How to Define a Plot in a Story

A few simple tools make it easy to identify the plot of a story.
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Identifying the plot of a story is one of the basic elements of literature analysis. To define the plot of a story, look for the core conflict, essential structural elements and the narrative arc. Then see how your story's plot mirrors the basic literary plots seen in literature.

1 No Problem, No Plot: Identifying Literary Conflicts

Plot is driven by conflict. Until the characters in a story have a problem to solve, there is no story, simply description. A story begins when characters face a conflict between what they want or need and the obstacles that keep them from having it. A story ends when the problem is somehow resolved. Identifying the conflict or conflicts in a story makes it easier to recognize the plot.

The four major literary conflicts are:

  • Character vs. self
  • Character vs. character
  • Character vs. society
  • Character vs. nature

Character versus self is when a character has conflicting desires, motives or goals. For example, in Tom Sawyer, Tom is torn between guilt over the arrest of the innocent Muff Potter for a murder he didn't commit and his fear of reprisal if he testifies against the real murderer. Character versus character conflict is when two or more characters lock horns, as do Javert and Valjean in Les Miserables. Character versus society arises when characters are at odds with the norms of their time and place; think Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. And character versus nature pits a character against natural forces, as in Jack London's short story "To Build a Fire," in which the protagonist struggles to survive alone in the wilderness. Once you recognize the primary conflict of a story, you can identify the plot, which starts when the conflict arises and ends when the problem is resolved.

2 The Elements of Plot

Understanding a few basic terms makes it easier to define the plot of a story. The inciting action of a plot occurs near the beginning of the story, when the problem or conflict emerges. For example, in the story of Cinderella, the inciting action is the announcement that the prince will choose a bride at the ball. The rising action increases the tension by illustrating the severity of the problem and showing unsuccessful attempts to solve it. In "Cinderella," the rising action includes Cinderella's desperate efforts to get all her chores done in time, the stepsisters' destruction of her first dress and her eventual arrival at the ball with the help of the fairy godmother. The climax of a plot is the moment when the basic problem is solved -- for example, the moment when the glass slipper fits Cinderella's foot. The falling action of the story follows the climax, when the loose ends are all tied up -- as with Cinderella's marriage and the punishment of the stepmother and stepsisters.

3 The Plot Arc Diagram

Plot diagrams provide a visual representation of plot, which can make it easier to recognize the elements of plot in a story. The basic plot diagram begins with a flat line that represents the exposition of a story, or the initial introduction of characters and setting. It continues with a rising line that represents the story's rising action. The climax of the plot is the peak of the diagram, and the downhill slope of the diagram is the falling action. Another flat line can indicate the end of the story that ties up all the threads.

4 Basic Plots

A few basic types of plot tend to recur in human storytelling. Scholar Christopher Booker identified seven basic plot themes:

  • Overcoming the monster (Beowulf or Jurassic Park)
  • The quest (Lord of the Rings or The Incredible Journey)
  • Voyage and return (The Hobbit or The Odyssey)
  • Rags to riches ("Cinderella" or The Pursuit of Happyness)
  • Tragedy (Hamlet or Titanic) Comedy (_As You Like It _or Pride and Prejudice*)
  • Rebirth (A Christmas Carol or Finding Forrester)

Other scholars identify more or fewer basic plots, but keeping these seven in mind can make it easier to recognize the plot in a story.

Shandi Stevenson is a teacher, tutor and author whose work has appeared in national and international publications including "Shibboleths," "Homeschooling Today," and "Resort Living." She holds a Bachelor of Arts in literature in English and a Master of Arts in humanities.