a happy note when the central character makes a sacrifice or resolves the conflict. Also, there is a positive and light-hearted ending to the story.
  2. Unhappy Ending: In this type of plot, the central character acts logically that seems right and fails to completely resolve the conflict. The story also might end with conflict resolution but one or more characters lose something or sacrifice something.
  3. Tragedy: This type of plot poses questions by the end about the sadness and its reason as the central character does not make a choice for a sacrifice, or otherwise.

Master Plots – Ronald R. Tobias

The term master plots occur in the book of Ronald R. Tobias, 20 Master Plots. Some of the important ones are Quest, Adventure, Pursuit, and Rescue. These are followed by Escape, Revenge, The riddle, Rivalry, and Underdog, while Temptation, Metamorphosis, and Transformation follow them. Some others are Maturing, Love, and Forbidden Love. Sacrifice and Discovery are two other master plots with Wretched Excess, Ascension, and Descension following them. The important feature of these plots is that they all follow the style their title suggests.

Seven Types of Plots – Jessamyn West

Besides thematic plots, Jessamyn West, a volunteer librarian has listed seven basic and major plots for a story. His argument seems based on the type of characters.

  1. A woman against nature
  2. A woman against another woman, or a man against another man
  3. A woman against the environment or vice versa
  4. A woman against technology
  5. A woman against self
  6. A woman against supernatural elements
  7. A woman against religion or gods

Why it is Good to Break Traditional Plot Structures

Although most critics are very strict about a story having a plot, it is quite unusual to break the conventional structures and create a new one. This creativity is the hallmarks of a literary piece as breaking the traditional plot structure makes the literary piece in the process a unique addition to the long list of such other pieces. This also makes the writer flout new ideas about plot structures, making him a pioneer in such plots. It often happens in postmodern fiction to break away from traditions in creating plots such as Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut presents a non-linear storyline.

Linear and Non-Linear Plots

These two very simple terms, linear and non-linear in the literary world with reference to plots, define how a plot has been structured. A linear plot is constructed on the idea of chronological order having a clear beginning, a defined middle, and a definite ending. However, when an author, such as the referred novel in the above example shows, breaks away from the normal plot structures, it becomes a non-linear plot. It does not have any beginning or for that matter any ending or middle. It just presents fractured and broken thoughts or incidents in a way that the readers have to construct their own story.

Examples of Plot in Literature

When readers remember a work of literature, whether it’s a novel, short story, play, or narrative poem, their lasting impression often is due to the plot. The cause and effect of events in a plot are the foundation of storytelling, as is the natural arc of a story’s beginning, middle, and end. Literary plots resonate with readers as entertainment, education, and elemental to the act of reading itself. Here are some examples of plot in literature:

Example 1: Romeo and Juliet (Prologue) – William Shakespeare

Two households, both alike in dignity
(In fair Verona, where we lay our scene),
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-marked love
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, naught could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;
The which, if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

In the prologue of Shakespeare’s famous tragedy, the arc of the plot is told–including the outcome of the story. However, though the overall plot is revealed before the story begins, this does not detract from the portrayal of the events in the story and the relationship between their cause and effect. Each character’s action drives forward connected events that build to a climax and then a tragic resolution, so that even if the reader/viewer knows what will happen, the play remains an engaging and memorable literary work.

Example 2: Six-word-long story, often attributed to Ernest Hemingway

For sale, baby shoes, never worn.

This famous six-word short story is attributed to Ernest Hemingway, although there has been no indisputable substantiation that it is his creation. Aside from its authorship, this story demonstrates the power of plot as a literary device and in particular the effectiveness of Aristotle’s formula. Through just six words, the plot of this story has a beginning, middle, and end that readers can identify. In addition, the plot allows readers to interpret the causality of the story’s events depending on the manner in which they view and interpret the narrative.

Example 3: Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes

“Destiny guides our fortunes more favorably than we could have expected. Look there, Sancho Panza, my friend, and see those thirty or so wild giants, with whom I intend to do battle and kill each and all of them, so with their stolen booty we can begin to enrich ourselves. This is noble, righteous warfare, for it is wonderfully useful to God to have such an evil race wiped from the face of the earth.”
“What giants?” Asked Sancho Panza.
“The ones you can see over there,” answered his master, “with the huge arms, some of which are very nearly two leagues long.”
“Now look, your grace,” said Sancho, “what you see over there aren’t giants, but windmills, and what seems to be arms are just their sails, that go around in the wind and turn the millstone.”
“Obviously,” replied Don Quijote, “you don’t know much about adventures.”

Don Quixote is considered the first modern novel, and the complexity of its plot is one of the reasons for this distinction. Each event that takes place in this overall hero’s journey is connected to and causes other actions in the story, bringing about a resolution at the end. This novel by de Cervantes features subplots as well, yet the story arc of the character reflects all elements of both Aristotle’s plot formula and Freytag’s Pyramid.

Synonyms of Plot

There are several synonyms that come close to the plot in meanings such as narrative, theme, events, tales, mythos, and subject, yet they are all literary devices in their own right. They do not replace the plot.

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