What Is a Plot In a Novel?

At first glance, defining a plot hardly seems worth bothering with. A plot is everything that happens in a novel, right? You start with Event A and finish a few hundred pages later with Event Z. Right?

Kind of, yes. But that's a bit like saying that a house is a dwelling with four walls and a roof. It doesn't tell you much about how to build one.

Let me begin by giving you my own definition of plot in a novel, (then afterwards I'll dissect it word by word in considerable detail)...

WHAT IS A PLOT? A plot is a series of linked events concerning a character who urgently wants something important that won't be easy to get. The events should reach a satisfactory conclusion.

A Plot is a Series of Linked Events...

Linked how? Linked by an unbroken chain of cause and effect...

Event B must be caused by Event A. Event C must be caused by Event B. And so on, all the way through the novel.

If Event B could have occurred without Event A happening first, you are not plotting a novel so much as cobbling together a series of vaguely related events. Indeed, when a story in a novel lacks this important cause-and-effect chain, or when the chain is a weak one, the novel is said to be "episodic."

Another way of explaining it is like this...

Each event in a novel, whether dramatic or apparently trivial, must have consequences. In other words, it must make a difference to what comes next.

If the tale being told is unaffected by a particular event, or if the tale would have been precisely the same without it, that event has no place in the plot and should probably be removed.

"Let us define plot. We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. 'The king died and then the queen died,' is a story. 'The king died, and then the queen died of grief,' is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it. Or again: 'The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king.' This is a plot with a mystery in it..."
- E. M. Forster

The only other thing to say about this chain of events that makes up a plot is that each event within the chain, broadly speaking, should be a little "bigger" than the one before...

  • If a soldier's first objective is to take out the solitary guard patrolling the perimeter fence, his next objective should be to take out the machine gun post by the entrance.
  • If a criminal gang's first job is to rob a small town bank of a few thousand, make their next job to rob the city bank of millions.
  • If the first confrontation between two characters is an argument, their next meeting should result in a fight.

Of course, you won't want every single event in your novel to be uniformly "bigger" than the one that went before it.

Think of a plot in a novel like a rising line on a graph...

The plot begins in the bottom left corner, where the events are relatively quiet and low-key, and rises to the top right corner, where the action and the tension has been ratcheted up to the maximum.

The line in this graph isn't straight, though, but rather a rising zig-zag shaped line of peaks and troughs. After a particularly intense event (a peak), you might have a quieter event (a trough). But the overall trend should be an upward one.

Here is another way of looking at it (I'm obviously in a "metaphor" mood as I write this): think of telling a story as putting on a fireworks display. Generally speaking, you will want each firework to be a little brighter and louder than the one before. But only generally...

  • You will want to start with something to grab you audience's attention.
  • The middle of the display will then be a mixture of big crowd-pleasers and more subtle fireworks - though the trend should be from good fireworks to great fireworks.
  • And the grand finale? That's when you set off your biggest, baddest rocket of all!

Remember my definition?

A plot is a series of linked events concerning a character who urgently wants something important that won't be easy to get. The events should reach a satisfactory conclusion.

So far, we have only looked at the first eight words ("a plot is a series of linked events"). Now let's look at the next three...

...Concerning a Character...

It seems obvious to say it, but a plot centers around a character - and one character only.

What about a love story? Surely that is a single plot about two fictional characters. No, it isn't - it is two plots.

  • The first is the relationship see through the eyes of John.
  • The second is the relationship see through the eyes of Mary.

In the first plot, John is the protagonist and Mary the antagonist. (Antagonists don't have to be pantomime villains - they are simply the character whose goal is contrary to the goal of the protagonist.) So while John wants to win Mary's heart, Mary is interested in John's better looking best friend.

In the second plot, Mary's (the protagonist's) goal is to win the handsome best friend. John's goal, as the antagonist, is to thwart her plans to date his best friend and win her for himself.

And just to make that crystal clear...

  • If you write a single viewpoint novel - that is, one in which either John or Mary is the sole viewpoint character - then your novel will have just one plot.
  • But if you write a multiple viewpoint novel - where John and Mary take it in turns to be the viewpoint character - your novel will have two plots (albeit two plots with a great number of events in common). And the best way to handle this is to construct each plot separately, almost like two novels, and then weave them together later.

So far in this definition of plot, we have decided that plot is a series of linked events concerning a single character. Now for the next element...

...Who Urgently Wants Something Important...

A plot, then, concerns a character who wants something...

  • It might be to get something they don't have (like a better job, or to win the heart of the stranger in town).
  • It might be to get back something they have lost (like a kidnapped child, or their own happiness).
  • Or it might be to get away from something (like a sinking ship, or an old enemy who has returned for revenge).

Just a couple of caveats here...

First, whatever it is that a character wants, it has to be something important. They have to want it with every ounce of their being, and the stakes for failure must be high. So wanting a cup of tea doesn't count.

Second, they have to want it now. Postponing their pursuit of the goal for a day or a week or a year simply cannot be an option - their world has been turned upside down and the only way to return to a liveable life is to do something right now.

Oh, and one last thing...

The more concrete their goal, the better. Robbing a bank or winning the heart of the stranger in town are concrete goals. If your character's goal is abstract, like "finding happiness," try to find something concrete to symbolize this happiness - like leaving their dead-end job and setting up in business on their own. Becoming their own boss is the concrete goal which (they hope) will lead to the abstract goal of happiness.

...That Won't Be Easy to Get...

What stops something from being easy to get? In a word, opposition - external, internal and environmental.

Walking to the shop to buy a loaf of bread is easy. But what if I encounter...

  • External opposition? The shop assistant is my mortal enemy who has sworn to kill me if he ever sees me again.
  • Internal opposition? The shop assistant is a woman I fancy and I know I will just blush and stammer if she serves me.
  • Environmental opposition? The town has flooded and the streets have turned into swollen rivers.

(Okay, this situation would make a terrible novel! But it hopefully gives you the idea.)

To illustrate this further, let's return to that love story featuring John and Mary. We'll assume that John is the novel's protagonist...

  • If John is painfully shy and Mary only has eyes for John's handsome best friend, winning Mary won't be easy to achieve.
  • If John is cool and confident and Mary can't wait for him to ask her out - well, that's great for the happy couple but hopeless for the purposes of novel writing.

And finally...

The Events Should Reach a Satisfactory Conclusion.

Novel plots should have a beginning, a middle and an ending. If yours has no sense of closure, but kind of fizzles out somewhere in the middle before the issues have been resolved, you don't have a plot.

That isn't to say that you need to tie up every last loose end, because an ambiguous ending, or perhaps an ending which is not so much stated as implied, is fine (more so in literary than genre fiction).

But the question asked at the beginning of the novel - will the hero achieve his or her goal? - needs to be explicitly or implicitly answered by the end.

The final thing to say about endings in plots is that your central character's world should be different at the end of the novel to how it was at the beginning...

  • Their physical world - where they live, who they live there with, what they do - must be somehow changed by the novel's events, and/or...
  • They themselves must have changed inside.

Why? Because if everything remains exactly as it was, the reader will simply wonder: What was the point of all that?

To finish with, here is my definition of plot one last time...

WHAT IS A PLOT? A plot is a series of linked events concerning a character who urgently wants something important that won't be easy to get. The events should reach a satisfactory conclusion.

If you don't understand it fully, read this article again. If you do understand it, it's time to head back to the main article...