Elements of Plot Structure: The Sure-Fire Way to Create Your Story – Fire Up Your Stalled Novel, Part 3

    elements of plot

    Plotting a novel is like swimming under water.

    It’s murky, you run out of air, you have no idea whether you’re up or down, you start to panic - and then you suddenly pop up and see the island you’re heading toward in front of you.

    Elements of Plot


    This article is about how to create a plot that sizzles. You'll learn about the elements of plot so that you can weave together a story your readers will adore.

    I've studied half a dozen books, taken courses, cursed, and whined before I finally understood how to create a plot structure. The problem is that no single book tell you everything you need.

    That’s why I want to introduce you to the best ideas and the most practical advice for creating the plot of your novel.

    If you’re struggling with your plot, read this post and put each point into practice.

    Remember the Greek myth of Ariadne’s Thread?

    elements of plot 3

    She gave a sword and a ball of red string to Theseus with whom she had fallen in love. His mission was to kill the Minotaur, a monster hidden deep in the Labyrinth.

    After finding and killing the Minotaur, he was able to follow the trail of the red string to find his way out of the cave system.

    elements of plot

    The image of Theseus above is from a fresco found in the ruins of Pompeii (minus the figleaf). You can see the Minotaur, half human, half bull, lying dead at his feet. 

    Monsters are often the guardians of treasure, who must be slain to bring the treasure out. In a creative journey, we must often find our way through a labyrinth. We take wrong turns, hit walls, get lost. Often, this is what must happen to find the creative treasure at the center of ourselves.

    This post is the red thread you can follow to find the light at the end of the labyrinth.

    elements of plot

    First, let’s zoom out first and consider the elements of plot structure.

    The Skeleton of a Plot

    There’s an assortment of literature devoted to plotting. In most books, the recommendation is to use the 4-part story structure (which is a variant of the age-old 3-act plot). Below, are the four parts:

    1. The Setup

    3. The Attack

    2. The Response

    4. The Resolution

    The problem is that most books or article on plotting can leave you scratching your head or shelving your novel for another year.

    Here is an example of some advice about the first part of the structure, The Setup:

    Introduce your hero in pursuit of a goal, present a story world (time, place, culture, natural law), inject stakes and set up the mechanics of an impending launch of (or twist to) the plot (your core dramatic arc).

    All clear now? Nope, sorry.

    It might as well have been an instruction on how to change the oil in my car! As John Truby says in his excellent book, The Anatomy of Story:

    A mechanical view of story, like three-act theory, inevitably leads to episodic storytelling. An episodic story is a collection of pieces, like parts stored in a box. Events in the story stand out as discrete elements and don't connect or build steadily from beginning to end. The result is a story that moves the audience sporadically, if at all. 

    Creating your plot with a mechanical view is like gluing bones together to form a skeleton and expecting the thing to breathe and walk.

    The other extreme is to pile up flesh and expect the thing to stand up without having a skeleton upon which to hang the innards.

    Doesn’t work either.

    How to Make Your Plot Zing

    On what are you going to base your plot?

    The mechanical view of plotting concentrates on the sequence of outer events. However, there is a more compelling way to frame your plot by focusing on the inner events which shape the development of your protagonist.

    elements of plot

    John Truby

    The ultimate goal of the dramatic code, and of the storyteller, is to present a change in a character or to illustrate why that change did not occur.

    The Anatomy of Story

    I’ve recently read Michael Connelly’s novel, The Black Echo. Apparently, Connelly binned his first two novels before writing The Black Echo, the first story featuring his protagonist, Detective Harry Bosch. It is a masterpiece of storytelling.

    Scarred by traumatic experiences in Vietnam, Harry Bosch’s personal life if barren because he is divorced from his emotions.

    The Black Echo is a gripping novel and a masterclass on how to base a story on the character arc of a protagonist. In Connelly's series, you can follow Harry Bosch's slow journey of healing. Libbie Hawker explains:

    Elements of plot

    Libbie Hawker

    A story is a character’s journey from an emotional point A to an emotional point B - a quest to overcome their flaw.

    Take Off Your Pants!: Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing

    Basing your plot on the character arc of your protagonist makes things both easier and more difficult. Let me explain…

    Weaving Your Plot

    The challenge you face is to tie together two distinct plot patterns, the classic 4-part story framework (which focuses on outer events) and the character arc system (which follows the inner development of your characters).

    Once you meld the two plotting systems, your plot will begin to breathe and wriggle.

    elements of plot

    In Part 2 of the Fire Up Your Stalled Nove l, I talked about the importance of creating character arcs. If you skipped this step, please go back to Part 2 and work on your character arcs before continuing.

