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What is a Plot in a Novel?

Plot is “what happens” in your novel. It’s a sequence of events. You start with Event A and finish a few hundred pages later with Event Z.

Simple, right? Only there’s a catch. While you can define a plot as a sequence of events, a sequence of events isn’t necessarily a plot.

Let me explain that…

Every single day of your life is a sequence of events. You get up, take a shower, eat breakfast, go to work and so on. But very few days of your life, if any, have been exciting enough for a plot in a novel.

So although plot is “what happens,” there’s more to it than that. The things that happen need to be…

  • exciting
  • gripping
  • page-turning.

Literary short story writers and experimental novelists can get away with slice of life pieces, in which very little happens to grab a casual reader’s interest. For the rest of us, plot is the thing that hooks readers and keeps them awake until the small hours.

In short, plot is a kind of blueprint for constructing a gripping sequence of events. The plot blueprint set out in this entire section on how to plot a novel is…

  1. Flexible enough not to constrain you.
  2. Structured enough to ensure that you tell a page-turning tale.

Before we get to the 10-step blueprint itself, we need to take a high-level look at plotting, starting right now with a detailed definition of plot.

Like I said, a plot needs to be more than a sequence of events. For readers to lose themselves in your story (rather than get bored by it), the events need to follow various “rules.” I’ve summarized those rules in this simple definition…

What is a plot? It’s a series of linked events concerning a character who urgently wants something concrete and important that won’t be easy to get. The events should reach a satisfying conclusion.

Let’s talk about that in detail…

“A plot is a series of linked events…”

Linked how? By an unbroken chain of cause and effect…

  • Event A must cause Event B.
  • Event B must cause Event C.
  • And so on, all the way through to Event Z at the end.

If Event B could have happened without Event A happening first, you’re not plotting a novel so much as cobbling together a sequence of unrelated events.

(When a novel lacks this important cause-and-effect chain, or when the chain is a weak one, the novel is said to be “episodic.” And that’s rarely a compliment.)

Here’s another way of putting it…

Each of your novel’s events, whether big and dramatic or apparently trivial, must have consequences. Each one must make a difference to what happens next.

If the story is unaffected by a particular event and would have been precisely the same without it, that event has no place in the plot.

The novelist E. M. Forster put it like this in a series of famous lectures…

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.

I don’t agree with Forster’s use of the word “story” as something lacking in plot, but his point is still a good one…

  • “The king died and then the queen died” is a sequence of events.
  • “The king died and then the queen died of grief” is a sequence of linked events. It’s the cause-and-effect nature of the sequence that makes it a plot.

The only other thing to say about this chain of events is that each one, broadly speaking, should be a little “bigger” than the event before. For example…

  • If a soldier’s first goal is to take out the guard patrolling the perimeter fence, his next goal 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 dollars, make their next job to rob the city bank of millions.
  • And 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 like a line of rising action on a graph…

Rising action in a novel's plot.

The story 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 a rising zig-zag 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 one of rising action.

Remember the definition?

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

Now for the next three words…

“… concerning a character…”

A plot revolves around one character, and one character only.

What about a love story? Surely that is one plot about two fictional characters. Nope, it’s two plots…

  • The first plot is the relationship seen through John’s eyes. He’s the protagonist of his side of the story and his goal is to win Mary’s heart. Trouble is, Mary’s more interested in John’s better-looking best friend.
  • The second plot is the relationship from Mary’s point of view. She’s the protagonist of her side of the story and her goal is to win the handsome best friend, despite the unwelcome advances from John. By the end, though, she falls for John’s charms and they live happily ever after.

You could write that novel from John’s point of view, Mary’s point of view or a mixture of both. Whatever you decide, understand that the single story consists of two plots, just like a single coin has two sides.

Yes, that’s quite a technical point. But it’s important. If you think of a love story as a single plot and try to construct it as such, you’ll get into all sorts of difficulties as we move forward. Instead…

  • Plot the novel from either John’s or Mary’s perspective (if you’re writing a single viewpoint novel). Or…
  • If you’re writing a multiple viewpoint novel, in which there are two equal protagonists, plot it from both perspectives, separately. Then weave them together at the end. Or…
  • If John is the hero and Mary’s interest in the best friend is more of a subplot, plot the whole thing from John’s perspective, then deal with the Mary subplot separately at the end.

So far, we’ve defined plot as “a series of linked events concerning a character.” 

Next up…

“… who urgently wants something concrete and important that won’t be easy to get.”

There are five critical elements in there. Let’s look at them one by one…

i) The character must have a goal

What happens if your main character doesn’t want something? What if they’re perfectly happy and there’s nothing amiss in their life? Then you don’t have a plot, simple as that.

A goal, then, is the catalyst for your entire plot. More than that, it’s your number one weapon to hook readers and keep them hooked.

How come? Because as soon as you give the central character something they want, you provide readers with a question they want answered…

  • Will the detective solve the crime and bring the murderer to justice?
  • Will the super-hero save the planet from certain destruction?

You’ve got to get everything else right, of course. You’ve got to create great characters, write in an engaging voice and so on. But giving your protagonist a goal is the ante that gets you into the game.

