Plot Structure: 7 Universal Story Parts Detailed + Diagrams

Posted on Jul 4, 2024

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When it comes to planning a story, knowing a proper plot structure only helps. Especially if this is your first time writing a novel. Because we all get our ideas from different places, it’s tough to pinpoint a starting point for a story. Which means having a story structure to work from will only aid in your ability to take your idea—no matter its origin point—and flesh it out into a full novel.

But this also involves understanding plot as a whole.

We’re going to go into some detail about the elements of plot followed by a universal plot structure you can use as a baseline to tweak no matter the book genre you write in.

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What is a plot, really?

A plot is the sequence of events that make up a story. It’s what’s happening in any given chapter, the actions that are moving the story forward.

It involves a structured arrangement of incidents and actions that create the framework for a narrative. The plot is essential for building tension, developing characters, and conveying themes.

The main components of a plot typically include:

  1. Exposition: This is the introduction to the story, where the setting, characters, and basic situation are established (though not done in the dreaded info-dump fashion). It provides the background information needed to understand the context of the narrative, and is actually delivered as a part of the story itself using showing instead of telling.
  2. Inciting Incident: An event or decision that begins the story’s main conflict. It sets the protagonist on their journey and drives the action forward. The goal with an inciting incident is that it has to change the main character’s life forever. If they can still live the same life despite it happening, it isn’t strong enough to carry the story.
  3. Rising Action: A series of events that create suspense, tension, and interest. This is where the conflict becomes more complicated, and various obstacles or challenges arise, leading up to the climax. It’s the bulk of your book, taking up the largest sections (you’ll see below).
  4. Climax: The turning point or the most intense moment of the story. It’s where the main conflict reaches its peak, and the protagonist faces their greatest challenge. Everything has come to a head in this section, where the stakes are tested and the plot’s main conflict is resolved.
  5. Falling Action: Events that follow the climax and begin to resolve the conflict. The tension decreases, and the story starts moving towards its conclusion. Usually, this is the section where information is revealed that explains other open loops in the story.
  6. Resolution: The conclusion of the story, where loose ends are tied up, conflicts are resolved, and the story comes to a satisfying end. If you’re writing a series, this may be the area where new loops are opened that have to be resolved in the next book. But keep in mind, these loops cannot prevent this book’s main conflict from being resolved.

As you can see, the term “plot” covers a lot of ground in storytelling. That’s why it’s helpful to have a plot structure to keep it all organized.

Plot Structure Diagram, Explained

Raise your hand if you’re a visual learner!

Congratulations, you’re raising your hand while reading this alone and look silly. Just kidding. I’m a pretty visual person too. In fact, the way I envision my fiction stories are on a timeline broken up in section. A very visual representation of the story in my mind’s eye.

That said, many writers find it helpful to have a plot structure diagram to reference. This can help you visually see the parts of a story as well as how much space in the novel they should take up. Most websites have their own version of a plot structure diagram, and they differ depending on the advice being given.

For the most part, though, you can expect the diagram to have some sort of line chart that rises, peaks and the climax, and falls off again at the end. Some have sections mapped out as well, others don’t.

Here’s our version of a plot structure diagram that encompasses the 7 parts we detail below:

Plot Structure Diagram In 7 Parts

7-Part Plot Structure That Works for Any Novel Type

Different genres have certain plot requirements not listed below. As always, you should do your research and figure out what pieces will need to be filled in.

Like with romance, for example. If you’re writing a romance novel, there will be stages like “couple separation” about where we have the “major change” below. While it is still a major change, it’s more specific to the type, and will actually happen prior to the change.

For the most part though, you can use this as a template for any novel you’re writing and get great results.

1. Introduction

The introduction to your story is vital. There are countless resources online to help you understand how to write a great opening sentence, scene, and chapter.

The reason it’s such a widely discussed topic is because it’s important, and there are many things you want to establish during the first couple chapters. It’s not easy to do all of this while only using narrative and story, and avoiding info-dumps that readers despise.

