In a literary work,
film A film also called a movie, motion picture, moving picture, picture, photoplay or (slang) flick is a work of visual art that simulates experiences and otherwise communicates ideas, stories, perceptions, feelings, beauty, or atmosphere ...
, or other
narrative A narrative, story, or tale is any account of a series of related events or experiences, whether nonfictional (memoir, biography, news report, documentary, travelogue, etc.) or fictional ( fairy tale, fable, legend, thriller, novel, etc.). N ...
, the plot is the sequence of events in which each event affects the next one through the principle of
cause-and-effect Causality (also referred to as causation, or cause and effect) is influence by which one event, process, state, or object (''a'' ''cause'') contributes to the production of another event, process, state, or object (an ''effect'') where the cau ...
. The causal events of a plot can be thought of as a series of events linked by the connector "and so". Plots can vary from the simple—such as in a traditional
ballad A ballad is a form of verse, often a narrative set to music. Ballads derive from the medieval French ''chanson balladée'' or '' ballade'', which were originally "dance songs". Ballads were particularly characteristic of the popular poetry and ...
—to forming complex interwoven structures, with each part sometimes referred to as a subplot or ''imbroglio''. Plot is similar in meaning to the term ''storyline''. In the narrative sense, the term highlights important points which have consequences within the story, according to American science fiction writer Ansen Dibell. The term ''plot'' can also serve as a verb, referring to either the writer's crafting of a plot (devising and ordering story events), or else to a character's planning of future actions in the story. The term ''plot'', however, in common usage (for example, a "movie plot") can mean a narrative summary or story synopsis, rather than a specific cause-and-effect sequence.


Early 20th-century English novelist E. M. Forster described plot as the cause-and-effect relationship between events in a story. According to Forster, "''The king died, and then the queen died,'' is a story, while ''The king died, and then the queen died of grief,'' is a plot." Teri Shaffer Yamada, Ph.D., of
CSULB California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) is a public research university in Long Beach, California. The 322-acre campus is the second largest of the 23-school California State University system (CSU) and one of the largest universities i ...
agrees that a plot does not include memorable scenes within a story that do not relate directly to other events but only "major events that move the action in a narrative." For example, in the 1997 film ''
Titanic RMS ''Titanic'' was a British passenger liner, operated by the White Star Line, which sank in the North Atlantic Ocean on 15 April 1912 after striking an iceberg during her maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York City, Unit ...
'', when Rose climbs on the railing at the front of the ship and spreads her hands as if she's flying, this scene is memorable but does not directly influence other events, so it may not be considered as part of the plot. Another example of a memorable scene that is not part of the plot occurs in the 1980 film ''
The Empire Strikes Back ''The Empire Strikes Back'' (also known as ''Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back'') is a 1980 American epic space opera film directed by Irvin Kershner from a screenplay by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, based on a story ...
'', when Han Solo is frozen in carbonite.

Fabula and syuzhet

The literary theory of Russian Formalism in the early 20th century divided a narrative into two elements: the ''fabula'' (фа́була) and the ''syuzhet'' (сюже́т), or the "raw material" and the "way it is organized". A fabula is the events in the fictional world, whereas a syuzhet is a perspective of those events. Formalist followers eventually translated the fabula/syuzhet to the concept of story/plot. This definition is usually used in narratology, in parallel with Forster's definition. The ''fabula'' (story) is what happened in chronological order. In contrast, the ''syuzhet'' (plot) means a unique sequence of discourse that was sorted out by the (implied) author. That is, the syuzhet can consist of picking up the fabula events in non-chronological order; for example, fabula is , syuzhet is . The Russian formalist, Viktor Shklovsky, viewed the syuzhet as the fabula defamiliarized.
Defamiliarization Defamiliarization or ''ostranenie'' ( rus, остранение, p=ɐstrɐˈnʲenʲɪjə) is the artistic technique of presenting to audiences common things in an unfamiliar or strange way so they could gain new perspectives and see the world diffe ...
or "making strange," a term Shklovsky coined and popularized, upends familiar ways of presenting a story, slows down the reader's perception, and makes the story appear unfamiliar. Shklovsky cites Lawrence Sterne's
Tristram Shandy Tristram may refer to: Literature * the title character of ''The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman'', a novel by Laurence Sterne * the title character of '' Tristram of Lyonesse'', an epic poem by Algernon Charles Swinburne *"Tristr ...
as an example of a fabula that has been defamiliarized. Sterne uses temporal displacements, digressions, and causal disruptions (for example, placing the effects before their causes) to slow down the reader's ability to reassemble the (familiar) story. As a result, the syuzhet "makes strange" the fabula.



