Writing TIp: Plot, Its Beats and Devices

Posted January 30, 2017 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Writing

Revised as of:
16 Feb 2017

Story Arc = Plot Structure (Plot + (Characters + Beats + Plot Devices))

Plot is that sequence of major events that moves the action in a story, usually in a cause-effect relationship — the conflict experienced by the main character. As the character makes choices and tries to resolve the problem, the story’s action is shaped and plot is generated.

Plot is Structure

Plot has a structure to it: exposition, inciting incident, rising action, crisis, climax, falling action, and resolution.

This structure provides the framework in which to set the characters, determine where the beats should occur to fulfill the need for the character’s evolution, and which plot devices will best convey these changes, events, and or actions.

Once the story is plotted out, it is easier to flesh it out and enliven it using literary elements and literary devices.

Plot is what happens:
Mary’s story begins when she wakes up and goes to work.
She has lunch and, the most interesting part of her day, shops for shoes.
Her story ends when she goes home and then to bed.

Narrative is what the reader sees and hears of what happens — and how s/he sees and hears it:
Mary woke up that morning and took almost an hour to decide what to wear. She then had breakfast, got in the car, and drove to work.
She had a quick lunch at her desk and then shopped for a pair of shoes. She then went back to her desk, and did some more work before driving home.
Mary eats dinner and then goes to sleep at night.

Writing is…

…a lot of work…yeah, you already know that one, lol. What the posts on “Writing” are intended to do is explore the various mechanics of writing from plots to points-of-view to structure to character development to genres to voice to target audience to book types to character or story arcs to back stories to plot devices to themes to diction to copyright to flashforwards to flashbacks to framing the story or devices to memes to tropes to pace to perspective to settings to show versus tell to social context to continuity to storyboards to style to language to style sheets to syntax to tone to tropes and more…

It’s an evolving conversation, and sometimes I run across an example that helps explain better or another “also known as”. Heck, there’s always a better way to explain it, so if it makes quicker and/or better sense, I would appreciate suggestions and comments from anyone on some aspect of writing with which you struggle or on which you can contribute more understanding.

If you found this post on “Plot, Its Beats and Devices” interesting, consider tweeting it to your friends. Subscribe to KD Did It, if you’d like to track this post for future updates.

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Plot, Its Beats and Devices
Part of Writing: Story
Definition: The series of events that give a story its meaning and effect, due to the conflict experienced by the main character. As the character makes choices and tries to resolve the problem, the story’s action is shaped and plot is generated.


Story Arc

Elements of Plot Structure:

Plot Beats

Plot Devices

Story Arc
Definition: The movement of the character (character arc) or situation from one event to the next, and how s/he/it is changed from beginning to end.

Character / Situation Movement
Movement is the change or transformation that takes place for the character or situation.

Common forms of movement include:

  • A character going from a situation of weakness to one of strength
  • A character experiences a tragic fall from grace
  • The change or transformation of character in the hero’s journey
  • Bringing a character to a low point, removing the structures the character depends on, then forcing the character to find new strength without those structures

Movement includes action, which should consistently raise the tension or the stakes until it reaches the peak — that climax.

A series arc is the same, but spans the entire series with the overall evolution of the character’s movements.

Planning Your Story Arc

  • Know, in general, how you want your story to end.
  • Who are your characters and what are their relationships?
  • Determine your subplots.
  • Then “map” out the beats that your character will follow from start to end, so you can figure out where events need to happen and where your character(s) change.
  • Remember that you are likely to veer off on tangents that crop up along the way, but that should tie back in to the main plot.

At this point, your story arc looks something like a pyramid with exposition, inciting incident, end of the beginning, rising action, crisis, climax, falling action, and resolution.

Story arc is not the same as character arc. And an ARC is an advanced reading copy.

A.k.a., arc, narrative arc, storytelling arc, narrative structure, elements of fiction

About.com: What is Narrative Arc in Literature?

A poor woman goes on adventures, and in the end, makes a fortune for herself.

A lonely man falls in love and marries.

Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces is an exploration of spiritual and psychological insights of modern psychoanalysis with the archetypes of world mythology.

Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers does the same for western storytelling.

Storyline Definition: The use of literary devices and plot devices to show the action or experience of the characters.

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Each character in your story has a storyline that is seen through their eyes — a subplot — and is their outlook on what is happening in the story.

Each of these subplots is woven together by you to create a whole story.

Variations on Storyline include:

A.k.a., narrative thread, plot thread

Monomyth Definition: A classic structure of narrative thread often used in both fiction and non-fiction writing: a beginning, a middle, and an end.

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  1. The harmony of daily life is broken by a particularly dramatic event that leads into the main story
  2. The plot builds to a point of no return, from where the protagonist — a person / organization / community — has no choice but to deal with matters, and thus is tested
    • There is conflict and the conflict intensifies
  3. Harmony is reestablished by the conflict being solved, or at least explained in the case of non-fiction

You may want to read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

A.k.a., hero’s journey

Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series with Katniss Everdeen

Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey with Odysseus

J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series with Frodo

Conflict Definition: A struggle, issues, or complications that arise between two opposing forces as the character attempts to deal (or not) with the problems.

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Character Conflicts (more detail is in the post “Character“):

  • Character vs Character
    • Characters in conflict with one another:
      • Dragon against knight
      • Overbearing mother against beleaguered son
  • Character vs Fate
    • Character is compelled to follow an unknown destiny
      • Sexual stereotyping
      • The Odyssey, Oedipus Rex
  • Character vs God
    • Character is forced into conflict with the supernatural
      • Man against the devil
      • Man against the Grim Reaper
  • Character vs Nature
    • Characters in conflict with their surroundings
      • Man against natural disaster
  • Character vs Self
    • Characters in conflict with themselves
      • Jealousy
      • Loss of identity
      • Overconfidence
  • Character vs Society
    • Man against man-made disaster
    • War
  • Character vs Technology
    • Man must overcome a machine or technology
      • Through the character’s own doing
      • May have to destroy the tech before it destroys the character

4 Elements Needed in Conflict:

Purdue OWL

Plot Definition: Uses the planning from the story arc to plot out the sequence of major events — the choices the character makes to resolve the problem — that moves the action in a story from exposition into conflict and how it will be resolved for the main character.

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Plotting out the story makes it easier for you to lay out how the story is broken up into chapters and scenes, determine where conflict and climax occurs, and how it ends.
In Frank L. Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the very basic plot uses a frame story within which is a dream sequence in which Dorothy is unhappy with her homelife and is whirled into Oz, where she has to work through her own issues, and realizes the truth of home.
Subplot Definition: A supporting side story for any story and may connect to the main plot, time-wise, or to reinforce the theme.

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They have less impact on the overall story, involving supporting characters, taking up less of the action, and fewer significant events occur.

Subplots provide the reader with all the threads that contribute to the overall story, helping the reader to identify with the characters or experience the situation as if they were part of the action or eavesdropping, aiding in the suspension of disbelief.

In Frank L. Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, subplots include the Tin Man’s, the Scarecrow’s, and the Cowardly Lion’s stories, all of which is nested within the beginning and end involving Dorothy’s aunt and uncle’s farm in Kansas.
Elements of Plot Structure
Definition: The structure of a story starts with words, phrases, clauses, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters which end up as books.

The usual plot structure is:

  1. Introduction of the character and the conflict facing him/her
  2. Rising action starts the tension and drama rising toward the climax of the conflict.
  3. Climax is the most dramatic, tense moment of the story, the crisis point where things just can’t continue the way they are. A decision has to be made or something has to change.
    • Falling action finds the the story slowly winding down and the tension decreases.
    • Resolution finds the conflict resolved and the drama drifts away into the end of the story

In some stories, the author structures the entire plot chronologically, with the first event followed by the second, third, and so on, like beads on a string.

However, many other stories are told with flashback techniques in which plot events from earlier times interrupt the story’s current events.

Virtual Lit

ACT 1: Exposition Definition: Introduces the protagonist and sets up the story conflict while hooking the reader in.

