Here is a basic explanation of plot structure – similar to what you’ll hear in any high school language arts class. Examples of each plot point come from the adorable kids’ book Giraffes Can’t Dance, by Giles Andreae and Guy Parker-Rees.
- Establish character
- Establish setting
- Establish situation – what is the routine the main character is used to?
- The exposition ends with an inciting incident that breaks up the routine and sets the main character on a quest. (Note from YA author Lauren Oliver: The inciting incident can be luck, but all other steps must be character’s own decisions.)
- The plot thickens… the roller coaster climbs… pick your plot-related cliché.
- This is the longest part of the story – there are usually at least three events or decisions, each of which raise the stakes higher.
- All steps must be the character’s own decisions. Often, characters’ efforts to get out of trouble can get them deeper into trouble, turning the tension screws, and raising the stakes.
- The emotional high point of the story.
- (YA author Lauren Oliver describes this as the utter failure and epic collapse of the original thing the main character wants…)
- Things “fall” into place. Misunderstandings are cleared up. The real bad guy is revealed, found, and taken down. The real biological mother is revealed, found, and reunited.
- As an author, you can think of this as a time to fulfill the promises you’ve made to readers, close all the doors you’ve opened, answer the questions you’ve raised in readers’ minds. (If a cat runs away early in the story and the main character searches for it, we should find out what happened to the cat.)
- (According to Lauren Oliver… in the process of failing at what they want, the character will find out what they need.)
- Tie up any last loose ends. Let us know the main character’s new “normal.
- End the story before the reader loses interest. This part is short.
You’ve also probably seen this diagram, which illustrates the five-part plot structure above:
One good, cute example that fits well is one of my favorite children’s books, Giraffes Can’t Dance, by Giles Andreae and Guy Parker-Rees, which we read in class.
Here is how Giraffes Can’t Dance fits into each of the examples above. (Warning: This summary contains spoilers. Don’t read on if you want to find out yourself whether Gerald the Giraffe learns to dance by the end of the story!)
Main character – Gerald the Giraffe
Setting – Jungle
Situation the main character is used to – being clumsy and awkward. Gerald can barely walk without tripping! He certainly can’t dance, right?
Inciting incident – The Jungle Dance. Gerald is going to have to leave his comfort zone of “standing still and munching shoots off trees.”
All the other animals are great dancers. One by one we see that they each have a cool dance they can do at the Jungle Dance. Pretty soon it’s going to be Gerald’s turn. Uh oh!
Gerald tries to dance but the lions “saw him coming and they soon began to roar.” Gerald gets laughed at, bullied, and called weird. Then, saddest of all, he has to walk home alone while all the other jungle animals do a conga line without him. So, so sad!
A cricket who’s been watching him shows him that he actually can dance. He just needs his own music. And once he starts breaking it down in that jungle clearing, all the animals who laughed at him earlier show up and start cheering him on.
Gerald finishes with a bow and teaches the other animals (and us) an important lesson.
Plotting can also get more complicated than this. According to author Christopher Booker, there are seven basic plots that most stories follow.
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