What is a plot in a novel? Let’s start there so that we’re on the same page. The plot is the backbone of a novel, providing structure, direction, and momentum to the story.
The plot is what keeps readers engaged and interested in the story. A well-crafted plot will have twists and turns that keep readers guessing and eager to find out what happens next. It will also have a resolution that brings the story to a satisfying conclusion.
The plot of a novel typically includes an introduction of the characters and setting. Then there is an inciting incident that disrupts the status quo.
This is followed by rising action that builds tension and conflict. The high point is a climax where the conflict comes to a head.
As the story nears its end, there is falling action that resolves the conflict. And finally, a resolution that ties up loose ends and brings closure to the story.
It is usually driven by the protagonist’s overarching goal or desire. This is often complicated by obstacles, challenges, and opposition from other characters.
The plot may also involve subplots that add depth and complexity to the story. Writers will also often add themes that explore universal ideas and issues.
Here are the five main elements of a plot with examples from well known novels.
Exposition provides important background information to the readers. It is used to establish the setting, characters, and the basic situation of the story. The exposition sets the stage for the events that follow, and helps the readers understand the context in which the story takes place.
Exposition can take various forms, including dialogue between characters, description of the setting or characters, and even flashbacks or memories of past events. The goal of exposition is to help the readers become familiar with the world of the story and the characters who inhabit it, so that they can better understand the events that take place.
Exposition is often used at the beginning of a novel to introduce the readers to the story and its characters.
Too much exposition all at once can slow down the pacing of the story and make it less engaging. In older novels, most of the exposition was done right at the beginning, but today it is common to use it throughout the story to provide additional information as needed.
From the novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee
“Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum. People moved slowly then.”
In this excerpt, the author introduces the town of Maycomb and sets the scene for the story. The description of the town’s appearance and atmosphere establishes a sense of place and provides context for the events that will unfold. The language used also creates a vivid image in the reader’s mind, helping to immerse them in the story.
So, as you can see, exposition is not just what the writer puts down on the page, but also how they put it down. Using certain words can tell a reader a lot abut the sort of setting or characters they are meeting.
In a novel, rising action refers to the events and conflicts that lead up to the climax of the story. It is the part of the story where the tension and stakes are raised, and the main character is faced with increasing challenges and obstacles.
During rising action, the main character may face various setbacks and challenges, and will typically experience some personal growth or development as they work to overcome these obstacles.
The rising action is a crucial part of the story because it builds tension and creates suspense, making the readers more invested in the outcome of the story. It sets up the climax, where the story reaches its most intense and dramatic point.
Rising Action Example
From the novel “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” by J.K. Rowling
“After a few minutes’ walk, Hagrid had reached a gate in a high stone wall. It opened onto a narrow lane that twisted and turned, and which was barely wide enough for a single person to pass. Hagrid led them down this lane until they reached another, much smaller, gate, which led into what seemed to be a garden, but one so overgrown that it was difficult to make out the various objects lying among the bushes and undergrowth. Hagrid paused, looking around, apparently trying to see something.
‘What are we looking for?’ Harry asked.
‘Hagrid?’ said Hermione, timidly. ‘Are you sure we should be here?’
‘Of course I’m sure,’ said Hagrid gruffly. ‘Do you think I’d do anything ter hurt yeh?’
But at that moment, a slithering sound made them all jump. A bush on the edge of the clearing quivered… Then, out of the shadows, a hooded figure came crawling across the ground like some stalking beast.”
In this example, the rising action begins when Hagrid leads Harry, Ron, and Hermione to an overgrown garden and they begin to feel uneasy.
The tension increases as they hear a slithering sound and a hooded figure appears. This event marks the beginning of the characters’ encounter with the mystery and danger that lies at the heart of the story, and it propels the narrative forward.
This rising action will continue to build as the characters face challenges and obstacles in their quest to uncover the truth about the Philosopher’s Stone.
Rising Action Bonus Example
From the novel “An American Marriage” by Tayari Jones
“Roy and Celestial had only been married a year when he was arrested. The police showed up at their hotel room, arrested Roy, and charged him with a crime he didn’t commit. Celestial was devastated by the news and struggled to come to terms with the fact that her husband could be taken away from her so suddenly.
As Roy was sent to prison, Celestial’s life began to unravel. She was forced to navigate the complicated legal system, which seemed to be working against her at every turn. She also had to deal with her disapproving parents, who never believed that Roy was good enough for her.
Over time, Celestial began to build a new life for herself, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing. She continued to visit Roy in prison and tried to maintain their connection, but the distance between them grew with each passing day. As the months turned into years, Roy and Celestial both had to confront the harsh reality of their situation and the impact that it was having on their relationship.”