    How to Base Your Plot on the Character Arc of Your Protagonist

    No matter how many characters you have in your novel, make sure that your plot follows the development of your main character.

    Elements of plot

    Libbie Hawker

    By making it very clear in the earliest scenes that your character is in need of personal growth, your lighting up a big, blinking, neon sign that says to the reader subconscious, “Good book!”

    Take Off Your Pants!: Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing


    In the text box below, you'll find a blueprint for creating your character-based plot. It follows Monica Leonelle’s suggestions in her book, Nail Your Story: Add Tension, Build Emotion, and Keep Your Readers Addicted.

    PART A: The Character

    1. The Theme

    The theme of the novel is the layer of internal conflict.

    Example: Finding redemption by fighting evil.

    2. The Character Arc

    The character arc is a way you protagonist moves, grows, and changes within a story.

    Start with the character arc of your main protagonist.

    Example: Kat must heal from the trauma of losing her child. She needs to rejoin humanity by allowing herself to feel emotions again and trusting others.

    3. The Fatal Flaw

    The fatal flaw is the big thing that’s wrong in your character’s life.

    Describe your protagonist’s fatal flaw in a few sentences.

    Example: Doesn’t trust others.

    4. The False Beliefs

    List the false beliefs resulting from the fatal flaw. Examples:

    “I’m safe if I keep the world out and my feelings locked in.”

    “If I rely on myself, I can’t get hurt.”

    5. The Motivation

    Fill in your character’s main motivation in this novel. What do they desire? This desire is the external goal.
    Example: She wants to find out who murdered her parents.

    6. The Transformation

    What does this character need to learn in the story? This is the internal goal.

    Example: She needs to learn to trust others and not try to solve everything herself.

    PART B: The Story 

    1. THE SETUP

    The Setup has two pivotal moments, the Inciting Incident and the Decision and takes up about the first 25% of the novel.

    The Setup usually begins with showing the protagonist in their normal world. There are two pivotal moments in the Setup, the Inciting Incident and the Decision.

    The Inciting Incident (Pivotal Moment)

    The Inciting Incident is an event that throws this normal world into disarray. This pivotal moment sets the story in motion.

    The second pivotal moment is called, the Decision

    The Decision (Pivotal Moment)

    This is the pivotal moment when the character must choose their path in response to the Inciting Incident. The Decision completes the first part of the novel.


    The Response forces the protagonist to deal with the new situation they’ve entered as a result of The Decision

    The Response forces the protagonist to deal with the new situation they’ve entered as a result of their Decision

    During the response, the protagonist -

    • Fumbles their way through.
    • Tries to take action but is still stumbling around.
    • Is confused.
    • Actions result in failures.
    • Mentor or friend helps orient them towards the goal.
    • May have to overcome own beliefs and forms to orientate themselves properly.
    The Reversal (Pivotal Moment)

    The Reversal is a pivotal moment when something totally unexpected happens that threatens everything the protagonist knew and believed.

    This is the usually the midpoint of a novel.

    3. The Attack

    The character has had their mind blown by the reversal.

    The Attack has the protagonist actively pursuing their goal, motivated by previous events, with almost all the needed skills required for the final conflict.

    • The character actively goes after the main goal and start seeing success.
    • They are actively moving closer to where they need to be.
    • Things are sort of working. They are more right wrong.
    • The protagonist is almost ready to take on the antagonist.
    Cards on the Table (Pivotal Moment)

    This moment triggers the major climax of the book.

    The “Cards on the table” moment is the last piece of information the protagonist needs to go into the final battle. It is often called the Second Plot Point.

    4. The Resolution

    The Resolution includes the final conflict with the antagonist necessary to wrap up the story. This is a roller coaster of ups and downs where the protagonist could be derailed and lose it all.

    Your protagonist has finally earned the right to be called a hero.

    The Transformation (Pivotal Moment)

    This is where the protagonist undergoes the change needed to succeed. It’s the end of the character arc and also the completion of the story arc.

    Once you’ve completed the plot outline in broad strokes for your protagonist,  the story of your novel will emerge because it should follow the arc of your protagonist.

    Celebrate the milestone. But don’t stop there.

    You need to create a Story Blueprint for each of your characters. Don’t skip this step!

    In Part 4 of How to Fire up a Stalled Novel, we’ll start creating the individual scenes that will make up your novel. This is the fun part! You'll learn how to use the strategy of inverted triangles to create sizzling scenes.

    ​Do you have questions? Please write them in the comment section below. 

