Plot is one of the four backbones of fiction (the other three being character, setting, and style), and it’s one we haven’t touched on much here on the B&BD blog. So today, I want to go through the traditional stages of plot.
When I edit my own work, one of the things I like to do is map where my chapters fall in these stages. Doing so really helps me visualize the pacing, and also helps me narrow in on what the tone of each section should be. Are my characters getting too much downtime in the rising action portion? Or, conversely, not enough? Does the climax or denouement stretch on for too long to be effective? These are the questions we can ask ourselves when we employ the stages of plot as a framework.
Like most traditional writing rules, these stages of plot are there to be experimented with. For practice, consider your favorite books, movies, and even TV shows and observe the way they utilize these plot stages. Compare to yours. This will help you learn to see the structure of your manuscript and revise for tension and a complete arc.
This is almost invariably the first stage: the introduction to the characters and the setting. In the exposition, you’re laying a foundation for the story. This section is important because it lets us bond with the characters before the shit hits the fan, and sets initial expectations for the rest of the novel. Once the stakes are raised, we know where the protagonist is coming from and what it will mean to them to succeed.
Often, writers spend too long in the exposition stage of the plot or they try to give too much exposition all at once. It varies from genre to genre, but you often don’t need as much exposition as you think.
Remember that your exposition can be a hook as much as any other plot stage. This is where style and character matter a lot toward engaging the interest of your reader. You’re presenting information necessary to contextualize the plot, but how are you presenting it? By the time you get to editing your draft, you should be thinking of ways to innovate your scenes, whether by an unusual exchange of dialogue or perhaps an unexpected setting or point of view.
Rising Action (First Phase)
Traditional ‘story mountain’ maps generally show rising action as one long climb to the climax, but I like to break it down a bit more, so I include what I call the first phase of rising action. This is the part of the story that grows out of the exposition and builds the tension. This stage usually includes the inciting incident, which is what gets your protagonist involved in the plot–but that’s one of the ways you can experiment. These days it’s very common to find the inciting incident in the first chapter, perhaps even the first page.
The exposition and first rising action phase work best when they’re blended in a steady ebb and flow that gradually carries your reader forward (or upward, depending on your visualization) into the story.
So when you’re mapping, how can you tell the difference between the two kinds of scene? Exposition tells the reader what the characters already know. It establishes the status quo, introduces things as they are. Rising action, in any phase, introduces something new in some way, whether it’s an attack or just news of an attack, or even if it’s just your protagonist learning something that may have been established in the exposition of another character (such as a villain).
The key in this phase of rising action is that each development should raise more questions than it answers, or otherwise muddle the plan.
This isn’t one that shows up on basic ‘story mountain’ diagrams, but I like to think of it as the event during the rising action that really kicks things off. This is that moment when everything changes, when the characters move from asking questions to actively participating. This is where urgency is introduced. Something must be done immediately!
Rising Action (Second Phase)
The second rising action phase is what I think of as the crisis stage. This is where characters are making and executing plans, experiencing setbacks and losses, and barreling along toward the climax. Tension should be high, both in terms of external stakes and between characters. This is the time to exploit relationships and dredge up secrets left unshared. This is the time for things to go horribly wrong.
This is also when your characters, protagonists especially, should confront their worst fears and attitudes and start to find the hero within themselves. How does your protagonist respond to adversity? And your supporting characters–do they cave or rally? Which of them can be trusted, or relied upon? Stack the odds against your players and allow them to surprise you.
Climax or Denouement
This is the point where everything comes to a head. The apex of the story mountain, if you will. I include both climax and denouement, because they sometimes overlap, but put simply: the climax is the high point of the plot, the most tense or exciting or active point.
A denouement can include or directly follow the climax, and makes clear or resolves the elements of the plot to that point. Think of it as the scene in a crime procedural when the detective is explaining the evidence against the suspect, and how they figured it out. Another fun example is the end of Louis Sachar’s Holes, when the main character realizes the connections between all the events and people at the camp.
The execution of this stage will vary depending on the genre of your novel. A fantasy denouement could stretch several chapters as part of an epic battle. In a contemporary, it’s more likely to happen in the space of one chapter, and be purely a climax.
In this stage, your characters are either solving the problems of the climax or processing the denouement and cleaning up after it. It depends on your genre. The Return of the King is an excellent example of extended falling action, if you consider the destruction of the One Ring the climax. There’s a lot of logistical housekeeping to be done, and even a little more action to be had when the hobbits return to the Shire and deal with the consequences of the battle at home. But it’s all downhill, nothing the hobbits can’t handle after what they’ve learned and been through on their journey.
Falling action is about consequences, and every book should have this stage even if it’s part of a series.
Like exposition and the first phase of rising action, falling action often blends with resolution. As your characters address the aftermath of the climax, they must either accept or reject what they’ve done and the way things end up, and make plans for the future. For series writers, this stage of reflection is how you build momentum toward the next book without utilizing a hateful cliffhanger. It doesn’t have to last long, and is often better if kept brief.
To use a film example, the final shot of Catching Fire shows us Katniss reacting very quickly to the news that the Games are over and she’s on her way to District 13. We see her reject her fear and become determined–to what, we’re not specifically sure (in terms of just watching the movies). But we know she’s made a decision and intends to do something about it, which kicks us toward the next film, while still feeling that this arc of her story is complete.
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