58 Elements of Fiction: Plot

Plot (aka narrative arc) is what happens in the story. The classic plot structure has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The way the pages unfold from the first page to last can be out of order chronologically as to what happens in the story.

It is useful to understand the elements of the classic plot, but know that many different storytelling cultures use different plot structures. We start by examining the basics of the classic plot so that we may become accustomed to how it feels to work with stories, not because we believe that this is the only or best way of representing stories. I will continue to refer to this element of fiction as “plot” for simplicity.

Beginning—3 Types of Beginnings

Plots can have different types of beginnings, but they often have just one type of middle and end.

  1. The story can start at the very beginning of the action.
    • “Once upon a time…” a fairy tale beginning
    • Example: “Clarissa woke up in the morning, looking forward to a nice, relaxing day at the park.” Nothing is happening yet, and we don’t know what is going to happen
  2. The story can start in the middle of the action.
    • In medias res (in the middle of things)
    • Example: “Clarissa was cramped up in the trunk of the speeding car, terrified that the kidnappers would hurt her.” We are right in the middle of the action, but we don’t know how it started or how it will end.
  3.  The story can start at the end of the action.
    • Ending first
    • Example: “The police officers finished their questioning and left Clarissa alone in her hospital room, but she couldn’t stop replaying the horrible day over in her mind.” We know how it all turned out, but we don’t know how it started or what happened.


In the middle of the story, we are at the climax of the action. We know what the character wants and what the character has done up until this point. The action is at its most exciting, but we don’t know what will happen to get us to the ending.

  • The climax is where the conflict in the story reaches its peak.
  • Conflict is a struggle between characters and other forces. The conflict defines what the characters need and want.
  • The point where everything is at its height of excitement; everything builds to that point.


At the end of the story, we have the resolution to the action.

  • The climax is over, and we know how the conflict has been resolved.
  • We know how it all turns out.
  • Almost always happy ending—usually resolved in a satisfactory way for the characters and the reader.


“Man vs.” is the classic terminology to think of conflict. It originates from classic Greek literature. We understand now that much of the old use of the word “man” referred to all human beings; however, there were many instances where “man” or even “person” was considered to only refer to males who represented the gender known as “man” and excluded women and other people. It is acceptable to use “person vs.” to denote conflict. I am comfortable with using “man vs.” as I am aware I am studying conflict in the traditional sense—and not gender identity in our current time—when I use those terms.
  • Man vs. man
    • Character is in a struggle with another character directly
  • Man vs. self
    • Character is in a struggle with him/herself
  • Man vs. fate
  • Man vs. society
    • Character is in a struggle with society
  • Man vs. higher power
    • Character is in a struggle with a God or divine being
  • Man vs. machine
    • May be an actual machine, such as a vehicle, factory machine, or robot
    • May be a usable item
    • May be known as people or groups working together to accomplish something, an organization or institution (eg. war, marriage, church)
  • Man vs. nature

Other Plot Points

  • Flashback—look back in time to get more information about present
  • Foreshadowing—hints at what will happen later in the story
  • Prologue—a chapter before the story even begins—usually giving background
  • Epilogue—a chapter after the story ends—probably tells what happened after


Choose your own short story, or use a story your instructor has assigned. Use examples from the story where applicable.

  1.  What happens at the beginning of the story?
  2.  Where does this story start? beginning / middle / end
  3. What problems do the characters have? What is the conflict in the story? (type and example)
  4. What happens because of these problems?
  5. When do things change because of the problem?
  6. What happens in the middle of the story—the climax?
  7. How do they deal with this?

Answer the following questions to review plot:



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