    Fire up a Stalled Novel – Part 1: From Idea to Concept and Premise

    Creating a Character Arc: Fire Up Your Stalled Novel – Part 2

    About the author

      Mary Jaksch

      Mary Jaksch is best known for her exceptional training for writers at WritetoDone.com and for her cutting-edge book, Youthful Aging Secrets. In her “spare” time, Mary is also the brains behind GoodlifeZEN.com, a Zen Master, a mother, and a 5th Degree Black Belt.

    • Barbara Vortman says:

      Thank you! I’m struggling with my latest novel because I have three main characters. This has helped me clarify what they need to do to accomplish what they want and how the process changes all three of them. Looking forward to the next installment!

    • Pippa says:

      This article has been so useful for me.

      I am writing my first novel and has really given me a lot of help.

      Thank you so much

    • I’ve just been watching Larry Brooks’ video ‘Essential Craft for Emerging Authors‘. It was excellent and I learnt a lot!

    • Amar kumar says:

      Hey Mary,

      Most good stories start with a fundamental list of ingredients – the initial situation, conflict, complication, climax, suspense, denouement, and conclusion. Great writers sometimes shake up the recipe and add some spice.

      Truly and deeply understanding story is the sure fire way to create a connection with your audience, have them stay with your story, and even have it be remembered long after. Eventually, thanks for sharing.

      With best regards,

      Amar kumar

    • Manfred Laskar says:

      Hey Mary, don’t worry about snooty comments! I’ve read all three posts in your series and they’ve helped me so much! I started a novel a few years ago but, like you, shelved it because I just couldn’t find out how to write it.

      But the idea of the novel has niggled at me.

      With the help of your articles, I’ve been able to revise my novel and create a structure that will work.

      So grateful!!

    • Thanks for taking the trouble to write your comment, Larry. I appreciate it!

      Your point is interesting: Should only experts write about particular topics?

      One of the advantages of novices is that they still have what Zen calls Beginner’s Mind.

      I remember when I first started writing online in 2008 that I was baffled by adding an image to a blog post. It took me days of research to find out how to do it. The problem was that the ‘experts’ couldn’t imagine that adding an image could be a difficult task and so didn’t explain the process in a way an novice could understand.

      It’s similar when starting to write a novel.

      There is a lot of information out there, like your book “Story Engineering”, Monica Leonelle’s “Nail Your Story”, Libbie Hawker’s “Take Off Your Pants”, John Truby’s “Anatomy of Story”, as well as hundreds of similar books.

      Most are written from an ‘experts’ point of view – which isn’t necessarily always helpful for a novice. And each of the books and courses on writing novels I’ve studied shows a particular, narrow slant.

      So I think there’s a case for writing a series about the journey of writing a novel which showcases the best and most practical advice from books and courses on writing.

      I want to encourage people to start the adventure of writing a novel. It’s exciting and fun! And it’s not easy.

      The emails and comments I’ve received about the series show it’s been helpful for many writers who had given up on their novel. That makes happy!

    • Basically what you’re saying here, is that wrapping your head around the basic elements of story, including plot and structure, is complicated. You’re right about “no single book covers it all,” only in the sense that, because adults learn from a variety of contexts, no single book applies all of those contexts. But many writing books, do cover it all, one facet at a time.

      There is a significant difference between articles/posts written by proven, published authors who are credible writing teachers, and those written by newer/struggling writers who are on that journey, without really having the credibility to criticize any of that advice. Sometimes it is hard to differeniate between documenting the struggle and navigating the principles at hand. For example, you label my advice about the mission of the Part 1 setup qaurtile as unhelpful (a shame, because that short list is merely an introduction to the mission of the narrative within the setup, nothing complicated about it)… which is really like a math student labeling the principles of long division as unhelpful because they are unable to wrap their head around it. The problem is with the student, not the teacher or the teaching.

      Certainly, the end-game isn’t just structure and plot, and it isn’t just character arc, as you attribute to Truby here. Both of us teach from all facets of the equation, and it is unfair to grab a quote or a subset, out of context, from one of those facets and leave it at that. This is why writers continue to be confused, because posts like this add to the confusion.

      A reviewer of one of my writing books complained about “all the big words” used in the text. Like, “dramatic tension” and “story essence,” real whopper five dollar words like that. Trouble is, such words reside at the very core of the avocation you are trying to learn, so to complain that you don’t understand is really no different than a child crying because they can’t reach the door handle.

      If one has trouble swimming underwater, one should first learn how to swim. From there, knowing where you’re going is much more likely.

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