Written by Sarah Yoon
Once upon a time, your English teacher drew a simple line across the board. The line arced up, spiked, and dove downward to what she called the denouement with a fake French accent. Words were written; notes were taken. Exposition, rising action, falling action, crisis—the terms seemed to hold some hidden meaning, but you couldn’t quite see how they corresponded to actual stories.
Now you’re trying to write your own. You’ve captured some inspirations and your stubborn vignette has matured into a story, but that curved line still haunts you. The plot diagram demands structure, but doesn’t divulge its secrets.
And we apply this…how?
Each story needs rising and falling tension. Good pacing and—if you’re writing a traditional story—a satisfying resolution are essential. You aren’t sure which scene should be the key crisis or where it should fall on the line. What if you get it wrong? These terms look nice on the page and you nod to yourself in vague agreement, but they don’t feel actionable. Where on earth do you start?
First, reread a favorite book, preferably by an author that you’d love to emulate. As you read, leave scraps of notes sticking out to mark 5 key elements:
- Introduction of conflict
- Introduction of characters’ goals
- Movement toward (or away from) goals
- Gripping occurrences
- Reached goals
When you’re done, muse over the scraps of paper. Line them up in order and you’ll see a basic arc forming as the tension grows, peaks, and recedes. With this simple analysis, you’ll see how the progression of scenes crafts a specific experience for the reader. Each sentence builds on the next, creating a world, a cast of characters, and an overall arc. Once you know how the experiences meld into a cohesive plot, you have to ditch the diagram and move onto step two.
Just write the story.
Second, instead of worrying about getting it right, just write. Your character runs around, accomplishes tasks, and endures trials. He does what’s necessary to survive and brings your reader along for the ride. Unless he’s subject to a formula, he’ll experience differently paced crises than the ones that you find on the plot diagrams. All of those complex charts, winding up and down with prescribed rises and falls in action, don’t need to be your rule. Let your plot go where it will, making sure to keep the essentials intact:
- Relatable characters (Driven by conflict)
- Victories and defeats (As they relate to your characters’ journey)
- Change (The key difference between a vignette and a story)
The beauty of retrospection!
When you’ve written your heart out and your character is safely on the other side of the finis, take a look back. If you’ve written anything that resembles a plot, your story will naturally include those elements that your English teacher told you about so many years ago. Maybe they’re in awkward places or maybe they’re too understated, but at least they’re there.
Retrospection is a very helpful tool. To attain better perspective, chart out your own story—preferably with the help of an unbiased reader. Now that you have your own personalized chart to work with, compare it to other’s diagrams. Adjust your pacing and build tension. The process is long but incredibly revealing, as you free yourself from vague expectations and discover your own storytelling style.