What Is the Plot of a Story? The 5 Elements of a Narrative

February 15, 2024

what is plot of a story definition, parts of narrative

What is the plot of a story? If you’re asking this question, you’re likely crafting a story. Maybe you’re drafting a novel, or a screenplay. Perhaps you need to understand plot and other parts of a narrative for your AP Lit class. I myself, as a writer and composition coach, have become intimately acquainted with plot. Yet I spent years asking myself, what is the plot of a story? And, what makes a plot good?

Plot is a popular problem among fiction writers. Most people who decide to write fiction are readers who fell in love with other parts of a narrative. With the poetry and lyricism of voice. Or with the psychological aspects of inhabiting a character’s mind. With the transportive effect of setting. But writers rarely fall in love with plot. That’d be like falling in love with a measuring stick. Plot requires calculation, and people who love calculations are better off going into computer science, not storytelling.

When I was earning an MFA in fiction writing, “plot” was on everyone’s lips. In one semester alone, two professors taught plot-related courses. One was aptly titled “Plot,” the other “Plotlessness.” (Even books that seem plotless respect the techniques and purposes of plot.) Nailing down a great plot can feel as elusive as spotting a snow leopard. Yet it’s easy to learn the plot of a story definition. It’s also feasible to identify aspects of plot and differentiate parts of a narrative. These steps are crucial for students and professional writers because they’ll lead you toward crafting a plot of your own.

Plot of a Story Definition

Merriam-Webster defines plot as “the plan or main story (as of a movie or literary work).” The word “plot” may have evolved out of “complot,” meaning “a secret plan for accomplishing a usually evil or unlawful end.” Not all plots are evil. Some involve friendship, while others center on quests, heists, or simply sitting in a chair. Plots can be big adventures or intimate portraits. Further down, we’ll delineate several archetypal plots. For now, it’s important to note that all plots have one thing in common: they answer the question, what happens?

Take Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. This plot could be described as: a young German engineer visits his cousin in a tuberculosis sanatorium in Switzerland. Though he plans to stay several weeks, he spends years there, convinced of his own elusive sickness.

Plot vs. Structure 

I commonly hear people confuse structure with plot. While the structure of a story should be directly linked to the plot, these are entirely distinct parts of a narrative. As I explained above, the question what is the plot of a story? is the same question as what happens? Meanwhile, the underlying question of structure is how does it happen?

Take the novel Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis. (Quick warning: I’m going to spoil the end here.) The plot could be described as the daily life of an old man. Yet the novel’s structure is atypical: the story is told in reverse, as if time is moving backwards. For example, instead of reading about the man eating soup, we see him spitting soup out of his mouth and back into a bowl. It can get a little gross at times.

What is the Plot of a Story (Continued)?

In fact, as the reader gets further into the book, they start to see that the perversion of moving backward mimics a deeper perversion at the heart of the story. Hidden deep in the protagonist’s past is the fact that he worked as a Nazi doctor. Thus, the plot is ultimately about the mundane life of a man who committed horrors. It forces the reader to ask questions about culpability and to confront the banality of evil. The strange structure reinforces the story’s plot. Form fits function, meaning, the structure serves the purpose of the plot.

5 Parts of a Narrative

Alongside plot and structure, characters, setting, and narrator/voice make up the five parts of a narrative. The interweaving of all five parts forms a story. While each part is distinct, they have a huge impact on each other. Interesting structures work to highlight plots and their themes. Characters and setting affect voice.

Above, we saw that a story’s plot is what happens and that a story’s structure is how it happens. Characters can be described as who it happens to. Setting is where and when it happens. Narrator/voice is who tells the story and how.

What is the Plot of a Story (Continued)?

If a character is the narrator, then the way they talk and think will determine the “voice” of the story. If the story has an omniscient narrator, the story’s voice will belong to the author, and will maintain a certain style. Some writers speak of their voice as an immutable thing, something they’ve stuck with throughout their career. I think of authors like James Salter and Flannery O’Connor as having a distinct “voice.” Other authors reject the idea of having just one voice. Zadie Smith’s voice is more like that of a ventriloquist. She transforms her style from story to story to suit the cultural and socioeconomic situation of her characters.

Other Parts of a Narrative: Theme, Values, Cultural Importance

You may have noticed that I didn’t include a why question above. Certainly, we can ask why is this story being told? And, why does it matter? These questions points to the big picture, to the story’s themes, lessons, morals, and social and political relevance. Yet this is not an essential or even fixed part of a narrative. It’s not the job of the writer, but rather the work of the reader, to experience and explain why a story matters.

