No, not revenge. Well, maybe.
Plot, at its most basic principle, is the series of events that make up your story. You could have the most well-rounded and complicated characters, and the most detailed setting in the world. But without plot, it’s just not a story.
Plot is defined by its structure. I know that sounds cringey. Structure sounds like template, which makes sounds formulaic. However, there are literally countless plot structures out there, each different and wonderful in their own way. All you really need is a starting point, and ending point, and some rising and falling action in the middle. Where and how you have that is what makes up the structure.
What IS it anyway?
Have you ever listened to someone telling you about their day and you find yourself lost in the details of some bit of smalltalk that happened at lunch, or whether it was Wednesday or Tuesday, and whether Event A happened before or after Event B, and you just want to scream, ‘what does this have to do with anything???’
Basically, the reason we have structure at all is to keep us on track and to keep the details relevant to the story. Not everything that happens in a character’s day affects the outcome of the story, so those bits can be skipped over so that we can give greater importance to the big events that actually drive the plot. It also shapes the dialogue so that you only have to read what actually matters, rather than the characters deciding whose turn it is to do the dishes.
It also helps us decide where to put the events of the story at all. Should the MC meet the villain now, or should we wait until a more dramatic moment? Or should there be a brief moment of eye contact to foreshadow the dramatic meeting later?
The Hero’s Journey–is it still relevant?
The Hero’s Journey is perhaps the plot structure we’re most familiar with, as it is one of the most popular. I remember doing book reports in Jr High with a wavy line drawn onto the worksheet, and my job was to identify the beginning, rising action, climax, and denouement as it related to the book I was reading.
This plotline was popularised by professor, Joseph Campbell. It’s a circular model, really, though it can be distilled down into that wavy line we all know, and involves a series of recognisable character archetypes. In a lot of ways, the Hero’s Journey has fallen out of favour for being dull, predicable, sexist, and generally stale. But I believe it still has merit. Indeed, the hero’s journey was identified at all as the basic plotline of most epic stories of the classical world, and so I believe that it still holds that epic feeling, and is therefore still relevant, especially in the fantasy genre.
Non-traditional plot structures
Non-traditional plot structures are gaining popularity because they keep people from getting too comfortable, and keeping things fresh and interesting. I personally find them fun to play around with.
The Parallel is like Lord of the Rings, where it starts off in the same place, then splits and follows two or more plotlines concurrently. The Rollercoaster has multiple rising and falling actions. The Episodic is a number of complete storylines within a larger framework. The Fate starts with the climax, then goes back to tell you how it all started.
So all of that relates to major plotlines, which brings us to subplots, or side quests, as I like to call them. They’re things that the characters do in addition to the main plot, but which nevertheless influences the main plot. If the Harry Potter series is the hero’s journey plot structure centred around the Harry vs Lord Voldemort conflict, each individual book can be considered a subplot, with numerous other subplots within them.
Let’s look at my favourite of the series: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. At this point, the primary conflict, Harry vs Lord Voldemort is somewhat on the back burner, since Harry hasn’t encountered an aspect of Voldemort since Chamber of Secrets, and indeed the main antagonist of Prisoner of Azkaban is Sirius Black, and Voldemort isn’t involved at all. Here, the main plotline is the TriWizard Tournament, and follows a more or less Rollercoaster plotline, as Harry and his fellow competitors compete in different challenges. Beneath that plotline is Harry’s relationship with the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, Mad-Eye Moody; his relationship with his godfather, Sirius Black, and the news from the outside world that he receives; his strained friendship with Ron; and his research into the Death Eater trials. With the exception of his trouble with Ron (which sorts itself out, and really only exists to show other aspects of Ron’s character building), all of these plotlines come together at the end, with the full-bodied return of Lord Voldemort.
If you’d like a handy book about how to structure plots, I highly recommend Story Structure Architect, by Victoria Lynn Schmidt. I use it with literally every story I write.