Plot: A Writer’s Meat and Potatoes

plot literary device

What is Plot?

Plot is the sequence of events that moves a story forward through rising action, climax, and resolution. It builds suspense, creates tension, contributes to character development, and most importantly, provides structure to the narrative. Plot typically involves a series of conflicts and complications that the protagonist must overcome to reach a resolution.

How to pronounce Plot?

Plot is pronounced as “plät” from the Old English “plot,” of which there is no known origin.

When do writers use Plot?

Plot is something that writers really have no choice in using, if they’re writing a story that is. Plot is necessary to move the story forward as it is quite literally the driving force of a narrative. Without a plot, a story progresses without structure, purpose, or ending.

The plot of a story consists of a series of events and challenges that the protagonist must overcome to reach the end, or resolution, of the plot. This sequence of events is known as the rising action, climax, and resolution. Sometimes, however, a plot does not end in resolution but in a rather open-ended fashion where not all of a reader’s questions are answered.

How to Establish Plot

We’ve compiled a useful list of how to establish plot and achieve resolution.

  • Establish a clear goal: Before you begin writing, decide on a clear goal of what you want to achieve and what the purpose of your plot is. This will help you create a focused, engaging story.
  • Introduce characters and setting: Establish the characters and setting of your story early on. This encourages readers to become invested in the story and helps them to understand the context of the plot.
  • Establish a conflict: Conflict is essential to any plot. It creates tension, suspense, and gives the story a sense of purpose.
  • Build up to a climax: As the story progresses, conflict should become more intense and the stakes higher. This will lead to a dramatic climax with readers left on the edge of their seats.
  • Resolve the conflict: Once the climax has been reached, the conflict should be resolved. This can be done in a variety of ways. You may choose a happy ending or a tragic one. You may even decide on an open ending, or denouement, but more on that later.
  • Tie up loose ends: Make sure to tie up any loose ends. This will help readers feel satisfied and give them a sense of closure.

What are the Key Elements of Plot

As mentioned earlier, there are a few key elements the plot consists of. Most will agree there are five key elements of the plot. However, some argue there are six, and depending on who you ask, not everyone will agree on what these elements are called or the order they should follow. To be fair, this is most likely due to an attempt to modernize how current writers address and work with plot.

For the sake of argument, we will address all existing elements of plot and note where inconsistencies lie. While these do not necessarily need to be addressed in this order (as you’ll see when we dive into plot devices) it is generally a good idea to address them as needed. Now, review the main elements of a good plot.

  • Exposition Exposition refers to the introduction of the story, its setting, and the characters.
  • Inciting Incident – One of the more recent additions to plot, this term refers to an event that occurs near the beginning of the story, and in relation to the protagonist, which triggers a change in plot and sets the story moving in a different direction.
  • Rising Action (also referred to as Progressive Complications) – This is the central conflict between one or more characters and the series of events leading up to the climax.
  • Dilemma – Another new addition to the elements of plot, dilemma refers to a problem or conflict that cannot be resolved without creating another problem or conflict.
  • Climax – The climax occurs at the peak of a story but also, at a point when there does not appear to be a clear resolution to the conflict.
  • Falling Action – Curiously enough, some modern lists of plot elements do not even mention falling action and have instead replaced this element with the dilemma. Most likely this has something to do with the current trend of leaving stories unresolved, or open-ended. Regardless, falling action traditionally refers to a story’s progression toward conclusion while there still appears to be no clear resolution to the conflict as the action seems to slow in pace.
  • Denouement – The denouement is a story’s conclusion. Typically, the conflict is resolved at this point and all loose ends have been tied up. However, this is not always the case. Some writers choose to leave some questions unresolved and the story open-ended.

Adding to the Punch . . . 🧸

While there are currently six main elements of plot, writers often incorporate various plot devices. Just as plot adds structure to a story, these devices work with the main plot to build tension and excitement and keep the reader engaged.

In Media Res – Latin for “in the middle of things,” this is the practice of beginning a story in the middle action that is often crucial to the story and main plotline through a series of related events. Not really sure what this means? Both The Iliad and the film Gladiator begin in media res.

The Hero’s Journey – Popularized by Joseph Campbell, the hero’s journey has become the cornerstone of plot, particularly in epic literature. Also called a monolith, it can actually become quite complex but it always follows the structural foundation:

  • The hero ventures from the common, everyday world into an unknown region filled with supernatural elements.
  • The hero encounters fantastic forces in this foreign realm.
  • In this new world, the hero achieves a decisive victory of some sort.
  • In the end, the hero returns home, changed for the better by their experiences.

Deus Ex Machina – The term referring to the sudden and surprising resolution of an ostensibly unsolvable problem. An example of dues ex machina occurs in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds when it seems like the Martians will succeed at conquering humanity but then they are suddenly and inexplicably killed by bacteria.

Catastrophe and Eucatastrophe – Both are common in tragedies and comedies of old. Think of The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, almost any epic poem.

  • Catastrophes do not necessarily refer to disaster. In comedies, such as those written by Shakespeare, catastrophes often result in happy endings, but in the ancient tragedies, they often meant the ultimate end or death of a character.
  • Euchatastrophes refer to unexpected, seemingly implausible happy endings. An example of eucatastrophe occurs in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Return of the King when Gollum appears and bites the ring off Frodo’s finger just when he appears to be lost to darkness forever.

Subplot – A subplot is a secondary plot that unfolds within the main plot. Subplots may involve main characters, side characters, or any combination of the two.

Plot Holes – Plot holes occur when an inconsistency in the main plot is made obvious that defies the story’s main logic. Most often, these plot holes remain unresolved and seem to serve little purpose other than to annoy the reader. One such example occurs in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. Chandler never reveals who killed the chauffeur and when asked about it years later, he replied, “Damned if I know.”

Plot Twists – A plot twist is a dramatic change from the established plot and chain of events. Plot twists usually change the trajectory of the established plotline. They are typically rooted in logic and while they change the outcome, unlike plot holes, plot twists make sense.

Plot in Modern Film 🎥

In lieu of creating another list of examples for plot in film, this offers movie montage of sorts while demonstrating through example various aspects of plot.

How is Plot Different from Story? 👥

A story is the account of people, places, and events told for entertainment or educational purposes. The account may involve real or fictional characters, events, and places, or any combination of the three. Story is different from plot in that the plot is part of a story and is what moves it forward.


What is a plot in literature?

A plot is the sequence of events that make up a story in a narrative work, whether it’s a novel, short story, play, or film. It involves the main events of the narrative, structured and linked together through cause and effect, typically leading to a climax and resolution.

How does a plot differ from a story?

A plot differs from a story in its focus on structure and causality. While a story is a narrative of events in the order they happen, a plot is the arrangement of those events in a way that makes sense narratively, emphasizing the relationship between actions and consequences, and often includes a conflict that drives the narrative towards a climax and resolution.

What are the key components of a plot?

The key components of a plot typically include the exposition (introduction of setting, characters, and background information), rising action (events that build up the conflict), climax (the turning point with the highest tension), falling action (events after the climax leading to the resolution), and resolution (conclusion of the story where conflicts are resolved).

Why is plot important in literature?

Plot is important in literature because it provides a framework for the narrative, guiding the reader through the story. It creates tension and interest, making the story engaging. A well-constructed plot ensures that the story has a purpose and direction, leading to a satisfying conclusion that resonates with the reader.

How can I identify the plot of a literary work?

To identify the plot of a literary work, focus on the main events that drive the story forward, especially those that involve the central conflict or problem the characters must navigate. Look for the structure within the narrative, paying attention to how the events are arranged and how they build upon each other from the introduction to the resolution.