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Act 1 may include backstories, prior plot events, historical context, and setting.

Primary Plot Devices Used include:

A.k.a., the beginning, introduction, stasis, opening event

There is a house party with twenty-eight other people, including the household staff.
Inciting Incident
(1st Minor Beat)
Definition: The plot event or decision that triggers the story’s problem.

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It answers why the conflict for the antagonist/protagonist is happening now and why s/he is get

Everything up and until that moment is backstory; everything after is “the story”.

A.k.a., trigger, exciting incident, inciting event, catalyst

A shot is heard.
End of the Beginning
(1st Major Beat)
Definition: An event that drags the protagonist into the situation or forces a choice to get involved.

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first plot point
A woman is found murdered in the library.
ACT 2: Rising Action Definition: The protagonist reacts to the new goal / stakes / obstacle, but suffers from one step forward and two steps back.

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It creates a rise in the story’s suspense or tension.

A.k.a., critical choice, quest, surprise

A call to the police is placed, but the line has been cut.
Pinch Point #1
(2nd Minor Beat)
Definition: Event that adds more conflict.

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Another shot rings out…and another guest is found dead.
(2nd Major Beat)
Definition: Event that reinforces the story’s goals and stakes.

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Many beat sheets consider this to be 50% of the way into the story.
A guest reveals themselves as a detective.
Pinch Point #2
(3rd Minor Beat)
Definition: Events that add more conflict.

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Turns out the first victim was a blackmailer; the second victim was one of her victims.
(3rd Major Beat)
Definition: An event that strips the character(s) of hope, that they’ll fail, and will never get what s/he wants.

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This will be the point of greatest tension that the character faces. The darkest moment, the worst challenge the character must oppose.

Many beat sheets consider this to be 75% of the way into the story.

A.k.a., black moment, second plot point, all-is-lost, break-into-(act)-three

Most of the guests had been the blackmailer’s targets.
ACT 3: Climax
(4th Major Beat)
Definition: A physical or emotional event or challenge pushes the protagonist(s) pick themselves up, to make a decision, and start working toward the story goals again.

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A.k.a., high point, main point of the plot, finale, showdown, final battle
The detective thinks he knows who the murderer is, but must set a trap which could backfire.
Falling Action Definition: After the climax, the story is slowly winding down through the actions or decisions the character has made, and the tension decreases.

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This eventually leads to the final part of the novel, the resolution.

A.k.a., winding down, reversal

The trap is sprung.
(4th Minor Beat)
Definition: Event shows the characters as their changed selves.

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The end of the story in its final chapters with the conflicts resolved, all loose ends tied up, and the story concludes with either a happy or sad ending.

A.k.a., the end, end of conflict, denouement, crisis resolution, ending, conclusion

The detective explains who the murderer is and why the murder was done.
Plot Beat
Definition: Plot events that change the story and include significant AND minor actions / decisions / information / clues / stakes / goals / obstacles the reader must have in order for the story to make sense and for the plot to move forward.
A beat may be half a sentence long, a sentence long, or two to three sentences.

“A group of beats together builds a scene; a group of scenes builds a chapter; a group of chapters builds a novel. But if the beats aren’t working right, the novel will crumble” (Cowley).

And, every scene has the potential for a beat of some degree. Each time something happens that changes your protagonist’s understanding of the conflict and his/her understanding of how to react to it:

  • Mixes things up
  • Keeps the conflict fresh
  • Propels your character far away from any possibility of stagnancy

The more solid your beats, the stronger your story’s entire foundation will be.

Why You Want to Use Beats

Beats are a way to ensure you have action at points where the reader subconsciously is expecting it. Using a beat sheet helps you to:

  • Pinpoint where beats are missing — what events need to be set up or introduced or clarified for the reader, so you know what to add/fix in revision, or
  • Make a list of possible beats, and construct your story outline from there, or
  • Work from both ends toward the middle by making a list of key beats, and add to it or rearrange it as you write and realize that things are happening in a different order or going in a different direction — which makes it an early warning system for you
  • Vary the types of beats you use to keep your reader’s interest

Beats are not necessarily about the actual plot:

  • Bringing on a major new character
  • Introducing a major new setting
  • Setting up actions or decisions
  • Subplots for other characters or issues

Beat Sheet Planning
Many writers use a beat sheet, a screenwriting technique in outline form, to plan out major beats using bullet points:

  • There are four major beats, major turning points in the story, in which a significant character, place, or question is introduced.
  • There are also four minor beats.

A.k.a., game changer, turning point, plot point, plot event, act, midpoint, black moment, pinch point

Jami Gold’s “Are Beat Sheets Intimidating? Cut through the Clutter; Katherine Cowley’s “10 Keys to Writing Story Beats in Novels (with Exercises)

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Four Major Beats
Definition: Major changes in plot events (that occur within the conflict arc) directly affect — in a new and significant way — the whole story, not just the next scene.

They are those turning points that focus on a new conflict, obstacle, stake, or goal with direct repercussions for the rest of the story — to the point that there’s no turning back for the characters without major consequences.

Major Beat 1: Starting beat for the main conflict:
A.k.a., end of the beginning (exposition)
An event that drags the protagonist into the situation, or

An event that forces a choice to get involved

When Jane meets Mr. Rochester at the quarter mark of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, her world is effectively changed forever. As the new governess at Thornfield, she can’t go back to the person she was before. From the very first moment she meets Rochester, her world begins to change.

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the hobbits’ meeting with Strider in Bree is one such event; Frodo’s decision to volunteer to be ring-bearer is another.

Definition and examples courtesy of a guest post, “What Are Plot Points?” on Writing Forward and “Plot points” by Patricia C. Wrede.

Major Beat 2: A beat event near the midpoint (~50% in):
A.k.a., midpoint
An event that changes the protagonist’s goals/choices, or

An event that adds new stakes to the situation

Major Beat 3: A beat event near the three-quarter mark (75% in to the story):
A.k.a., crisis, black moment, second plot point, all-is-lost, break-into-(act)-three
A dark event with fallout that steals the protagonist’s hope for a solution, breaks them

  • …lost goals, lost plans, the break-up scene, betrayed, lost a mentor, abandonment, kidnapping, shame
    • The castle will be guarded by a dragon. The love of their life has already left to catch a flight to the other side of the globe. The lighting near the bomb makes it impossible to tell the difference between the red and green wires, etc., etc.
  • Use the protagonist’s weakness to give them pain
    • Learns to trust, but is then betrayed
  • Antagonist is worse than they thought

One of the most emotional sections of a story

Make it impossible for the protagonist to beat the bad guy’s plans

  • They lost a lead, password doesn’t work, reached a dead end
Major Beat 4: Ending beat for the main conflict:
A.k.a., climax, finale, showdown, final battle
An event that forces the protagonist to face the antagonist.

After the black moment in third major beat, the protagonist finds the courage to do whatever is necessary to “win”, because they have nothing left to lose.

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Four Minor Beats
Definition: Minor beats fill in the blanks left between the above four major plot events. While not required, they are helpful in keeping your story interesting.
Dialogue tags can act as minor beats, as they give pause even as they identify the speaker.

A.k.a., secondary beat, minor plot point

The hobbits evade the Ringwraiths at the ferry.

The hobbits and Aragon are attacked on Weathertop by the Nazgul.

The meeting at Rivendell with the elves.

Minor Beat 1: Starts the protagonist on the path toward the conflict:
A.k.a., inciting incident
Minor Beats 2 & 3: TWO EVENTS that reveal more about the antagonistic forces or increase the stakes:
A.k.a., pinch points #1 and #2
When Harlow and Augustine discover that Cy is alive in Kristen Painter’s Garden of Dreams and Desires.
Minor Beat 4: The final scene showing how the protagonist has changed:
A.k.a., resolution

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Different Beat Types include:
Know the different types of beats you can use and MIX THEM UP. Having too much of any one beat type can get boring. Mix it up. Mix dialogue, setting, action up as you write a scene, a chapter, etc.

