Tuesday, February 8, 2022

Learn the Seven Elements of Plot

by Cindy K. Sproles @CindyDevoted

There are two things I want to stress as crucial for the new writer. Please take heed or do as I say, not as I do, so when you see this first suggestion, it really does apply to plotting. 

Lesson 1: When you attend a writers conference, attend classes that pertain to WHERE YOU ARE CURRENTLY in your writing process. Of course, you want to learn how to move forward, but you can't move forward correctly until you know the steps of the craft. Here's why I say this. I had no guidance when I attended my first conference, so I randomly decided on classes that looked interesting, not classes that taught me where I was in my current writing level. The classes I attended were terrific, but the problem was I learned advanced techniques before I understood the basics. I learned things backward, which sent me down a path of re-learning. Trust me. Learn it in order. Your life will be easier. Again, do as I say, not as I did!

Lesson 2: Once you learn the basics, begin focusing on advanced writing techniques. And with that, we begin to understand the elements of the plot.

Depending on who is teaching the class, you'll be told there are 5, 6, or 7 elements to the plot. Don't panic. Some folks combine very similar features, but we'll name all seven for your understanding of what others may teach.

Seven Elements of Plot
These elements are exposition, inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution, and denouement (pronounced day-new-ma), which means tying up the story's ends to give completeness.

1. Exposition: This is where you set the scene, introduce characters, and a little of their background. This is where you place the hook, and hopefully, you get that hook in the first paragraph. This is NOT where you give an information dump. In other words, where you toss all the backstory because you feel like the reader needs the history. Nope! The backstory is placed in tiny bits to aid the movement of your story, not to bog it down. Less is more in this case. Pick out your characters who are first in the lineup of the story and slowly introduce them. Polish this exposition until it shines because it draws your reader in and it's what sets your character on their adventure. Be clear. Be concise, and sometimes, a tiny vague.

2. Inciting Incident: The inciting incident is one thing that happens that sets your protagonist on their quest. It's the reaction to something that happened, and it causes a massive chain reaction of events (your story). Writers often want to tell the reader what the goal is and reassure them their character will meet that goal but don't. Often as we face adversity, we aren't sure how our actions will change what is to come. We only know we need to take action. Along the way, our methods may change, directions shift, but ultimately, our choices lead us to our ultimate goal. Our reader needs to see the goal, but not how we get there just yet. The story they want to enjoy is in the getting there, so don't blow it for them. Again, less is more.

3. Rising Action: Our story begins to build. The protagonist often meets complications, hardships, angst. Their original problem becomes more complex. It's true that angst makes a good story. The more obstacles and difficulties you place in front of a character, the better the reader enjoys seeing how they maneuver through. Don't make your angst (problems) unrealistic. Make them believable. Think real life. When something challenging happens in our lives, it seems two more follow. This is a good rule of thumb to remember in your rising action. Just as your character sorts through one issue, a new one rises up due to the old one. This also makes your book a page-turner. Good to remember, just sayin'.

4. Climax: The climax is where your character reaches the breaking point. The tension between the protagonist and antagonist seems to lurch out of control, and someone has to take hold and put their foot down. This is where your character gains that extra boost of internal strength and determination, and it's where your reader begins to see how this plot will thicken and eventually how it will turn. This is the middle of your book for those who like things simple.

5. Falling action: This happens as our character turns toward ending the situation. The story shifts, and we see the changes our character has taken. It's a reversal of how the character was in the beginning until now when that newfound strength appears. These recognitions help the character see where they were then and now, plus how they will get through. We give our readers a breath here, especially if our story is high intensity. It's essential to allow your reader a moment to relax and regain their own strength. Especially if you have developed characters where readers are deeply invested, give them a moment to see the hope and let their heart rate drop just a tad.

6. Resolution: This is where we let the cat out of the bag. All the protagonist has worked for resolves. It happens. The situation is fixed—just a note here about resolution. General market readers say that Christian writers fail them because they tend to wrap everything up in a nice bow. They accuse us of being liars because that is not how life is. And when you think about it, it's true. We try so hard to let the non-believer see we have a compassionate God that we let the Christian always win in the world. We know this is not truth. We fail to allow our characters to have a solid resolution. God always answers our prayers, but more times than not, it's not what we ask – instead, it's what is best for us. Resolution can be, and should be, satisfying for the reader. That means things may not work out the way we wanted them to, but our character ends up in a good place, having had life changes that make them better people. Resolution is satisfaction. Sometimes our story ends perfectly, but you and I both know that our personal story shifts to a place that is overall better for us. This is vital for the writer to learn.

7. Denouement: Pronouced day-new-ma. French for "the ending." This is often combined with the resolution for some teachers, but I wanted you to see if you have a teacher who mentions this. Our ending needs to be "SATISFYING." Some stories are best left "unfinished," questionable. But that is not true for the vast majority of them. Finish your story with a solid ending. Even if the protagonist loses the battle, the reader needs to understand it's only a battle, and there is great hope in the belief system of that protagonist. I didn't win the baseball game, but I played a fantastic game. Your reader is satisfied with the loss and happy with the lessons and growth, and your protagonist has acquired HOPE.

These are the seven elements of a plot. Learn them. Practice them and do not veer from them. Story trumps everything.

Some good suggested reading:


Cindy K. Sproles is an author, speaker, and conference teacher. She is the cofounder of Christian Devotions Ministries and the executive editor for www.christiandevotions.us and www.inspireafire.com. Cindy is the lead managing editor for SonRise Devotionals and also Straight Street Books, both imprints of LPC/Iron Stream Media Publications. She is a mentor with Write Right and the director of the Asheville Christian Writers Conference held each February at the Billy Graham Training Center, the Cove, Asheville, NC. Cindy is a best selling, award winning novelist. Visit Cindy at www.cindysproles.com.