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The Elements of Fiction: Plot

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January 2010
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The fiction writer uses the elements of fiction to create a fictional story, either a short story or novel. The nonfiction writer uses the elements of fiction to tell a real story. The casual reader uses these elements to gain a deeper appreciation of a novel or piece of literature. Students in English literature are required to learn the elements of fiction to analyze how the writer constructed a short story or novel. And the aspiring writer must have a good understanding of these elements to create his or her own stories, narratives that must be interesting and memorable.

The writer uses several elements of fiction to construct a story. These include:

  • Setting
  • Plot/plot structure
  • Character
  • Point of View
  • Theme
  • Literary devices, such as symbolism and imagery
  • Style and tone


This article discusses one element of fiction: the plot and plot structure.

Plot/Plot Structure

What is the plot of a story? It is the series of events that give the story meaning and effect. A good story has several events that complicate, increase the tension, and create suspense within the story.

A typical story begins with an inciting incident. (For instance, a murder.) From this inciting incident, the rest of the story progresses to its conclusion.

All stories require a conflict. This conflict can be internal—within the mind or psyche of the main character or protagonist.

This conflict can also be external to the protagonist. The protagonist can confront another character, typically the villain of the story. The protagonist might also be at odds with society, or in conflict with technology, the setting (storm, desert, cosmos, desert island, ship wreck), something spiritual (ghosts), or religion, or the supernatural—such as God or an alien being.

A good story also has a plot structure. A good plot structure includes an inciting incident (the main event from which the rest of the story progresses), a goal or desire that the main character wants to achieve, challenges and obstacles that prevent the protagonist from achieving the desire or goal, a climax or turning point, and resolution of the story, where the writer ties up loose ends, answers all unanswered questions, and resolves the conflict.


Suspense is often a common aspect of plot and plot structure of a story. The suspense is initiated with a threat: The protagonist is threatened by some event or character or other antagonist—such as the setting in which the story takes place. (E.g. lost in the woods) The reader then asks: What will happen next? Who did it? How did it happen? Will the protagonist survive? The threat to the protagonist results in a state of confusion: The protagonist may or may not know the origin or nature of the threat. Eventually, the protagonist or main character realizes the origin and nature of the threat. He/she must then take action to survive.

There are several ways a fiction writer can create suspense. One method is to use time constraints.  Essentially, the writer creates a story in which the protagonist must work against the clock. For instance, the protagonist must defuse a bomb within a certain time, or it will detonate.

The writer can create suspense with a crisis. This crisis must be devastating to the world of the protagonist. For instance, the protagonist must save his wife and son from the burning family home. If they parish in the blaze, his life is irrevocably changed.

Another method the writer has to create suspense is by using insurmountable odds. The writer creates a story in which the protagonist must use all his/her resources—such as skill, expertise, knowledge—to deal with the challenges and obstacles. Otherwise, he/she will not survive.

Methods of Telling Story

The writer has several methods of telling the story. These include:

  • Chronological order
  • Total Flashback
  • Combination: Flashforward and chronological
  • Flash forward/ Foreshadowing


Many fiction writers tell their stories in chronological order. The story progresses in a linear fashion. First, there is the inciting incident. This is followed by all the events that are caused or related to the inciting incident. The most important event besides the inciting incident is the event which causes the climax or turning point in the story.

Another method of telling a story is to use total flashback. The writer can use total flashback to refer back in time to important events took place. Or he can use it to provide background information about the character. Often the writer begins the story in the present, and then tells a story that happened in the past.

The fiction writer can also tell a story by using both flashback and telling the story in chronological order—in the order that the events occurred. Often the fiction writer uses flashback to tell the reader about an important event that occurred in the past, and event that impacts or effects the current situation. However, the fiction writer tells the story in logical or sequential order, the order in which the events occurred, progressing to the climax and resolution of the story. Essentially, the writer tells the story by moving forward in time, but makes reference to important information that happened in the past.

The fiction writer will use flash-forward to move the narrative into the future. The writer uses this device to tell a story about imagined, expected, anticipated, or possible events. Foreshadowing is a literary device used by the fiction writer to provide “hints” or “clues” about might/will happen later in the story. Essentially, the writer “drops hints” about the plot or a possible outcome.

The fiction writer needs to ask himself/herself why the literary device of flashback is being used to tell the story. The foreshadowing can be explicit, such as dialogue, or implicit, in the form of a clue. Often, the writer uses foreshadowing to create suspense in the mind of the reader. Sometimes the writer provides a clue to mislead the reader. This is called a red herring. Other times the writer foreshadows a possible ending—but then ends the story with a plot twist. Sometimes the writer uses symbolism to foreshadow something that will occur later in the story. (A symbol represents something other than its literal meaning.)

Resources for Writing Fiction

There are several good books available to help you learn the art and craft of writing fiction. The following books—and resources that I recommend— were used to research this article:

  • Writing Fiction: A Guide to the Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway
  • Creative Writing: A Guide and Glossary to Fiction Writing by Colin Bulman
  • The Art and Craft of Storytelling by Nancy Lamb
  • How to Read Novels Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster
  • The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
  • A Passion for Narrative: A Guide for Writing Fiction by Jack Hodgins


For the next several posts, I will be writing about the other elements of fiction. Next, I will discuss “setting.”

If you have an questions or comments, please post them to this blog.



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  4. Melvin Carty says:

    This is a very interesting article. Out of the blogs that I routinely visit is one of the more informative ones and always seem to have one thing that is refreshing to read.

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