Of course, if we're writing mainstream or genre fiction instead of literary fiction, we may find that no one will buy--and few people will read--a story that doesn't have a plot. So here I'll suggest a definition of what a plot actually is, and lay out what I've learned so far about putting one together. Many thanks to friends who recently posed this question in a clear enough way that I realized I needed to think it out.
|Caption per Mary Robinette Kowal, while critiquing an otherwise excellent story; photo stolen from http://www.bestweekever.tv/|
We tend to think of a plot as a sort of architecture or framework, or perhaps a series of events. These definitions can misdirect us, though, and at worst make us work on something that drags down our story without even being a plot.
A plot, I would suggest to you, is this: a character actively pursuing a goal and encountering difficulties. We can break that down into four points: the character, the goal, the proactive pursuit of that goal, and the difficulties. If it sounds like the definition of a story (e.g., "A LIKABLE CHARACTER overcomes ALMOST INSUPERABLE ODDS and BY HIS OR HER OWN EFFORTS achieves a WORTHWHILE GOAL." -- Marion Zimmer Bradley), that's because a plot is essential to many kinds of stories and tends to take center stage when defining them. But a plot is not the character him- or herself (only the character's involvement with the goal), not the setting, not the backstory, not the emotional subtext, not the theme, not what's at stake ... that is, despite plots being an important part of most stories, not everything is the plot. And all of these non-plot things are outside the scope of this post, even things like stakes, which are important to our choice of goal. This post isn't how to write a good story, just about how to work out a good and appropriate plot.
Some things to notice about our four points: first, the character. Actually, many--maybe most--good stories have more than one character who is pursuing a goal. This is a very fine thing, as it makes each such character more interesting and can allow the goals to clash. For our purposes at the moment, though, let's concentrate just on a single protagonist and that character's goal.
Keep in mind that the character is pretty important. Even if my story contains an important goal (like stopping global warming), it's not a plotted story unless I actually have a character pursuing that goal. "Character" in this sense can sometimes mean a group of people (or vampires, robots, aliens, etc.), but generally speaking it works best when it is a specific individual. Several individuals in a story can also be each pursuing the same goal, whether in cooperation or competition or ignorant of each other.
About the goal, it should be something the reader specifically knows about. If the character is trying to achieve something but we don't know what it is, it's usually not a plot.
The character must also be actively pursuing the goal. Just reacting to events doesn't produce a plot; it feels non-driven.
As to difficulties, there are quite a variety of these. Anything that gets between the character and the goal falls into this category, such as an obstacle, misleading information or lies, self-sabotage, active opposition (for instance, from an antagonist), unexpected reversals, or even the character's goal changing. These are just examples; there are other kinds.
How Does a Plot Fit Into a Story?
One very useful (although not absolutely universal) plan for a story was proposed by Aristotle, who said that a serious story "... is a representation of an action that is whole and complete and of a certain magnitude. A whole is what has a beginning and middle and end."
When I first heard this quote years ago, I thought Aristotle should be awarded the Captain Obvious Award, that saying a story has a beginning, middle, and end is the same thing as saying a piece of licorice does. Not so! If you break down the structure of most successful, plotted stories, the beginning, middle, and end are well-defined. This doesn't apply to all good stories, certainly, but it's so widely useful that I think it's worth mentioning.
The beginning (about the first 25% of the story) consists in the protagonist discovering the goal and becoming involved. It is not an opportunity to dump a lot of information or character detail without story progression; we generally have to get those things across as the story fires up.
The beginning usually ends when the protagonist commits to diving into the problem, when she or he takes the first step to accomplish that goal.
The middle (about 50% of the story) contains most of those difficulties we talked about. The protagonist finds that the problem is a very difficult one and will take a good deal of work. The middle is over when the protagonist has come to a final, last-ditch attempt to reach the goal, the do-or-die attempt. Often the middle ends with a tremendous failure. Plan A (or Plan G, depending on how busy your protagonist has been so far) is a washout. Time to break out the Hail Mary play.
The end (the last 25%, of course) plays out that final gambit, comes to a climactic confrontation, resolves that conflict, and shows how things came out (the denouement).
So there are how our character, goal, proactive pursuit, and difficulties come into play. Let's launch next into ...
Where Do I Get My Plot?
There exist many recipes (sometimes called "formulas," although that can be a bit misleading, as we'll see) that provide a basic template for a plot. To make proper use of these recipes, we have to play with them, maybe bend some rules, lean harder on existing elements, use unexpected juxtapositions. If we try to follow the recipe precisely as though it's supposed to be a rigid, pre-fabricated framework, we will at best produce stories that are workmanlike or predictable--that is, "formulaic."
One sometimes hears the protest that a "recipe" is the same thing as a rigid framework, that true art requires avoiding such templates. In case a parallel example is helpful to us in quashing this misunderstanding, take sonata form, a pretty specific recipe that was used for a huge amount of European composition during the classical period. If using one formula over and over again as a basis for a work of art is hackwork, then Mozart is a consummate hack.
The reason these recipes provide almost limitless opportunities for meaningful new art is that they are flexible and leave a lot of things to be filled in. How you adapt the form and what you fill it with are part of the art of the process; using the form itself effectively is part of the craft.