Here are the three main sources for a goal. Your character will want to…

  1. Get something they want but don’t have – their dream job, their dream house, the heart of the new man or woman in town.
  2. Get away from something they don’t want – a sinking ship, sickness, an old enemy who has returned for revenge. (This one’s the flip-side of #1.)
  3. Retrieve something they have lost – a kidnapped child, stolen money, their own happiness.

Once you’ve settled on the goal, make sure that it satisfies the four remaining conditions, starting with…

ii) The goal of the plot must be urgent.

In other words, they must achieve the goal now. Putting it off for a week or a year simply cannot be an option.

For some protagonists, their entire world will have just been turned upside down. The only way to get back to living a normal life is to fix things immediately.

For others, the goal won’t be so personally critical. They may even be reluctant to take action (like a retired cop who’s asked to return for one more case). Nevertheless, there still needs to be urgency (a serial killer is on the loose and only the retired cop can capture him).

iii) The goal must be important.

How important? It depends on your type of novel you’re writing

  • In high-octane genre fiction, nothing less than saving the planet from certain destruction will do.
  • In a mainstream or literary novel, saving the local museum from closure may be all the drama you need.

You know your chosen genre best, so you are in the best position to decide how well your goal stacks up against goals in similar novels.

As a general rule, though, the more your character wants to achieve their goal, and the higher the stakes should they fail, the better.

iv) The goal must be difficult to achieve.

Just because something is urgent and important, it’s not necessarily difficult. Collecting the kids from school in 20 minutes is urgent and important. But it’s also very easy (assuming you’re not more than 20 minutes away!).

What stops something from being easy? Opposition.

Opposition (in plots and in real life) can be external, internal and environmental. For example, walking to school to collect the kids is easy. But what if the parent encounters…

  • External opposition? She’s bundled into the back of a car on the way and taken hostage.
  • Internal opposition? The kids’ teacher is a man she fancies and she knows she’ll get all flustered if he talks to her.
  • Environmental opposition? The town has flooded and the streets have turned into swollen rivers.

Okay, that’s a bad example. Even with all that opposition, it’s hardly a suitable goal on which to build an entire novel plot (though it could work as the opening incident).

So let’s return to that love story from earlier featuring John and Mary. We’ll assume that John is the novel’s protagonist…

  • If John is confident and Mary can’t wait for him to ask her out, that’s great for the happy couple but hopeless for the purposes of a gripping plot in a novel.
  • If John is painfully shy and Mary only has eyes for his handsome best friend, winning Mary will be anything but easy to achieve.

v) The goal must be concrete.

Robbing a casino is a concrete goal. Robbing it of $5 million to retire to a dream apartment in Monte Carlo is even more concrete. And concrete is good!

“Finding happiness” is an abstract goal. If yours is equally vague, there’s no need to change the goal of the plot – you just need to find something concrete to symbolize this happiness. For example…

  • Quitting a dead-end job and setting up in business on their own.
  • Becoming the new owner of the mansion on the hill.
  • Overcoming a stammer so they can make a speech at their daughter’s wedding.

These are all concrete goals which will lead to achieving the broader, abstract goal of finding happiness.

Bottom line? If your hero’s goal is abstract, make it concrete. If it’s already concrete, use specifics to make it more concrete still. You’ll end up with a far more engaging plot!

And finally in this definition of plot…

“The events should reach a satisfying conclusion.”

All plots have a beginning, a middle and an ending. We’ve already dealt with the first two…

  • In the beginning, your main character arrives at a goal and decides to act on it.
  • In the middle section of the story, they try to reach their goal in the face of opposition.

The ending provides the resolution. If there’s no sense of closure in your novel, if it fizzles out before the issues have been resolved, you don’t have a complete plot.

That’s not to say that you need to tie up every loose end. An ambiguous ending, or perhaps an ending which is more implied than stated, is fine (more so in literary than genre fiction).

So you can go for a neat and tidy ending to the plot, in which the hero walks off into the sunset having achieved his or her goal. You can go for an ambiguous or an implicit ending. Either way, the question you posed at the beginning of the novel – will the hero achieve his or her goal? – needs to be answered at the end.

What do I mean by a “satisfying” ending?

I mean one which has this sense of resolution, of life returning to some sort of normality. If there’s no resolution, or a sense that the novel ended at an unexpected point, the reader will be left unsatisfied.

You can have a happy ending (the hero succeeded). You can have a sad ending (the hero failed). Or you can go for something in the middle (the hero failed, but he became wiser along the way and realized that it wasn’t such a smart goal to chase in the first place).

Whatever type of ending you go for, the state of urgent crisis that existed at the start of the novel must be resolved by the end.

Also, your 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, preferably for the better, by the events of the plot. And/or…
  • They themselves must have changed inside, preferably for the better. (Even if they end up sadder, they’ll at least be wiser.)

Why is this change necessary? Because if everything remains exactly as it was at the beginning, the reader will rightly wonder what the point of the story was.

What’s the best way to achieve a satisfying ending to your plot? Work it out during the planning stage. (Here’s how one novelist begins with the ending and works backwards.)

Wrapping Up

Here’s my definition one last time…

What is a plot? It’s a series of linked events concerning a character who urgently wants something concrete and important that won’t be easy to get. The events should reach a satisfying conclusion.

I hope you’ll agree that what seemed like a very simple question at first glance is a lot more complex when you dig into it. I also hope that you’ve been following along with your own plot idea in mind and fleshing it out as we went.

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