Action Beat Definition: The process of doing something, usually with a goal or aim in mind.

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Action is central to your plot and uses your character’s desires to make an interesting story.

Cowley breaks it down (with great examples) into:

  • Summary action (and I totally agree with her that we don’t need a total breakdown of every frickin’ detail!)
  • Habitual or recurring action
  • Long Shot or Extreme Long Shot action (big picture view of the overall action
  • Medium Shot action (focuses on one or two characters)
  • Close-Up or Extreme Close-Up action (that tear-rolling-down-a-cheek type of close-up)
  • Basic Cinematography Shots (any can be used as a metaphor for different actions):
    • Flashback action
    • Future action
    • Sensory action (POV character’s senses)
    • Internal action (action that occurs within the main character’s body, i.e. teeth chattering, stomach clenching)
    • Mental action (decision or process of thinking; usually from the POV character)

Katherine Cowley’s “10 Keys to Writing Story Beats in Novels (with Exercises)

“She didn’t bother to knock, but simply shoved open his door. Her blood was hot, her mind cold.” – J.D. Robb, Vengeance in Death
Dialogue Beat Definition: Dialogue mixes with action, as characters frequently use their bodies when speaking, yes, not always.

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Blending action with dialogue can be implied, woven together, or not used.
Basic Dialogue Action Blended
“I didn’t want to,” said Lil. “It just happened.” “I didn’t want to.” Lil dropped her cigarette on the pavement. “It just happened.”
Montag stopped at the door, with his back turned. “Millie?”

A silence. “What?”

“Millie? Does the White Clown love you?”

No answer.

“Millie, does—” He licked his lips. “Does your ‘family’ love you, love you very much, love you with all their heart and soul, Millie?” – Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Definition and examples courtesy of Katherine Cowley’s “10 Keys to Writing Story Beats in Novels (with Exercises)“.

Emotion Beat Definition: Puts the reader inside the character’s mind, experiencing any emotion that happens to them and helps pull your reader into the story.

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Emotion Types to Consider:

  • Internal physical sensations (headache, sick to your stomach)
  • External physical sensations (hot, cold, etc. and how it affects one’s emotions
  • Physical actions (hand gestures, facial expressions, etc.)
  • State the emotion (frustrated, angry, excited, etc.)
  • Create habits, tics, or possessions that are unique to that character, an action they resort to in an emotional situation
  • Cultural distinctions that apply to your character(s)

Again, blend action, emotion, dialogue, setting, etc.
Ideas for Conveying Feelings:

  • Setting (falling leaves could indicate depression or sadness, a colorful sunset could bring peace and contentment, etc.)
  • Use literary devices
  • Mini flashbacks
  • Mini flashforwarding
  • Surreal images (think Dali-esque, lol)

Have one character react to another character’s shocking statement with a combination of beats: physical reaction, emotion reaction, thought reaction, dialogue reaction.

Shannon Hale’s Dangerous

In Hale’s novel, one of her characters resorts to her native language when she’s emotional.
Another character has a gum-chewing habit (an emotional control) that Hale uses effectively.

E.M. Forster’s Howards End

Definition and examples courtesy of Katherine Cowley’s “Writing Powerful Emotion Beats in Fiction“.

Pause Beat Definition: In real life, people pause. In a novel, a pause helps recreate that sense of reality, build tension, and provide space for a reaction.

A.k.a., inaction beat

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Adding dialogue tags and mixing it with emotion, dialogue, and setting aids in this.
In Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi incorporates a great example of pause in the scene between the religious leaders, Pi, and his parents.

Setting Beat Definition: Describing a setting halts the forward pace, so you want to include setting descriptions with dialogue and action. It’s a great way to incorporate show.

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  • Include action in the setting
  • Talk and observe the setting at the same time
  • Have an emotional reaction to the setting
“Frank Wojinski had been a good cop, solid. Some would have said plodding. He’d been affable, she remembered. A man who hadn’t complained about the bilge disguised as food at the NYPSD Eatery, or the eye-searing paperwork the job generated.” – J.D. Robb, Ceremony in Death

“Thin, hollow-eyed, and trapped in one of the endless horrid rooms where the windows were cracked and the heat broken so that the wind screamed and screamed against the damaged glass and shook the walls and burst over her skin like fists of ice.

“Cold, so cold. So hungry. So afraid. Sitting in the dark, alone in the dark.” – J.D. Robb, Conspiracy in Death

Plot Devices
Definition: An element introduced into a story solely to advance or resolve the plot of the story.

Multiple plot devices can be used in the same story, and NOTE, anything can be a plot device, ’cause they are ain’t all listed below.

CAUTION: A contrived or arbitrary plot device may annoy or confuse the reader, causing a loss of the suspension of disbelief.

A.k.a., plot mechanism, plot element, elements of plot

A hero needs to find a object of great power and use it for good (or break if only good for evil before the villain can use it for evil OR retrieve the pieces which a villain has broken:

  • In the Indiana Jones film series, Jones is always on the hunt for some mystical artifact:
    • In Raiders of the Lost Ark, he is trying to retrieve the Ark of the Covenant
    • In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Jones is on a search for the Holy Grail
  • The Arabian Nights: “The City of Brass” finds a group of travelers hunting a brass vessel that Solomon once used to trap a djinn
  • In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Harry believes there is a magical stone in Hogwarts with special powers. Lord Voldemort needs this stone to bring back his body, and Harry looks for the stone first to prevent Voldemort’s return.d
  • J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series is seeking to destroy the One Ring

Definition and examples courtesy of Plot Device (Wikipedia).

Backstory Definition: A plot device that provides background information about the characters, conflict, and/or situation. It adds meaning to current circumstances.

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If the reader constantly has to work out what is going on, they may miss something. Keep a balance between giving your readers information that they need and allowing them to work out meanings and nuances for themselves.

Do assume that your readers are intelligent. It can be very irritating to read a story in which the writer constantly states the obvious. Unfortunately, books involving details of cutting edge technology inadvertently run the risk of stating the obvious years down the line.
As used in different genres:

  • Science fiction and medical and forensic fiction:
    • Detailed explanations of processes and their relevance to the plot
  • General fiction:
    • A good guideline is to use simple and quick explanations whenever it is impossible for the reader to deduce something from earlier clues.
    • The beginning of your story requires the most explanatory comment while you’re introducing new characters and indicating their relationship to the protagonist or other main characters.

A.k.a., lengthy exposition

Actual Examples:
The first mention of a new character called “Hannah”:

“Hannah called while you were out,” Jenny’s mother told her.

So who’s Hannah?

Info Dump: “Hannah called while you were out,” Jenny’s mother told her. Hannah was Jenny’s oldest friend.

Info Dump: “Hannah called while you were out,” Jenny’s mother told her. Hannah was Jenny’s oldest friend, and Jenny grabbed the portable phone, hitting speed-dial as she closed her bedroom door to keep their conversation private.

Better: Hannah was Jenny’s oldest friend, but Jenny shrugged and rolled her eyes at her mother. “I’ll call her next week,” she said.

Definition and examples courtesy of Elsa Neal’s “Exposition in Fiction“.

Info Dump Definition: DO NOT info dump!!!

A type of backstory, it is background information that the characters already know, but the readers don’t, that is dumped into the story without integrating it.

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The negatives of info dumping include:

  • Stops forward momentum for the reader
  • Removes the reader from the world of the story
  • It’s boring, partly because it’s telling and not showing

Get around the info dump by:

  • Not all information needs to be given to the reader all at one time
    • A simple example is a person’s name: you don’t have to put their full name out there right away; it can show up later
  • Share information that relates directly to the current scene
  • Make that information tell a story
  • Have two characters arguing about a point of information, figuring out how some issue will affect them, etc.
  • Make it relevant to a character’s current emotional arc.
  • Show a character reacting and changing based on the information
  • Add tension by making it causes problems for the characters
  • Show a character realizing the danger they’re in or showing their dread as the “info dump” is shared

Some variations on the info dump include:

A.k.a., overt exposition, lengthy exposition, plot dump, infodumping, information dump, as you know, Bob…

Quizlet; Exposition (narrative)” (Wikipedia); K.M. Weiland’s Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 50: Info Dumps; Jami Gold’s “Four Tips for Fixing the Infamous “Info Dump”

Actual Examples:
Info Dump: “It was a sunny April day in Ireland, and I had just got dressed up. I hoped my husband Dev would appreciate this — he didn’t seem to appreciate me much any more. It was only a cheap dress, seeing as we were broke now.”