This is what should be in your book’s introduction:

THE HOOK: An engaging opening line or scene that grabs the reader’s attention. This could be an intriguing statement, a vivid description, or an action-packed moment. Your goal is to get the reader to go on to the next page. Remember, this should be a scene, not just background information of your world. Here are a few good examples:

Introduction Example For Plot Structure Hunger Games
Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Why it works: The very first sentence indicates a curiosity. The character expects the bed to be warm, which suggests a presence. By it being cold, the reader immediately questions, “why is it empty” and “who is supposed to be there?” We keep reading to discover the answers to this.

Hook Example For Introduction In A Story
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

Why it works: The curiosity created with this hook is one of the first sentence being suspiciously ordinary. Why write about a book on a shelf in a university library? The following sentences continue to increase intrigue by suggesting that this book that reads like fiction is actually true. Readers will want to find out why.

As you can see, the hook in a plot structure isn’t just the opening sentence, but rather the first couple of paragraphs. Each sentence should increase intrigue to read the next.

SETTING: Establish the time and place of the story. This helps readers visualize the world in which the characters exist and understand the context of the events. You’ll want to include details about surroundings, but only as they become relevant to the character. In the Hunger Games example above, we learn that the main character shares a bed with her sister and that the mattress is a rough canvas. A reader’s imagination can often fill in the gaps, and create a sense of time until more details become relevant.

CHARACTERS: Introduce the main characters, especially the protagonist. Provide enough detail to make them interesting and relatable but avoid overwhelming the reader with too much information at once. We should be able to tell their approximate age if not a confirmation of it, and their position in the culture’s society at a minimum. Also, by this point in the plot structure we want to begin establishing personality.

TONE AND MOOD: Set the tone and mood of the story during the introduction of the plot structure. Whether it’s mysterious, humorous, dramatic, or something else, the introduction should give readers a sense of what to expect in terms of style and atmosphere through both narrative and the plot events.

CONFLICT: Hint at the central conflict or problem that will drive the plot. This doesn’t have to be fully developed in the introduction, but there should be an indication of the main challenges or stakes involved. This might look like a mention of the oppressive regime or other small details to hint at the character’s largest problem.

THEME: Subtly introduce the central themes or messages of the story. This can be woven into the setting, character interactions, or initial events. Don’t worry if you don’t get this across at this point in the plot structure. It should just be a hint right now.

POINT OF VIEW: Establish the narrative perspective, whether it’s first person, third person, or another point of view. This helps readers understand the lens through which the story will be told. It’s pretty straightforward. Whatever you write in, you’ll continue to write in. Very few cases can change these and do so necessarily (think: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss).

BACKGROUND INFORMATION: Provide any necessary backstory or context that is essential for understanding the plot. Be careful not to overload the reader with too much exposition; instead, reveal background details gradually as the story progresses, through dialogue, or allowing the reader to infer through other details.

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2. Inciting Incident

This is the point of the plot structure where the main story starts taking shape. Usually, it occurs in the first few chapters of a book, after we have a firm grasp on who the character is, the story’s tone, and what we can expect from the book as a reader (the book’s promises).

During the inciting incident, the character’s life is changed forever. Something happens that makes it impossible to return to their previous life, and it kicks off the book’s main plot. This is a vital part of the plot structure so make sure to do it well.

Here are a few examples of well done inciting incidents in novels:

  1. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter receives his letter of acceptance to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. This letter introduces Harry to the world of magic and sets him on the path to discovering his true identity and destiny. He can never undo learning that he’s a wizard, and therefore the plot structure can never be what it was in the opening of the story (him living under the stairs, miserable and abused).
  2. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her sister Prim’s place as a tribute in the Hunger Games. This selfless act thrusts Katniss into the deadly competition and sets the stage for her journey of survival and rebellion against the oppressive regime. Clearly, she cannot undo this, she can’t escape competing in the games. Therefore, her life will forever be changed.
  3. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien: Gandalf the wizard and a group of dwarves visit Bilbo Baggins and invite him to join their quest to reclaim the Lonely Mountain and its treasure from the dragon Smaug. Bilbo’s reluctant agreement to join the adventure marks the beginning of his transformation from a cautious hobbit into a brave hero.

