Master Plotting: 5 Parts Of An Even & Effective Story Plot

More than concepts and models, stories are experiences. So instead of telling you how a story should work, let me show you.

Let's start with a modern legend - a story which spread by word of mouth, passed from person to person as if it was true.

A woman comes home in the evening after a day of shopping, only to find her pet dog choking and unable to breathe. She rushes to the vet, and leaves the dog there for emergency treatment.

When the woman arrives at home, her phone was ringing. "Get out of there right now," it was the vet shouting.

"Why?," she asked. "Just do it! Go to a neighbor's house. I'll be right there."

Startled by the tone, the woman agreed and got out.

A few minutes in, a couple of police cars came charging and parked at the front of her house. Horrified, the women was trying to figure out what's happening.

With their guns drawn out, the cops ran inside her house.

Meanwhile, the vet arrived and explained that he found a human finger inside the dog's throat! So he figured the dog must have caught and bit a burglar.

Sure enough, a man was found in one of the closets, holding onto a bloody hand.

So why did I start with the story of the choking dog? Because it's pure plot. It's only about what happens. A great plot evolves according to audience expectations, not in terms of what will happen, but with regard to how a story should be.

When going through your short story or novel or script, the audience should always feel like the story is moving forward - that it's going somewhere. Otherwise, neither you nor they will be happy with your writing.

To hook the readers from the beginning, you'll have to provide the things a reader's or viewer's mind instantly hunts for.

Whose Story Is It?

Now, that doesn't mean you have to always introduce the character in the first page or so.

If you're not going to introduce the character in the first few pages, make sure those pages at least give a sense of whose story it will be.

If not even that, whatever is happening in those first few pages must in some way affect your character the moment he or she dives into the story. Otherwise, it's unnecessary and doesn't matter.

Take this opening sentence for example. It's from a novel called What Came Before He Shot Her by Elizabeth George.

Joel Campbell, age 11 at the time, began his descent towards murder with a bus ride.

This single sentence accomplishes a lot of things at once, the first of which is answering whose story is it - Joel Campbell. Remember this sentence as you read further as I'll be revisiting it again in the coming sections.

Many writers make the mistake of spending a lot of first pages in describing characters, setting the stage, or filling in with the information which can also be covered eventually for the story to make sense.

Instead, you should hook the reader instantly by answering whose story it is and what's happening with him, which brings me to the next part.

Conflict (Intent + Obstacle)

Every good story starts with a single conflict or problem, which gets more complicated and worse as the story continues. We call this "thickening" of plot.

Barriers draw the character out, and pull the reader into the story. The only way the reader will want to know what's going to happen next is by having a conflict already happening.

The sooner and more effectively you can convey what's the conflict and why it matters, the better. You make a conflict matter by putting something big at stake. For a conflict to rise, the character must have two things:

  • a motive (also called intent, goal, or want)
  • an obstacle (also called barrier, challenge or threat)

In the Choking Dog story, the woman's intent is well being of her dog. The obstacle is that the dog is choking on something. So there is a conflict.

To make the story compelling, both intent and obstacle must seem equally strong, and something of great value should be at stake. If there's nothing at stake, there's no reason to move forward.

The choking dog story wouldn't have had the same effect if the dog was merely sneezing or coughing a bit instead of choking.

Another conflict is introduced when the phone rings and the vet tells the woman to get out of the house. The reader guesses the danger is somehow related to the mystery of choking dog. Here's the opening sentence of the Joel Campbell story again:

Joel Campbell, age 11 at the time, began his descent towards murder with a bus ride.

This single sentence not only introduces that character, but also conveys what's at stake: someone's life, and possibly an 11 year old's future.

Action & Impact

In the 2nd part, also called the middle of a scene, chapter, novel or screenplay, the character takes action to satisfy her intent or resolve the conflict.

The action comes from what happened in the beginning, the conflict. Cause and effect.

Once the conflict is in place, action is about what's happening - what the character is doing to resolve the conflict, to overcome the barrier and fulfill intent. Consider the opening sentence of Joel Campbell story again.

Joel Campbell, age 11 at the time, began his descent towards murder with a bus ride.

Right in the opening, it's clear what is happening. Not only we know who the story is about and what's at stake, but also what the character is doing. He is taking a bus ride which will somehow lead to murder.

But anything a character does isn't action. He can do any kind of ranting, running or smashing, but unless it's an attempt to resolve the conflict, the readers won't care.

For an action to really count, it should be a straight attack at the obstacle or problem. Or at least defense against it. When the dog is choking , the woman takes the dog to the vet.

When she gets the phone call and yelling from the doctor, the action is to first try to know why and then get out of the house. The phone call scene works because it has moved the character to a worse, new place, where she is even more worried and scared than before.

One reason people love reading and watching fiction is to live through the extreme experiences that hardly come in real life. So a great storyteller pushes his characters, conflicts and actions as far as he can at every chance.