Integration 1: “I gave myself a final, critical, scrutiny in the mirror, turning this way and that to view myself from different angles, and I gave myself a nod of approval. I’d do. I still scrubbed up reasonably well, I was glad to note. Dev would surely have to notice how much effort I had made. He would definitely pay me some sort of compliment.
I hoped.”

Integration 2: “I was wearing a brand new dress (bought at one of the less-expensive chains, given our current financial situation, but even so I was pleased with it). It was a dark pink halter-neck with a wide skirt and tons of netting underneath. I wore a cream crocheted shrug over it, given that it was only mid-April. The weather was exceptionally good mind, but still, mid-April in Ireland? How warm could it be?”

– Tracy Culleton, Grace Under Pressure

Books Using Info Dumps
The Bad:
Most of Clive Cussler’s The Fargo Adventures series

The Good:
The Star Wars opening crawl.

John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series did use info dumps that included background history, and it was part of the richness of his worldbuilding.

David Marusek’s Counting Heads

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars

Ben Aaronovitch’s Midnight Riot

As You Know, Bob… Definition: Same as the info dump but restricted to dialogue.

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“As you know, Bob, I met Mary in college, and we fell in love immediately, and have been together ever since. But now I’m worried about her.”

If Bob already knows the information in the first sentence, why is the speaker reminding him?

“As you know, Bob, Jane is our sister.”

Definition and example courtesy of Fiction Writer’s Mentor in her post, “Info-Dumping“.

Emotional Info Dump Definition: Shares a character’s state of mind, his motivations, his current emotions, or his process of thinking with other characters.

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How many people do you know in real life who dump this sort of information on you? Okay, when the girls get together to bemoan their lives, but this is not everyday chat.

The negatives of emotional info dumping include:

  • Realism is lost
  • Loses the opportunity to develop complexity, subtext, and even mystery

Weiland notes that “Good stories are as much about what the characters do not say as what they do. Most characters are on a journey of self-discovery in their character arcs, which means they are caught between a fundamental Lie and Truth. In short: they’re confused. For most of the story, they won’t be able to completely interpret their own feelings, much less be able (or willing) to share them with other characters.”

Actual Examples:
Info Dump:

“What’s the matter, Jane? Why were you so grumpy during my house party? How come you just want to up and leave me to go visit your horrible dying aunt?”

“Oh, sir, I’m sorry, but you’re behaving abominably, and I can’t stand it. You want to talk about horrible? Let’s talk about that piece of fluff, Blanche Ingram. You’re going to marry her, I just know you are, and all because she’s beautiful and rich, and I’m poor and plain. And I can’t bear it. So… I’m going.”

“You have as good as informed me, sir, that you are going shortly to be married?”

“Yes; what then?”

“In that case, sir, Adele ought to go to school: I am sure you will perceive the necessity of it.”

“To get her out of my bride’s way, who might otherwise walk over her rather too emphatically? There’s sense in the suggestion; not a doubt of it. Adele, as you say, must go to school; and you, of course, must march straight to — the devil?”

“I hope not, sir; but I must seek another situation somewhere.”

“In course!” he exclaimed, with a twang of voice and a distortion of features equally fantastic and ludicrous. He looked at me some minutes.

In Weiland’s post, she points out that “by avoiding the emotional dump early on, Brontë left room for the moment, later on, when Jane’s feelings finally do explode in her famous speech: “Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless?” That if Brontë had gone with the first version, the story would have ended there AND ” have destroyed the dynamic inner conflict and interpersonal tension that makes this such a complex and powerful classic.”

Definition and examples courtesy of K.M. Weiland’s Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 50: Info Dumps.

Books Using Emotional Info Dumps
The Bad:
Laurell K. Hamilton’s Crimson Death is an excellent example of info dumping, as info-dumping takes up most of the story. Talk about irritating…

Maya Banks’ Taking It All

The Good:
Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre

Technical Info Dump Definition: Goes into too much detail about technical information (on any subject).

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Readers don’t generally need to know how a bomb works, how to perform intricate fighting maneuvers, or the detailed history of every setting your character visits.

Always ask yourself: does it advance the plot?

If a character needs to know it, weave the information into the narrative.

Actual Examples:
Info Dump:
“Mattie approached the corral to observe the horse she was considering buying. He was small, perhaps only thirteen hands. As everyone familiar with horses knew, a hand was four inches. A horse’s height was measured, not from his head, as with humans, but from his withers, which was the highest part of his back, at the base of his neck. This meant the horse was just over four feet tall, not including his head. He was black, but all four feet were white to the fetlocks (or ankles) — a marking known as ‘socks’ (though, if the white had risen higher, to his knees, they would be ‘stockings’). Most people considered white feet weaker, the hooves more prone to cracking. Mattie was not most people.”

“Mattie approached the corral to observe the horse she was considering buying. He was small, perhaps only thirteen hands.” Black with four feet white to the fetlocks, Mattie thought of the old maxim: ‘One white foot buy him, two white feet try him, three white feet be on the sly, four white feet pass him by.’ But Mattie didn’t hold with that. – Paraphrased from Charles Portis’ True Grit

Definition and examples courtesy of K.M. Weiland’s Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 50: Info Dumps.

Books Using Technical Info Dumps
The Bad:
It’s not really fair to Crichton, but in 1993, Michael Crichton’s Disclosure defined a CD-ROM, as Crichton thought his readers would need an explanation of what — to give the same explanation today would be to insult the reader’s intelligence.

In John Varley’s Dark Lightning, he dumps all over on those BLINKLINKs.

The Good:
Charles Portis’ True Grit

David Weber’s Honor Harrington series

Worldbuilding Info Dump Definition: Usually found in fantasy and science fiction, it’s probably the trickiest as you are creating a whole new world with its own customs, issues, and rules.

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Yes, there will be a lot that needs to be explained — why certain races are telepathic and others aren’t, how that works into the various levels of society and/or politics, why some planets have space travel and others don’t; what the relationships are between different peoples, etc. But ideally, you should take it for granted that “everybody” knows how this world works” — and INTEGRATE it into the story.

  • Readers need to immediately identify with your protagonist (who is familiar with his world) and see the story through his eyes — the story is always about the characters and the story, not the world itself
  • Assume your readers are smart enough to dive into the story and put the pieces together for themselves — s long as they”re provided the pieces

The negatives of worldbuilding info dumping include:

  • Boring your reader with pages of description intended to describe stuff
  • Characters talking about what they already know
  • Explaining your world instead of showing it

One way around this is to go ahead and include the info dump in your first draft. Use it as a source of information in which you pluck out bits and pieces to include in the integrated and succeeding drafts.

K.M. Weiland’s Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 50: Info Dumps

Actual Examples:
Info Dump:
“Sit down, Luke.”

“Aww, Ben, I wanted to play dejarik with everybody else!”

“I”m sorry, Luke, but I need you to become part of a larger world. Since we have all this spare time while we”re traveling to Alderaan, let me tell you how the Force works. Also, since you”re a backwards farm boy, I think I better bring you up to speed on galactic politics. Oh, and look at this, I just happened to have brought my holographic map of the galaxy as well. See, here”s Coruscant, and here”s Dagobah — Luke, you must concentrate!”


Weiland notes that “Luke Skywalker learns about the Force: slowly, sometimes painfully, and always necessarily.” That “viewers learn about galactic politics through Leia’s forceful, ‘The Imperial Senate will never sit still for this!'” while they “learn about the story’s geography with Luke’s mournful, ‘If there”s a bright center to the universe, then you’re on the planet that it’s farthest from.'”