A story orders events from beginning to end in a time sequence. Consider the following events in the European folk tale " Cinderella": *The prince searches for Cinderella with the glass shoe **Cinderella's sisters try the shoe on themselves but it does not fit them *The shoe fits Cinderella's foot so the prince finds her The first event is causally related to the third event, while the second event, though descriptive, does not directly impact the outcome. As a result, according to Ansen Dibell, the plot can be described as the first event "and so" the last event, while the story can be described by all three events in order.

''The Wizard of Oz''

Steve Alcorn, a fiction-writing coach, says that the main plot elements of the 1939 film '' The Wizard of Oz'' are easy to find, and include: # A tornado picks up a house and drops it on a witch # A little girl meets some interesting traveling companions # A wizard sends them on a mission # They melt a witch with a bucket of water


Structure and treatment

Dramatic structure is the philosophy by which the story is split and how the story is thought of. This can vary by ethnicity, region and time period. This can be applied to books, plays, and films. Some philosophers/critics have included Aristotle, Horace, Aelius Donatus, Gustav Freytag, Kenneth Thorpe Rowe, Lajos Egri, Syd Field, and others. Some story structures are so old that the originator cannot be found, such as
Ta'zieh Ta'zieh ( ar, تعزية; fa, تعزیه; ur, ) means comfort, condolence, or expression of grief. It comes from roots ''aza'' (عزو and عزى) which means mourning. Depending on the region, time, occasion, religion, etc. the word can sig ...
. Often in order to sell a script, the ''plot structure'' is made into what is called a ''treatment''. This can vary based on locality, but for Europe and European Diaspora, the ''three-act structure'' is often used. The components of this structure are the ''set-up'', the ''confrontation'' and the ''resolution''. Acts are connected by two
plot point In television and film, a plot point is any incident, episode, or event that "hooks" into the action and spins it around into another direction. Noted screenwriting teacher Syd Field discusses plot points in his paradigm, popularized in his book ...
s or turning points, with the first turning point connecting Act I to Act II, and the second connecting Act II to Act III. The conception of the three-act structure has been attributed to American screenwriter
Syd Field Sydney Alvin Field (December 19, 1935November 17, 2013) was an American author and speaker who wrote several books on screenwriting, the first being '' Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting'' (Dell Publishing, 1979). He led workshops and s ...
who described plot structure in this tripartite way for film analysis. Furthermore, in order to sell a book within the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, often the plot structure is split into a synopsis. Again the plot structure may vary by genre or drama structure used. Two examples of philosophers about story structure are Aristotle and Gustave Freytag.


Many scholars have analyzed dramatic structure, beginning with
Aristotle Aristotle (; grc-gre, Ἀριστοτέλης ''Aristotélēs'', ; 384–322 BC) was a Greek philosopher and polymath during the Classical period in Ancient Greece. Taught by Plato, he was the founder of the Peripatetic school of p ...
in his ''
Poetics Poetics is the theory of structure, form, and discourse within literature, and, in particular, within poetry. History The term ''poetics'' derives from the Ancient Greek ποιητικός ''poietikos'' "pertaining to poetry"; also "creative" an ...
'' (c. 335 BC). In his ''Poetics'', a theory about tragedies, the
Greek Greek may refer to: Greece Anything of, from, or related to Greece, a country in Southern Europe: *Greeks, an ethnic group. *Greek language, a branch of the Indo-European language family. **Proto-Greek language, the assumed last common ancestor ...
philosopher Aristotle put forth the idea the play should imitate a single whole action. "A whole is what has a beginning and middle and end" (1450b27).Perseus Digital Library (2006)
Aristotle, ''Poetics''
/ref> He split the play into two acts: complication and denouement. He mainly used Sophicles to make his argument about the proper dramatic structure of a play. Two types of scenes are of special interest: the reversal, which throws the action in a new direction, and the recognition, meaning the protagonist has an important revelation. Reversals should happen as a necessary and probable cause of what happened before, which implies that turning points need to be properly set up. He ranked the order of importance of the play to be: Chorus, Events, Diction, Character, Spectacle. And that all plays should be able to be performed from memory, long and easy to understand. He was against character-centric plots stating “The Unity of a Plot does not consist, as some suppose, in its having one man as its subject.” He was against episodic plots. He held that discovery should be the high point of the play and that the action should teach a moral that is reenforced by pity, fear and suffering. The spectacle, not the characters themselves would give rise to the emotions. The stage should also be split into “Prologue, Episode, Exode, and a choral portion, distinguished into Parode and Stasimon...“ Unlike later, he held that the morality was the center of the play and what made it great. Unlike popular belief, he did not come up with the three act structure popularly known.

