Plot Structure: The Physics of Drama

E.L. Doctorow—

“A book begins as a private excitement of the mind…”


“The proper magnitude [of a plot] is comprised within such limits that the sequence of events, according to the laws of probability and necessity, will admit of a change from bad fortune to good or from good fortune to bad.”

Story is a record of years, weeks, days, while plot derives meaning from a span of years, weeks, days, etc., and conveys meaning. At its foundation, plot is simply this: A hero wants something, goes after it despite opposition, and arrives at a win, lose, or draw. Unlike a chronicle of events (when someone tells you this happened, then this, and then that) plot is dynamic. Plot is an interplay of events much like a system of forces coming against each other while incrementally moving forward.

And all fiction must move forward; thus the prerequisite of plot. Without traveling from one place to another, readers have no reason to turn the page. Interchangeable scenes, static, redundant dialogue, and plot is lost. Perhaps momentarily. Perhaps long enough for readers to lose interest.

For me, this happened when I read Deborah Harkness’ The Discovery of Witches. Consider the following passages:

“’You draw creatures like flowers draw bees, Diana. But daemons aren’t half as dangerous as vampires. Stay away from him,’ Sarah said tightly.

“’I have no reason to seek him out.’ My hands traveled to my neck again. ‘We have nothing in common.’

‘That’s not the point,’ Sarah said, voice rising. ‘Witches, vampires, and daemons aren’t supposed to mix. You know that.’”

“The taboos against mixing with other creatures were strong.”

“A vampire and a witch can’t be friends.”

“He knew that vampires, witches, and daemons seldom mixed.”

“You know it’s dangerous to mix with daemons and vampires.”

“No wonder we’re not supposed to mix.”

“I don’t know, Diana. On Friday you said witches and vampires couldn’t be friends.”

“Witches and vampires don’t mix, Dr. Bishop. There are excellent reasons for it.”

“‘So,’ I repeated, ‘No mixing between different types of creatures.’”

The author’s redundancy in this example is compounded by heavy-handed telling. Rather than letting the plot and characters reveal the intricacies of what it means to be a daemon, witch, or vampire, she fills her dialogue with blanket statements—Vampires this, daemons that, and witches never…. This exacerbates the redundancy, and worse, puts simple-minded thoughts in the mouths of alleged Cambridge scholars. In life, this kind of dialogue would amount to politically incorrect stereotyping.

In failing to move the plot and protagonist forward, the writer fails to move her readers.

But when drama grows from the interplay of forces, characters evolve, as do conflicting ideas, interests, and wills. The resulting tension awakens readers’ desire to follow where the story leads. We want to satisfy our curiosity—who will win the ultimate victory?

While we’re caught in the struggle, we want to understand the nature of the conflict to a degree that enables our minds to jump ahead. In the end, how we understand the resolution is what makes the conclusion satisfying. The wise and more experienced writer will give readers only as much information as we need moment by moment. In doing so, we don’t ask what’s going to happen to the characters. We asks, What is Tom, Dick, or Harry going to do?

If Tom engages us, we worry about him, understand him, care about the choices he makes. Then, if cowardice or indecisiveness prompts Tom to make a choice we would view as wrong, we feel vicarious embarrassment. If Tom behaves bravely or honestly, we feel pride. Character is fiction’s heart and soul.

Lajos Egri, The Art of Dramatic Writing

 “Only in conflict can you prove yourself. In conflict your true self is revealed.”


Plot is a braid of three strands:

  • Character Emotional Development : The plot exists so the character can discover for himself (and in the process reveal to the reader) what he, the character, is really like: plot forces the character to choose and act. By making choices and reaping their consequences, the character transforms from a construct to an animate being.
  • Dramatic Action: Action is driven by what the characters want and the conflict that stands in their way.
  • Thematic Significance: When the hero’s private passion touches a universal nerve and raises questions about an issue we can identify with, the thematic plot line is drawn.

Characters commit to their desire, which leads to action, which in turn leads to conflict; hence, at the crux of every story is a problem. Every character in the story is involved in the problem, and everything every character does in the story affects the outcome of the problem. When problem-solving actions involve critical events that threaten life, health, wealth, freedom, love, security, or happiness—testing the limits of human endurance and ingenuity in the process—a story finds its audience.

In The Perfect Storm, weather is the problem. In the legend of King Arthur, the kingdom is in a state of anarchy.  In The Iliad, the Greek army is decimated because their best warrior has dropped out of the battle.

Drama is as much about the repercussions of actions as it is about the actions. It’s not the momentum of action that frames the story, but how the characters respond to the action, which conveys meaning to an audience.

Readers need to see the results of action, the consequences and effects, to understand the dramatic weight action carries. The emotional reaction to action, the blowback of desire, is the fiery core of plot.

In the first quarter of Ernest J. Gaines’ A Lesson before Dying, Grant wishes he could “get away from here.” His private fear of responsibility and proclivity for running and hiding conversely introduces the concept of how resistance and defiance of the expected can be heroic. And so begins the thematic plotline.

Throughout the middle of the story, Grant is confronted by the gatekeepers to his freedom—his aunt, a family friend, his girlfriend, the white establishment, a man condemned to die, his community, and ultimately himself. Through dramatic action that is linked by cause and effect, each antagonist teaches Grant about himself, what it means to be a man and the nature of heroism.

In the final quarter of the story, Grant, through witnessing another man’s struggle for dignity, is changed. By staying where he is needed, Grant defies the expected and becomes the hero of his own life.

Discover How to Maximize the Physics of Drama.

In subsequent posts, we’ll continue to look at the three integral aspects of plot—character emotional development, dramatic action, thematic significance—and how to maintain each as we work through our novels.

Written by The UnNovelist
The Unnovelist