Instead of spending a chapter describing the spaceship, have your protagonist escape from the spaceship and, as he is being chased by the antagonists, you include some details that give the reader an idea of the setting, through the eyes of the POV character.
Books Using Worldbuilding Info Dumps
The Bad:
Christopher Paolini’s Eldest

The Good:
David Weber’s Honor Harrington series

Timothy Zahn

Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar, well, most any Lackey books.

Marissa Meyer’s Scarlet

Chekhov’s Gun Definition: A type of foreshadowing that requires every element in a story to be irreplaceable, contribute to the whole, and be “used” by second or third act of the story — and anything that doesn’t contribute is taken out.

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Gun is simply a symbol for any object. It can be a piece of jewelry, a skill, an event, an emotion, etc.

That does not mean EVERY single object, however. A description of a scene is just that, providing color.

An item must play an important role in the story when it is introduced to the reader in a way that suggests dramatic significance:

  1. Items like guns are unusual in and of themselves in story contexts due to the way they symbolize violence and aggression
  2. Items which are focused on, attention paid to the detail of it, signals the reader that something related to the item or that results from it is bound to happen
  3. An ordinary item introduced in an unexpected context suggests significance

As a Chekhov’s gun, it simply has to play an eventual role in the story; it can be subtle, and you don’t have to go into details about it and give the story away.

Even a red herring must have their own causal relationship to the rest of the story.

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, … it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” – Anton Chekhov

Tips courtesy of Now Novel’s “Chekhov’s Gun: What it is and how to use it like a pro“.

J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series makes good use of Chekhov’s gun with one of them being Harry’s skill on a broomstick. Then there’s Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy.

Ernest Larson’s The Usual Suspects

Andre Dubus’ “The Intruder

In Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, Katniss is skilled at knowing which plants are poisonous and which are edible.

Cliffhanger Definition: A plot device that leaves that part of the story unresolved. It’s a tease that makes the reader want to come back to find out what happens.

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In The Arabian Nights, the protagonist stays alive using a cliffhanger at the end of every short story.

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is an example of using a cliffhanger at the end of chapter three, enticing the reader to rush on.

Suzanne Collins’ Catching Fire left you desperate for book three.

James Dashner’s The Maze Runner answers some questions, but then raises more.

John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman has three cliffhangers at the end.

Comic Book Death Definition: A technique that makes a major character die or disappears “for forever”, but the character re-appears later in the story.


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Dr. Who

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, Morgoth Bauglir is cast out of his world, but his presence remains.

Video games in which the avatar dies and has to start all over.

In Jim Butcher’s Ghost Story, Harry Dresden comes back.

In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock Holmes is brought back by popular demand.

Cut-up Technique Definition: An aleatory literary technique in which a text is cut up and rearranged to create a new text.

A.k.a., découpé

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Tristan Tzara’s “Dada Manifesto On Feeble Love And Bitter Love”

Gertrude Stein

T. S. Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land

John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. Trilogy

William S. Burroughs’ Minutes To Go and Exterminator!

Examples courtesy of Language is a Virus.

Fold-in Technique Definition: A variation on the cut-up technique, this method folds one page (your own or someone else’s) and places it on another page. And then edit, delete, and rearrange the resulting text.

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William S. Burroughs’ Nova Express and The Ticket That Exploded

Definition and examples courtesy of Language is a Virus.

Dark and Stormy Night Definition: A cliché-like opening that usually includes darkness, violent lightning, and a general mood of solitude.

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No, it doesn’t mean opening with the Bulwer-Lytton line, it’s simply a quick title for a type of plot device, so it doesn’t mean starting with the phrase!


Tami Hoag’s Night Sins
Deus Ex Machina Definition: Originally, this was an actual device that raised or lowered actors onto a stage. Now deus ex machina is a plot device in which a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved, with the contrived and implausible intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object.

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It is considered the mark of a poor plot that the writer needs to resort to random, insupportable, and unbelievable twists and turns to reach the end of the story.

Eucatastrophe is similar.

A.k.a., literal meaning is god out of the machine, machination of god, act of god

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies
Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist
J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Return of the King.

If in a suspense novel the protagonist suddenly finds a solution to his dilemmas because of divine intervention:

Movie examples courtesy of John Underwood.

Deathtrap Definition: A villain who has captured the hero or another sympathetic character attempts to use an elaborate and usually sadistic method of murdering him/her.

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It is often used as a means to create dramatic tension in the story and to have the villain reveal important information to the hero, confident that the hero will shortly not be able to use it.

It may also be a means to show the hero’s resourcefulness in escaping, or the writer’s ingenuity at devising a last-minute rescue or deus ex machina.

A.k.a., sporting villain

In Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum“, the unnamed character finds himself facing certain death from knife-edged pendulum that will slice through his chest, but he gets mice to chew through the ropes.

In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Engineer’s Thumb“, the engineer, Victor Hatherley, is trapped inside a hydraulic press which would crush him to a pulp but has a last minute save.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Indiana Jones and Marion are sealed in the Well of Souls, Jones climbed a statue and toppled it towards the wall to create an entrance to a passageway that led to the outside.

The Austin Powers movies spoofed the deathtrap and villain speeches from the James Bond series.

Definition and examples courtesy of “Deathtrap (Wikipedia)

Villain Speech Definition: A simpler variation on the deathtrap, this is the tendency to allow the villain to explain his plans in full before he’s defeated.

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This gives another character time to rescue the victim or to give him/her a chance to escape.

It’s also a form of exposition.

A.k.a., monologuing

Almost a requirement in the James Bond stories

In The Incredibles, Mr. Incredible and Frozone attacked villains in the middle of their speeches.

Definition and examples courtesy of “Deathtrap (Wikipedia)

Dream Sequence Definition: A series of dreams which allow a character to see events that occur or have occurred in another time in order to explain a character’s motives or certain plot twists.


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Frank L. Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series frequently finds Anita in dreams of one sort or another.

Ann Oakley’s The Men’s Room
Epiphany Definition: A rare everyday moment or event in which a character experiences a new revelation or a new perspective on something that jolts them out of their current state, an aha moment.

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It often marks a turning point in the character’s psyche which leads to the eventual conclusion of the story.

Provides readers with hope, as it inspires change.

Very useful in literature, there are two types of epiphany:

  1. Plot shift – provides a reason for a major plot shift, e.g., suddenly falling in love and realizing it; a pregnant smoker who realizes she must give it up for her child;
  2. Transcendence – shows character growth

Also see the post on “POV & Perspective“.

In James Joyce’s A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, the protagonist is struck by the beauty of the woman in the surf at the beach, and he decides that he must pursue beauty.

In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, in which he suddenly wonders if people reflect you back to yourself.
Anagnorisis Definition: A dark and dramatic revelation of a tragic story that occurs as an accumulation of information that has been slowly revealed throughout the story’s plot.

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It may be suddenly discovering the true nature of another, e.g. marrying your mother but not discovering that fact until afterwards.

Literary Terms.net

One Thousand and One Nights: “The Three Apples” is the first known story in which the device is employed in its twist ending.

In Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex“, Oedipus kills his father and marries, only to discover his wife is actually his mother.
Eucatastrophe Definition: Similar to deus ex machina, this is another plot device that is a sudden, unexpected, and favorable resolution of events in a story, a happy ending, a kind of revelation, a glimpse or feeling of joy not unmixed with sorrow.

A.k.a., peripety

Dr. Michael Stanton

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J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy in which the eagles show up to save the day.
Flashback Definition: A general term for altering time sequences, taking characters back to the beginning of the tale or into the past before the events that are currently unfolding in the story.

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It creates a background to the present situation, place, or person.