Gustav Freytag

German German(s) may refer to: * Germany (of or related to) **Germania (historical use) * Germans, citizens of Germany, people of German ancestry, or native speakers of the German language ** For citizens of Germany, see also German nationality law **Ger ...
playwright and novelist
Gustav Freytag Gustav Freytag (; 13 July 1816 – 30 April 1895) was a German novelist and playwright. Life Freytag was born in Kreuzburg (Kluczbork) in Silesia. After attending the school at Oels (Oleśnica), he studied philology at the universities of ...
wrote ''Die Technik des Dramas'', a definitive study of the five-act dramatic structure, in which he laid out what has come to be known as Freytag's pyramid.University of South Carolina (2006)
The Big Picture
Under Freytag's pyramid, the plot of a story consists of five parts:University of Illinois: Department of English (2006)

Exposition Exposition (also the French for exhibition) may refer to: *Universal exposition or World's Fair *Expository writing **Exposition (narrative) *Exposition (music) *Trade fair * ''Exposition'' (album), the debut album by the band Wax on Radio *Exposi ...
(originally called introduction) # Rising action (rise) # Climax # Falling action (return or fall) #
Catastrophe Catastrophe or catastrophic comes from the Greek κατά (''kata'') = down; στροφή (''strophē'') = turning ( el, καταστροφή). It may refer to: A general or specific event * Disaster, a devastating event * The Asia Minor Catastro ...
, denouement, resolution, or
revelation In religion and theology, revelation is the revealing or disclosing of some form of truth or knowledge through communication with a deity or other supernatural entity or entities. Background Inspiration – such as that bestowed by God on ...
or "rising and sinking". Freytag is indifferent as to which of the contending parties justice favors; in both groups, good and evil, power and weakness, are mingled. A drama is then divided into five parts, or acts, which some refer to as a : exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and
catastrophe Catastrophe or catastrophic comes from the Greek κατά (''kata'') = down; στροφή (''strophē'') = turning ( el, καταστροφή). It may refer to: A general or specific event * Disaster, a devastating event * The Asia Minor Catastro ...
. Freytag extends the five parts with three moments or crises: the exciting force, the tragic force, and the force of the final suspense. The exciting force leads to the rising action, the tragic force leads to the falling action, and the force of the final suspense leads to the catastrophe. Freytag considers the exciting force to be necessary but the tragic force and the force of the final suspense are optional. Together, they make the eight component parts of the drama. In making his argument, he attempts to retcon much of the Greeks and Shakespeare by making opinions of what they meant, but didn't actually say. He argued for tension created through contrasting emotions, but didn't actively argue for conflict. He was argued that character comes first in plays. He also sets up the groundwork for what would later in history be called the inciting incident. Overall, Freytag argued the center of a play is emotionality and the best way to get that emotionality is to put contrasting emotions back to back. He laid some of the foundations for centering the hero, unlike Aristotle. He is popularly attributed to have stated conflict at the center of his plays, but he argues actively against continuing conflict. Parts: Introduction The setting is fixed in a particular place and time, the mood is set, and characters are introduced. A backstory may be alluded to. Exposition can be conveyed through dialogues, flashbacks, characters' asides, background details, in-universe media, or the narrator telling a back-story. Rise An exciting force begins immediately after the exposition (introduction), building the rising action in one or several stages toward the point of greatest interest. These events are generally the most important parts of the story since the entire plot depends on them to set up the climax and ultimately the satisfactory resolution of the story itself. Climax The climax is the turning point, which changes the protagonist's fate. If things were going well for the protagonist, the plot will turn against them, often revealing the protagonist's hidden weaknesses. If the story is a comedy, the opposite state of affairs will ensue, with things going from bad to good for the protagonist, often requiring the protagonist to draw on hidden inner strengths. Return or Fall During the Return, the hostility of the counter-party beats upon the soul of the hero. Freytag lays out two rules for this stage: the number of characters be limited as much as possible, and the number of scenes through which the hero falls should be fewer than in the rising movement. The falling action may contain a moment of final suspense: Although the catastrophe must be foreshadowed so as not to appear as a non sequitur, there could be for the doomed hero a prospect of relief, where the final outcome is in doubt. Catastrophe The catastrophe ("Katastrophe" in the original) is where the hero meets his logical destruction. Freytag warns the writer not to spare the life of the hero. More generally, the final result of a work's main plot has been known in English since 1705 as the denouement (, ;"dénouement"
Cambridge Dictionary The ''Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary'' (abbreviated ''CALD'') was first published in 1995 under the name ''Cambridge International Dictionary of English'', by the Cambridge University Press Cambridge University Press is the ...
). It comprises events from the end of the falling action to the actual ending scene of the drama or narrative. Conflicts are resolved, creating normality for the characters and a sense of
catharsis Catharsis (from Greek , , meaning "purification" or "cleansing" or "clarification") is the purification and purgation of emotions through dramatic art, or it may be any extreme emotional state that results in renewal and restoration. In its lite ...
, or release of tension and anxiety, for the reader.
Etymologically Etymology ()The New Oxford Dictionary of English (1998) – p. 633 "Etymology /ˌɛtɪˈmɒlədʒi/ the study of the class in words and the way their meanings have changed throughout time". is the study of the history of the form of words an ...
, the French word () is derived from the word , "to untie", from , Latin for "knot." It is the unraveling or untying of the complexities of a plot.

