Novels are just like houses.
Houses have rooms and residents. Novels have chapters and characters. Houses have curb appeal. Novels have pretty covers. Houses and novels both take a while to build, and the end results for both aren't worth much if they weren't built on a solid foundation.
And when it comes to novels, that solid foundation is a well-planned plot structure.
This may not seem like a big deal at first. Just let the story tell itself, right? That route may seem easy and natural, but it won't guarantee that your novel will be a success. Analyze a handful of bestselling books and you'll see that each one was built, brick-by-brick, on a foundation of the author's design.
So, how can you do the same? Well, I'm breaking down three bestselling plot structures and dishing out my top tips for utilizing them in your own work in today's post, so let's get started!
First things first, here are some lovely little definitions that you probably haven't thought much about since your high school English class. Snooze fest, right? But really, you should know these:
• Exposition. The necessary character, setting, and background details readers need to understand the context of your novel. (Note: exposition is *not* the beginning of a novel, though most often exposition is revealed during the first few chapters in order to set the scene).
• Call-To-Action. The moment when the hero is called to leave the ordinary world to take part in an otherworldly adventure. Usually found in fantasy and science fiction novels.
• Rising Action. The series of events leading up to the climax of the story.
• Crises. Peaks in tension or conflict that occur throughout the rising action of the novel.
• Climax. The most intense crisis found in the narrative, though not necessarily the final crisis.
• Falling Action. The series of events after the climax of the story where questions are answered and any remaining crises occur and are resolved.
• Journey Home. A specific type of falling action where the hero returns to their ordinary world bearing some memento of his otherworldly journey. Typically found in fantasy and science fiction novels.
• Resolution. The final moments of a novel where any remaining threads of tension are resolved and a new reality is established.
Now that you're all caught up, let's talk about the one plot structure I don't recommend you use.
Freytag's Pyramid is the only plot structure I recommend you stay away from. That's right! You were probably taught this structure in school, but in my opinion, it needs to go. Why? Well, let's break it down:
What is it? Freytag's Pyramid is as simple as it gets...in a bad way. In this plot structure, the story begins by revealing exposition upfront, then leads into a long rising action. The climax falls in the middle of the story, and then the second half is spent on a very long falling action, followed by a short resolution.
Why it sucks: Freytag's Pyramid was created to explain the plot structures of Greek and Shakespearean plays, yet somehow it became a fixture in elementary literature classes as the right plot structure to use for modern novels. Weird, right?
When you apply Freytag's Pyramid to a modern novel, you get one heck of a boring story. Who wants to see the villain defeated in the middle of a 300 page novel, right? That's about as bland as it gets.
If anything, Freytag's Pyramid is best used for structuring children's books. Adults understand the cycles of human psychology well enough to know what life is going to be like for the hero after the climactic conflict. Children, on the other hand, are still learning and developing. A longer falling action will help young readers understand the effects of conflict on a character.
All grown up! The Fichtean Curve is similar to Freytag's Pyramid, but it is much better suited for modern young adult and adult books. This plot structure is probably the most popular across all creative writing genres. It's been used time and time again by novelists, short story writers, and poets because the formula simply works.
What is it? The Fichtean Curve begins immediately with rising action, the exposition being scattered throughout first half of the story. Many crises appear, each followed swiftly by its own mini falling and rising action. At last, the story reaches its climactic conflict around two-thirds of the way through the book, leaving the remaining pages for falling action. This is where loose ends are tied up and a new normalcy is established for the characters.
Why does it make bestsellers? The Fichtean Curve creates a page-turner that won't let your readers go. Why? Because the multiple crisis moments keep readers from getting bored. Since the characters aren't allowed to get comfortable, readers will be chomping at the bit to see what happens next.
The Hero's Journey is the perfect plot structure for most fantasy, science fiction, and horror books. If your hero is stumbling into a new world, or a new understanding of the world, then this is the plot structure for you.
What is it? The hero in The Hero's Journey begins in their known world, where they soon receive a call to adventure. Often, they ignore that call until a mentor pushes them to accept it. It is then that they enter into a new world that leads them into all sorts of trouble as they work to defeat the antagonist.
