Structure & Tension: The Plot

When writing, nothing should happen at random. Every element in a story should be for a reason. Names, places, actions and events should all have a purpose. If it isn’t going to lead somewhere, delete it.

Here is what you need for a very basic plot:

  • A likeable lead character who has a desperate need for something, which can be knowledge, success, love, a solution or to avoid some sort of danger.
  • He or she makes an effort to reach success or achieve what he needs.
  • Every effort seems to block him or her from their goal and they just seem to find themselves in deeper trouble.
  • Every new obstacle is larger than the last, and when they finally reach the end, the last obstacle must seem insurmountable, requiring the character to call upon new found strength to accomplish the goal.


  • When things are as if they couldn’t get any worse, the lead character manages to get themselves out of trouble with effort, intelligence and ingenuity.

Each scene and chapter should have this same kind of plot structure yet at the end of each scene or chapter you should have a question unanswered, a problem to be solved, or a mystery that impels the reader to read on. It is a good idea to have several plots going throughout the story with some of them being solved as you go and other opening up. This keeps the pace and the mystery going.

Usually there is a surprise or shock set somewhere in the book, sometimes even two. One about a third to half way through and the other at the climax of the story.

The plot “begins” long before the story. The story itself should begin at the latest possible moment before the climax, at a point when events take a decisive and irreversible turn. We may learn later, through flashbacks, exposition, or inference, about events occurring before the beginning of the story.

The main plot and every subplot must be dealt with at the end. Never leave the reader wondering what happened.

In Summary

The first quarter of the novel is setting the scene – you know, setting the conflict in motion, making us recognise that the main character is in deep trouble.

The middle is half the book, and that is where the major actions take place. The twists, the turns and reversals happen here — and they MUST happen to keep the reader satisfied. Readers WANT to be surprised (but not confused), so about halfway add the second big surprise, and then at the end of the middle, throw in the third big surprise. The middle is for the rising stakes in the situation — things are getting worse for the hero, they are more committed; in fact, in the middle their motivation shifts. The surprises and failures of the hero should get progressively worse in the middle, and as the middle progresses, start closing off the hero’s options.

The ending is the last quarter of the book. The forces gathering in the middle must come together, a decision must be reached, a confrontation takes place. The deepest parts of the character are revealed, and the biggest emotions are exposed here. Again, this is where the main plot and all subplots are brought to a final close.

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