In this novel, the rising action occurs as the story builds tension and conflict in the aftermath of Roy’s wrongful arrest and subsequent imprisonment.
The passage describes the difficulties faced by both Roy and Celestial as they struggle to come to terms with the sudden change in their lives.
As the story progresses, the tension and conflict continue to escalate, creating a sense of urgency and uncertainty about what will happen to the characters.
This section of the story is called the rising action because it represents the stage of the story where the conflicts and tensions are introduced and begin to build, leading up to the eventual climax.
Climax is the point of highest tension and conflict in a novel.
It is the moment when the main character’s fate hangs in the balance and the outcome of the story is in doubt.
Climax often involves a final confrontation between the main character and the antagonist or the main obstacle.
It is the point where the story reaches its turning point, and the main character is faced with a crucial decision or action that will determine the outcome of the story.
During climax, when well executed, readers’ emotions and investment in the story reach their peak, and they are left with a lasting impression of the story’s themes and messages. That sounds quite PG, but you get what we mean.
From the novel “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins
“I take his hand, holding on tightly, preparing for the cameras, and dreading the moment when I will finally have to let go.
The trumpets begin to blare. The band strikes up ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ And as one, the people of District 12 begin to sing. At first, it is just a whisper, a prayer for the dead. I add my own voice, knowing that all of Panem is listening and that two children from District 12 have defied the Capitol. Our hands are linked, and somewhere in the crowd, someone starts to sing. Someone else joins, and then more and more, until the entire gathering of people is singing. It becomes a requiem. A song of honor. For Peeta and me. And for every tribute who died in the Hunger Games. It’s the anthem of the people of Panem.”
In this example, the climax occurs during the final moments of the Hunger Games, when the main character Katniss and her fellow tribute Peeta have defied the Capitol by refusing to kill each other.
As they await the Capitol’s response, the people of District 12 begin to sing, turning their tribute’s apparent defeat into a powerful act of rebellion.
The language used in this passage is emotional and evocative, and it conveys the sense of triumph and defiance that the characters and the people of Panem feel in this moment.
This climax marks a turning point in the story, as the rebellion against the Capitol gains momentum and Katniss becomes a symbol of hope for the oppressed people of Panem.
This is the section where the conflicts and obstacles that were built up in the rising action and climax are resolved and the story begins to wind down towards its conclusion.
During falling action, the main character(s) may experience a sense of relief or release, as the major obstacles or conflicts have been resolved. The story’s pace typically slows down, and the focus shifts towards tying up any remaining loose ends and exploring the consequences of the story’s events.
Falling action is a crucial part of the story, as it provides closure and helps the readers understand the meaning and significance of the events that have taken place.
It is also a time for reflection and resolution, as the main character(s) reflect on their experiences and what they have learned from them.
Falling Action Example
From the novel “The Vanishing Half” by Brit Bennett
In this story, the climax occurs when the two main characters, twin sisters named Desiree and Stella, reunite after many years apart.
Stella, who has been living as a white woman, reveals her true identity to her sister, who had believed her to be dead.
The sisters confront their complicated past and the choices they have made, and the tension between them reaches its peak.
The falling action of the story occurs in the chapters that follow the reunion. The sisters begin to reconnect and come to terms with their shared history, and the story shifts its focus to other characters and plot threads.
The novel looks at the aftermath of the sisters’ reunion and how it affects their families and the people in their lives.
During the falling action, the pace of the story slows down, and the focus shifts from the intense emotional conflicts of the climax to a more reflective tone.
The novel explores themes of identity, race, and family, and the characters are given space to process their experiences and come to some resolution.
This is the section where the story’s loose ends are tied up, and the characters’ fates and futures are revealed.
During the resolution, the story’s conflicts are fully resolved, and any remaining questions or issues are addressed. The resolution provides a sense of closure and finality to the story, and allows the readers to reflect on the events that have taken place and the impact they have had on the characters and the world of the story.
The resolution may take many forms, depending on the story and the author’s intent. It could involve a happy ending, a tragic ending, or something in between.
The important thing is that it provides closure and resolution to the story, allowing the readers to come away with a sense of completion and satisfaction.
But, as with all things, there is a caveat. Sometimes, authors strategically leave some things unresolved to set readers up for a sequel.
From the novel “The Water Dancer” by Ta-Nehisi Coates
The resolution in “The Water Dancer” occurs after the main character, Hiram, has uncovered the truth about his past and his family’s history of enslavement.
Throughout the novel, Hiram has struggled to come to terms with his identity and the trauma of his experiences as an enslaved person.
