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Plot and Structure: How to Use Structure and Subplot to Add Suspense
by Joslyn Chase | 30 Comments
You can’t write a great story if you don’t master plot and structure. But what is the best structure for a novel? How do you plot a novel?
Figuring out your plot structure is essential for your story’s success. Even if you have an exciting idea for a story, great characters, and a memorable setting, you still need to put your protagonist through events that have high and escalating stakes, and structure them for maximum effect.
If you want to write a great story, you need to include the elements of suspense. You can do this by using writing techniques and devices like:
- engaging your reader on a deep level,
- making your reader care about your characters,
- sequence of events
- planting clues
But without a sound plot and structure, you risk failing to thrill your readers. Today, we’ll look at dramatic structure and learn how you can build an effective plan for your entire plot. By planning for success, you can create a story packed with suspense, with all the right twists in all the right places.
Definition of Plot and Structure
What is story plot? What is the best structure for a novel?
Plot is the series of events that make up your story, including the order in which they occur and how they relate to each other.
Structure (also known as narrative structure), is the overall design or layout of your story.
While plot is specific to your story and the particular events that make up that story, dramatic structure is more universal and deals with the mechanics of the story—how the chapters or scenes are broken up, how conflict is introduced and amplified, where the climax is placed, how the resolution plays out, and so on.
You can think of plot and structure like the DNA of your story. Every story takes on a plot, and every piece of writing has a structure. While plot is unique to your story, an understanding of effective structures and devices can help you develop better stories and hone your craft.
Searching for Structure
From the beginning of my writer’s journey, I knew story structure had to be a vital part of creating successful stories. But I wasn’t sure how to best construct a story, which of the many models would produce the best results for me.
I started writing short stories using a nine-point, three act structure consisting of hook, backstory, and trigger in act one. Crisis, struggle, and epiphany in act two. And plan, climax, and resolution in the final act.
This worked fine. At first. But as I expanded into longer writing forms like novellas and novels, I realized I needed something more. And something better-suited to the types of suspense fiction I like to write.
I explored several models of story structure, including the Algis Budrys seven-point story structure of simply putting a character in a setting with a problem and then employing try/fail cycles until the climax where he succeeds or ultimately fails before ending with a validation.
I found a lot to like in Syd Field’s model for storytelling. I tried the Lester Dent Master Plot Formula for dramatic writing and found it works quite well for writing an exciting short story. But again, these models weren’t a perfect fit for me. My search continued.
Just as I began writing my first novel, I stumbled upon Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid and I knew at once that it would be a game-changer for me. I wrote Nocturne In Ashes and Steadman’s Blind using Shawn’s Five Commandments of story to structure each scene and the overall shape of the books.
Following this pattern, I learned an incredible amount about how to hit all the right points in a three-act structure and make sure each scene is vital and has a turning point. But my writing process is still evolving. Though I would never trade my experience with the Story Grid structure which really helped me get a handle on the micro view of storytelling, I was still looking for something ideally suited for writing mysteries and thrillers.
Let me tell you about what I’ve been using lately!
Six Elements of Plot That Strengthen Story Structure
When Joe Bunting published The Write Structure, I purchased it right away. However, it sat on my virtual reading shelf for a couple of months before I cracked it open and began reading.
Once I finally got started, I was delighted to find that The Write Structure resonated with me in so many ways and I knew I could use this pattern to write anything from a short story to a full-length novel and make it shine.
The book is filled with great tips, techniques, and advice for writers, backed up by examples and Joe’s own experience as a best-selling author. He takes you step-by-step through the six elements of a plot that will guide you in writing a stellar story and shows you how to develop each element effectively.
These are the six plot elements, as set forth in The Write Structure:
The Exposition is where you introduce your hero and establish the story setting, your hero’s world. By focusing on the core value at stake from the very beginning, you confirm genre for your readers and introduce dramatic tension by setting up conflict and forcing your character to act on a choice.
In most types of suspense fiction, the story will turn on a core value of Life vs. Death or perhaps a Fate Worse than Death. Often, the internal value at stake is Good vs. Evil. Crime stories, on some level, usually deal with issues of justice and good guys vanquishing bad guys while lives are in danger.
During this exposition phase, use specific details and descriptive elements to sink your reader deep into the story and make them care about your hero and worry over what will happen next.
Once your reader is grounded in the story world and emotionally invested in your character, something needs to happen to interrupt the established pattern and rock your character’s world in some way. An Inciting Incident begins the story arc that will eventually culminate in the climactic scene and ending resolution of your story.
The inciting incident should be inspired by, and reinforce, the core value at stake in the story. In a crime story, this event—whether coincidental or triggered by a story character—works best when it reflects a conflict between life and death or something worse.
The way you pace your story and deliver information to your reader is paramount to your story’s success, right from the very beginning.
