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How the Plot Pyramid Keeps Readers Turning Pages

Tonya Thompson

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A plot diagram, plot skeleton, plot structure, or plot pyramid—these are common names for a universal setup of stories that spans time periods, genres, and literary movements. In the simplest of terms, it's the way humans have always told stories. When you take away the individual character traits and plot points of a certain story and narrow it down to its conflict and basic structure, you'll find that most stories are the same.

The reason for this is because the basic plot diagram works. It appeals to our humanity as readers and touches on experiences we've all shared, regardless of our socioeconomic status or background. It's how we analyze our own life story (subconsciously) and how we piece together connections between experiences.

Perfecting Your Plot: How to Structure a Narrative

How it works

You begin the story with a character. This part is known as the exposition or introduction, and in it, you learn important information that "sets up" the action of the story.

Next, your character experiences some type of challenge or struggle. This is known as the rising action. This can be in the form of other people, nature or a conflict within himself/herself. The rising action can look like a heart monitor (several peaks and valleys as the character faces increasingly larger obstacles and overcomes them) or like one large peak, with the climax at the top.

The climax is the point at which the character faces his greatest challenge and overcomes it. In action stories, this could be the final battle between the protagonist and antagonist. In romance, this could be the moment when all seems lost between the lovers but they suddenly find themselves in each other's arms to profess their undying love.

Finally, there is the resolution or the dénouement. This is the moment when life returns to normal and the reader experiences resolution along with your characters. It's a cathartic process and the reason this plot diagram works every time, in every story.

A plot diagram
Here is a plot diagram from

The basic building blocks

So, knowing that there is a basic setup common to almost every story that has ever been told or written by humanity, what about the other building blocks? Are there particular traits that are important in making a story appeal to audiences?

Researchers at Georgetown University's Center for Social Impact Communication sought to identify the five key aspects of compelling stories, and here's what they found every story should have:

An effective character

There needs to be at least one compelling character to which readers can relate. It needs to be a character that is realistic, authentic and someone readers can root for. It also should be someone who has a need that is universal (a need everyone can relate to), whether that is seeking for a real connection with someone or trying to survive.


The trajectory is another way to describe the rising action, climax and falling action of the plot pyramid. There needs to be an experience or journey that brings about transformation in the character. Think of it as a force that pulls the story forward and makes the reader want to turn the page.


According to the article, If the trajectory of a story is its skeleton, then authenticity is the meat that adds critical substance to those bones. Through an authentic character's voice and/or thoughts, authors are able to create someone who is compelling—someone readers would want to get to know if they encountered someone similar in real life.

Action-oriented emotions

When you get angry—really angry—what actions do you show? Do you slam doors? Raise your voice? Does your voice shake?

These kinds of actions are always more compelling to read about than passive ones, which is why when someone is arguing with another person in public, people will stop to listen. It's human nature to be drawn to such raw displays of emotion. The same is true of readers. Give your characters compelling, raw situations that elicit action-oriented emotions.

A "hook"

A compelling story needs to "hook" readers as quickly as possible and then keep them hooked. Some authors do this with a fast-paced storyline told with short chapters that end with a suspenseful moment, allowing a sense of urgency to keep readers wanting to turn the page. Other authors do this by building profound or interesting characters, dropping hints about some mysterious past or present as the story is told. Whichever method you use, keeping the reader hooked is what makes a good book impossible to put down.

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