Choosing a Plot Structure | Elements of a Novel – Part 2

Elements of a novel: Plot structure

Elements of a novel: Plot structureWelcome to Part Two of the Elements of a Novel Series! Today we’re going talk about plot structure and how to choose the best one for your novel. (ICYMI, here’s the link to Part One: Creating Characters.)

Before you start writing your novel, it’s a good idea to have some idea of the story you want to write and the path you want to take your characters on. Plot structures are like road maps. They give you landmarks and to hit and act as a guide to help you write an interesting and engaging story that will (ideally) be satisfying to both you and your readers.

There are basic elements that are found in all major plot structures, but there are a few variations that may be better options depending on the type of book you’re writing.

Let’s dive in and take a closer look at the three most popular plot structures!

Freytag’s Pyramid

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Overview

Freytag’s Pyramid is the most common dramatic plot structure. Here are the basic elements of this plot structure:

Exposition- Readers meet the characters, get introduced to the world, and learn any background information they need in order to understand the story.

Rising Action- The story builds to the climax with a series of events that lead your characters (and your readers) closer and closer to the climactic moment.

Climax- This is the pivotal moment in your story. The conflict you’ve been building in the rising action comes to a head. It’s the moment that will determine the fate of your main characters and shape their future.

Falling Action- The outcome of the climax is decided and your characters deal with the immediate aftermath.

Denoument- Wrap up your story, tie up any loose ends, and end.

Advantages

This is a timeless, evenly paced plot structure that can apply to almost story.

Disadvantages

It’s a little too straightforward and without more concrete checkpoints, it can lead to a story that’s a little too drawn out. This is because it visually places equal emphasis on the rising action as it does the falling action.

Recommended for:

Anyone who doesn’t know what plot structure to choose, or anyone who wants a straightforward classic.

Three-Act Structure

Basic Three-Act Structure
My Favorite Three-Act Structure

Overview

This structure follows the same basic format as Freytag’s Pyramid but has a few more checkpoints and guidelines. Here’s what this plot structure is made up of:

Act I (Beginning)

Opening/Exposition- Like the exposition in Freytag, here we meet the characters and are introduced to the world. It establishes what “normal” looks like for your main characters. This is intended to be done as quickly as possible.

Plot Point 1- This is your inciting incident. Something happens that shakes your character’s world and essentially kickstarts your story.

Act II (Middle)

3-4 points of crisis- This is similar to the rising actions in Freytag, but as you can see, it’s a little more specific. These points of crisis are intended to increase tension as the story progresses. They aren’t just “actions” they’re actual moments of crisis for your characters.

Plot Point 2- The second act ends with a dark moment for your character leading into the climax. Here, the tension is almost at its peak and everything is on the line for your characters.

Act III (End)

Climax- This is the epic fight or showdown you’ve been building towards. It should be the highest moment of tension for your characters and story.

Denoument- The biggest difference between Freytag and three-act is the very swift resolution. There is very little falling action. The idea is to wrap up your story as quickly after the climax as you can and get out. This should leave your reader satisfied with the outcome, but wanting more.

Advantages

This plot structure focuses more on raising the tension and creating an engaging story. It happens to be my favorite plot structure for this reason. (For more on how I use this structure, check out this post!) The focus on raising the tension with each crisis point helps to create a more tense and engaging story than simply focusing on moving your story closer to the climax. Visually, it also lessens importance on the opening and denoument, which puts the emphasis on writing a tight story.

Disadvantages

It doesn’t leave much room for side stories or character backstories. This can be a good thing if your goal is to write a tight novel. But if you’re looking to write something a little more thoughtful or slower paced, this may not be ideal for you.

Recommended for:

Plot driven stories that are intended to be tight, faster paced, tension driven, or page-turners.

Hero’s Journey

Overview

This plot structure is designed for more heroic stories and typically lends itself well to fantasies. One of the best examples is Lord of the Rings. The exact order of events can vary slightly, but this is the general plot structure:

1) The Ordinary World – First we establish the ordinary world of your hero. We see what their normal life looks like for them before they go off on their adventure.

2) The Call to Adventure – Next, your hero gets called to actually be a hero. They will be told they have to leave their home and do something very dangerous for the greater good.

3) Refusal to the Call- The hero will say they don’t want this responsibility and reject the mission they’ve been tasked with.

4) Meeting the Mentor- The hero will meet the person who will become their mentor and guide them on this journey. This person often gives the hero the push they need to go on this journey.

5) Crossing the Threshold – The hero will accept their task, cross the threshold and leave home to begin their heroic journey.

6) Tests, Allies, and Enemies – The hero will endure a series of tests and obstacles on their journey. These tests will push the character mentally and physically, forcing them to grow and change. They will also meet people who will help them and make enemies.

7) Approach the Inmost Cave – The hero prepares for the main ordeal they know is coming.

8) Ordeal – The hero is confronted with an extreme ordeal that will call on all of the skills they have learned on this journey so far in order to survive. This can be a physical battle with an enemy or it could be a situation where the hero is forced to face their deepest fear. Additionally, the hero must face some kind of death. This death can be literal or metaphorical.  It can apply directly to the hero or a member of their team.

9) Reward – The hero receives some kind of reward for their efforts in the ordeal. This can come in many forms such as an item, information, or saving a person.

10) The Road Home – The hero recommits to seeing out their journey and forages onward back to the ordinary world. However, the experiences the hero has had on their journey will make it hard to return.

11) The Resurrection The hero has one final ordeal that typically includes a brush with death and heroic efforts of another to keep the hero alive.

12) Return with Elixir- The hero returns to the ordinary world with something to share with the world they left behind. This could be something physical, such as an enchanted object or a cure for a disease, or it could be intangible, such as knowledge. This wraps up the story, however your hero is forever changed.

Advantages

This structure gives you some very clear and concrete plot points to write an engaging story that is both focused on plot and character development. It is a plot structure that is tried and true. If you’ve got a character who is intended to be the hero of the story, this is a plot structure that isn’t likely to lead you wrong.

Disadvantages

It might be a little too concrete. It puts your character on a very specific path, that may not work for your story, even if it’s intended to be a hero driven story. (For example, if you didn’t envision your character leaving the “ordinary world” then this plot may not be for you.)

Recommended for:

Fantasy and adventure novels with a hero-centric story.

I hope this helps you choose the best plot structure for your novel!

Now it’s your turn: What plot structure is your favorite and why? Tell me about it in the comments!

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