Some genres use the same specific recipes over and over. For instance, in romances, the recipe is essentially that the two lovers (the characters) are drawn together by a powerful love (that's the goal), but they are separated by something apparently insurmountable (the difficulties) and have to move heaven and earth to be together (the proactive pursuit).
Many detective stories use this recipe: a detective of some kind (character) seeks out a series of "gatekeeper" characters (the difficulties) who each have a piece of information the detective needs to solve the mystery (the goal), and whom the detective must successfully appease, defeat, outsmart, or otherwise get around (the proactive pursuit).
Another plot template we can use: Christopher Vogler translated Joseph Campbell's work on the universal hero myth into a template for stories in an excellent book called The Writer's Journey. This is a pretty detailed structure, and extremely flexible, but the nut of it is that the hero (the character, the protagonist, who could be anything from a washed-up salesman to a kindergarten teacher to a freelance hit man) is thrust into a quest (the goal) that requires venturing out (proactive pursuit) into a different world (the world of stock trading, the Australian outback, speed-dating, Narnia). There, the hero meets obstacles and setbacks (the difficulties) until the quest is fulfilled and the hero can return home with a talisman that saves that home from whatever initially threatened it.
Yet another template is "a stranger comes to town." In this kind of plot (popular in Westerns, for instance), a group's status quo is disrupted by the arrival of an outsider (the character). The group resists (difficulties) the change this character brings (goal), forcing the outsider to stand up for what she or he believes in (the proactive pursuit). A great non-Western example of this form is the movie Pleasantville, in which two modern teenagers find themselves in an unnaturally perfect 1950's TV setting and disrupt it in ways that bring revelations and new possibilities to many of the characters.
A perfectly good place to get plots is from a list of plot structures, such as The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations.
Another good place is from stories, books, movies, or plays that you already like. Shakespeare often stole his plots, for instance creating Romeo & Juliet out of the myth of Pyramus and Thisbe. One useful approach is taking a plot from one kind of story and using it in a completely different kind of story.
Multiple Plots in One Story
Most stories of any length have more than one plot. These might be side plots, episodes within a larger plot, intertwining plots among multiple protagonists, conflicting plots between protagonist and antagonist, etc.
Side plots ("subplots," although I'm using the other term for the moment just because there's a difference between a tangental plot and an episode within a larger plot) take off from but enrich the main plot of a story. For example, in the movie the The Incredibles, Dash's attempts to get permission from his parents to participate in school sports despite the unfair advantage of his superpowers complements and enriches the main plot but isn't essential to it. Instead of being a stepping stone within the main plot, a subplot builds and resolves within or alongside it.
By contrast, an episode or child plot is a piece of a larger plot. In the movie Speed, Jack Traven has to get himself onto a speeding bus without the bus stopping. This is a step within the larger plot of Traven preventing the bus from being blown up, which is itself a step within the larger plot of Traven and his partner capturing the psychopathic bomber who wired the bus in the first place. Whether the movie is to your taste or not, Speed is a consummate example of how to maintain suspense with a plot built up of a series of smaller plots. Each time one of the episodic plots resolves, we're reminded of the problem of the larger plot it's a part of, and so while tension builds and releases, it is never wholely gone until the final climax of the story.
Things That Are Not in and of Themselves Plots
A series of events is not a plot.
Character change alone, unaccompanied by a specific goal and concerted efforts to achieve that goal, is not a plot.
Reacting to problems as they arise is not a plot, because reaction is by definition reactive and not proactive. Similarly, something happening to a character is not part of the plot unless that thing was directly caused by the character's actions.
A surprise ending is not a plot. If I have a story that depends on a surprise ending or just a powerful wallop at the climax, I need a plot as well to keep the reader interested long enough to get to that ending.
A mystery or burning question alone is not a plot, but solving the mystery or answering the question can be an entirely viable goal for the character in the plot you choose.
Of course, a story is more than just plot, and there's plenty of room (to varying degrees) for non-plot stuff. The plot can even pause under certain circumstances for a humorous moment, a startling insight, a beautiful scene, or what have you. Tolerance for these kinds of halts varies a lot depending on genre and readership. Historically many novels begin with and/or pause for a detailed description of a setting, and at the time those books were written, this worked fine--perhaps fulfilling a widely-unappeased desire for travel to different places. These days there's a lot less patience for this kind of thing among readers, perhaps in part because we have photographs, television, and movies to show us new places.
Goals can transform over time. For instance, a character might seek to defeat someone only to find they have completely misunderstood the person's nature, and their goal transforms instead to helping the other person achieve something. As long as the climax answers the initial plot problem that was posed, this works fine and can be very satisfying.
The Denouement of This Freakishly Long Post
There it is, everything I know I know or think I know about plot. The last thing I'll mention is that any given plot can be used over and over, almost infinitely, to provide different, satisfying stories. Using a single plot in a similar way over and over leads to that "formulaic" label we're most of us trying to avoid, but with enough artistry and invention, even a single plot that's been used over and over since the dawn of stories can bring successive stories to life in a way that feels fresh and new each time.