Rising Action is where you raise the stakes and ratchet up the tension in a buildup toward the dilemma. These are the try/fail cycles, the struggle to understand the antagonistic force and find a way to defeat it through trial and error.
When thriller writer, Lee Child, was asked to divulge his recipe for creating suspense, he said it’s not so much about the ingredients as it is about making your family hungry, making them wait. This is where you spin out uncertainty and worry, making your reader hungry for the payoff.
I’ve written several articles about how to increase tension in a story’s plot by focusing on the elements of suspense. The writing techniques I’ve taught in these articles, such as how to create cliffhangers, write an action scene, and plant clues and red herrings, will help you develop rising action in your story. Learn more about how to use these powerful techniques in your stories by reading each article (linked in the previous sentence).
All of these writing skills will help you keep the story pace moving along through the middle, where many writers flounder.
Now we get to the crux of the story, where the rubber meets the road. The Dilemma boils down to a choice your protagonist must make—a difficult and crucial choice.
There are two types of choices that create the most conflict and drama. The first is often called the Best Bad Choice, where there is no happy alternative and your character is forced to choose from a menu of unsavory options.
For instance: Does Katniss cut down a tracker jacker nest and kill some of the tributes, or does she wait for the tributes to kill her?
The other variety of tough choices involves having to decide between conflicting goods, otherwise called an Irreconcilable Goods Decision. In this scenario, someone benefits while someone else is harmed. There is no win/win.
For example: Does Kramer hire someone to take care of his son in order to work a prestigious job, or does he step down from his career to be a reliable parent?
The dilemma is the heart of your story. It’s where your hero demonstrates his true character development. If you’ve created a sympathetic protagonist readers care about, they will be desperate to learn how he chooses and what happens as a result of that choice.
Your hero faces a difficult choice in the dilemma, but the Climax is where she acts on that choice and reaps the consequences of that action. This is the payoff you’ve been building toward since the beginning. This is the summit readers want to reach when they open a book.
This is also where your hero gains or ultimately loses what she seeks. In suspense fiction, that sought-after objective is usually solving a crime and bringing the perpetrator to justice. Or it might be revenge, rescue, or the acquisition of wealth or power.
Whatever it is, it centers on the conflict between the core values at stake—life or death. The events in your story have transformed and prepared your protagonist for this final confrontation.
Now it’s showtime.
Knowing your story’s climax also helps to hone your skills of foreshadowing. You’ll be able to properly place your setups and readers won’t feel cheated.
It’s also a good idea to make sure you’ve honored reader expectations and delivered a story suited to what suspense fans crave.
Writers are sometimes tempted to skip writing the Denouement of the plot, or give it short shrift.
Don’t. If you want readers to look back fondly on your story and pick up your next book, give them the closure they desire.
Readers need a moment to savor the climax and feel the release of tension. If you’ve done a good job creating compelling characters, readers won’t want to say goodbye right away. Let them spend a little more time together.
This is where you validate your protagonist’s arc and reflect on how she’s changed. Even if the world around her is back to normal, she’s not the same person who started the story.
This is also where you wrap up any loose ends and it’s the perfect place to bring secondary plotlines to a close. Read below to learn more about subplots.
Master the six elements of plot to write a great story. Then, plan the whole structure of your story by weaving in subplots. Learn how in this article.
A Sound Structure for Suspense
The Write Structure addresses the complexities involved in putting together a story that works on multiple levels to engage an audience, and it does so in a user-friendly way. Instead of overwhelming, it simplifies the process so that you can actually create a plan for your own full-length book in just eighteen sentences.
In The Write Structure, you’ll learn the nitty gritty details about how to craft these six elements in your story to develop your idea into a full-blown, living, breathing creation that readers will love. The process gives you the tools to create the right structure for your book while still leaving plenty of room for flexibility and creativity.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of the process is how it can be geared toward a particular genre—in our case, that means mysteries, thrillers, and adventure stories. In my opinion, that makes The Write Structure an excellent model for writing suspense fiction.
Plot AND Structure: Don’t Forget Subplots
If you use the six elements of plot, you’ll develop a sound structure for your suspense story—or any story. However, these vital scenes in the structure won’t uphold a story that can stretch the length of the novel. In order to develop the plot, you need secondary storylines, or subplots, too.
How do you use subplots?
What Are Subplots?
A plot is a series of linked moments, a chain of events with one leading into the next. In a short story, you’re better off sticking with a single plotline in most cases. Anything longer than a short story, however, is enriched by weaving in one or more secondary plotlines, or subplots.
You can see this clearly in just about any television episode. There’s an A plot and a B plot. The A plot is the main story. The B plot forms a supporting storyline that plays off the A plot and may highlight theme or act as a foil or contrast to the A plot.
Subplots are the supporting storylines in your plot and structure. Don’t forget them! Doing so will hinder your main plot.
Sometimes the plotlines tie together at the end. Other times, they simply run parallel and the secondary plotline has its own conclusion, usually in one of the last scenes in the book.