P.S.– If you’re writing romance, the inciting incident is always when the main character meets the love interest—the meet cute.

3. Part 1

Now that the core plot is kicked off, it’s time to turn up the heat. And by heat, I’m talking about tension, stakes, conflict, and all the juicy stuff that makes readers eager to reach the end of the story. During this part of the plot structure, your character is just now getting used to their “new” life and what they have to do to reach their goal.

Here are the elements you’ll have to introduce and develop in part 1:

  1. Stakes: Stakes refer to what is at risk or what can be gained or lost as a result of the protagonist’s actions and the outcome of the story’s conflict. What can they lose if they don’t succeed?
  2. Tension: The stakes will naturally create tension, but there are other versions you want to include at this point in the plot structure. Tension is the sense of suspense, excitement, and anticipation that keeps readers engaged. It arises from conflicts, obstacles, and the uncertainty of outcomes. So putting the character in a hard situation with undesirable stakes will increase tension. Small tension and overarching tension is necessary.
  3. Character weaknesses and flaws: This is the part of the plot structure where you’ll want to highlight what will be their biggest internal challenge. What “issues” do they have that will keep them from succeeding in the story?
  4. Character goals and motivations: The goals and motivations are connected. Motivations will inform the goals. What do they want—really want—by succeeding in besting the main conflict of the story? Make this clear.
  5. Allies and enemies: During the first part of the plot structure, your main character will be thrust into a world with new people. Some will be allies, others will be enemies. Some will be enemies disguised as allies, which brings me to the next portion of this plot structure…
  6. Foreshadowing: Plant your seeds! While the readers is distracted with worldbuilding, exciting and new plot settings and locations, and new characters they will love or hate or love to hate, it’s the perfect time to foreshadow. Here is where the bulk of your hints will take place for both the next part of the plot structure, and the climax as a whole.
  7. Early wins, “minor” setbacks: It’s all about progress. You want your reader to begin rooting for your character, which means during this part of the story, they will have some bigger wins, with minor consequences or setbacks. Rather, we might believe they’re minor. Perhaps they succeed in winning a major race, only to make a powerful enemy in the meantime. This is also a form of foreshadowing.

This might be a different explanation than you’re used to. However, during this part of the book, it’s important to have your character taking actions toward their goals, while also introducing what they can lose the most. This will be the driving force of tension in your story.

4. Part 2

This part of the plot structure is often painful for both readers and writers.

The character has to get knocked down. A lot. They will make progress during the first portion of this part, but the obstacles in their path continue to get bigger and hit them where it hurts. Their successes will be met with equal setbacks so it feels like they’re moving in place and not making real progress.

A common piece of advice here is to use the “yes but, no and” method of story progression.

This advice says that for every plot event, you ask if the character succeeded, and alternate answering with, “yes but…” then “no, and…”

The logic behind this is that if the character succeeds “yes”, you will still be adding to the story with the “but” so the win is never fully realized. So it can be “yes, the character was able to outsmart the other opponent, but she had to hurt three others to make it happen.” You would then craft the next part of the plot to be a “no and” scenario in which the character does not succeed, it is also made even worse because of the events.

So the character is making some progress, but it’s always halted. One step forward, two steps back. This is infuriating.

That’s the point. The character will get frustrated. They will have the most conflict during this part of the story, and will come head to head with

Specifically during this part, there will be a confrontation with their flaws and weaknesses. They get in the way. The only what the character will reach their goals is through the next phase of the plot structure.

