Plot is the driving force of any story. Plot is the story. If a scene isn’t moving the plot along or showing characterization (although it’s easy to do both in the same scene) then it should be cut. Without plot, there would be nothing interesting motivating the reader to keep reading. They may like your character, but without anything happening to that character it’ll make for a rather boring story. John Gardner believes that “plot exists so the character can discover what he is really like, forcing the character to choice and action”. By placing your character in interesting plots you will make your audience want to read on. Plot keeps it interesting. Plot keeps your readers engaged.
The basic elements of plot are: tension (conflict), rising action, climax, and falling action.
As demonstrated in the picture above, there can be minor setbacks in the rising action for your character. Like life, this is normal. The biggest point of rising action, though, is to build tension and conflict. Keep building, building, building, building until you hit the climax of the story. The climax is where the biggest, or most impactful, plot point happens. This is where the story had led up to and what the readers have been waiting for. This is the moment that changes both the story and the character’s life in some way. The climax is where you see the most action, and, as the picture states, the highest point of conflict. Next, the plot has to start releasing that built up tension. This is called the falling action, where in the story we see how the characters move on with their lives after whatever happened in the climax took place. Their new norm. Last is the final resolution.
Let’s take a look at A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin for an example (warning: this example contains spoilers).
Toward the end of A Game of Thrones, the rising action rapidly climbs to the climax. In other words, shit is hitting the fan. Cersei’s secret is threatening to be exposed, Robert is dying, Ned is arrested, Robb is starting an army, Jon tries running from the Night’s Watch to join Robb, Khal Dorgo is dying, Dany is in labor, Arya’s missing, Ned is brought before the people to confess his treason, Sansa has an internal battle between “loving” Joffrey or her father, Ned confesses his “treasons”, Joffrey announces he’s going to cut off Ned’s head, Arya tries to fight her way to her father, Sansa is screaming in the background, the crowd is roaring, Joffrey’s advisor’s are trying to council his decision, and then—the climax—Ned’s head is cut off.
Martin does a good job of slowing down the pace and coming out of the chaotic climax by then switching to Danny’s point of view. Danny burns herself with Khal Dorgo, the mage, and the dragon eggs, but then something miraculous happens, where Martin leaves the reader with hope, Danny is alive and well with three baby dragons. This resolution leaves an opening for a sequel and also leaves the readers with a sense of peace after the emotional roller coaster they were just put on.
Another technique is the Pixar Storyboard technique. It looks like this:
Once upon a time…Everyday…Until one day…Because of that…Because of that…Until finally…
The ‘once upon a time’ introduces us to the world. ‘Everyday’ refers to the character’s norm. ‘Until one day’ is the story point that disrupts the character’s norm. ‘Because of that’ is the character’s reaction to ‘until one day’ and this step can be repeated as many times as needed until you get to ‘until finally’, which is the resolving plot point.
So if we applied this to Ned’s story from A Game of Thrones, it would look something like:
Once upon a time there was an honorable man named Eddard Stark. Everyday he taught his children valuable lessons. Until one day the king came to Winterfell and asked Ned to be the Hand of the King. Because of that Ned moved to King’s Landing to join the King. Because of that he found buried secrets that he wanted to tell the dying king. Because of that he was imprisoned when the king died and Joffrey took the throne. Until finally the new king ordered to have Ned killed for his “crime”.
Of course this is just a quick summary, but it hits the basic plot points. Without these interesting points there would be no plot, and without plot, there would be no story.
Check out this link for more advice on story-telling: http://laughingsquid.com/22-rules-of-storytelling-by-a-pixar-storyboard-artist/
I recommend reading Write Great Fiction – Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott also covers a section on plot.
Martin, George R.R. A Game of Thrones. New York: Bantam Books, 2006. Print.