So many people want to write a book, but have difficulty in structuring their story. The Infographic below is more than just how to write a story plot – it reads like the plot summary of a typical fiction story, or even an epic non-fiction story.
I am sure you can easily read adventure, fantasy and sci fi into the plot outline presented, but for the most part even a romance or detective novel follows this formula. Or the screenplay for a romantic film or even many comedies or other movies.
A story need not use all these elements, or place them in this exact order. But most fiction (and some non-fiction) books on the New York Times Best Sellers list include most of these elements in roughly this order. A complex story will have many of these elements repeat, sometimes several times. In fact, a complex story might have several plots moving along simultaneously.
I was just reading Son of a Witch: Volume Two in the Wicked Years by Gregory MaGuire (highly recommended, but best to read Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West first), and the first half of the book runs through two threads, one past and one present, and the present thread divides in two to follow Liir along one and the two traveling maunts along the other.
One of my favorite books of all time, The Eight by Katherine Neville, follows two stories, one in present time (during the oil crisis of a few decades ago, and one historical, during the French Revolution.
Both these books use pretty much all of the elements presented in the plot outline below multiple times, and at times simultaneously along the different threads. Great reads, both, for students of how to write a book with multiple plot lines.
Must the Plot of a Story Be so Dramatic?
This is just a generic plot summary. Mark Twain once said, “Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t.” Nevertheless, in real world story plots (our own lives), we never find such superlatives. There is good and kindness in everyone, and there is mischief and ill-will in everyone, too. And even in the most fantastic of stories, we like to see a little balance shine through.
- We like to see our Valiant Hero vulnerable, perhaps a bit socially awkward or over self-confident, or caught off guard. We like to see him doubt his ability to prevail, or fall hopelessly in love.
- We like to see the Forces of Evil are not all evil, that somewhere inside remains a seed of compassion and tenderness…seconds before our Valiant Hero annihilates him.
It is true that not every story has all of these component, nor are they always so clear-cut. Sometimes there are more than one Valiant Hero, and they are sometimes working at cross-purposes. Sometimes there is an ambiguous character, who is neither good nor evil – or is somewhat of both.
And the evil might not always be “evil”, but it might simply be an incredible obstacle or a natural disaster. Or a bumbling fool who always gets in the way or tips the apple cart.
And the Quest is not always obvious from the outset. In fact, sometimes we near the end of a story before realizing what the Quest really is about.
Writing a book or a screenplay is not always that simple, and even if you hire a ghostwriter it helps if you already have the structure of your tale pretty much organized. There is plenty of room to play with the plot of a story, plenty of room for creativity in putting your own plot outline together. But if you start with this model, you have a great structure on which to build your story.
A Generic Story Plot
Transcription of the image above.
The End of the World!
The world is heading for cataclysmic disaster. Perhaps the planet will explode. Perhaps somebody’s true love will leave. In the context of your story, this is surely the End of the World.
The Noble Quest
Hold on! The End of the World will have to wait. Our Valiant Hero is off on the Noble Quest to save the day (and the world)!
The Roadmap to Victory
The Noble Quest to stave off the End of the World entails certain steps that must be taken, a checklist of challenges. This is the Roadmap to Victory.
Alas! The Forces of Evil conspire to ensnare our Valiant Hero and thwart the Noble Quest.
Supreme Personal Sacrifice
Only by acts of Supreme Personal Sacrifice can our Valiant Hero overcome the Insurmountable Hurdles and proceed along the Roadmap to Victory.
Confounded! The Insurmountable Hurdles have nevertheless delayed our Valiant Hero. Impending Doom is imminent. Surely these forebodings mean that the Noble Quest fails.
The Stars Aligned
Somehow all the stars in the heavens incredibly align against all odds at half a second to midnight, so that Our Valiant Hero can save the day and delay the End of the World…at least until the sequel.
So busy was our Valiant Hero battling the Forces of Evil, that he did not realize how he has blossomed as a result of the Noble Quest.
A New Kind of Normal
With the End of the World now in the past, people return to their business and things return to normal. But “normal” has changed; nobody touched by the Noble Quest remains unchanged by it.
* Special thanks to Forest Parks for helping me assemble the Infographic when I got stuck.