5. Major Change

This is a step I find vital to pull out as its own. Normally, when you see a plot structure online, this is lumped as a piece of one of the parts, but to me it’s important enough to have its own section. As you can see from the diagram above, it also has a different shape than most plot structure diagrams.

Here’s a comparison to refresh your memory:

Self-Publishing School plot diagram compared to’s

Clearly, the line graphs are different.

In the example on the right, there is a clear straight line rise, peak at the climax, and a straight line down to the resolution. What we’ve illustrated above has a dip during the Major Change. This is because the lines represent the tension and the character’s progress toward the climax.

During the Major Change, the character has fallen backward from the progress they gained in other areas. It should feel like they’ve stepped back and have even more work to do to reach the climax. This is because at this point in the novel, there is a need for a change.

The change will be both with the plot and the character’s arc. At this stage, these two elements meet and must be addressed in order to reach and face the climax. Only by the character making a real change will they be able to face the climax with any hope of success.

That’s what this dip represents, and why this part is pulled out in our plot structure.

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6. Climax

We all know that every plot has to have a good climax. And by “good” I specifically mean a satisfying one that fulfills reader expectations, promises, and closes the character’s arc.

That’s why a climax is so important in the plot structure. It’s the culmination point of everything you’ve been working toward. It combines character, plot, conflict, tension, and stakes all at a single time. Your character has to face the plot conflicts, their internal conflicts, and face losing something valuable to them all in the hopes of succeeding.

The climax can be drawn out over a few chapters (as is the case with many epic fantasy novels) or it can be quickly resolved in an instant (as in The Hunger Games).

Here are examples of climaxes you can use to study plot structure:

  1. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: The climax occurs in the arena when Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark, the last remaining tributes, threaten to eat poisonous berries rather than kill each other. This act of defiance forces the Capitol to declare them both winners, setting the stage for the larger rebellion against the oppressive government. The stakes are high—their lives.
  2. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen: The climax occurs when Elizabeth Bennet reads Mr. Darcy’s letter explaining his actions, including his role in separating Jane and Bingley and his dealings with Wickham. This revelation changes Elizabeth’s perception of Darcy and leads to the eventual resolution of misunderstandings between them.
  3. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling: The climax occurs during the Battle of Hogwarts when Harry Potter faces Voldemort in their final confrontation. Harry willingly sacrifices himself to destroy the Horcrux inside him but survives. He ultimately defeats Voldemort, breaking the Dark Lord’s power once and for all. This climax is an example of one that takes a bit longer to close.
  4. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien: The climax occurs during the Battle of the Five Armies. As the battle rages, Bilbo Baggins plays a crucial role in preventing further bloodshed by using the Arkenstone as a bargaining tool. The resolution of the battle and the defeat of the goblins and wargs bring the story’s central conflicts to a head.

The climax of your story should be inevitable. The plot structure up until this point sets the stage for what needs to happen based on everything else.

7. Resolution

The last piece of the plot structure is the resolution. This is when open loops are closed, information is wrapped up and explained, and all is well with the characters. However, if you’re writing a series, you may find that the closing of these loops opens others (in a “yes but, no and” fashion) that will have to be resolved in other books.

Be careful here, though. You never want the main plot of this book to be ruined or incomplete. A good resolution satisfies the needs of the book in full.

This process can be just that, a process. Plot structure can be confusing, but if you want a kickstart to it, check out this book outline template:

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Plot Structure FAQ

What are the 7 elements of plot structure?

The seven elements of plot structure are: introduction, inciting incident, part 1, part 2, major change, climax, and resolution.

What makes a good plot structure?

A good plot structure logically progresses, develops characters, and balances tension with resolution, keeping readers hooked.

How do I identify plot structure?

Look for key elements: intro of characters and setting, a triggering event, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.

How do I plan a story plot?

Plan by brainstorming the main idea, identifying key plot points, developing characters, outlining major events, and ensuring everything connects smoothly.

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