Definition of Plot

The plot of a story consists of the events that occur during the course of that story and the way in which they are presented to the reader. The plot is also sometimes referred to as the storyline. Aristotle posited that plots must have a beginning, middle, and end, and that each event in the plot causes the next event to happen.

Common Examples of Plot

Every story we tell contains an element of plot. “I got sick yesterday afternoon” is a fact, not a story. However, “Mick Jagger and I had shellfish for lunch yesterday—I must have been allergic to one or the other—and so I got sick yesterday afternoon” is an intriguing story indeed. The listener is interested in the causal relationship between the lunch and why the narrator got sick. Plot is moved forward by the linking word or concept of “so.”

Plot is an important part of everything from advertising and political campaigns to the realms of business and sports. One of the most common plots is called the “Cinderella Story,” also known as a rags-to-riches story. Here are a few examples of the way the plot of the Cinderella Story is employed in these different arenas.

  • Abraham Lincoln: The American president Abraham Lincoln was born into a poor family and was a self-educated lawyer. Lincoln used the fact that he was raised a one-room log cabin to propel his political campaign and ultimately became the sixteenth president of the United States.
  • Oprah Winfrey: Oprah was born into poverty and was raised by her teenaged single mother. She went on to create her on talk show and has been named the most powerful woman in America and even in the world. She is the richest self-made woman in America and is listed as the first black woman billionaire in the world, making her life story the ultimate rags-to-riches plot.
  • Budweiser Clydesdale Team: Budweiser often features their signature Clydesdales horses in Superbowl ad campaigns. In 2008, the Budweiser commercial centered on a horse who did not make the “team” and trained the rest of the year to become a member of the team the following year. Though not as obvious of a Cinderella Story, this short ad shows how deeply ingrained this plot is in the cultural consciousness.
  • “Rudy” Ruettiger: Rudy, whose life story was made into an eponymous 1993 film, had always wanted to play for the Notre Dame football team. After suffering numerous hardships, Rudy became a walk-on for the team and in the final home game he sacked the opposing team’s quarterback. Rudy became one of two Notre Dame football players to ever be carried off the field.

Significance of Plot in Literature

All plays, novels, and epic poems have a plot. Though more recent post-modernist writers have tried to get around the necessity of plot, every story ultimately revolves around the events that happen. In many plots, authors create a certain sense of inevitability, so that the reader can trace back the conclusion of the story to minor inciting incidents and say, “If only ___ hadn’t happened.”

Many authors and literary scholars have described both how plots work and the most frequent plots in literature. The most common understanding of plot is that of a pyramid, as originally posited by the German novelist Gustav Freitag. This pyramid consists of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement.

Leo Tolstoy famously once said that, “All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.” Of course, many stories are much more complicated than this simple binary, and indeed many stories include both plots (for example, the Star Wars series has both elements). Other theorists break plots into three groups: man versus nature; man versus man; man versus self. Still other writers have enumerated more “master plots,” such as:

  • Forbidden love
  • Underdog
  • Revenge
  • Rivalry
  • Metamorphosis
  • Discovery

Examples of Plot in Literature

Example #1: The Odyssey by Homer

The Odyssey is one of the original “hero goes on a journey” plots. In Homer’s ancient Greek epic poem, the character Odysseus takes ten years to journey home from the Trojan War to Ithaca, where his wife and son live. Odysseus must navigate many obstacles in The Odyssey, including the curse that the god Poseidon laid on him to wander the seas for a decade before being able to return home. Odysseus must escape cannibals, sirens, and the enchantments of more Greek gods to find his way home.

Example #2: Beowulf (anonymous)

The epic poem Beowulf concerns the hero Beowulf and his attempts to rid his people of the plague of monsters including Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and a dragon. While Beowulf does not have to venture far to complete his quest, the plot of Beowulf echoes that of The Odyssey in that the main hero must defeat his opponents and overcome all the obstacles in his way to prove victorious. This is one of the examples of plot with a clear hero and a traditional three-part set of obstacles.

Example #3: Othello by William Shakespeare

Othello is a tragedy because of the highly avoidable conclusion, which comes about due to one simple event leading to the next. The villain Iago orchestrates the tragedy, but the reader gets the sense that if only one thing hadn’t quite worked out the way that Iago had planned for, none of the tragic consequences would have occurred. For example, one of the plot examples is that Othello discovers Desdemona’s handkerchief in the possession of another man and therefore assumes she has been unfaithful.

Example #4: Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar

Julio Cortázar’s 1963 novel challenges the very definition of plot. Hopscotch is a stream-of-consciousness novel with 155 chapters, which can be read in one of two ways. The reader can choose to read the chapters chronologically, or, instead, follow the “Table of Instructions” that Cortázar created that jumps backwards and forwards throughout the book. Cortázar leaves it to the reader to find the causal relationships between the different events that occur in the book.

Example #5: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, later turned into a film, is an example of the “a stranger comes to town” type of plot. The novel is narrated by “Chief” Bromden and is set in a psychiatric hospital in Oregon. Chief begins narrating the events that start to occur after the new patient Randle Patrick McMurphy arrives on the ward. McMurphy is not, in fact, insane and is only faking insanity to avoid a prison sentence. McMurphy’s time on the ward changes the way the other patients understand their own captivity in the hospital and encourages them to act in ways they had never previously imagined possible.

Example #6: Atonement by Ian McEwan

Contemporary novelist Ian McEwan is a master at creating narrative structures in which one tiny event sets off a huge chain of reactions. His novel Atonement uses this type of plot, in which the young narrator Briony Tallis reads a letter that she misinterprets and due to which makes a false accusation. The reader is keenly aware of the way in which small choices and misunderstandings lead to the ruin of entire lives.

Test Your Knowledge of Plot

1. Choose the best plot definition as a literary device from the following statements: 
A. An evil scheme.
B. The events that occur in a story.
C. A chronological summary of what happens in a story.

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2. Consider the following line from Cormac McCarthy’s novel, The Road:

Then they set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire.

Does this sound more like the plot of “a man goes on a journey” or “a stranger comes to town”?
A. A man goes on a journey.
B. A stranger comes to town.
C. Both.
D. Neither.

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Which of the following story lines most closely follows the plot of the Cinderella Story?
A. Gregor Samsa awakes one morning to find himself transformed into a giant bug. Gregor must cope with his new situation. (Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka)
B. Well-respected lawyer Atticus Finch unsuccessfully defends neighbor Boo Radley in a racially charged case. (To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee)
C. An orphan named Pip receives a large sum of money to go to London and become a gentleman. (Great Expectations by Charles Dickens)

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