In the novel’s final chapters, Hiram finally confronts the main antagonist, who is responsible for many of the traumas he has experienced. In a climactic confrontation, Hiram is able to overcome his fear and use his powers to defeat the antagonist.
The resolution of the story comes in the aftermath of this confrontation. Hiram is able to free the enslaved people on the plantation where he was born, and he decides to dedicate his life to the fight against slavery. He also comes to terms with his own identity and the legacy of his family’s enslavement.
The novel’s resolution is bittersweet, as Hiram has achieved a measure of justice and liberation, but the larger system of slavery still persists. However, the resolution provides closure to Hiram’s personal story, and allows the readers to reflect on the larger themes of the novel, such as the legacy of slavery and the power of community and resistance.
So, how do I plot my own novel?
Armed with all the information above, how do you actually go about plotting a novel? Many writers do it the good old way; by starting with a blank sheet of paper and a pen, or using post it notes stuck to a wall.
There are also a number of software applications that will help you plot your novel. They make plotting easy by replicating the way post it notes work; each point can be moved around as you develop the plot until you are happy with your outline.
7 great applications to help you plot your novel
Here are some useful software programs to help you plot that winning novel.
Scrivener is a popular app for writers, and it has many features that can be useful for plotting a novel. It allows you to organize your notes, research, and outlines in one place, and it has a corkboard feature that lets you move scenes around easily.
Plottr is a dedicated plotting app that helps writers create a visual representation of their story’s structure. It lets you create timelines, character profiles, and plot outlines, and it also has a feature that helps you keep track of each scene’s location, time, and point of view.
Aeon Timeline is a timeline app that can help writers create a chronological overview of their novel’s events. You can add events, characters, and locations to the timeline, and it also has a feature that lets you create dependencies between events, so you can see how one event affects another.
Milanote is a visual collaboration tool that can be used to create storyboards, character profiles, and plot outlines. It has a drag-and-drop interface that makes it easy to move notes and ideas around, and it also has a library of templates that can be customized to fit your needs.
Campfire is a collaborative writing app that can be used to brainstorm ideas and plot a novel with a writing partner. It allows you to share notes, ideas, and files in real-time, and it also has a chat feature that can be used to communicate with your writing partner.
OneNote is a note-taking app that you can use to organize research, notes, and ideas for a novel. It has a feature that allows you to create notebooks for different projects, and it also has a search function that can help you find information quickly.
We end this list ends with Google Docs to remind you that it does not have to be complicated or fancy. You can use any good ol’ wordprocessor to plot, write and collaborate on a novel. The commenting feature is valuable for getting feedback on your writing. The revision history feature lets you see changes made to your document over time so you can always revert to an earlier version.
Whether you use an app or paper and pen, planning a great novel involves several steps, and the process can vary depending on the individual writer’s style and preferences. Here are some general steps to consider:
Develop a concept
Plotting a novel often involves starting with an idea or a concept that you want to explore. This could be a theme, a character, a setting, or a situation. Ask yourself what you want to say with your novel, and what kind of story you want to tell.
Create a plot outline
Once you have a concept in mind, create a rough outline of the plot. This should include the major events that will happen in the story, such as the inciting incident, the rising action, the climax, and the resolution. You can use a basic three-act structure as a guide, or develop your own structure that suits your story.
Develop your characters
Create complex, well-rounded characters who will drive the story forward. Consider their personalities, motivations, and backstories. Think about how they will change over the course of the novel, and how they will interact with each other.
Establish your setting
Choose a setting that is appropriate for your story and that will enhance the mood and tone. This could be a real-world location or a fictional one, but it should be vivid and memorable.
Write a detailed synopsis
Once you have a rough plot outline and developed your characters and setting, write a detailed synopsis of the entire story. This should include all major events, as well as any subplots or minor characters.
Refine the plot
Review your synopsis and make any necessary changes to the plot. Make sure it flows logically, that the pacing is appropriate, and that there is enough tension and conflict to keep the reader engaged.
Write the first draft
With your detailed plan in hand, begin writing the first draft of your novel. Keep in mind that this is just a starting point, and that you will likely make many changes and revisions as you go.
Revise and refine
Once you have a complete first draft, take some time away from it. We recommend a few days or even weeks. Then come back and revise it with a critical eye. Things that you had missed before will jump out at you.
Refine your characters, setting, and plot, and make sure everything is consistent and makes sense. Repeat this process until you have a polished manuscript. How do you know it’s polished? The best way is to get an editor to read it for you.
Remember, there is no one “right” way to plot out a novel. Every writer is different. Experiment with different techniques and find what works best for you. For example, writer Christopher Mlalazi dives right in and develops the first three chapters of a novel before he starts any planning.
Keep trying and learning. And most importantly, have fun with the process!