In fact, every choice, every action that you're contemplating to put in your story should be checked against this rule. It must be revealing. When stuck with 2 or 3 choices, for example, ask yourself, "Which reveals more character?" And go with that.


The 3rd part is the end, also called climax, which gives a logical resolution to the events that happened in the beginning and the middle.

In most great stories, the ending also shows what the character has learned or how he or she has changed as a result of what happened and how it ended. This is known as the character arc.

In the Choking Dog, the vet arrives and explains the theory, which is confirmed by the cops. Everything makes sense.

When the intent beats the obstacle, or vice versa, you get the ending. The ending is resolution of the conflict, which can be either victory, defeat or a compromise.

Building Blocks Connected

So in simple form, whether it's a single scene or the entire story comprised of several scenes, it'll have 3 building blocks: conflict, action and resolution.

The main plot of a novel or story will be about a large conflict, followed by an action or set of actions, settled by one big ending. The scenes or chapters are about the sub-plots, with their own conflicts, actions and resolutions.

Every chapter is a little story with conflict, action and resolution. Each scene will have a conflict, action, resolution, but not the final resolution.

Your Turn

Let's take an example of scene. Check if it follows the principles we have discussed so far.

Cara was already in her pajamas, about to sleep, when she heard the doorbell. Curiously and with caution, she got to the door and opened it.

To her surprise, it was a deliveryman with a big bouquet of fragrant roses. “Miss Jones?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said, “That’ll be me. They are beautiful!"

Lets walk through our checklist. Do we know who the story is about? Yes. Cara. Is something happening? Is there an active conflict? Yes. It's dark and she doesn't know who's on the door.

Her intention is to just go to bed and have a safe and sound sleep. The obstacle is the doorbell rung by an unknown person.

What's at stake? Her safety and security. Perhaps her life. Does she take action to resolve the conflict? Yes. She opens the door.

As you can see, this opening ticks all the boxes. So it'll hook the reader and keep him reading. Let's review another.

I enter the kitchen and, "What the hell!" Every goddamn drawer is wide open. Bowls, paper towels, glasses, pots and pans are lying all over the place.

I barge in and start picking them up and putting into their respective drawers, pushing them shut one at a time. Every time a drawer is slammed shut, I hear the soothing sound of each bang in my ears.

Mike is in the porch. And he knows I not happy about this. But how could I say anything? He said if I want us to live together in a happily-ever-after sort of way, I need to stop the nagging. And I understood and agreed.

How's this one so far? How's is the level of involvement? For most readers, it'd be on the high side. Why?

Does the character have a strong intent? Yes, a clean kitchen. Is there a barrier? Yes, the kitchen is a mess. So the beginning has been taken care of. There is a want and an obstacle to that want.

And then comes the middle part, which again does a great job of keeping the readers' attention. First, the the character took action to resolve the problem. And second, the plot thickened.

What does that mean? It means a new layer of conflict has surfaced. The problem gets worse or more dangerous, in the form of another character called Mike. Let's go ahead to the next part.

Most of the time I am able to curb the nagging. Even if something irritable is causing an itch inside me, I push the feeling away.

However, when I witness every goddamn drawer open, how can I not lose it? It drives me nuts.

How about this? Do you think the reader will be as invested reading this as he was when reading the previous part? Not at all. He is right in the middle of a tense, dramatic scene, waiting to see what happens next.

But the writer suddenly shifts gear and goes into "most days." He doesn't care what happens in most days. At least not for now. The writer just interrupted a scene which was unfolding so great. Here's the last part:

"Mike," I say as I lean against the porch wall, arms folded over my chest like a shield. He raises his head and gives me a watch-what-you-say look. "Yes," he says slowly. A shiver runs down my back.

How about now? Is the reader back into the fold? Most are, and in a big way. The character took action again, this time towards the real source of conflict, the character Mike.

That's all with this scene. It leave it up to you to figure out the end, the resolution.

Mike may agree not make a mess again. Or she may agree to put up with it. Or they both agree to meet in the middle. Or split up. You choose.

There You Go

As you can see, storytelling is about sticking to the basics. If conflict and action are in place, then your story will be moving forward. You will not be stuck.

Making a mess is inevitable. Sooner or later you will get into trouble. What matters is how quickly you get out of it and get back on track.

If you want to make sure that most of your time is spent on productive writing, and not trying to write, your greatest asset is mastery in the fundamentals, part of which boils down to CAR.

But remember, understanding isn't mastery. It'll take practice. Start with one of the writing prompts, or just write and don't expect too much from the first draft.

Think of it as creating raw material to later turn into a compelling story. For now, it's about warming up and throwing words on the page.

Hitesh Sahni

Hitesh Sahni is a freelance writer, educator, consultant, marketer, and web designer helping people and businesses grow.
Close Menu