Friday, March 09, 2012

How to Structure the Plot of a Novel by Gary Gauthier

Today, for Life List Club Friday, I welcome fellow Life Lister, Gary Gauthier, for the second guest post of the week!  Gary has a great blog called Literary Snippets, where he posts snippets (get it?) of classics, as well as pictures that relate to the snippet.  I love it because it's like an art and literature lesson in one! 

If you miss me (I hope!), after you finish reading Gary's awesome post, please stop over at Jess Witkins' Happiness Project, where I am sharing some thoughts on Positivity. 

Without any further ado, heeeere's Gary!

How to Structure the Plot of A Novel by Gary Gauthier

A New Look at the Narrative Arc

If you are serious about writing fiction, your stories can’t ramble. They need structure.  I am going to suggest to you a simple system that can be used to create a memorable work of fiction. It has the added benefit that it can help you easily sketch an entire plot with a visual representation.

Nature, in her infinite wisdom and grace, gave us the arc.

What Is the Narrative Arc?

The narrative arc is a metaphor used to describe a story’s trajectory. A plot begins with rising action that sets up a challenge; the challenge creates tension that reaches a climax; finally, the tension is released and the trajectory heads downward to a point of rest.

A smooth trajectory like the arc of a rainbow does less than full justice to the rising and falling action in the plot of a novel. Our system goes one step further and uses the arc to show rising and falling action as the plot progresses.

Narrative Structure: A Simple System That Works

1. Reduce your plot to two central events.
2. Place the first central event about 25% into the story.
3. Place the second central event, the climax, approximately 25% from the end of the story.
4. Unify the plot with an overarching theme.

The Foundation of Your Plot is the two central events you selected. The first is called a catalyst (or inciting event) and the second is the climax. The two events are related and involve the protagonist or the hero.

Here are three examples of plot foundations. 
I: Boy likes girl. The girl, overcome by a display of chivalry and bravery, falls in love.
II: Victim suffers great harm.  She exacts revenge.
III: Protagonist enters an arranged (or bad) marriage. She is transformed and leaves. 

Use an overarching theme to unify the entire plot. For the examples above, the themes can be: love conquers all, an eye for an eye, and the ugly duckling is transformed into a beautiful swan.

A Visual Representation of Our System

The two red pillars represent the catalyst and the climax. They also help to define the narrative arc.

From Point A to Point B - Your job as a novelist is to create a meaningful and memorable ride for the reader from point A to point B. Your subject matter and the genre determine whether the ride is heartwarming, inspirational, stormy, disturbing, thrilling or horrific. The big caveat is, if your story is not interesting, the reader can put the book down at any time and never finish.

A Play in Three Acts - The two red pillars in the figure divide the plot into three sections. Most plays and movies use this system. Most best-selling novels and literary classics follow this format. You can label the blue vertical supports and use each to represent a chapter or a scene. As an example, you can use the following convention: a, b, c; 1a, 1b, 1c; 2a, 2b, 2c.

Pace the Dramatic Tension. It’s not an accident that the narrative arc peaks at the inciting point and at the climax. It’s an intentional, creative act by the writer.

Tell the Story Deliberately. Start the story with action and circumstances that lead the reader to the catalyst. The reader should be vested in the story (sold) by the time he arrives at the catalyst. Begin the centerpiece of the plot (approximately one-half the narrative) after the inciting event (think: “after commercial break”) and end it with the climax. Close the story by driving the point home (reinforcing the theme) and resolving the aftermath of the climax.  

The Unifying Theme Plays a Crucial Role. The structure of your story holds the action together in a self-sustaining and interconnected plot that moves in one direction. A winding excursion leading nowhere is a waste of writing talent. If you follow the template laid out above, the characters will be woven into the theme in support of the plot. If all the action and the characters do not come together as a unified whole, your readers will be disappointed and will feel like their trust was misplaced.  

Purpose and Structure are Distinct Animals. The purpose of a bridge is to provide for safe travel from one point to the other. A traveler doesn’t care (and is only vaguely aware) that the bridge’s structure is a system of support designed to bear weight across a span. So it goes for the reader and your plot.

Stay True to Your Purpose. Let’s face it—most readers of fiction are looking for entertainment, an escape. They don’t care how you structure your story, but without a sturdy plot supported by a strong foundation, you reduce the chances of achieving your purpose.

