plot (narratives)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

plot knot
"Aristotle said that a plot is like a knot. In the first part of the work, the knot is tied. At the center of the work, the knot is complete. Thereafter through the last half of the work the knot will be untied. (Denouement is from the French word for 'an unraveling.' What is unraveling is Aristotle's plot knot.)" (Plot Snakes and the Dynamics of Narrative Experience by Allen Tilley). (Westend61/Getty Images)

Definition

In fiction and in nonfiction, a plot is the sequence of incidents or events in a narrative. Also called the story line.

Put simply, plot concerns what happens in a story or a narrative essay. Theme concerns the meaning of what happens--the underlying idea or message.

As novelist E.M. Forster famously observed, "'The king died and the queen died' is a story. 'The king died and the queen died of grief' is a plot" (Aspects of the Novel, 1927).

The sense of cause and effect is usually a key distinguishing feature of a plot.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Etymology
From the Old English, "plot"
 

Examples and Observations

  • "Essentially and most simply put, plot is what the characters do to deal with the situation they are in. It is a logical sequence of events that grow from an initial incident that alters the status quo of the characters."
    (Elizabeth George, Write Away: One Novelist's Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life. HarperCollins, 2004)

     
  • Movie Plots
    - "Not much about Gravity’s plot was known prior to release, and for good reason. The plot can be summed up in one sentence: a massive cloud of space debris destroys a space shuttle and sends George Clooney and Sandra Bullock spinning into space. The rest of the movie is spent watching the characters struggle to survive in the least hospitable environment imaginable."
    (Adam Cecil, "Gravity Pulls You in and Doesn't Let Go." NYUlocal, October 7, 2013)

    - "I watch Mission Impossible III while chewing on dried out chicken. Here's the plot: the hero thwarts a plan to sell a destructive secret to an unnamed enemy nation where everyone speaks Chinese. It's supposed to be a thriller, but I laugh out loud."
    (Jan Wong, A Comrade Lost and Found: A Beijing Story. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007)
     
  • Plots in Nonfiction
    - "Like fiction, most works of creative nonfiction contain a plot but with an important difference; in creative nonfiction, the account must be true. In order for a plot to exist in your narrative, you need to make certain that something happens and tension is created. During the course of your story, you must also ensure there exists a recognizable beginning, middle, and end accompanied by a resolution. Your narrative also must contain rising action, a climax, and falling action."
    (Richard D. Bank, The Everything Guide to Writing Nonfiction. Adams, 2010)     


    - "Plot is more than a series of events: This happened and then that happened, and then something else happened. In storyteller's terms, plot is a series of events related causally: This happened because that other thing happened. Things were going along fine (equilibrium) till something happened to disturb the equilibrium (dramatic problem), one thing led to another, escalating the tension (rising curve of action), culminating in a dramatic confrontation (climax), and resolving things back to some new equilibrium (denouement).

    "We had ourselves a nice quiet island here, then some joker decided to build a high-rise bridge, and all hell broke loose. . . .

    "[N]ot all nonfiction pieces have plot. A profile, for instance, is more likely to resemble a character sketch than a plotted story. The same goes for an interview. But all good nonfiction contains conflict--an opposition of forces that lends tension to the account."
    (Philip Gerard, Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life. Story Press, 1996)
     
  • The Age of Narrative Plots
    "We still live today in the age of narrative plots, consuming avidly Harlequin romances and television serials and daily comic strips, creating and demanding narrative in the presentation of persons and news events and sports contests. And yet, we know that with the advent of Modernism came an era of suspicion toward plot, engendered perhaps by an overelaboration of and overdependence on plots in the nineteenth century. If we cannot do without plots, we nonetheless feel uneasy about them, and feel obliged to show up their arbitrariness, to parody their mechanisms while admitting our dependence on them."
    (Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative. Harvard University Press, 1992)

     
  • Ray Bradbury on Plots
    "Remember: Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations. Plot is observed after the fact rather than before. It cannot precede action. It is the chart that remains when an action is through."
    (Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing. Bantam, 1992)

     
  • Stephen King on Situations and Plots
    "I won't try to convince you that I've never plotted any more than I'd try to convince you that I've never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible. I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren't compatible. . . .


    "A strong enough situation renders the whole question of plot moot, which is fine with me. The most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a What-if question:

    "What if vampires invaded a small New England village? (Salem's Lot) . . .

    "What if a young mother and her son became trapped in their stalled car by a rabid dog? (Cujo)

    "These were all situations which occurred to me--while showering, while driving, while taking my daily walk--and which I eventually turned into books. In no case were they plotted, not even to the extent of a single note jotted on a single piece of scrap paper . . .."
    (Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Simon & Schuster, 2000)