Commonly used flashback devices include:

  • Past narratives by characters
  • Depictions and references of dreams and memories
  • A sub device known as authorial sovereignty wherein the author directly chooses to refer to a past occurrence by bringing it up in a straightforward manner

A.k.a., analeptic reference

Back in the day when Sarah was a young girl…

Beginning with the discovery of a young woman’s dead body, the murderer later reveals himself and narrates his reasons for the murder as a flashback of events leading up to the discovery of her dead body at the beginning of the story. – “The Three Apples” in The Arabian Nights

J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series uses a Pensieve to go back.
Analepsis Definition: A type of flashback that presents events previous to the current time frame.


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Elie Wiesel’s Night
Ford Madox Ford
Robert Graves
Racconto Definition: Similar to a flashback, but is usually somewhat longer and more gradual.


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Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s Butterflies in November
Flashforward Definition: Temporarily jumps the story forward in time from the current point of the story to events that are anticipated, imagined, or expected to occur.

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It often represents events expected, projected, or imagined to occur in the future, but without a lot of detail. Much more detail will be revealed when/if the event does occur.

It’s similar to foreshadowing.

A.k.a., prolepsis

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is obvious when the Ghost of Christmas yet to Come shows Scrooge what will happen if he doesn’t change his ways.

In Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Billy Pilgrim visits scenes from earlier and later in his life.
In Stephen King’s The Dead Zone finds its protagonist undergoing a moral dilemma after gaining the ability to touch people and see the future.
Foreshadowing Definition: A narrative element that hints with the intention of arousing interest or guarding against disappointment. It may be subtle or more direct. It can make extraordinary, even fanciful events seem more believable.

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If the text foreshadows something, the reader feels prepared for the events when they happen.

The intention can be to add dramatic tension or create suspense by:

  • Building anticipation about what might happen next
  • Providing information that helps readers understand what comes later
  • Avoiding disappointment
  • Chekhov’s Gun
  • Red herrings mislead the reader
  • Getting the reader excited

A.k.a., adumbrate (to foreshadow vaguely), guessing ahead

Create Foreshadowing With:
Direct Clues
Characters may come right out and predict the future.

Romeo and Juliet talking about wanting to die rather than live without each other.

Mention an upcoming event.

Explain the plans of the people or characters portrayed in the text.

Place clues in the first few sentences of a story or chapter to indicate the themes that will be important later.

“As the Lincolns rode to Ford’s Theatre on 10th Street, John Wilkes Booth and three conspirators were a block away at the Herndon House. Booth had devised a plan that called for the simultaneous assassinations of President Lincoln, Secretary of State Seward, and Vice President Johnson. Having learned that morning of Lincoln’s plan to attend the theatre, he had decided that this night would provide their best opportunity.” – Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals

“I was six when my mother taught me the art of invisible strength. It was a strategy for winning arguments, respect from others, and eventually, though neither of us knew it at the time, chess games.” – Amy Tan, Rules of the Game

He had no idea of the disastrous chain of events to follow…
Subtle Clues
Portray characters’ subtle reactions to objects in their environment to show that those objects might play an important role in the upcoming action

Use changes in the weather or mood to hint at whether good or bad fortune will follow

…like storm clouds on the horizon suggests that danger is coming

“[The men] stood together, away from the pile of rocks in the corner, and their jokes were quiet and they smiled rather than laughed… Bobby Martin ducked under his mother’s grasping hand and ran, laughing, back to the pile of stones. His father spoke up sharply, and Bobby came quickly and took his place between his father and his oldest brother.” – Shirley Jackson, “The Lottery”

“The night was still. I could hear his breath coming easily beside me. Occasionally there was a sudden breeze that hit my bare legs, but it was all that remained of a promised windy night. This was the stillness before a thunderstorm.” – Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
Flashing Arrow Definition: A technique used to focus the reader’s, but not the characters’, attention on an object or a location that will be important later in the story.

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A flashing arrow can also be a red herring.


Quentin Tarantino’s Natural Born Killers in which a pencil continually shows up.

Had-I-Known Definition: A form of foreshadowing that hints at some looming disaster in which the character laments his or her course of action which precipitates some unfortunate series of actions.

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Usually the nature of the mistake isn’t “revealed” by the POV character until both reader and character realize the consequence of the mistake — useful in adding suspense or “dramatic irony.

There are several types of Had-I-Known:

  • Advance notice –if I had known, I would never have set foot…
  • Advance mention – clues that are significant later

A.k.a., HBK school


Mary Roberts Rinehart with her The Circular Staircase heralded as the first to use this plot device.

Ethel Lina White

Lenore Glen Offord

Ogden Nash’s “Don’t Guess, Let Me Tell You” was a parody of Had-I-Known (the link goes to a subscriber’s only page of The New Yorker April 20, 1940 P. 26)

Frame Story Definition: The main story acts as a frame around a number of shorter stories:

  • The stories may be related or not
  • May take the form of letters
  • May have one or more characters in the main story telling stories to other characters

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Frame stories are usually located in a distinct place and time from the narratives they surround.

The frame story may circle back around to its beginning or not.

The frame may be the protagonist as the storyteller or a participant in the inner stories.

Other characters in the framing story are usually the audience who hears the tale(s).

The inner story could be a delusion or a hallucination experienced by the frame story character(s).

A.k.a., a story within a story, hypodiegesis, hypodiegetic narration, metadiegetic narration, frame tale, frame narrative, narrative frame, nested stories, tale within a tale

The The Arabian Nights in which a woman tells her sultan a new story every night, with a cliffhanger at the end of it, in order to stay alive. Some of those stories, such as “The Story of the Merchant and the Demon”, have their own stories within the story.

In Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, ten young people flee the city and spend the next few weeks telling stories.

Mary Brown’s Pigs Don’t Fly finds Somerdai traveling with an assortment of animals, each with their own story.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner circles back.

A parent telling her child a bedtime story, an old man recounting his youth, telling ghost stories around the campfire during a camping trip…

Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales with each of the pilgrims telling their own tale.

Definition and examples courtesy of Chris Gerwel.

Epigraphic Frame Definition: Uses epigraphs or footnotes and is explicit or implicit.

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Terry Pratchett’s Discworld implies footnotes.

Frank Herbert’s Dune is explicit.

Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series

Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Examples courtesy of Chris Gerwel’s post, “Thoughts on Narrative Framing Devices“.

Epistolary Frame Definition: Uses diaries, journal entries, letters, blogs, newspaper articles, etc., to tell the story.

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Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons dangereuses is an exchange of letters between the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil.

Joyce Hansen’s I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly: The Diary of Patsy, a Freed Girl, Mars Bluff, South Carolina, 1865.

Nonfictional examples include:
Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes.thin
Dear Nell: The true story of the Haven sisters
Found Narrative Definition: Begins with an introduction, an explanation, or justification for the story to come while the narrator provides a context for the story.

A.k.a., found frame

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Chris Van Allsburg’s Jumanji pulls a jungle into Peter and Judy’s world.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner revolves around an old mariner who claims to be compelled to tell his story until he dies, and he then tells that story.
Interrogative Frame Definition: More common in film than fiction with the story told in flashback, and usually incited by interrogation, whether it’s friendly or hostile in nature.

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Stephen King’s The Green Mile

Ernest Larson’s The Usual Suspects

Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind

Examples courtesy of Chris Gerwel’s post, “Thoughts on Narrative Framing Devices“.

Story as Object Definition: The frame finds a character watching a movie or reading a book that intrudes into the character’s reality or pulls the character into its fictional world.

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Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story finds Bastian pulled into Fantastica.
Framing Device Definition: Used in a frame story to set up a single action, scene, event, setting, or any other element of significance at the beginning and end of the complete story.

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Scheherazade’s purpose in The Arabian Nights is telling the “1,001 stories” to the King to delay her execution night after night. Using her to “tell” the stories to the reader is the framing device.
Happy Ending Definition: A story ending in which everything ends in the best way for the hero.


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Pretty much any romance.

Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series

Incluing Definition: A technique of worldbuilding in which the reader is gradually exposed to background information about the world in which a story is set.

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It clues the readers in to the world the author is building by “scattering information seamlessly through the text, as opposed to stopping the story to impart the information” (Jo Walton).

