The Linear or Conventional Plot

Let’s review the elements of a linear plot. A linear plot begins with exposition in which the reader is introduced to the main character, the setting, and a problem that the protagonist must solve. The rising action follows, and the writer develops suspense and interest in the story by introducing the main conflict. Several events often occur during this part of a story. The climax comes next, and the main character faces a problem head-on. This part of the story is the most interesting and dramatic. During the falling action, the plot begins to resolve, and we see what will likely happen to the main character. The last part of the story is called the resolution (sometimes referred to as the dénouement). This is the ending. The conflict is resolved and we find out what happens to the main character.

Let’s look at a simple, linear plot. Suppose you are reading a story that takes place over the course of five days, Monday through Friday. On Monday, you are introduced to a couple, Joe and Lisa, who live in Pleasanton. You also find out that Lisa lost her job a year ago and has not been able to find another one. On Tuesday, Lisa is offered a great new job in Jollyville, a town 3000 miles away. On Wednesday, Joe and Lisa argue about whether she should take the job, and they break up. On Thursday, Joe goes to Lisa and tells her he will move to Jollyville with her so they can be together; she accepts the great new job. On Friday, Joe and Lisa move to Jollyville together. This is a linear plot.

Let’s look at the linear plot of a very familiar story.

Goldilocks and the Three Bears

photo of a young girl near a cabin in the wood and three bears—large, medium, and small-surrounding the cabin

Source: The Three Bears, ihave3kids, Flickr

Exposition. A girl named Goldilocks goes for a walk in the woods. She stumbles upon a house and knocks on the door. No one answers, so she goes inside.

Rising Action. Goldilocks finds three bowls of porridge. She tastes each one. One is too hot; one is too cold; and one is just right. She eats the last one. Next, she finds three chairs. One is too big; one is too small; and one is just right, so she sits down, but the chair breaks! Finally, she finds three beds. One is too hard; one is too soft; and one is just right, so she lies down and falls asleep.

Climax. The three bears come home. They find the empty bowls. They find the broken chair, and they find Goldilocks sleeping in Baby Bear’s bed!

Falling Action. Goldilocks wakes up to find herself surrounded by bears.

Resolution or dénouement. Goldilocks runs out of the house and out of the forest, never to return again.

Now that you are finished reviewing the story of “Goldilocks and The Three Bears,” look at the pictures in the exercise below. Each picture represents an event from the story. For this activity, drag and drop each picture or event into the correct order on the plot diagram.

icon for an interactive exercise

The Nonlinear Plot

Let’s look at some things that writers do to liven up the plot. A nonlinear plot does not follow a straight line, going from A to B to C. A nonlinear plot plays with time and uses techniques like flashbacks, foreshadowing, parallel plots, and subplots. These fictional devices are also used in movies and literary nonfiction to add an element of unpredictability to the stories. In the sections that follow, you will learn how to identify and analyze techniques used in nonlinear plots.