It can be difficult to describe a story when people ask, “what is this about?” This question could either refer to the plot—what happens, or to themes—why is this being told. For example, your teacher might ask, “What is Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando about?” You could say it’s about a young Elizabethan nobleman who spontaneously transitions and has adventures as a woman for several centuries. (That’s the plot). Or, you could say it’s about the creative process, the art of living, England’s historic place in the world, modernity and time. (These are themes.)

The First Feature of Plot: Conflict

But let’s return to plot. Successful plots contain two key characteristics. The first is conflict. Conflict alludes to both internal and external forces acting against a character in their current situation. These forces create problems that get in the way of the character’s material and conscious wants, and deeper, subconscious needs. If your characters aren’t struggling with something in some way, then there’s no need to tell their story. You’ve already arrived at happily ever after. If you’re having trouble creating conflict, dig deeper. Even a seemingly perfect world can have pretty major issues.

What is the Plot of a Story (Continued)?

For example, in Greta Gerwig’s film Barbie, Barbieland seems like a super nice place… for about five minutes. Conflicts simmer below the surface. First of all, nothing is real, not the shower water nor the ocean waves. Ken can’t get Barbie’s attention. And Barbie is having hitherto unknown thoughts of death. This inner conflict leads to her next problem—flat feet—which leads to the realization that someone opened a portal between Barbieland and the real world.

A Closer Look at Conflict and Comfort

Conflict often gets in the way of characters’ happiness. It also limits long sections of text that simply describe the ins and outs of the characters’ lives. This can create a bit of a conundrum, because sometimes readers crave just that—the feeling of spending time with characters they like. Yet some writers manage to create what I call a “lived-in” sensation in their books without losing sight of plot. Louise Erdrich is one. Reading Erdrich’s The Sentence made me feel like I was hanging out with her characters who run an Indigenous bookshop. Yet every scene in the novel is equally committed to pushing the plot forward, in order to reveal why a ghost has come to haunt the place.

 The Second Feature of Plot: Causality

In the Barbie example above, you may have noticed how one problem led to another. The rip between worlds leads to Barbie needing to leave Barbieland. This leads to Ken sneaking out to the real world with her. This in turn leads to Ken’s fascination with the patriarchy. This in turn leads to Barbieland’s transformation. What we’re describing here is cause and effect. Let’s say the plot instead went like this: Barbie gets flat feet. The next day she goes to the hair salon. Later she meets Ken at the beach. Here, there’s no cause and effect. In fact, it sounds like a reality show, not a narrative.

A tight plot keeps readers turning pages precisely for this cause and effect relationship. Without cause and effect, plots feel flabby. Momentum is lost. Readers start to wonder why certain expectations go unfulfilled. Cause and effect also has the added benefit of creating opportunities to increase your characters’ conflicts.

What is the Plot of a Story (Continued)?

In a Paris Review interview, Sigrid Nunez describes causality in the writing process of her novel The Friend. “I wrote about the memorial service. And then I decided to have the dead man’s wife ask the narrator, “Is it okay if I call you?” and I thought, Okay, Sigrid, why does she want to talk to the narrator? Well, maybe the man left behind a dog that somebody has to take care of.” … “The narrator’s apartment is rent-stabilized, she can’t afford to give it up and move, and her lease stipulates that no dogs are allowed. But she still agrees to adopt the dog, a Great Dane.” Through cause and effect, Nunez’s character must face the conflict of keeping a Great Dane in a pet-free apartment.


Coincidences can seem downright crazy in real life. They’re fun to tell as anecdotes. However, they rarely make for a climactic moment in a plot. Why? Because plots already rely on coincidence for smaller plot points. Story worlds are often rather underpopulated, in order to keep characters in the same orbit. For example, in Anna Karenina, Anna runs into Count Vronsky on the train platform. Yet the reader isn’t meant to think, holy cow, of all the people in Moscow, Anna ran into another main character? Rather, the reader will think, these two characters will meet again. What will their future be? A writer learns to take advantage of coincidence, both for causality and conflict. Yet when a writer relies on the coincidence for drama, the reader will feel underwhelmed. In other words, the “twist” isn’t big enough.

Parts of a Plot

So far we’ve discussed the five main parts of a narrative, including plot. We’ve answered the question what is a plot of a story? And we’ve examined the two main features of plot, conflict and causality. Yet stories don’t simply move from conflict to conflict before magically resolving themselves. The plot of a story has various parts, which build on each other to create a larger story arc. Many plots follow the same basic structure. Understanding this structure can help you connect plot points when writing a book. Especially when you’re slogging through the swampy middle.