It can be done in a number of ways:

Exposition (narrative)” (Wikipedia)

Dan Simmons’ Hyperion

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series

Love Triangle Definition: A relationship involving three people. It may have all three romantically linked; it can be two with a third as a friend or family.

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There are two types of romantic triangle:

  1. Rivalrous triangle with the lover competing with a rival for the love of the beloved
  2. Split-object triangle with a lover who has split his/her attention between two others

Make it more interesting by having one of the characters be the villain, thereby heightening the tension for the reader or kill off one of the lovers and then replace them with someone else not as lovable, causing the two persons left in the love triangle to miss the person who died even more.

A.k.a., romantic love triangle, romance triangle

Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby

William Goldman’s The Princess Bride

Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series

MacGuffin Definition: The protagonist’s goal, desired object, or other motivator isn’t explained as to why it is considered so important.

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Commonly used in thrillers.

Multiple MacGuffins are sometimes identified as plot coupons.

A.k.a., McGuffin, maguffin

Alfred Hitchcock

The Holy Grail of Arthurian legend

The statuette (and title) in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon

The television set in Wu Ming’s 54

Plot Coupon Definition: Something that must be held or used in order that a critical conflict must be resolved.

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There may be multiple plot coupons that must be collected before they can be assembled and used and is commonly a supernatural artifact.

Plot coupons may seem like irrelevant MacGuffins until they are used for significant plot action.

Changing Minds

Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series sets all sorts of “coupons” that Percy and friends have to collect in order to fight the monster.

Mercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill’s Shadow Grail series sets a group of sets searching for the Four Hallows.

Keri Arthur’s Dark Angels series requires Risa to find three keys lest the world end.
Narrative Hook Definition: The opening lines of the story that “hooks” the reader’s interest with a heart-pounding revelation or action…and they don’t want to put it down.

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The story then goes back and describes how the protagonist got in the situation they find themselves in at the beginning of the book as opposed to building up to that crucial event.

Don’t overuse this plot device; use it only if it fits the storyline.

Non-fiction books are often introduced with an interesting factoid.

Different kinds of narrative hooks include:

A.k.a., narrative lead

Avi’s Ragweed pulls you in with “Ma, a mouse has to do what a mouse has to do.”

The first line in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is one of the most famous in literature: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

As is this first line in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…”

M.T. Anderson’s Feed begins with “We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.”

Examples courtesy of Literary Devices.net

Action Hook Definition: Describes a character doing something, using action verbs to create suspense, causing the reader to want to read on and find out what happens next.

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Action can incorporate the thrill of sudden disaster hitting the reader.
The opening line of Lyndon Stacey’s Cut Throat:

“Twelve hundred pounds of charging horseflesh hit the wooden railings chest high and somersaulted into the north stands. Faces frozen with horror moved in desperate slow motion to get out of the path of the crazed beast.”

Example courtesy of Vickie Britton’s “Types of Narrative Hooks in Writing“.

Dialogue Hook Definition: It begins with characters speaking to each other, providing part of the conversation.

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“Scott! Get down here on the double!” Dad bellowed. His voice sounded far away.

“Dad?” I hollered. “Where are you?” I squinted through the screen door but I couldn’t see him.

“I’m down on the dock. Move it! You’re not going to believe this,” his voice sounded urgent.

“I’m coming!” I yelled, bolting out the door and sprinting toward the lake.

Example courtesy of Narrative Leads.

Emotional Hook Definition: Cause the reader to wonder why the character feels as s/he does.

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The opening line of Dean Koontz’s Velocity:

“With draft beer and a smile, Ned Pearsall raised a toast to his deceased neighbor, whose death greatly pleased him.”

Example courtesy of Vickie Britton’s “Types of Narrative Hooks in Writing“.

Empty Hook Definition: When the writer “promises” something in an exciting scene…and doesn’t deliver on it. This will only tick your reader off.

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Could use some suggestions here…
Humorous Hook Definition: Make the reader laugh and want to laugh and know more.

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The opening line of C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:

“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”

Imagery Hook Definition: A sensory description of the setting which the reader can see, touch, taste, smell, and/or hear.

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“The sun glowed through the morning fog, straining to burst free. Mist rose off the lake in the distance. The air was still and damp, with a hint of warmth at the edges. Birds chirped and warbled in the distance, the only sound on this otherwise silent morning. In an instant, this serene scene was shattered by my father’s voice as he bellowed from the lake, ‘Scott! Get down here. You’re not going to believe this!'”

Example courtesy of Narrative Leads.

In Medias Res Definition: A Latin term for a narrative that starts, not at the beginning of events but, at some other critical point.

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This often functions as a way to both incorporate the reader directly into the narrative and secure his or her interest in the narrative that follows.

Ideally, in medias res starts at the beginning of the book as a narrative hook and frequently incorporates flashbacks and non-linear narrative to fill in the backstory.

William Faulkner
Toni Morrison

Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy

Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler

One Thousand and One Nights: “Sinbad the Sailor” and “The Three Apples”

Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey

Inner Thoughts Hook Definition: Opens with the character thinking or wondering about something.

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“I couldn’t imagine why my father was hollering for me at 7:00 in the morning. I thought fast about what I might have done to get him so riled. had he found out about the way I snapped at my mother the night before, when we got to camp and she asked me to unpack the car? Did he discover the fishing reel I broke last week? Before I could consider a third possibility, Dad’s voice shattered my thoughts as he bellowed for me to hurry.”

Example courtesy of Narrative Leads.

Question-Posing Hook Definition: Causes the reader to ask what happened next.

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The opening line of Harlan Coben’s Gone for Good:

“Three days before her death, my mother told me — these weren’t her last words, but they were pretty close — that my brother was still alive…”

E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web:

“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

Example courtesy of Vickie Britton’s “Types of Narrative Hooks in Writing“.

Non-linear Narrative Definition: Starts in the middle of the action and jumps around in different spaces and times.

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Similar to in medias res.

A.k.a., nonlinear narrative, disjointed narrative, disrupted narrative, out of order

Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights

James Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans Wake

Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl

William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch

Joseph Heller’s Catch-22

Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five

Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting

Examples courtesy of Nonlinear narrative (Wikipedia).

Occam’s Razor Definition: A philosophical razor that states that, all things being equal, the explanation with fewest assumptions should be investigated first.

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A.k.a., Ockham’s razor
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time

Ochi Definition: A sudden interruption of a rakugo or a kobanashi that uses word play.

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Rakugo started as a form of Japanese verbal comic entertainment which was later printed. Kobanashi is an earlier form of short comical vignettes.
Rakugo stories include:
Neko no Sara” (“The Cat’s Plate”)

A movie by Kōji Yamamura, Atama Yama (Mount Head)

Meguro no Sanma” (“Pacific Saury of Meguro”)

Manjuu kowai” (“Manjuu are Scary”)

Peripeteia Definition: A sudden change in a story which results in a negative reversal of circumstances, as the tragic protagonist’s fortune changes from good to bad.

This plot device is meant to surprise the audience, but is also meant to follow as a result of a character’s previous actions or mistakes.

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A.k.a., turning point
A very wealthy man has been making money for decades by taking big risks in the stock market. Suddenly, the stock market crashes, and he is launched into poverty.

When a once wealthy man becomes poor, the quick reversal of fortune is surprising, but also makes sense as the man has been making risky investments all his life.

Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg’s first story in their Fox and O’Hare series, The Heist, is an in medias res in which Nicholas Fox gets his comeuppance after a high-flying career as a thief.

Definition and an example courtesy of Literary Devices.net.

Plot Twist Definition: An unexpected change in what the reader is expecting or a surprise ending.

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It’s used to keep the interest of an audience, usually surprising them with a revelation.

Variations on the twist include:

In Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, an unreliable narrator surprises the reader with the truth about Tyler.

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone doesn’t give us the heads-up until the end.

Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl explodes the truth about Amy’s death.

Scott Westerfeld’s Pretties has a plot twist that will give you nightmares and a cliffhanger.
Surprise Ending Definition: Occurs when an unexpected conclusion or climax happens near or at the end of a story that causes the reader to changes his/her view of the preceding events and/or the characters.

