How to Summarize a Plot

5 Components of a Plot in Narrative Essays and Creative Nonfiction

Plot Knot
Aristotle said that a plot is like a knot. Westend61/Getty Images

Every story that you read follows a series of events that range from the introduction of a conflict to begin the story and a final resolution at the end; this is the plot of your story. Basically, it’s what happens throughout the narrative, and it appears in in both fiction and non-fiction work. When you write a plot summary, you’ll essentially condense a novel into a short essay, touching on the key points of the material. You’ll want to introduce the main characters, setting of the story, and the main conflict of the narrative, including the five basic components of the plot: introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and finally, a resolution.

Some outlines will break down a plot into more segments (exposition, inciting incident, central conflict, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution) but the premise is the same - a pattern of rising and falling action that looks essentially like an arc or a bell curve when you consider the level of drama the characters experience.

Understanding and Introducing the Conflict

To properly summarize a plot, start by figuring out the main problem that the story will solve. This could come from understanding the main characters, who are crucial components of the plot. Who are they and what are they trying to achieve? Most characters have a mission to accomplish, often it is finding, saving, or creating something or someone. Understand what drives the main characters, and that will help you in the first step to summarize the plot.

The conflict that we discover at the start of the narrative will get kicked off by an inciting incident that triggers the rising action, which grows over time. In Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” we are introduced to two characters from feuding families who ultimately fall in love. The conflict comes from their love for each other despite their families’ disapproval.

Rising Action and Climax

The rising action will introduce key components of a story that build upon the drama and conflict. This is where we see Romeo & Juliet marry in secret, and Romeo & Tybalt engage in a duel that ultimately leads to Tybalt’s death.

Eventually, the action and conflict hit what is called the climax, the point of no return. This is the peak of excitement, fear, drama, or whatever the emotion is that relayed through the narrative. You’ll want to tie together the rising action and the catalyst for conflict. The climax could lead us on a journey of positive resolution or even a journey of tragedy, but it will often change the characters in some way and is the reason why the problem can now start to be solved. In Shakespeare’s story, there are essentially two points of climax: Romeo is banished and Juliet refuses to marry Paris.

Falling Action and Resolution

Finally, as you work your way back from the climax to the resolution, you’ll want to focus on how the main characters respond to the peak of action. Some aspect of the climax will trigger a response in the main characters which will drive them towards the final resolution. Sometimes, you’ll even find that the main characters learn a lesson and grow as individuals, but either way, the resulting actions shift the story and begin the falling action. Juliet drinks the potion which causes Romeo to believe she has died and kills himself. Upon awakening and discovering that her love has died, Juliet does the same.

Eventually, the story will return back to the original baseline resulting in a final resolution. In “Romeo & Juliet” the resolution isn’t that they both have died, but rather, the action their families take in response to their deaths, the end of the feud.

Creating the Summary

Remember that the plot is not the same as the theme of the narrative. If you’re not sure what the difference is between the plot of a story and the theme, you’re not alone. While the plot is what happens, the theme is the underlying idea or message within a story. The plot is concrete occurrences within the narrative, but the theme can be more subtle and even at times, implied. The theme can be harder to discern whereas the plot is more obvious. In Romeo & Juliet, we see themes of love and hate that appear throughout the plot.

Don’t forget, the key part of summarizing a plot is that you’re summarizing. You don’t need to include every detail that you encounter. When you read the text, it’s important to pay attention to what happens and where you see action coming into play, and write down key moments. Look for the basic information of who is involved, what are they doing, when are things happening, where is the action happening, and why?

Take notes and even write down things that you’re not sure if they are vital at that moment, but seem interesting or important. When you finish the story, you’ll be able to review your notes and better understand what aspects of the narrative were most important and start to eliminate the notes that don’t enhance the plot. That way, when it comes time to summarize the plot, you can easily pare down your notes and have an outline of what happens and the crucial moments that represent each of the five components of the plot.


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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "How to Summarize a Plot." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). How to Summarize a Plot. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "How to Summarize a Plot." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).