The 19th century novelist Gustav Freytag came up with a five-act dramatic structure in Die Technik des Dramas. His plot structure includes the following parts: 1. Exposition/introduction. 2. Rising action. 3. Climax/turning point. 4. Falling action. 5. Resolution/denouement.

What is the Plot of a Story (Continued)?

Personally, I find Freytag’s structure a little misleading. Diagrams of Freytag’s pyramid place the climax in the middle. Yet this moment usually arrives in the final quarter of a story. Furthermore, the falling action and denouement are both so short they might as well be considered one piece. Instead of using Freytag’s structure, I recommend turning to cinema to gain a better understanding a plot arc. This is what screenwriter Blake Snyder did in his groundbreaking book Save the Cat.

The Save the Cat Structure

Snyder developed his 15-beat plot template in Save the Cat after studying a wide variety of Hollywood films. These beats can be divided into three main acts. In act one, an opening image establishes the main character’s status quo. Shortly after, a theme is stated by a secondary character, alluding to the protagonist’s flaws and needs. Act one also involves the set-up, catalyst, and debate. The catalyst marks an exciting moment in which something happens to spark change.

Act two takes up about 55% of the entire story. Its beats include break into 2, B story, fun and games, midpoint, bad guys close in, all is lost and dark night of the soul. What’s so fun about fun and games? This section corresponds to the part of the plot that best defines the story. For example, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is about wizards learning magic at school. Of course, a lot of other things happen. But learning magic corresponds with the Fun and Games beat. Here’s a fun tip. After watching a great film, rewind and see what happened halfway through. You may find that this very minute marks a game-changing plot twist. All is lost and dark night of the soul will serve as the climax of your story.

What Is the Plot of a Story? (Continued)

Act three includes break into three, finale, and final image. These acts help restore order to the story world. Yet the protagonist is left changed in some way. This is evidenced by the final image, which contrasts with the opening image.

What I love about the Save the Cat template is it takes character psychology into consideration. Each plot point depends on the character’s problems, wants and needs. By fully developing your characters’ rich inner lives, your characters will determine their own plot. We call this character-driven plots.

Let’s put it another way: a train stalls in Siberia. Your character could get off, or find the conductor, or take a nap. Your character could murder the occupant of his cabin and make off into the snow with her jewels. What happens depends on who this character is, and what you know about them.

Unconventional Exceptions

Many stories don’t comply with Freytag or Blake’s plot arcs. For example, one-act plays and short stories are just too short to accommodate so many beats. Samuel Beckett’s plays intentionally undermine classic Western plot. In Haitian storytelling, the Krik Krak plot involves a narrator, who tells a riddle to the audience, who in turn becomes a participating chorus. Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s story In a Grove has seven possible plots, which work to untangle the mystery of a samurai’s death. Then there’s Vladimir Nabokov’s poem-turned-novel, Pale Fire. Here, all semblance of a plot is lost when a neighbor steals and annotates the text of a reclusive poet. What happens depends on whether you believe the neighbor is an escaped sovereign or madman.

As you can see from the examples above, an unconventional plot often relies on an unconventional story structure. Yet knowing the conventional rules of plot allowed these authors to play with form, all while maintaining conflict and causality.

Archetypal Plots

Whether your plot is conventional or not, it may fall under one of several archetypal story types. When writing your own story, I suggest studying other works belonging to that archetype for inspiration. Below are a few to get you started.

Tragedy: As you can imagine, these plots end badly. Lovers suffer. Heroes die. Check out The Great Gatsby and Romeo and Juliet. Quest: a hero sets off on a journey to do something spectacular and is changed along the way. Think Lord of the Rings. Rags to Riches: the hero works her way up from nothing. Try The Count of Monte Cristo and revisit Cinderella. Bildungsroman: a child grows up and gains personal insight about their self and the world. Besides Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, I must recommend Elif Batuman’s The Idiot.

What is the Plot of a Story (Continued)?

Oftentimes, stories fall under multiple categories. The Idiot is also a love story, as is Romeo and Juliet. The mixing of tropes keeps stories complex and interesting.

What’s Next, After Learning What is the Plot of a Story?

We hope you found some answers to the question what is the plot of a story? If you enjoyed this post, please explore the following articles on craft and writing opportunities: