What Is Plot?

(View all literary devices)

Plot is the logical structure behind anything that has a beginning, middle, and end. Commercials, political campaigns, and five year business plans all contain elements of plotting, as does a journey. One can plot a course at sea or plot to overthrow a government.

According to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, each plot event is interdependent; the second step can’t occur without the first. As a literary device, then, plot provides the means for a story to move forward. Although the narrative events, or plot points, don’t have to be chronological, they must be ordered to follow this basic structure:

  • Exposition, or the laying out of details needed to understand the story.
  • Rising Action, the development of conflict.
  • Climax, a “showdown” where the main character confronts their conflict head on.
  • Falling action, resulting in the resolution of conflict.
  • Denouement, the tying up of any loose ends.

In What Way Is Story Distinct from Plot?

In E.M. Forster’s critical work, Aspects of the Novel, he draws a fundamental distinction between story and plot:

  • The king died and then the queen died (story).
  • The king died and then the queen died of grief (plot).

The basic story is not enough to characterize the work. After all, what if the king died because the queen poisoned him and then the queen died as the result of his son’s revenge? Although there are some stories that get told over and over, such as the journey of self-discovery or the Cinderella tale of rags to riches, plot has to do with how the story is told.

Critics since Forster have claimed that this distinction is meaningless and that narratives fall into master plots that authors can further individualize to make their stories more unique.

Examples of Plot

Plot Example 1. The plot of Romeo and Juliet involves the meeting of two “star-crossed” lovers, their falling in love despite the risk, and the tragic fate they endure for breaking the social code.

Plot Example 2. Sitcoms invariably follow the same structure: a subplot is introduced, followed by the main problem. These two plots alternate, and the show’s climax and falling action focus on the resolution of the main problem. The denouement is the resolution of the subplot.

Plot Example 3. The plot of “Bartleby, the Scrivener” proceeds from the arrival of Bartleby, his escalating conflicts with the narrator over his “preference” not to work, and his eventual banishment and choice to die. The falling action is the narrator’s realization that in Bartleby’s fate lies the fate of all humanity.

Plot Example 4. The plot of The Wizard of Oz is a classic tale of innocence to experience. Dorothy leaves home and ends up in a foreign world, where she overcomes many challenges. In the end, she is awarded the means to return home, strengthened by the knowledge she’s gained.

Plot Example 5. Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s second novel, plots the fate of two individuals, Anna and Levin. Anna commits adultery and runs away with her lover; realizing that she cannot live outside society, she kills herself. Levin gets married and settles down in domesticity despite the fact that he dislikes society. Their opposite paths illustrate Tolstoy’s famous theme, that each unhappy marriage is unhappy in its own way.