It’s always good to start with the basics. For plot, it’s beginning, middle, and end.
Scratch that. It isn’t. It’s actually beginning, middle, climax, and resolution. Ending a story at the climax isn’t always a good idea, especially if there’s dangling plot threads. Also, the audience will want to know how the characters have changed since the beginning of the story.
The beginning sets the story in motion. This is where you have to hook the reader, introduce the protagonist(s) and antagonist(s), set the pace, and let the reader know what the protagonist must accomplish before the end (the goal might change later in the story, but that’s for another article)—and all preferably within the first couple pages (or first 10-15 minutes). You should never devote more than 5-10% of the whole story to setting it up. Because of this, the beginning is often the most difficult part of the story to get right, and if you don’t get it right the whole story will end in epic fail. So it’s always best to devote more time to figuring out how a story begins than with any other part of the story.
Yes, yes, I know that J.R.R. Tolkien never followed that rule. But you and I are not Tolkien. Don’t try to be. There was only one Tolkien. And there’ll likely never be another.
The middle is where the largest bulk of the story will be, 75% at minimum. It’s in the middle where you start complicating the plot with twists and (if you want a big story) divergent plot threads (not too many, mind you. You risk losing the audience if you do that). It’s also in the middle where minor characters can be introduced and resolutions of minor threads can be resolved as you head toward the climax. Whether you strive for a slow but building pace, or a roller-coaster ride of highs and lows, the pace should be faster than at the beginning by the time you reach the climax. In short, it’s a lot like sex.
It is important to keep the action going and to avoid bogging everything down with too much exposition. The reader doesn’t need to know every single teeny tiny detail of your world, characters, setting, what they look like and/or wearing, how they’re feeling (unless you show how they’re feeling), etc., etc., ad infinitum. All the reader (or viewing audience) needs is enough to grasp the big picture and not get lost. The bulk of the trivia is best left for later guidebooks, sequels, or spinoffs (hint, hint).
The climax is where everything comes to a head—often with lots and lots of explosions if it’s an action story. But even in a romance story, the climax still needs to be “explosive” emotionally. And that is the key word to describe the best climaxes—emotional. See? I told you it’s a lot like sex.
This is the point where it’s do-or-die. The protagonist either succeeds in his/her goal(s) or doesn’t. And the more difficult you made the journey/task/war campaign/whatever, the better. And the climax must be where the protagonist faces his/her most difficult challenge, preferably something two to three times more difficult than anything the protagonist faced during the middle. And if it’s a war story, this is where you want the death count to skyrocket. If it’s a porno, well, you know what needs done.
It’s also important to never let the climax be longer than 5-10% of the story. Any longer and you drag it out to where you exhaust the reader. Any shorter and it becomes anti-climactic. And we all know how embarrassing pre-e...uh…you get the picture.
And last but not least, the resolution. Any dangling plot threads that weren’t resolved during the middle or climax must be resolved here. Whatever changes the character(s) underwent can be reflected on at this point. And if you planned your story to be more than one book/film/etc, this is the best place to let the audience know that it’s not over yet. And your wiggle room is 5-15%. And since we’re on the topic of characters undergoing changes, it shouldn’t only be the protagonist who underwent change (whether emotional, mental, physical or all three). If the antagonist didn’t change a little also, then you’re doing it wrong.
It can’t be emphasized enough that all of the above are not hard and fast rules, but guidelines only. If you want to, for example, start the story at the climax or middle then weave the beginning and/or middle into it with flashbacks, then go for it. But you better damn well know what you’re doing before even attempting something like that.
Still with me? I haven’t scared you away yet?
What are you, a masochist?
Good. You need to be to make it in this biz.