Plot develops out of conflict, either external, such as a person or an event that precipitates a series of actions the main character undertakes, or internal, driven by the protagonist’s wants and/or needs. How that character, and others, makes choices and otherwise responds to stimuli determines the course of events.
The traditional structure of a plot is linear, in which the protagonist’s actions are charted in a more or less straight line, although many stories shift from that person’s point of view to that of one or more other characters as the tale progresses. Others involve one or more flashbacks, introducing new elements to the overarching plot.
In one sense, there are innumerable stories; looking at storytelling another way, various analysts have discovered variable finite numbers of basic plots (such as the quest, which is ubiquitous in all genres), though these types have a seemingly infinite number of variations, as a visit to any large bookstore or library will attest. But stories almost invariably follow a simple pattern, in which rising action propels the protagonist through a series of complications that result in a climax, followed by the falling action of the resolution.
At this point, the character, or at least the character’s circumstances, have changed, though most readers (and writers) find it most satisfying if the character has experienced significant growth or change and has accomplished a palpable goal, such as a physical journey that has allowed the character to achieve some reward, or an intangible goal that still satisfies the reader’s desire for the protagonist to undergo a metamorphosis of some kind.
Writer Annie Lamott created a helpful mnemonic catechism, ABCDE, to help writers remember the basics. Here are the elements: