A plot structure is often described as a roller coaster that has five parts: Exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. Does that mean each part has to be the same length? And, if not, how do we decide how long each part should be? Good question. To answer this, it can be more helpful to further divide your plot “roller coaster” into seven parts by separating the Rising Action into three different sections, each of which increases the pressure on the main character. After all, even on a real roller coaster, we spend most of our time on the slow climb to the top.
What are these “Seven Basic Plots” you speak of?
Christopher Booker, in his book The Seven Basic Plots, explains that the plots of most stories are not original. He claims there are seven basic plots that organize most stories. Of course, we’re talking about writing, here, so you’ll be able to find plenty of people who could passionately disagree with this for hours. I can only share that the first time I heard this it came as a revelation. The concept of the seven basic plots was invaluable while writing Adequate Yearly Progress, which follows several different characters who each have their own plot arc. Some of my author buddies have used it to map out their books, and I’ve used this worksheet version to guide students through writing their own stories and summarizing stories we’ve read in class.
If you’re stuck on the plot of a story you’re writing, it may help to find the outline that best fits your story. Then, match it up against the outline of the story you’re writing to see if any elements are missing or repeated.
Rags to Riches
- Exposition: We meet a young person who is poor and mistreated by others. This is the hero, but he or she doesn’t know it yet.
- Rising Action Part 1: The hero gets some type of lucky break. Sometimes magic is involved, sometimes not. Either way, things seem to be looking up.
- Rising Action Part 2: Everything suddenly goes wrong. The initial win is stripped away. The hero is separated from that which s/he values most. The hero is overwhelmed with despair and this seems to be the worst moment in the story.
- Rising Action Part 3: The hero has lost the magic or good luck that helped during the first half of the story. Now it is all about wits and natural skills – no more easy outs. In the process, the hero shows independence and strength.
- Climax: After the ordeals that show off the Hero’s newfound strength, the Hero must undergo a final test, one climactic battle against the Big Bad Something.
- Falling Action: At last the hero emerges victorious
- Resolution: The hero lays claim to the treasure, the kingdom, and the Prince/ princess, “… and they all lived happily ever after.”
Overcoming the Monster
- Exposition: We meet a “monster,” bad guy, or bad situation that needs to be dealt with.
- Rising Action Part 1: We meet a hero. He/She demonstrates some basic heroic qualities, but is otherwise minding his/her own business. The monster is on its way to mess with the hero, but for now, everything seems under control.
- Rising Action Part 2: The Monster shows up and shows off, and seems to be overpowering the hero.
- Rising Action Part 3: Time for the climactic battle. The odds seem to be against our Hero even surviving this fight. But, of course, we know how these things turn out, right?
- Climax: The hero makes a thrilling escape from death, defeats the monster, or breaks the monster’s power.
- Falling Action: The people who had been under its power are liberated. The Hero emerges victorious.
- Resolution: The hero gets a treasure, a kingdom, and a princess (or prince). They all live happily ever after… unless you want to leave room for a sequel.
- Exposition: The hero finds himself in a situation where he must set out on a journey with a specific goal in mind. For whatever reason, ignoring the call and staying home is just not an option.
- Rising Action Part 1: The hero heads out over hostile terrain (ocean, desert, middle school, etc.) and faces many obstacles (pirates, volcanoes, evil cheerleaders, etc.) along the way.
- Rising Action Part 2: The hero meets up with some weird, creepy, or supernatural force. This meeting leaves the hero with some information that will help later in the journey.
- Rising Action Part 3: The journey is over and the goal is in sight, but the story is not over. We reach the halfway mark, and the journey part is over. There is still a big obstacle to be overcome.
- Climax: The hero must pass a final test. Passing the test will require the natural traits of the hero, but also the skills & knowledge gained during the journey.
- Falling Action: The hero passes the test and accomplishes the goal.
- Resolution: The Hero has won it all: treasure, kingdom, & Princess (or prince). Time to live happily ever after… unless the writer is leaving room for a sequel.
Voyage and Return
- Exposition: We meet our hero – usually someone who is very innocent or feels trapped in everyday life. Somehow the hero ends up in some alternate reality or new world.
- Rising Action Part 1: The new world is puzzling and unfamiliar and kind of cool. The hero will never really feel at home here, but that doesn’t seem to matter right now. The hero may meet someone who seems to be helpful.
- Rising Action Part 2: The “mood of the adventure” starts to darken. The cool new world is starting not to be so cool, and the hero feels like she or he is in some type of danger. The previously helpful person may betray the hero.
- Rising Action Part 3: The sense of danger gets worse. It looks like the hero is doomed!
- Climax: The hero makes a dramatic or thrilling escape from the now-dangerous world.
- Falling action: The hero returns to the world he/she came from.
- Resolution: The hero has learned an important lesson from the adventure… or was it all just a dream?
- Exposition: We meet a protagonist who has some type of flaw that will undo him later. The protagonist is focused on getting something – often something he or she has no right to have.
- Rising Action Part 1: The protagonist seems to be getting away with his plan.
- Rising Action Part 2: Things start to go wrong. The protagonist experiences difficulties and annoyances. He makes decisions that lock him into doing worse things in the future.
- Rising Action Part 3: Things are now slipping seriously out of the protagonist’s control. He has a mounting sense of threat and despair. Forces of opposition and fate are closing in on him.
- Climax: The protagonist is about to go down, hard. Mistakes and enemies made throughout the story have finally caught up to him/her.
- Falling Action: The Tragic Hero’s death or destruction releases the world from the darkness s/he had wrought, and the world rejoices.
- Resolution: The protagonist is gone and the world re-balances itself. Or we switch to a rebirth story of some sort.
- Exposition: The hero falls under the shadow of a dark power. (Addiction, imprisonment, kidnapping, magic spells, illness, etc.)
- Rising Action Part 1: The hero gets a ray of hope… maybe things are looking up.
- Rising Action Part 2: The ray of hope disappears. Things seem even worse than before.
- Rising Action Part 3: Things get even worse.
- Climax: The dark power seems to have completely triumphed over the hero.
- Falling action: The hero is saved at the last minute – either by his/her own efforts, a love interest, or an innocent character like a child.
- Resolution: The hero has changed. You decide how.
- Exposition: We meet a large cast of characters, including at least two people who are clearly meant to be together.
- Rising Action Part 1: Some force is keeping the potential couple apart. Maybe they dislike one another, or one is in a relationship.
- Rising Action Part 2: The force keeping the couple apart weakens and they start to get together.
- Rising Action Part 3: Just when it seems like the couple will finally get together, a misunderstanding is created that seems it will keep them apart forever.
- Climax: The misunderstanding is cleared up… but is it too late?
- Falling Action: The couple finishes working out the misunderstanding and the relationship is back on track.
- Resolution: Everyone lives happily ever after and everyone who is meant to be together ends up together.
If you’re a teacher who would like to use this activity with your students, you can find my charts and worksheets with the seven basic plots divided into seven sections each on Teachers Pay Teachers.