A story has many elements. One of them is the plot, which provides the basis for the events and situations that occur, determines how they are structured, and holds everything together. It explains why characters behave the way they do.
A plot’s structure basically consists of the following:
a. Exposition introduces the characters, setting, and other facts needed to understand the story.
b. Conflict, or rising action, builds tension and leads up to the climax.
c. The climax is the turning point of the story. It is the high point for the reader and often results from a crisis.
d. Falling action occurs after the climax, when the events come together to explain what went on.
e. Resolution, or denouement, is the final outcome of the conflict and climax. Loose ends get tied up and the reader should feel satisfied that the story is complete. They may not like the ending, but it must be believable based on the circumstances the characters faced.
The structure of the plot varies with the needs of the story. Some may start with lots of exposition and build to the climax; others may start with the conflict and weave in the exposition. The climax tends to be close to the end of the story since everything after it ties together the events that led up to that point.
Although there are probably an infinite number of stories we could write, there are not an infinite number of plots. No matter how unique we think our writing is, there are other stories that use similar ideas. Here are a few sites that list common types of plots:
http://midwestwg.com/plots20.htm A list of 20 basic plots
http://www.strangehorizons.com/guidelines/fiction-common.shtml Plots (non-horror) Strange Horizons has seen too often; they have a separate list for horror stories.
http://www.writingforward.com/creative-writing/fiction-writing/character-fiction-writing General plot categories
Edit July 21, 2010: Editor Lynn Price gave a good explanation of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denoument on her blog yesterday: http://behlerblog.wordpress.com/2010/07/20/the-basics/
What type of plot do you enjoy most—adventure, quest, rags-to-riches, or something else? Do you like for the plot to drive the story, or prefer those where character development is the main focus?