Plot devices

A ''plot device'' is a means of advancing the plot in a story. It is often used to motivate characters, create urgency, or resolve a difficulty. This can be contrasted with moving a story forward with dramatic technique; that is, by making things happen because characters take action for well-developed reasons. An example of a plot device would be when the cavalry shows up at the last moment and saves the day in a battle. In contrast, an adversarial character who has been struggling with himself and saves the day due to a change of heart would be considered dramatic technique. Familiar types of plot devices include the '' deus ex machina'', the MacGuffin, the red herring, and Chekhov's gun.

Plot outline

A ''plot outline'' is a prose telling of a story which can be turned into a screenplay. Sometimes it is called a "one page" because of its length. In comics, the roughs refer to a stage in the development where the story has been broken down very loosely in a style similar to storyboarding in film development. This stage is also referred to as storyboarding or layouts. In Japanese manga, this stage is called the ''nemu'' (pronounced like the English word "name"). The roughs are quick sketches arranged within a suggested page layout. The main goals of roughs are to: * lay out the flow of panels across a page * ensure the story successfully builds suspense * work out points of view, camera angles, and character positions within panels * serve as a basis for the next stage of development, the "pencil" stage, where detailed drawings are produced in a more polished layout which will, in turn, serve as the basis for the inked drawings. In fiction writing, a plot outline gives a list of scenes. Scenes include events, character(s) and setting. Plot, therefore, shows the cause and effect of these things put together. The plot outline is a rough sketch of this cause and effect made by the scenes to lay out a "solid backbone and structure" to show why and how things happened as they did.

Plot summary

A ''plot summary'' is a brief description of a piece of literature that explains what happens. In a plot summary, the author and title of the book should be referred to and it is usually no more than a paragraph long while summarizing the main points of the story.


An ''A-Plot'' is a
cinema Cinema may refer to: Film * Cinematography, the art of motion-picture photography * Film or movie, a series of still images that create the illusion of a moving image ** Film industry, the technological and commercial institutions of filmmaking * ...
television Television, sometimes shortened to TV, is a telecommunication medium for transmitting moving images and sound. The term can refer to a television set, or the medium of television transmission. Television is a mass medium for advertising, ...
term referring to the plotline that drives the story. This does not necessarily mean it is the most important, but rather the one that forces most of the action.

See also

* Monomyth * Mythos (Aristotle) * Narrative structure *
Narrative thread A narrative thread, or plot thread (or, more ambiguously, a storyline), refers to particular elements and techniques of writing to center the story in the action or experience of characters rather than to relate a matter in a dry "all-knowing" sor ...
* Plot drift * Plot hole * Premise (narrative) * Robert McKee * Scene and sequel * Theme (narrative) * '' The Seven Basic Plots'', a book by Christopher Booker * ''
The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations ''The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations'' is a descriptive list which was first proposed by Georges Polti in 1895 to categorize every dramatic situation that might occur in a story or performance. Polti analyzed classical Greek texts, plus classical ...
'', which is
Georges Polti ''The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations'' is a descriptive list which was first proposed by Georges Polti in 1895 to categorize every dramatic situation that might occur in a story or performance. Polti analyzed classical Greek texts, plus classical ...
's categorization of every dramatic situation that might occur in a story or performance.



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Further reading

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External links

The "Basic" Plots In Literature
Information on the most common divisions of the basic plots, from the Internet Public Library organization.
Plot Definition, meaning and examples

The Minimal Plot, on cyclic structures of the basic plots by Yevgeny Slavutin and Vladimir Pimonov.
{{Authority control Narrative techniques