I’ve a confession to make. As a character-driven writer, I’ve tended to see plot as a one-dimensional device. As I’ve said before, it’s the match that lights the flame of story. But beyond that, it never occurred to me to pay attention to it.
Recently though, when I was preparing notes for creative writing workshops, I realised that plot is as rich and varied as any other aspects of writing. I began to identify some common plot structures that writers use.
1. Quest Narrative
The classic plot structure, common to all fairytales and fantasy novels and more subtly present in realist novels. A character must go on a quest to save their civilisation and/or themselves. They usually face a dangerous enemy, or physical challenges. They have a companion to help them, but ultimately, they must carry on alone to complete their quest. But beneath all the heroics, all they want to do is go home to their love.
- Linear Plot
In this plot, events unfold in a straight line from start to finish. This is the plot most commonly used in thrillers. It carries readers along with it, then puts you down, shaken and exhilarated.
- Flashback Plot
In this plot, the action moves between past and present, which slows down the pace and builds suspense, as you wait to see what the flashback sequences reveal about the characters. Commonly used in literary and women’s fiction novels.
- Chinese Box
This structure is less common, but can be intriguing. It’s a story within a story within a story. One story reveals another story, like boxes continually opening. It’s used in a lot of classics, like The Brothers Karamasov by Dostoevsky and it was used to thrilling effect in my favourite short story, The Marvellous Story of Henry Sugar by Roald Dahl.
- The Humpty Dumpty Plot
This is a modern version of the quest narrative, except that the journey is internal. A character is broken down by life, or by their destructive actions. They must find a way to redeem themselves, so that they can put themselves together again.
- Character Plot
You can still create an exciting plot without a lot of action, simply through compelling interactions between characters. There are books where nothing happens, but they smoulder with suppressed tension until they catch fire in a spectacular manner.
Time for me now to go off and come up with a cracking plot.