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The surprise ending should lie within the realm facts AND the psychological “facts” of the characters.

A.k.a., twist ending

In Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, we learn the truth of the video games the kids have been playing.

In Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is a frame story with an alternate history inside this alternate history with one surprise twist after another.

In Johnston McCulley’s original The Mark of Zorro, Zorro’s true identity was the surprise ending.

In Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, the murderer’s identity is the surprise; it also uses an unreliable narrator.

In Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the true identity of the dead man is the surprise.
Plot Voucher Definition: An object similar to both plot coupon and Chekhov’s gun: it is usually presented to the protagonist at the beginning of the story (s/he doesn’t always know what it can do) and plays an important role in the resolving of the conflict.

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Useful for multi-volume epics.

A.k.a., saving the voucher

Narrati; Nick Lowe’s “The Well-Tempered Plot Device

The gadgets that Q gives to James Bond at the start of the stories.

Gene Wolfe’s The Claw of the Conciliator hands out a large gem to the protagonist.

Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Wounded Land who give Thomas Covenant gifts that are to come in handy in great need.
Poetic Justice Definition: Uses an ironic twist of fate to reward virtue or punish the bad guy.

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The genres of fable and parable often contain poetic justice, as a wise and good character is rewarded, and any bad characters are punished, thereby providing a moral foundation for readers.

She got what she deserved.

In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, ends with the greedy Ebenezer Scrooge suddenly becoming good.

In J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Harry and his friends are exemplars of good and are awarded accordingly with winning the final battle while Voldemort, the main evil character, believes that violence is stronger than love, and this is the vice and wrong thinking that leads to his death.

In C. S. Lewis’ The Horse and His Boy, Prince Rabadash climbs upon a mounting block, then jumps down when his hauberk catches on a hook and leaves him hanging there, humiliated and trapped.
Predestination Paradox Definition: A time travel paradox with the time traveler caught in a time loop that requires them to travel back in time.

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Dr. Who

Isaac Asimov

Marty McFly in Back to the Future

Robert A. Heinlein

Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl and the Time Paradox

Stephen Baxter’s The Time Ships

Michael Crichton’s Timeline

Philip K. Dick’s The Skull

Terry Pratchett’s The Last Continent

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series

Angie Sage’s Septimus Heap series

Karen Chance’s Cassandra Palmer

Prophecy Definition: Often used in science fiction to underline their futuristic structure with characters sharing their vision of the past (or the future).

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Prophecy is sometimes used to explain character motives or plot twists.


The prophecy in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is the whole purpose for Voldemart chasing after Harry.

The Witches prophecy to Macbeth is what makes him believe in what he does in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Karen Chance’s Cassandra Palmer series revolves around a modern-day Pythia.

Michelle Sagara’s Cast in Secret and Cast in Flight use prophecy.
Quibble Definition: Makes nitpicky criticisms or arguments, finds fault in a petty way, especially to evade something more important, and/or insists that only the exact, literal words apply to a contract or agreement.

Typically used in legal and magically enforced bargains.

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Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice when it’s argued that Shylock can have his pound of flesh, but he can’t spill any blood, as it is not in the contract.

In Piers Anthony’s Night Mare, the law requires that only a Magician can be king, but then the last Magician king discovers that since a Sorceress is technically a female Magician, she is eligible to rule.

Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Macbeth thinks he’ll be victorious because the Three Witches prophesy that “none of woman born shall harm [him].” They didn’t think about a Caeserean section.
Red Herring Definition: A type of foreshadowing with clues that draw attention to a certain element in order to divert the reader’s attention from the real cause of a problem or from the guilty party.

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A red herring may also be a Chekhov’s gun that doesn’t go off.

Commonly used in mystery, crime, and horror tales using the five senses or emphasis to divert attention from the true guilty party.

In Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, Bishop Aringarosa is presented in such a way that the readers suspect him to be the mastermind of the whole conspiracy in the church.

In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, readers are thrown off the real murderer and start suspecting the the wrong person.

In Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, the intended victims are made to guess that one of them will be killed through an act of treachery.
Reverse Chronology Definition: The plot is revealed in reverse order with the first scene shown actually the conclusion to the plot.

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Once that scene ends, the next-to-the-last scene is shown, and so on, so that the final scene the viewer sees is the first chronologically, Z-Y-X…C-B-A.
If the fairy tale “Jack and the Beanstalk” was told using reverse chronology, the opening scene would depict Jack chopping the beanstalk down and killing the giant. The next scene would feature Jack being discovered by the giant and climbing down the beanstalk in fear of his life. Later, we would see Jack running into the man with the infamous magic beans, then, at the end of the film, being sent off by his mother to sell the cow.

Definition and examples courtesy of “Reverse Chronology (Wikipedia).

Self-fulfilling Prophecy Definition: A prediction that comes true simply because it was made, and it diverts attention away from an item of significance.

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Voldemort’s actions in the Harry Potter series are made because he believes in the prophecy.

Shoulder Angel / Devil Definition: Used for either dramatic or humorous effect in animation and comic strips with the angel representing conscience and often accompanied by a shoulder devil representing temptation.

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A useful convention for depicting the inner conflict of a character. Usually, the angel is depicted on (or hovering near) the right shoulder and the devil or demon on the left, as the left side traditionally represents dishonesty or impurity.
Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus

Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre finds a character torn between passion and restraint.
Ticking Clock Scenario Definition: The threat of impending disaster is often used in thrillers where salvation and escape are essential elements.

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In the TV show 24, the main character, Jack Bauer, is often on a deadline to disarm a bomb before it goes off.

In Clive Cussler and Dirk Cussler’s Odessa Sea, Dirk must stop a bomb from sinking before it reaches a 25-foot depth.

In Laurell K. Hamilton’s Crimson Death, Anita and Nathaniel must free themselves before their kidnapper returns to finish the job.
Unreliable Narrator Definition: The narrator is biased, insincere, and/or misleads the character by hiding or minimizing events, characters, or motivations.

Also see how the unreliable narrator is used as a point-of-view

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Edgar Allan Poe’s :The Cask of Amontillado” has its POV character angry at being wronged and insulted, but he never explains how he was insulted, and his mental state has affected his decision-making.

J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye has its POV character who lies to everyone, has an immature and very negative view of the world, and turns out to be receiving treatment in a mental facility.

Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl has a couple narrating the story, but their stories contradict and conflict with the other’s and ends with a plot twist.

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Resources for Plot

Plot Structure

Kurt Vonnegut believes stories have shape. Check out this YouTube video, “Kurt Vonnegut on the Shapes of Stories“. Richard Doust looks at suspense in “Definitions and models of suspense“.

For more information on exposition, explore Ansen Dibell’s Plot and Jerome Stern’s Making Shapely Fiction.

Discover more about structuring your story with James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure or with K.M. Weiland’s Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story.


Some good resources for beat sheets include Jami Gold’s full selection of beat worksheets, and you may want to check out her whole site as she has a lot of information about beats, plotting, and story structure. Another good resource is Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need, which has an excellent beat sheet that works very well for fiction writers. If you prefer to discover through video, check out Dan Wells’ five YouTube videos on Story Structure. Of course there are many more resources on the Internet as well.

Dialogue Beats

Tips on dialogue can be found in Cynthia Whitcomb and Anne Warren Smith’s “Dialogue: The Three Beat Rule“. Katherine Cowley has written more about dialogue beats in her post “10 Keys to Writing Dialogue in Fiction“.

Emotion Beats

Getting your character’s emotions across through physical sensation and/or action can be aided with Angela Ackerman’s The Emotion Thesaurus and Janci Patterson’s Everything’s Fine.

Plot Devices

Christine Frazier’s post, “The “Chekhov’s Gun” Guide to Foreshadowing” does an excellent job of taking you through using a Chekhov’s gun device.

Pinterest Photo Credits:

“Plot Diagram” is courtesy of a post, “What are Narrative Structures?“, via Storyboard That.