A story's plot is what happens in the story and the order it happens in.
For there to be story, something has to move, to change. Something goes from point A to point B.
This change could be:
• A physical event (Point A = psycho killer is picking off everyone in town. Point B = police arrest the killer).
• A decision (Point A = character wants to practice law like his father. Point B = character decides to be a ballet dancer).
• A change in a relationship (Point A = They hate each other. Point B = They fall in love)
• A change in a person (Point A = character is a selfish jerk. Point B = character has learned to be less of a selfish jerk.)
• A change in the reader's understanding of a situation. (Point A = character appears to be a murderer. Point B = The reader realizes that character is actually innocent and made a false confession.)
This change could even be the realization that nothing will ever change. (Point A = your character dreams of escaping her small town. Point B = her dream escape is shown to be an hopeless.)
What is plot?
It's the road map that takes your story from point A to point B.
Happiness is overrated
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
– Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
There's a reason why "Happily ever after" comes at the story's end. It means nothing else is happening. Cinderella and her Prince Charming wake up late, eat a nice breakfast, and take a walk. A slow news day. Forever.
It would be different if it were: "Happily ever after, except for one extramarital affair and its violent ending..." "Happily ever after until Cinderella discovered Prince Charming's secret dungeon..."
There’s nothing wrong with happiness. There's just no story in it.
The story is how you get to the happy ending. Or how it turns sour.
For there to be a story, something's got to happen. Narrative conflict is what makes it happen. This can be:
• a conflict between characters (Prince Charming's ex-girlfriend decides to break up the marriage)
• a character's internal conflict (Cinderella develops a drinking problem)
• a conflict between characters and an impersonal force (floods, disease, dragon attacks)
Einstein once said, "Nothing happens until something moves." If your characters are getting comfortable too early in the story, it's time to stir things up.
How to stir up major trouble
How do you come up with an interesting conflict for your story? It's often a good idea to start with your main character.
• What's something this character desperately wants? What difficulties might get in the way? There's your conflict.
• What would force this character to do something he or she is really uncomfortable with? Something he or she doesn't feel capable of doing? Create this situation, and you've got a conflict.
Or maybe there's a specific type of conflict you feel inspired to write about, and you're building your story from there. Perhaps you already know that you want to write about divorce or a battle with cancer or child abuse. That's fine, but be careful not to skimp on character development. Remember that the more real you can make your character for readers, the more deeply readers will care what happens to him or her. We lose sleep worrying over the divorces and illnesses of our friends, not those of strangers.
DRAWING your road map
Okay, so you've invented characters, and you've planned a conflict that will get them off their sofa and doing something interesting. How to organize your story?
Here's a traditional way of looking plot structure:
Step 1) The reader gets to know your characters and to understand the conflict. You can accomplish this by showing instead of telling. How? Illustrate their character/personality without telling. Prince Charming finds an insect on his throne. He calls his manservant to flick it off for him while calling “Ewwww!” Or he puts it on the ground and grinds it into the floor, noting the satisfying crunching sound. Or, he puts the insect into Cinderella’s décolletage and laughs a little squeally a laugh. Or he gently places the insect outside the window and says, “Be free, small one.” And then he notes the satisfying crunching sound as he grinds his manservant beneath his foot.
Step 2) You build up the conflict to a crisis point, where things just can't continue the way they are. A decision has to be made or something has to change. This point is called the story climax. If the story is a road map, this is the major fork in the road.
The character can turn left and wind up in Alabama with her ex-lover or turn right and end up back in Illinois with her husband and kids.
The story climax is when Cinderella discovers Prince Charming's dungeon. Will she leave? Will she just pretend she doesn't know? The rest of the story depends on what happens at this moment. The story climax can be a moment of great suspense for your reader. It determines how the story will end, the location of Point B.
Step 3) Show, or hint at, Point B. This is called the story's resolution, and it all depends on how the climax played out.
Remember that this is just one theory of plot structure. But it provides a road map that will give your reader an interesting ride from Point A to Point B. Then, as you read and write more and more short fiction, you will develop your own sense of the best shape for each story.