Three Plot Structures Every Storyteller Can Use

03/10/2015 10:59 am ET | Updated May 10, 2015
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I have a theory that novelists are fugitives from simple existence. We metabolize, mediate, and render life rather than simply experiencing it. We live through an incident and wonder, with tears glossing our eyes or bliss pinking our cheeks or ennui prompting a yawn, “How can I use this in a story?” A novelist’s mindfulness consists of pouncing on a moment as a resource for a character, or as a turn in the road on the journey of story, or as an illustration for a thesis.

Henry James wrote, “The novelist is a particular window, absolutely -- and of worth in so far as he is one; and it’s because you open so well and are hung so close over the street that I could hang out of it all day long.” (James, Henry, and James E. Miller. Theory of Fiction: Henry James. Lincoln: U of Nebraska, 1972. Print. Pp. 65-66.) Opening for others to peer through and take delight in an unfolding scene is a practice and a process; it takes time and commitment. It’s not enough to over-analyze your own interiors.

What I’m really talking about, with James’ metaphor, is the skill required to craft a novel that engages and delights readers. I think it requires persistence to the point of obsession. Fortunately, along the way there are tools that help us learn.

One of those tools is plot structure. Plenty of authors take a dim view of plot and subordinate it to story (See Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft). I appreciate their point. For myself, I’ve defined ‘story’ as ‘how your protagonist does not get what he or she wants’ and that reigns supreme in my consciousness while I write. However, plot structures are handy aides in the pursuit of thwarting, frustrating, and torturing your protagonist, like training wheels for learning to ride a bike. You won’t keep them on forever, but they’ll give you some support as you go.

Here are three useful plot structures for every storyteller to have in her toolbox. Remember, these structures are really scaffolds. It’s the minutiae of adventure and dialogue and characterization that matter -- otherwise reading the Cliff Notes would be just as much fun as the actual novel—which must never be the case.

1. Find the Holy Grail. This structure works great. Your hero must find something Extremely Important. Often with great reluctance, he sets forth from his front door and ecco, everything goes wrong, until he transforms himself. Then he finds it. Or he realizes that it can never be found, but he’s found something even more important: himself. Either conclusion is possible. Think The Hobbit, and a million zillion other novels.

2. Girl meets Boy. This is a classic structure. It’s really the starting gate, because it’s the following phrase that’s key: Girl loses Boy, or Girl mistakes Boy for a shiftless bastard when he’s really a mensch, or Girl discovers that Boy is married or is shipping out to Zanzibar or is promised to be sacrificed to a sea monster.

What’s Girl going to do? If she’s naturally brave, she might take her sword in hand and duel the sea monster without a second thought. But maybe, and more intriguingly, she’s a timid soul. The act of picking up a weapon is foreign to her nature. Besides, she gets seasick with all the stormy waves heaving around her. She has to grow to be worthy of the union whose bright promise illumined their meeting.

3. Save the town. This is a defend-and-protect plot that often turns on cleverness rather than brute strength. The beloved homeland is threatened. Our loyal protagonist doesn’t want to see the huts incinerated, the farmland scorched, and the villagers led away in chains. So he or she has to invent a ruse or a stratagem by which the invaders are fooled into getting back in their longboats and sailing away instead of attacking. Creating the plan forces the protagonist to convince his fellows of its worthiness, and of his worthiness. To do that, he must first believe in himself. He saves the town by saving himself.


What all three plot structures have in common is internal metamorphosis. Whatever the outer events, it’s inner change and transformation that keep the engine of the plot turning. The outer depends on the inner; as within, so without. That’s one reason novelists watch their own state with an eye to regifting personal experience as a tale for the telling, why they run away from unexamined ease into the beguiling arms of complexity, inquiry, and introspection.

And in the actual writing, a novelist who attends to the question of structure via the scaffolding of plot can focus on what really matters: the unfolding of the story, that beautiful opening into something greater than ourselves. After all, it’s not the plot, it’s that opening that so pleasurably engrosses the reader, as James wrote.