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Plot Structure, Themes, and Types of Conflict

by Anthony Terragna

A writer pursuing a structureless story is like a driver aimlessly traveling through a desert. The individual is bound to be stranded in the middle of their journey with an empty tank. It is imperative for the writer to understand their own strengths and weaknesses to deliver their story. Writing is a process of self-discovery, introspection, and commitment. In writing, there are three types of writers pursuing their literary works. A plotter is an organized writer with descriptive details aligned for all their characters, settings, scenes, and dialogues. Plotters have everything outlined before they write their stories. Plotters will redo their outline if they are stuck or not satisfied. A plotter revises their itinerary with storyboards, diagrams, pyramids, mountains, charts and spreadsheets. A pantser, someone writing at the seat of their pants, executes an idea without a plan. A pantser, notorious for killing off characters, faces writer’s block sooner despite having the freedom and flexibility to write. Pantsers are often bored with their progress and procrastinate or push their project to the side. A planster organizes the basic ideas for their story and writes without a main objective. A planster is a plotter with a panster’s ability to write on whim. The writer must discover which writing method works best for them before they start their literary projects.

A story consists of an exposition, or introduction with descriptive details, leading up to a rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. The author introduces the setting, characters, background information, and mood in the exposition. The setting is the surrounding geographical location for the story to take place. A plot is a literary term used to describe the events that create the main part of a story. The structure of the story depends on the organization of events that relate to each other in a pattern or sequence. A story without conflict has no plot. Linear plots guide readers through a series of events leading to a climax and a resolution. Linear plots may be written in a chronological order, flashback, or in medias res. A plot written in the middle of a narration is in medias res. Writers can choose from seven main plot themes to unfold their story. The themes of the stories have their own extensive sub-categorical list, i.e. jealousy, vengeance, sacrifice and friendship.

The Underdog or the Conqueror

The underdog, an underestimated character for success, can win hearts over by achieving a desired dream, idea, or goal. The underdog is an enjoyable character lacking invaluable characteristics for investments, competitions, and leadership. An underdog has perseverance, authenticity, and resilience. A character may invest in the underdog because they know the underdog has potential to succeed. A character can adopt the underdog and train them to desirable measures. The conqueror has an alpha personality that derives from achieving desired dreams, ideas, or goals. The conqueror has an interchangeable role as an antagonist or a protagonist for all stories. A conqueror playing as an antagonist, a hostile person opposing the underdog, will have more people rooting for the underdog playing as the protagonist. People admire underdogs because of their personality, determination and will-power to overcome fear. A conqueror as a protagonist, the leading role, might begin their journey to save lives, fight monsters, obtain land from opposing countries, and return peace to villages.

Overcoming the Monster

We live in a world of monsters, from social to political, but every character must overcome their fears against them. In this theme, a protagonist discovers an evil character and prepares a journey to destroy its existence. The monster does not necessarily have to be evil. The monster could be feeling depressed with pain and suffering instead of provoking fear and peril. In the end, all characters grow from their experiences with more confidence and determination.

The Quest

The Quest has several subthemes for the protagonist. A group of protagonists can be called upon to embark a quest to reach a desirable thing that is missing from their lives. A quest can be made up of supporting characters that follow the main character for moral support and guidance. In The Wizard of Oz, the quest was to find the Wizard to grant the Lion with courage, the Tin Man with a heart, the Scarecrow with a brain, and Dorothy with a way to return home. This quest of self-discovery and friendship became a legacy for millions to learn from their experiences.

The Journey or Return

A character goes on an adventure and later returns home to tell their story. The series of events throughout the journey are essentially more important than the journey itself. A character can embark a routine camping trip with unforeseen events, like being lost or discovering hidden caverns. The character will grow significantly from this experience with expertise and awareness. Their curiosity may lead to future expeditions.

Rags to Riches

An oppressed character overcomes events to rise above a social hierarchy established throughout the story. The character faces obstacles challenging their physical, social, and mental limitations through courage, perseverance, and commitment. The character does not have to achieve financial gain to rise above a social class, like Cinderella or Aladdin. These stories always have happy endings where the character figuratively rises from rags to riches. Elizabeth “Liz” Murray, growing up as a starving child with drug addicted parents, rose to the top by self-educating herself to pursue a Harvard degree in Psychology. Liz’s inspirational story is an example from rags (poverty) to riches (education).

Comedy (or Clarity)

A comedy can revolve around friends, partners, families, and acquaintances. A comedy can expand from other plot themes, but the comedic plot will have more emphasis. The characters struggle to live or work together, but discover a balance between friendship and acceptance. The relationships grow stronger and multiple characters learn to work things out between each other.

