The ABCs (and Ds and Es) of Plot Development
Plot develops out of conflict, either external, such as a person or an event that precipitates a series of actions the main character undertakes, or internal, driven by the protagonist’s wants and/or needs. How that character, and others, makes choices and otherwise responds to stimuli determines the course of events.
The traditional structure of a plot is linear, in which the protagonist’s actions are charted in a more or less straight line, although many stories shift from that person’s point of view to that of one or more other characters as the tale progresses. Others involve one or more flashbacks, introducing new elements to the overarching plot or by explaining elements that appeared in previous acts (known as Chekhov’s Gun).
In one sense, there are innumerable stories; looking at storytelling another way, various analysts have discovered variable finite numbers of basic plots (such as the quest, which is ubiquitous in all genres), though these types have a seemingly infinite number of variations, as a visit to any large bookstore or library will attest. But stories almost invariably follow a simple pattern, in which rising action propels the protagonist through a series of complications that result in a climax, followed by the falling action of the resolution.
At this point, the character, or at least the character’s circumstances, have changed, though most readers (and writers) find it most satisfying if the character has experienced significant growth or change and has accomplished a palpable goal, such as a physical journey that has allowed the character to achieve some reward, or an intangible goal that still satisfies the reader’s desire for the protagonist to undergo a metamorphosis of some kind.
Writer Annie Lamott created a helpful mnemonic catechism, ABCDE, to help writers remember the basics. Here are the elements:
Action: Set the scene with an event that launches the series of events that constitutes a story. This scene should happen as early as possible, and though writers renowned and obscure alike have broken this rule with some degree of success, observe it unless you have an outstanding reason not to.
Background: Context is essential to settle your readers into the story, though, as indicated above, it usually follows initiating action. Pay it out parsimoniously, however, and don’t let your reader get ahead of your protagonist, or you’ll likely release the dramatic tension prematurely.
Conflict: Such tension is produced by your protagonist’s impetus to achieve a goal. That goal should be specific, and, for the story to be compelling, it should be something the character can’t live without. To be even more so, it shouldn’t be easy for the character to satisfy that desire. The tension is produced by desire, but it is sustained by obstacles to attainment of that desire.
Development: This element constitutes the bulk of the plot; it is the journey, and all the events and incidents along the way. These happenings should bring the protagonist ever closer to resolution of the conflict, and they should steadily escalate in import and impact to heighten the suspense and keep the reader engaged in the story.
End: The final step is further subdivided into a mnemonic trio: The crisis is the stage at which the protagonist must decide how to resolve the conflict, the climax is the tipping point at which the conflict is resolved, and the consequences consist of the state of affairs that exists after the crisis and the climax — has the main character changed, or has the main character changed the world in some way? What is the outcome of all that has come before? This stage in a story, also called the denouement, is the final, necessary release of dramatic tension.