A plot is the sequence of events in a story that affect each other and lead to the final outcome. The term storyline is similar, though 'storyline' highlights the more major events, and similarly, the term synopsis refers to a summary of the story. The term 'plot,' however, refers to all significant events and actions in a story.
The core of the plot is the narrative or dramatic structure, plus other key story elements like characters, setting, theme, and perspective.
1 Narrative structure
The plot, narrative or dramatic structure refers to the significant events and the role they play in the development of events. This structure was first identified by Aristotle, and refined by other scholars such as Gustav Freytag, who defined the five key elements of plot structure (as illustrated by the Freytag pyramid).
- Exposition (or introduction): The background, characters, and setting are introduced and explained, and the general mood may be established.
- Rising action (rise, progressive complications). Events in the story start to become more complicated, and some form of conflict unfolds.
- Climax: The turning point, most exciting point of the story, final conflict, point of highest tension, or solution unfolds.
- Falling action (return or fall): Events leading to the resolution begin; complications and events begin to fall into place or get sorted out. Plot points are wrapped up, questions are answered, and all that happens as a result of the climax is finished.
- Resolution, catastrophe, denouement, revelation, or "rising and sinking": The final outcome of events. The antagonists (or tragic hero) meet their final downfall, conflicts are resolved, and the characters return to their normal lives. ('Denouement' is from French, literally meaning untying (of complexities), and 'catastrophe' is from Greek, literally meaning 'falling down').
For example, an action or superhero movie would typically introduce the hero and his/her background story, and establish his/her character, in the exposition. In the rising action, the villain and his workings are introduced, and the hero starts to learn of the villain and his actions. They face off in the climax, often with a protracted fight scene. Defeating the villain leads to the falling action, and the film conclucdes with a resolution. At times, it may be difficult to distinguish the falling action and the resolution, as they may blend together.
2 Narrative elements
Aside from the plot structure, other key narrative elements include the characters, setting, perspective (point of view), and theme.
- The setting consists of the time and location where the story takes place. Aside from physical location and time or time period, this may also include mood or atmosphere, the social conditions of the characters, and environment (e.g., the weather conditions).
- These are the persons who play significant roles in the story, and not just the persons, but also their personalities and personal qualities, physical appearance, and what they say, think, and feel. The key character is the protagonist, or the center of the story; the events of the story center around him/her or are told from his/her perspective. This is often the "good person", but not always. The antagonist is the opponent, enemy, or foil of the main character, and is often the "bad person." Characters may also be fully developed ("round" or three-dimensional), flat (one-dimensional), dynamic (undergoing personal change or growth), or static (not changing).
- Point of view (POV)
- The story may be told from the perspective of the protagonist or others in first person, second person, or third person perspective. A third person narrator may have a limited POV, with limited knowledge of events, or an omniscient perspective, knowing everything in the story.
- This can be the main topic, message, moral, underlying meaning, main symbolic meaning, or author's views on the story. This can be implied or stated by a narrator, symbolic elements, the nature of the resolution, or meaning that arises from the nature of the whole story. For example, an implied theme in a film might be the abuses commited by a government, how humans treat animals, or a philosophical question.
3 Plot devices
In addition to the above narrative elements, some plot devices may be used to develop the plot.
The narrative is interrupted by a shift to previous events, sometimes in the form of a character recalling or dreaming about past events, or a more abrupt shift in the narrative flow. A flashback often functions to provide more background to the plot or character development.
Some elements may provide hints about what is to happen. This might be bad weather, words that a character says without knowing that they are predictive of future events, or symbolic elements.
In a reveal, important information about a character or events is suddenly revealed in a surprising manner. The reveal often changes our understanding of a character or the narrative.
- Plot twist
A sudden, unexpected event occurs that dramatically alters the narrative flow, and subverts audience expectations. This is often near the climax or falling action portions of the plot.
A trope is a fairly conventional plot event, action, character type, or physical scene, that futhers the plot.
4 Stylistic elements
Stylistic elements or devices enhance the meaning, mood, or ideas of a story, in a manner that is consistent with its genre.
- Sensory details or images are used in order to help viewers to visualize or understand what is being described. Imagery may also be used in a symbolic manner, to symbolize important ideas in a story.
- A motif is a word, phrase, idea or image, that is repeated throughout a story, often in a symbolic manner. A motif may be used to establish mood (e.g., using blood to establish a dark mood in a play or a film), for foreshadowing (e.g., a repeated symbolic element to foreshadow a character's death), or to build up the story's theme. A sound motif is a sound that establishes a character's mood or character (such as foreboding music that is heard whenever a villain reappears on screen). Such a recurring auditory mood motif can also be termed a leitmotif, that is, a motif that sets the mood for a particular character.
This is an object that appears throughout a film, and seems to play a significant role in the action and plot, though the object itself is seemingly unimportant, i.e., it does not seem to have any real function itself; its purpose or function are not fully explained. It may be introduced early on in a film, but then disappear, as it ceases to be important in much of the plot, thouhg it might reappear toward the end. Examples include stories where characters seek a holy grail or other sacred object, but the object ceases to be important in the plot, and the plot comes to focus on something else; the mysterious object in the briefcase in Pulp Fiction that is never explained; or the falcon statue in The Maltese Falcon.
Irony is a literary, narrative, or rhetorical device, in which the surface or "face value" meaning differs significantly from reality; i.e., what is said, meant or done, when understood naturally and at face value, or what appears to be so, or what is naturally expected differs greatly from what is actually the case. Irony can come in differen tforms.
- Verbal irony
In this simplest form of irony, the speaker says the opposite of what s/he intends. This can include euphemism, understatement, sarcasm, and other forms of humor.
- Situational irony
An outcome arises that is the opposite of what one would expect. This can be used for humorous effect, or for creating a sense of dramatic tension or eeriness. For example, a character stumbles into great wealth and treasure, and should have a happier live, but in fact, his/her life becomes worse as a result.
- Dramatic irony
This occurs when readers or viewers know something important about the story, which an important character is unaware of. For example, in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, the audience knows Juliet is alive, but Romeo thinks she is dead.
4.2 Figurative language
This is more common in literature, but may sometimes be used in film or TV. A character might speak using metaphors without clearly explaining his/her intended meaning. In symbolism, an event bears metaphorical or symbolic significance for the plot or theme. Personification may be used to give a human form to an inanimate force or object. Occasionally in film, a characternym might be used, in which the character's name symbolizes his/her character, nature, or role, or might foreshadow his/her fate (e.g., the last name of the young Luky Skywalker foreshadows his future as a Jedi knight).