Storytelling is not a colour-by-numbers exercise. We want to be original. However, even the most rule-breaking story has certain fundamental patterns. If we understand what they are, we can be outlandish and creative—and still know we’re building a satisfying experience for the reader. What are those patterns?
Essentially, plot is what happens—a sequence of change. Let’s look at the most conventional shape, the straightforward hero journey. This is a clear trajectory with a beginning, middle, and end. A character begins by being confronted with a problem. The trouble escalates and the events play out in chronological order, with many ordeals and rising tensions. There will be several ‘acts’ with twists, turns, and a climax where the worst is confronted. Finally there is a resolution and a new order is created.
What other story forms could there be? Actually, the possibilities are endless. Here are a few.
- The story of a life: from birth to death
- The parallel plot: two or more parallel plots that eventually merge. Perhaps they meet in the real time of the story—eg the two characters in the separate narratives finally come together, as in Frederick Forsyth’s Day of the Jackal. Or perhaps they never meet, but the presentation invites the reader to notice the resonances and a thematic thrust—the six nested narratives in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.
- The ensemble plot: you might explore how one event or place affects the experiences of a large cast of characters, to explore cross-sections of society (Charles Dickens’s novels have an ensemble element, as do family sagas) or a theme. Nevil Shute’s On The Beach features an ensemble cast—the last people left alive as the world ends. Max Brooks’s World War Z is told by an ensemble of people whose accounts add up to a story.
- The daisy chain: this might be a series of separate stories that jump from one protagonist to the next, linked by an object that passes between them, or even a character. Dracula and The Woman in White have this form, handing the baton of the story on.
- The challenging plot: to generalise vastly, this is the antithesis of straightforward story conventions. Usually, the writer lays a careful trail of clues and ensures the reader notices them. Most of the events and characters are relevant, even though we won’t realise it at the time. Timelines are clear. We know what is real and what’s a dream or a flashback. But some writers aim to challenge more—and readers of these stories enjoy the effort and immersion needed to grasp the big picture. Their novel may be full of details that seem superfluous; character perspectives that seem irrelevant or unclear; timelines that shift around and make you wonder where you are, or if you’re reading a fantasy. This kind of novel is often called plotless because it seems hard to access, but in fact there’s a lot going on; there are plenty of changes and challenges to the characters. An example is Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves, which contains footnotes, references to fictional films and books and multiple narrators who interact in elaborate and disorientating ways.
The Magic Formula: Four Cs of How to Write a Good Plot
So I’ve identified a head-spinning variety of plot types. And I’ve said there are factors they all have in common. What are they? Allow me to present the Four Cs which is one of the concepts in my book Nail Your Novel: Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart.
A plot makes the reader curious. Perhaps the characters are venturing to challenging places. Or something is unstable in their lives. We often hear the term ‘promise of the premise’, or the promise to the reader. This is it: early in the story, there is something that tweaks the reader’s curiosity. They want to know what happens next. Then, the characters get into more trouble, encounter many twists and turns—all of which keep the reader curious.
Stories have crescendos. The situation gets bad, and then much worse. There are times where the trouble reaches a turning point and spins off somewhere new. There may also be triumphs. Everything escalates.
Readers adore stories that have coherent themes and ideas, even if the form is loose. If the writer can make the reader believe everything in the story has a purpose, the novel will look elegant and confident (perhaps that’s another C).
A satisfying plot also gives a feeling of change, a sense of a journey. The action might take us through many locations. The characters might complete a series of challenges. There will also be changes in their understanding—and in the reader’s. As the story progresses, there is a sense that it cannot be undone. Irrevocable things have happened—for instance, a divorce, or a death, or a character has travelled to the Moon.
Curiosity, crescendo, coherence and change. No matter what kind of story you’re navigating, whether you want to follow a well-charted plan or drift with the wind, let the Four Cs be your compass.