If you end up writing a best-seller, what most readers will notice is that you wrote a great story.

Did you recently read a novel whose plot fits into the structure described? What’s your personal experience with the narrative arc?

 (Images are sourced by courtesy from Wikimedia.)

Gary Gauthier is working on his first novel, a crime thriller set in New Orleans just before Hurricane Katrina's landfall. His blog, Literary Snippets, gives him an opportunity to express and share his appreciation for art and literature. He occasionally posts articles as well. Some of his favorite writers are Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe. But this changes from time to time. Stay tuned! Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.


  1. This is really well laid out, Gary. Clear and concise and most importantly, helpful. I'm such a visual learner so having diagrams or charts to map things out for writing really helps me. I kept so many tools like that I got at a writer's conference last year. They work well even when you're just trying to get over a dry writing spell or move into another scene. I'd say this is a perfect union of structure given by you with Lara's Creativity blog! Nice job LLC team!

  2. Thanks for visiting Jessi. We never know when a tool in our arsenal will facilitate a task we need to complete. I'm glad you like the post.

  3. Very well done. Bookmarking this now :)

  4. Wow! I love the way you tie the visuals of a bridge and a rainbow into the idea of a story arc. That'll definitely make the ideas stick with me! I love the beauty of a well-crafted story. There's a symmetry and wholeness to it that's just so satisfying.

    Thanks for sharing this with us, Gary.

  5. Hi, Gary! Thanks for guest posting today! I, too, love the pictures. When I saw the suspension bridge drawing, I even said out-loud "Oh, what a great idea!" I believe story structure is one of the most important things to learn, and this is a great lesson. Totally made sense!

  6. I like the bridge analogy for conveying the story. Very nice.

  7. Thanks for the thumbs up Kelley.

    Thanks for stopping by Sonia. Always nice to see you.

  8. @LGSmith Thanks for visiting and dropping a note.

  9. Thanks for hosting me Lara. Nice to get positive feedback. Having a blueprint certainly makes things a lot easier.

  10. Love the pictures and the post, Gary! A writer can never have too much structure. :-)

  11. So much great advice and things to ponder here, Gary! I'll be reflecting on them this weekend and then bringing my thoughts to my own current plot outline : ).

  12. Thanks for visiting, Jenny. We can all use a some structure to make sense of the chaos.

    Hi Pam, nice to see you. Good luck with your WIP.

  13. Great stuff! The pictures of the bridges really tied this all together. I'm a visual learner, so the association is much appreciated!

    1. I liked the pictures of the bridges, too. The rainbow hit me as an a-ha moment as well.

  14. I agree...the bridge analogy is pretty great. Nice work!

  15. Wow, great post Gary... I'd heard of the arc, but never had it explained so well :)

    Thanks, and thanks Lara for hosting Gary (and the comments on my blog:)

  16. Gary is awesome, and so is his post. A very good reminder for me at this point (since a current rewrite had a major problem about this). Thanks for hosting him today, Lara. I needed to read this. :)

  17. Thanks for sharing all of this Gary and Lara.

  18. Good nut and bolts writing information. Thanks for the refresher course.

  19. Thanks Mike, Mark, David, Stacy and Cindy for stopping by! I agree, Gary does a great post. Plus, he's sooo nice! He's made me feel so comfortable within the LLC. He's a great blogger buddy!

  20. I think I'm going to have to put this post on my "links" page on my blog. So useful!

    1. Hi Trisha, I haven't visited this page since the post went up. Glad you liked it and thanks for commenting.

  21. Very well-explained post on the narrative arc! This is so helpful! In literature class this is exactly how we break the stories studied into parts - by a curve, an arc.

    1. Hey Daph! I'm just seeing your comment now. Give me a couple of months and I just might reply! Sorry about that.

      Thanks for visiting. Nice to see you as always!

  22. I'm glad it was so helpful. I thought so, too!

  23. This is deep! I have to give it a read and see how it applies to my WIP. One interesting point is the 25% central plot (inciting incident,I guess?) point. If I follow that my novel would be about 5 pages, lol! I admit to struggling with long form work. I believe I tend to think of my writing in film terms, where exposition and inciting incidents are collapsed to fit a visual medium. But this is a killer guest post. Ill be looking for more from Mr. Gauthier.


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