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Saturday, April 13, 2024

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

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.

Allison Stieger

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:

elements of plot

John Truby


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.

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