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How to Identify Plot Elements After Reading a Short Story

by Russell Paul, studioD

Plot structure is evident in almost all short stories, novels, films and other forms of narrative. The typical manner of discussing plot is to think of it like a mountain or pyramid. This idea, devised by German playwright Gustav Freytag in 1863, offers a visual representation of plot development. Most stories follow the same basic structure that explores character development and conflict resolution. Successfully identifying these elements helps readers to fully engage with the text.


The first easily identifiable elements of plot come at the beginning of a narrative. The exposition introduces us to characters, identifies the protagonist and antagonist, and establishes the setting. To identify these elements, look for whom the action or narration surrounds and find details in the story that give you a sense of time and place. Keeping track of these key features will help avoid confusion later on.

Rising Action

Plot is strongly connected with conflict development. The rising action forms the majority of a short story, as events that elevate the conflict begin to increase the tension. Plot begins moving forward with the inciting incident, the moment when the conflict begins. To find instances of rising action, search for the protagonist coming face-to-face with his problem. As the story continues, the conflict should become more intense. Complications also arise, in the form of events or characters that distract the main character from resolving the conflict.


The climax usually comes about three-quarters of the way through the text, and occurs when the conflict reaches its height. The protagonist is directly challenged by the antagonist. The story includes a moment of clarity for the central character, after which he faces a dilemma related to the conflict. The choice the protagonist makes will impact later events of the story. Look for the climax at the tale's most dramatic and pivotal point, when the main character has a difficult decision to make.

Falling Action

The falling action occurs as a result of the choice the character makes during the climax. Falling action is the shortest part of plot, as events start making their way to a close. During this plot segment, characters may be reunited and realize that the conflict has ended. Look for literal events of falling, such as rain storms or characters coming down a mountain, to locate the falling action, as well as other ways in which the conflict is ending and events are falling into place for the final plot stage, the resolution.


The resolution marks the end of the story. The protagonist should have solved his problem, and events in the story conclude. A good test for the resolution is checking to see whether the conflict has been resolved. Look at the inciting incident and ask yourself, has the initial problem been solved? Has the main conflict been resolved? Look for both internal and external growth in the main characters, and think about what lessons they have learned on their journey.

Other Plot Elements

After you read the story, find literary elements that deal with the entire narrative. Morals and themes can be derived by reflecting on what the characters have learned or should have learned from their experiences. Morals should be universally applicable and not story specific. Because you know what happens at the end of the tale, you can also find instances of foreshadowing (that is, dialogue or descriptions that hint at later events). In addition, figuring out who is telling the story will help you comment on the text's point of view, whether it be that of the protagonist, a secondary character or an omniscient narrator.

About the Author

Russell Paul teaches English and yearbook at Gaston Early College High School in Dallas, North Carolina. He is a National Board Certified teacher. Paul attended Michigan State University, where he obtained a bachelor's degree in English, and Western Governor's University for a Master of Education in instructional design.

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