There’s a saying that 90% of published stories follow “the formula”—and the other 10% are great literature.
So what is “the formula”? So glad you asked–I’ve taught plotting for 15 years and need spend no time researching an answer in this busy season.
First, let me tell you why it helps to know. If you’re acting as a teacher, it provides you with built-in questions about a book you’ve never read. If a student has just started a book, you ask about aspects of the opening. If they’re halfway through, you ask about character, conflict and one point of rising action.
If you’re acting as a reader, using the language from plot helps you state why you like or dislike a book. The main character was inspiring or dorky; the conflict was interesting or weak; the climax was riveting or predictable.
If you’re a storyteller or a writer, what you need to know is that opening and conflict get the first 20%; the rising action and climax, the next 60%; and the falling action and denouement, the final 20%.
This is it—the basis of the majority of the world’s literature.
Opening/Exposition: Introduces the setting (time and place) and the characters. Recently, there’s a trend to having the first scene be a life-or-death action borrowed from later in the plot, but at some time the author has to get around to who and where.
Conflict: The problem that must be solved before the story can end. By the end of the third or fourth chapter, readers need to know there is a problem, one they care about, and have some idea what direction they want the story to go.
Rising action: The problem gets worse—and worse—and worse yet. New challenges arise and possible solutions disappear.
Climax: The point at which the solution is revealed. Sometimes this is a breathtaking action—the poor hero hanging from roof’s edge manages to pull himself up and knock out the villian. But it may be two starving children lost In a blizzard stumbling into campground and finding a half loaf of bread in the garbage.
Falling action: The handling of loose ends. The police arrive and take the villian away or the kids to the hospital.
Denouement/Resolution: The “new normal” is revealed. The characters go forth with new knowledge and understanding.
Now take a story you know—the simpler the better—and see if you can identify the elements of the plot. I’ll use the “The Big Bad Wolf and the Three Little Pigs” as an example.
Opening: Each little pig goes off to seek his fortune.
Conflict: A hungry wolf decides to eat the pigs.
Rising action: The house of straw disintegrates. The house of sticks follows. The wolf is using all his wind power to threaten the house of brick.
Climax: The wolf goes down the chimney and lands in a vat of boiling water.
Falling action: Everyone realizes what has happened and celebrates.
Denouement: All of the pigs now understand the benefits of preparation and hard work and live happily ever after.
Admittedly, longer stories are more complicated with subplots and character development, but we tend to get disappointed if each of these major elements is not well done.