Here’s an example of how a subplot may operate to support the main plot.
Mr. Monk Goes to The Circus
In the television show, Monk, there’s an episode where Monk solves the murder of a circus ringmaster. That’s the A plot.
The B plot is introduced when Monk and his nurse, Sharona, go to the circus to investigate.
Here’s a clip from the episode:
The B plot comes into play when Sharona encounters the elephant and freaks out. We learn she’s terrified of elephants due to a traumatic scene she once witnessed at a zoo.
- Monk is oblivious to her distress—his only concern is that she isn’t responding to his needs. Sharona gets upset because she has to deal constantly with his phobias and idiosyncrasies, yet he has zero compassion for her over her fear of elephants. He enrages her by telling her to “suck it up.”
- Sharona starts a campaign to teach Monk a lesson. This campaign manifests at various points throughout the A plot when she refuses to hand him a wipe, drinks from his water bottle, coughs in his face, and messes up his orderly magazines. When he protests, she tells him to “suck it up.”
- Monk sends her flowers. He calls her to talk about the issue and when she finally opens up and begins sharing her feelings, Monk gets distracted and hangs up on her to follow a lead from the A plot.
- Monk discusses the problem with his therapist, Dr. Kroger. Of course, Kroger understands why Sharona’s angry, but he refuses to explain it to Monk, insisting that Monk will have to figure it out for himself—the answer is inside him.
- Monk and Sharona continue arguing. Just as she’s telling Monk he’ll never get it, Monk tells Sharona’s son to put his bicycle away, saying, “Let’s give your mother a break.” She points out that he was showing empathy at that point. It’s a start.
- Monk arranges for Sharona to confront her fear by meeting with the elephant and his master, unaware that the killer plans to use the elephant as a murder weapon to eliminate a witness. Sharona watches as this event in the A plot plays out and the elephant crushes his master’s skull, killing him.
- This makes things worse and now Monk feels really bad. He pampers Sharona, tucking a blanket around her and trying to make her cocoa, but she ends up doing all the work, as usual.
- In the story’s climax—the A plot—the culprit tries to escape and is stopped by the elephant. Sharona comes face to face with the creature and Monk soothes and empathizes with her. Then over-empathizes and won’t shut up with the empathizing. Sharona remarks that she’s created a monster.
- Sharona feeds carrots to the elephant and tells Monk she’s over it—maybe there’s hope for him. But Monk is still Monk and we know he’ll be back next week, still victim to a thousand debilitating foibles, to solve another baffling crime. (This is the Denouement.)
Do you see how the secondary plotline plays off the main plotline, intersecting it in some spots, adding dimension to the story’s climax, and providing the perfect ending? This is what subplots do.
Including subplots will elevate the tension and create depth to your main plotline.
Do You Really Need Subplots?
You don’t need to include a secondary plotline in your novel. But if you don’t, you’re passing up a great vehicle for adding depth, interest, emotion, tension, and excitement to your story. That said, it’s essential that readers understand who the book is about.
There should be one main character—your hero—whose story carries the most weight and whose arc comprises the main plotline. Readers should not be confused about who this is, so take care not to overwhelm that main arc when developing your secondary plots.
A secondary plotline can center on just about anything, including a character, setting, theme, motif, or problem. It can enter the story at any point and leave at any point—no need for it to run through the entire story unless that’s what serves the story best.
Every subplot, however, should be tied up by story’s end. The only reason you might consider leaving a secondary plotline open at the end of the story is so that it can function as a lead-in to the sequel.
For example, in my thriller novel, Nocturne In Ashes, the main story arc about stopping a serial killer is wrapped up in the end. But one of my subplots involved a police detective’s efforts to gain entry into an elite private security organization. That story line left a dangling thread to be picked up in the sequel.
One more thing—secondary plotlines must relate somehow to the main plotline and not exist just to take up space or add complexity. They must have a valid story reason to be there.
Joe Bunting’s book, The Write Structure, also addresses how to handle subplots in structuring your story.
A Plan for Your Book Sets You Up for Success
Ultimately, the best way to structure your book is to find a process that works for you and the types of fiction you want to write. That may entail exploring and adapting, learning and growing as you move through your own writer’s journey and learn the craft of writing.
You may not want to use the same plan for every story. I still structure my short fiction differently than my full-length books and I decide project by project how I’m going to do it.
I do think it’s important to make some kind of plan before you begin writing. When all is said and done, if you produce a story with all the right elements to attract and hold readers all the way to the end, you have a well-structured story.
You can get there by making a plan to guide you—like signposts along your journey. Or you can stumble around through rewrite after rewrite until you finally arrive. Either way, structure is what you need to make it work.
Why not embrace plot and structure and make it your traveling companion on the road to success?
Want to learn more about plot? Check out The Write Structure which helps writers make their plot better and write books readers love. It’s only $5.99 for a limited time. Check out The Write Structure here.