The five basic elements of plot are:
Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Resolution
These five elements are derived from Gustav Freytag’s pyramid-like analysis of dramatic structure, which consists of an exposition or beginning, a rising action, a climax or turning point, a falling action, and a resolution. Freytag, a nineteenth-century German playwright and novelist, developed this analysis to study the ancient Greek and Shakespearean dramas, but much of the concept still translates to today’s novel.
The exposition is the beginning, where the protagonist is introduced, and the reader gets to know a little bit about him, his story, and his conflict. Often a select few tidbits of information regarding the drama to come are shared, and maybe there’s a little bit of foreshadowing to whet the appetite, but just as often there isn’t. The real action is just around the corner.
The rising action is basically the buildup to the climax. Once the issue or conflict has been established, there is a series of scenes where the characters interact with each other, cause additional conflict, strive to clear up said conflict, and depending on the genre of book, this is also where the characters fall in love, where the detective follows the clues, and where the good guy’s life builds to a crescendo… all before the story comes to a screeching climax.
The climax is the turning point of the story. The high point—or the low point, as the case may be—where everything comes to a head and hearts are broken or mended, the killer is uncovered, the good guy’s life is destroyed, and there is a collective gasp from each and every reader as chills run up spines and goose bumps scatter across flesh.
Falling action is what happens in the story as a result of the climax, the actions and decisions made that move the characters toward a resolution. Often this part of the story is slower, now that the climax has happened, and characters dig deep and become more aware of themselves and their surroundings.
Finally, resolution comes at the end, when the conflicts are cleared up and everything is tied up in a pretty little bow… or not. This part—also known as denouement, which is French for “to untie” or “unraveling”—is when the guy gets the girl, the killer is caught and sent to prison, and the good guy’s tragic suicide is explained to his confused family.
There is, of course, no rule that says all novels must follow these steps. There are arguments that today’s novels contain a series of rising actions to set up smaller conflicts that build to a larger conflict, the climax. There are plenty of series novels where the initial, underlying conflict isn’t resolved in the first book… or even the fourth book.
But that being said, the five basic elements of plot are a good, sound foundation on which to build a novel.