Tragedy (or Cautionary)

Tragedy has a villain protagonist that delves the reader into unfortunate dark events that may lead to death or destruction caused by evil. The hero may realize something is missing from their life, materialistic or unconditional, but their main focus is the foreseen peril awaiting them. In most traditional love stories, a heroic character sets forth on a path to rescue a maiden without any doubts that evil is lurking nearby. The character takes pride in how far they have come, and reassure themselves there is no way to turn back. A character’s arrival may be delayed from obstacles that hinder their confidence and resilience. These foreshadowing events communicate to the reader that a greater force will end things badly.

Rebirth (or Renewal)

In Charles’ Dickens A Christmas Carol, Scrooge experiences a rebirth when he finally accepts his mistakes and promises to change to become a better person. Rebirth transitions a character from one place to another through internal and external conflicts. These conflicts lead the character into meeting their inner child or other good half. The character will experience a psychological journey to loosen up and feel compassion toward others.

Conflict is expressed through functional, dysfunctional, external or internal factors. Conflicts that support the characters’ goals and improves performance are functional. A conflict that hinders the performance of any character is dysfunctional. All external conflicts occur outside the mind and body, like nature and society. The internal conflicts are dealt inside the characters, like self-discovery. There are seven types of conflict that are either internal, external or both.

Character vs. character is an external conflict involving a mental or physical event between two characters, commonly as disagreements. Character vs. nature is an external conflict between elements of nature beyond the character’s control, like wild animals or diseases. Character vs. society is an external conflict between character and rules or laws govern by the character’s society. These conflicts include local community norms and cultural values, like gender politics. Character vs. self is an internal conflict of self-identity, self-discovery, and introspection. Character vs. supernatural is an external conflict with something or someone supernatural. Character vs. technology is an external conflict with a machine or device. Character vs. fate is an uncontrollable internal or external conflict that might have resulted from God, karma, or any other power believed to control a character’s life. The character must face this conflict through a series of actions leading up to the final outcome.

The rising action leads up to the climax through awareness, tension, and excitement. All characters are established and introduced at this point of the story. An action done by a character or multiple characters creates conflict, complications and problems. This action may leave a character in crisis or an awkward situation to make a decision. Complications can arise through external or internal factors, like society, nature, fate, and themes. The rising action can pose multiple barriers, including but not limited to linguistic, educational, distance and general communication barriers. The events during the rising action will lure the reader further into the story.

The climax, or turning point, is the high point in the story representing as a physical or emotional conflict that a character must face. This main event allows the reader to understand how the character faces fears, challenges, and darkest moments that may portray the character as a failure. The character may or may not achieve something during this event. The reader’s interest is peaked at how the story will end, while the final outcome is not clear. The climax will engage the reader to discuss outside the story. A climax could be a character breaking up their relationship, cheating, affairs, counseling and lost hope. The climax holds the interest of the reader until the final outcome of the story.

The falling action allows the writer to wind down after the climax. The reader will transition with the story as it slows down due to the results of the actions or decisions made. The suspense is eliminated and the characters’ lives return to normal. This may result to characters giving each other time and space to move on from recent events. The falling action can be the healing stage for the conqueror or underdog to overcome their journey. In a tragedy, the falling action is the time and place to mourn for the victims involved. The falling action provokes emotions, feelings, and ideas leading up to the resolution. These ideas may later be confirmed or changed when the resolution is clear.

The resolution, or conclusion, is the final solution to the problem or conflict and can be written as a denouement or catastrophe. All questions must be answered through resolved conflicts and tied loose ends. A denouement is commonly a happy ending as opposed to a catastrophe being tragic and heartbreaking. An epilogue engages the reader to new development after the story concludes, including news from characters, events after the story was written, and any character development. The epilogue can be used as insight into the next story of the sequel. This has the same effect as the prologue, not always necessary, but it leads the reader into updates and concluding thoughts.

All writers have the ability to express their passion through words, structure and commitment. Plotting is not necessarily important as the desire to teach something new to other readers. The reader will discover the writer’s intention through tone, word choice, and expression. The most rewarding feeling in the world is knowing someone else can grow from a character’s experience. A young reader can relate to being an underdog and set higher standards to become a conqueror. We can face our fears from evil by applying what we learned from someone overcoming a monster. The ambition and spontaneity to pursue a quest or journey can result to endless opportunities of growth and development. The starting point of any journey, regardless of any social class or hierarchy, can lead to entertainment, chaos, or self-evaluation. A writer must carefully craft an idea into a life lesson that everyone can follow. This life lesson will spark the interest of young minds, aspiring authors, and insight to become someone better.

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