Eventually, the hero comes to defeat the bad guy, but not without experiencing a literal or figurative death and rebirth that transforms their view of the world. Now that the hero has a new mindset, they strive to atone for their past mistakes and eventually return to the world they once knew to live out their days.
Why does it make bestsellers? From ghosts and aliens to Hobbits and White Walkers, we humans love to imagine that there is more to our world than meets the eye. The Hero's Journey allows us to live vicariously through the characters in our book. Besides, who doesn't love a good adventure?
Hey! Remember this term from our Plotters and Pansters post? If you're behind, here's the scoop. In Media Res is a Latin term meaning "into the middle of things". Simply put, it's a plot structure that begins in the middle of the story. But this plot structure won't work for any old book. In Media Res is best reserved for action-heavy novels like thrillers, mysteries, and horror.
What is it? Don't confuse In Media Res with simply opening the first chapter with action. In Media Res specifically means that the novel begins in the middle of the story, usually at the second or third crisis, though sometimes in between the action.
The plot still has an upward trajectory with exposition sprinkled throughout, but the beginning of the story is often told through flashbacks or in conversations. After several more crises, the protagonist faces the climactic action, which is followed by the falling action and resolution.
A popular example would be many murder-mystery novels, where the killer has already committed the crime (which would be a crisis point), and the story flashes backwards to what lead up to the crime while also moving forward as someone tries to solve the case.
Why does it make bestsellers? Hello, hook! The reader is more likely to stick around for the long haul if you can intrigue them in the first few pages, and In Media Res–when well done–can do just that by plopping readers right into the middle of intense action.
There are two types of multi-POV stories: those with singular plot lines told through multiple POVs and those with multiple plot lines told through multiple POVs.
Singular Plot Lines. Solo plot lines are pretty easy to structure, even with multiple POVs. First and foremost, outline the plot using one of the bestselling structures above. Don't worry about figuring out the POVs just yet.
Once you've ironed out your plot, analyze each section to see which ones are emotionally driven and which are action driven. Take a good look at your characters. Which are more emotional and which are more logical? Match them up with your analyzed scenes and voila! You've got the perfect characters to tell each section of your story.
Multiple Plot Lines. Multi-POVs with multiple plot lines are a bit trickier to structure, though not impossible. First, outline each of your POV characters' journeys. Once you've got their journeys nailed down, choose the plot structure that works best for each.
Usually, authors use the same plot structure for each journey, but don't be afraid to mix things up if you believe your story would benefit from it. Just remember, using multiple plot structures won't automatically make your work more impressive. Quality over quantity, folks.
The second tricky part is choosing how to intersperse those story lines among one another. Some stories work best when the plot lines are told in separate sections of the book. Others work better when each chapter features a different POV character than the last.
If you are going to intersperse plot lines, start looking for the crises of each character's journey. If one POV character's chapter is in between crises, try making the next POV character's chapter in the middle of a crisis. Doing so will help keep readers hooked.
Structuring a series isn't as tricky as it seems. Really!
The key to structuring a series is to create plot structures for both the individual books and the series as a whole. It's a bit of extra work, but it will be well worth your time when you get killer reviews.
Each book should have several crises and a climax, but the falling action shouldn't tie up all the loose ends. Make sure that each book raises the stakes higher than the last so your readers are taken through a rising action. The final book's climax should be of epic proportions since it's also the climax of the series.
Only after that final climax should you tie up all of the series' loose ends. And don't give your readers an ambiguous ending or you'll have a riot on your hands. After three or more books, your readers will want all the answers. Cool?
If you're planning to write a book series, I've actually put together a massive two-part tutorial that goes in-depth to help you prepare and execute your series like a boss. Click here to check it out!
That's all I've got for today, friends! What do you think of these bestselling plot structures? Which have you used in your own stories? Do you have any other bestselling plot structures to add to the list?
Let me know in the comments below, and happy plotting!
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Kristen Kieffer is a writer of fantasy fiction and the creative writing coach behind She's Novel. She's made it her mission to help aspiring authors write sensational novels because obliterating expectations is her jam. Her other passions? Coffee and Tolkien, of course!