The elements of a good story are myriad and many are complex. What characters you have in your story, what these characters do, how they interact, what happens to them, etc., are what make your story unique. These are the details. The overall structure of the plot, however, follows a set pattern: setting, rising action, climax, resolution (a.k.a. falling action, denouement), conclusion.
If you leave out any of these items, either you will have no story or you will have an incomplete story. You can imagine what that will do to your book sales. In your mind, as the author, you need to know exactly when each section begins and ends in your story. This knowledge helps you keep the story moving forward, pace the events, and determine which content is necessary and which is disposable. In addition, the transitions from one section to the next give you the three key events in your story: when the conflict begins, when the climax occurs, and when the resolution ends).
When we review and analyze a client’s manuscript, we look for these key events. If we can’t identify them, we know the manuscript has a problem. We also examine the events and details in each plot section and consider whether they are necessary or expendable. We consider the relative length of each section and where in the manuscript it begins. (For example, we just edited a short story in which the conflict was introduced halfway through the story, which is too late. We revised the manuscript to introduce it closer to the beginning.)
We’ll use Carrie by Stephen King to discuss the 5 elements of the plot structure. When I taught creative writing courses, this is the book we would study and dissect. Convincing the administration to purchase class sets was not easy. None of them had read it, but some had seen the movie posters. The conservative members of the purchasing committee were initially opposed. After all, the protagonist has “evil” powers and menstruates. Certainly, these are not the kind of topics students should read about.
In spite of their objections, Carrie is one of the best books I have read for understanding plot structure because the elements are easy to identify. The structure is clear and, to a trained eye, far more apparent than in many novels. King “built” Carrie using this plot structure; the book’s success is proof that it works for readers. Not surprisingly, this is the book that made Stephen King a household name.
Each section of the plot structure is described below and how it is implemented in Carrie. Also, to demonstrate the relative length of each section, I included the number of pages for each section, based on my version of this novel.
The general situation and place are introduced. The setting provides the background, the environment, in which the conflict is introduced. The setting is just long enough to provide the reader with essential information to understand how the main conflict can occur. As a general rule of thumb, the shorter the story, the shorter the setting should be. However, even in long novels, the reader needs to get past the setting before too many pages pass. Otherwise, nothing of interest is happening, and the reader will have no interest in continuing.
In Carrie, Carrie is showering with her classmates after P.E. class. We know that the other girls have made fun of her for years. She is an easy target for them; she is slow, unattractive, and different. All this we learn in just a few pages. [2 pages]
The conflict is the main problem the protagonist has to overcome. The protagonist begins to experience the tension of wanting something that he or she cannot have, a goal to accomplish, an unsatisfied desire. Whether or not the character can describe it, the reader learns what it is. In one event, and only one, the reader is introduced to this problem. Something happens that lets the reader know, “Aha, the main character has a problem.” In this section of the plot, the protagonist is affected by the problem and tries, unsuccessfully, to deal with it. Most of the book will deal with this problem as it gets worse.
In Carrie, this one event is when Carrie unexpectedly begins her first monthly cycle. It occurs in the scene described by the setting. When this happens, we learn of the terrible cruelty of the other girls, we learn that her mother has kept her unreasonably innocent of the changes her body will experience as she matures, and we see a glimpse of the uncontrollable power she displays when distressed. King does not say, “Carries main problem is that she . . . ,” which would be amateurish. He didn’t have to. The reader knows something is up, and this section of the story clarifies what that problem is, how it affects her, how it gets worse, and how she tries, unsuccessfully, to deal with it. [97 pages]
Like the introduction to the conflict, the climax is one event. In many cases, it is a single action, something a person says, something the protagonist experiences, observes, or realizes. It is the key to solving the problem. It is the point when the problem is at its worst, and the tension is the greatest. Then something happens that will, ultimately, result in the problem disappearing, one way or another.
In Carrie, this is as dramatic as the start to the conflict. Carrie believes that she has finally been accepted by her peers and has escaped the clutches of her lunatic mother. It’s prom night, and she’s on the stage being crowned queen, the king being the most desirable boy in school. She thinks the conflict that she has struggled with for her entire life is over. She is ecstatic, but the reader knows what is going to happen and can’t wait to see how it plays out. While she stands there, perhaps happy for the first time in her life, malicious classmates dump a bucket of pig blood on her head. [Instant]
Contrary to bad advice given by bad writing books, the problem is not solved at the climax. Rather, a solution becomes possible. In this section of the book, we see how the protagonist solves the problem. The resolution continues until the main conflict is completely solved. In some modern books, this is not always the case, but the reader should have enough information to know that the protagonist is at least on the right track.
In Carrie, as in all well-written books, the resolution begins immediately after the climax. When the blood hit her, she snaps. Her power is unleashed against all those who have ever wronged her, which, in her mind, is the entire town. During the resolution, we see her destroying the town until she finally faces and kills her mother and then finds and kills the nasty girl who led the others in abusing her. [35 pages]
The problem is solved, so the conclusion lets the reader know how the characters’ lives and environment are different. Loose ends from the story may also be tied up so the reader isn’t left wondering. Think short. If you do your work as a writer, not much needs to be said here. The reader will already know most or all this information.
In Carrie, Carrie has solved her problem, and now we see her die, too. Some townspeople have survived. We read about how they react, how their lives are different, how the town has been irrevocably changed, and we read one girl’s reflection on the entire life of Carrie White. This is a little long, relative to other novels, but it works because the culture of the town is a player in this story, and we need some time to understand how it has changed. [16 pages]