The key to a successful plot is desire, a goal, a want or a need. It should become evident early in your novel. Does your protagonist want justice? Revenge? Or something tangible, such as an elixir that will give him immortality, or something nobler, a device that will end a war?
The classic plot diagram looks like a leaning pyramid. It begins with exposition, moves upward with rising action until it reaches a crisis, peaks at the climax and descends through falling action to the resolution. Some writers prefer the three-act structure, familiar in plays and movies. If you type “classic plot structure” into your computer’s search engine, a myriad of graphs and diagrams will pop up, including “Aristotle’s Incline,” (shown above), from 350 BC. All of them contain exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution, but they may add steps such as plot points, pinch points or progressive complications, or they may change the terminology, referring to the first step as the inciting incident, the introduction or the trigger event.
In the late 1940’s Joseph Campbell, an American college professor, discovered while researching mythology that stories that have been told and written by different people from across the world in differing times share a certain fundamental story structure that he described as the hero’s journey in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In these mythic narratives, a protagonist leaves his ordinary world and, often for a noble cause, ventures into a mysterious “dark woods,” where he encounters powerful forces he must overcome. His battle with these enemies requires that he call upon all his strength and cleverness. At one point, before the climax, he appears so beaten down, so weak he may die from his efforts, but he rises, wins the battle and returns with a trophy or some other symbol of his success.
Campbell describes 17 stages in this “hero’s journey,” but they’re all part of his concept of the monomyth, which represents one single story design that has held true through centuries. Several decades later, Christopher Vogler, a film development executive, applied Campbell’s theory to the process of screenwriting. His text, The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters, captured the interest of writers of every storytelling medium. In 1998 he updated it and retitled it The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers. It's a book every storyteller can benefit from.
The hero’s journey can be simple or, when the story includes all its components, quite complicated. When I sat next to Chris Vogler at a conference dinner, I asked which stage of the monomyth was so critical that it couldn’t be left out. Without hesitation, he said, “the death and rebirth.”
That’s the point when the hero is at his weakest, often near death, but through his own resources revives and fights again, defeating his enemies. If he fails in reaching his goal, he may still win by acquiring wisdom and self-understanding. Other steps in the journey might be omitted but not the death and rebirth.
Beware of arranging the plot so tightly that it seems too neat and contrived or so loose that it appears to have no design or plan. Some genres, particularly romance, demand a formulaic plot but most readers prefer something fresh and original.
Scenes, the building blocks of plot, are often described as units of conflict, but when properly constructed a scene is so much more. It's a component of time, place and most importantly change. It should move the story forward, support the story's theme and premise, reveal character, spark emotion in the reader (suspense, thrills, chills, etc.), bring the story to life through vivid sensory details (sounds, touch, smells), answer questions from previous scenes and introduce new story questions that will keep the reader turning the page.
While story, plot and scene must have conflict that rises to a climax, the novel also must have scenes of dénouement or resolution.
Diagram your novel's plot, showing the classic five major steps: exposition (the beginning or setup), rising action (with plot points, story twists and reversals), climax (when the protagonist does or doesn't achieve her goal), falling action (when secrets are revealed, subplots are resolved, loose ends are tied up and the hero enjoys the rewards of her struggle) and the resolution (the protagonist and other characters show how their lives have changed, and the story ends).