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Classic Story Structure Begins with Plot

By Adam Sexton

What do we mean by Plot? Simply, plot is WHAT HAPPENS in a short story, novel, play or film. No more, no less. It isn't description or dialogue, and it certainly isn't theme. In the best stories, plot grows organically out of character, rather than being imposed from above. Specifically, plot is the result of choices made by characters in a story, especially the story's protagonist, or main character.

Even if action is not the most compelling feature of the story to you, the reader must always want to know -- actually NEED to know -- what happens next. Yes, plots are contrived, but that's what makes for art, not life. A theme -- your message or meaning -- is revealed through plot. For example, 'Money can't buy happiness' is just an empty threat, unless we observe a rich man who's miserable, as in George Eliot's 'Silas Marner.'

Renowned writer Anne Lamott ('Bird by Bird,' 'Operating Instructions') created a mnemonic device to help writers remember how to write plots that work:

Action
Background
Conflict
Development
End

A. ACTION means a scene (word-pictures presented in more or less 'real' time). Storytellers begin with Action because it is quite literally dramatic, meaning that, theoretically, it could be performed onstage. Also, scenes are intriguing as we watch and wonder what's going on here. Beginning with Action also means beginning with an inciting incident or point of attack: an event that sets off the events of the story.

The opening of John Steinbeck's 'The Grapes of Wrath' is Action, as a tortoise tries to cross a road. Even two people sitting in a coffee bar talking is Action. On the other hand, 'The family of Dashwood had been long settled in Sussex...' (the start of 'Sense and Sensibility' by Jane Austen) is not Action. Nothing is actually happening, at least not yet. Begin your story as close to the inciting incident as you can. The inciting incident of Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis occurs very simply when Gregor Samsa awakens having been transformed into a 'monstrous and frightening insect.' That event happens in the story's very first sentence.

B. BACKGROUND: Many 19th century novels begin with Background. For example, 'A Tale of Two Cities' by Charles Dickens starts 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...' This certainly seems like a natural way to open a story since Background happened before Action, at least chronologically. However, Background is boring. It is very literally un-dramatic.

Therefore, provide only enough Background at first so that the Action doesn't confuse your readers. They don't need to know everything, just enough to follow along. Joseph Conrad's 'The Secret Sharer' is instructive in that it withholds Background until the reader needs it. The same is true of Toni Morrison's 'Song of Solomon.'

C. CONFLICT constitutes what your protagonist wants, but doesn't have. It doesn't matter what your protagonist needs, as long as he or she needs it badly. In James Joyce's 'Araby', the main character wants to go to the bazaar. His desire is apparently trivial, but because he feels it so intensely, we are carried swiftly through the story.

The best Conflicts are dramatic and specific. Don't write about a teenage girl who's looking for love; write about a teenage girl seeking her first kiss. For one thing, focusing on the kiss will focus your storytelling and your readers' attention. Even more important, those readers will know without question at the end of the story whether the heroine has attained what she wants or not.

Hamlet seeks to overcome his late-adolescent malaise, but what makes Shakespeare's play dramatic is his need to kill his uncle to avenge the murder of his father. In Charlotte Bronte's novel of the same name, Jane Eyre seeks a life that is secure and yet stimulating; she desires Mr. Rochester, who can provide just such a life, and we will read her story until she gets him -- or doesn't.

Conflict IS story, and, conversely, without Conflict, you have no story. D. DEVELOPMENT is the series of attempts made by the protagonist to resolve his or her Conflict. These attempts should increase with regard to drama and/or suspense, and ideally, each step in the Development should tell us a little bit more about the protagonist.

Development is the 'journey' made by the protagonist toward (or perhaps away from) what he or she wants. Sometimes that journey is literal, actual, physical: Think of 'The Odyssey,' John Cheever's 'The Swimmer' or 'On the Road' by Jack Kerouac. Development can also be a trip through time, like childhood or adolescence, for instance. 'Portnoy's Complaint' by Philip Roth and Susan Minot's 'Lust' are essentially journeys made by characters via other characters. Finally, Development can be an emotional, spiritual or intellectual journey. Often, it is a combination of all of the above.

Development usually accounts for 70 to 80 percent of the mass of the story. In 'The Wizard of Oz,' the protagonist is Dorothy Gale. Her Conflict? She wants to get home. The Development of 'The Wizard of Oz' is the Yellow Brick Road, along which Dorothy encounters various characters and situations that she hopes will lead her to the Wizard, and, thus, home. If you ever lose track, remind yourself of the following: Development is the Yellow Brick Road.

E. END: Here's where the mnemonic device needs further development of its own, since 'End' isn't an especially helpful term. Let's expand it to include 3 more C's: Crisis, Climax, Consequences

1. CRISIS is often the final stage in a story's Development. In the best stories, it involves a choice -- and not simply a choice between good and evil, since given that choice, we'd all pick good. Crisis is a choice between two options of equal, or nearly equal, value.

In 'Sophie's Choice' by William Styron, for example, Sophie must choose one of her children, thereby, condemning the other to almost certain death. In Ernest Hemingway's 'A Farewell to Arms,' the hero must decide between war and desertion. Crisis is, by definition, the most dramatic point in your entire story.

2. CLIMAX is not necessarily the most dramatic point, despite the word's colloquial meaning. Instead, Climax is the resolution of Conflict. Does the protagonist get what he wants, or not? Or maybe he gets what he wants, but realizes that his struggle to get it wasn't worth it. That's called irony.

Climax is the point of no return. At the Climax of a story there is simply no turning back; the protagonist is powerless to change his fate. Think of Romeo's suicide, the Climax of Shakespeare's play not because it's dramatic, but because it prevents him and Juliet from living together in love. Or the famous line in Hemingway's 'Hills Like White Elephants': 'Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?' -- which signals precisely the same state of affairs.

But you must offer your readers a definite resolution to the story's Conflict. Refusing to do so isn't clever, or modern. It's annoying, exasperating, infuriating. And it violates the unspoken understanding between writer and reader: that the writer will finish telling the story.

3. CONSEQUENCES: When the Conflict of a story has been resolved, what's left? The Consequences of that story. How have your protagonist and his world changed -- or stubbornly refused to change -- as a result of the story? The French call this part of the story the 'denouement' or 'unraveling.' At the end of Dickens's 'A Christmas Carol,' Scrooge shows us that he's changed. How? By climbing out of bed, throwing open his window and asking an urchin on the street below what day it is. When he learns that it's Christmas, Scrooge instructs the boy to buy the biggest turkey in the butcher's window for Tiny Tim's family. When the boy returns, Scrooge pays him, laughing while he hands the money over. That's right -- Scrooge laughs while paying for something! He has changed! It's a textbook denouement.

Ditto the uncut grass next door at the conclusion of 'The Great Gatsby' by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which indicates quite literally that the landscape of the book has been altered forever by its Action. Of course, you aren't required to use this structure in telling stories. But if you do, however, your stories, novellas and novels will work. That is, when people are done reading one of your pieces of fiction, they will feel as if they've been told a story. Not a 'character sketch,' but a real story.

But if it doesn't have Conflict, Development, and Climax, it isn't a story. If you don't believe that, just try to tell a satisfying anecdote that lacks these components. Or tell a joke that lacks classic story structure, and see if anyone laughs.

Meet the Author: Adam Sexton