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The Parts of a Plot Study Guide

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Updated on Aug 25, 2011

Practice exercises for this study guide can be found at:

The Parts of a Plot Practice Exercises

LESSON SUMMARY

In works of fiction, the plot is the story's plan, or its sequence of events. Plots are usually built around a conflict, or problem, and the conflict is usually resolved by the end of the story. This lesson will show you how to recognize the four parts of a plot: exposition, rising action, conflict, and resolution.

What are the ingredients of a good story? You might like to read about a strange, clever, or funny character. But what if that character simply sat in his house all day and nothing happened to him? In most stories, the main character is very active. What the main character does or says begins a sequence of events that moves the story from beginning to end. The sequence of events in a story is called the plot. The plot events follow a chain of cause and effect to reach the climax of the story. The plot reveals the meaning behind the characters' actions and the conflicts they face.

Exposition

When we start to read a book or story, we become instant detectives. We search relentlessly for clues about the story—who the characters are, where they live, when the story take place, what will happen to them, and why these elements are important. The reader can usually get a pretty good idea of who and what the story is about in the first few paragraphs. The author's setup for the story is called the exposition. This setup appears before the main action of the story, and it introduces the reader to the characters, their situations, and their motives. As you read the opening lines of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, notice the information that the author reveals.

Goldilocks and the Three Bears

Once upon a time, a family of bears lived in a house in the forest. The Papa bear was large and fierce, but he loved his family and protected them loyally. The Mama bear took pride in her house and cared diligently for her little son, called Baby Bear. One day, the bears decided to go for a walk while waiting for their hot porridge to cool.

In the first paragraph of this familiar tale, we are introduced to the major characters (a family of three bears) and the setting (the bears' forest home), and we can begin to make predictions about the story.

Setting

The two basic elements of a setting are time and place. Time could mean the historical era, such as "during the Civil War" or "1352 BCE." It might also mean the season or even the time of day when the story occurs. Place means the physical location of the story, such as "Norway" or "inside Ben's grandmother's house."

Why is it important to understand a story's setting? Let's imagine a story about a girl named Maya. Does Maya live in a high-rise apartment in Paris, or on a slave plantation in South Carolina? Is she the daughter of an Egyptian king or a Russian astronaut? The setting that the writer chooses will determine much about who Maya is and what she will experience. Read this scene carefully, and pay close attention to the underlined setting clues.

"There are more coming on the road," the head nurse called wearily. Maya reluctantly poked her head through the dingy window. Waves of soldiers had been dragging their wounded friends to the makeshift hospital all afternoon. The beds were nearly all full, and their supplies of bandages and splints were running low. Cannon fire still thundered ferociously in the distance, but the battle was interrupted by stretches of silence. Maya hoped the silence would last forever. But until then, these men were counting on her. She wiped her hands on her blood-stained dress, and ran to the door to meet them.

Each underlined detail tells us something about the setting. We've learned that Maya and another nurse work in a hospital in a war zone. Afternoon tells us the time of day, but it also suggests that the battle has been going on for a long while, because the beds are full of wounded people. The bandages and splints and cannon fire suggest that the setting is before the invention of modern medical and military technology. There are still many details we don't know, but we can start to build a mental picture of the setting.

Recognizing the setting also helps you define your expectations. For the story above, we expect Maya to meet some soldiers, but she probably will not meet a wicked witch on a flying broomstick. As we read more of a story, our mental picture of the setting becomes more complete. For example, a tale that takes place in the Middle Ages won't have cars or telephones, just as a story set in Manhattan probably won't have knights or joust tournaments.

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