Since the death of stream-of-consciousness-heavy Modernism, the world of fiction has seen a strong increase in plot-driven fiction. Readers want twists and turns that build to an ending that is satisfying, makes sense, and assures them that everything that came before in the story was leading them toward this moment. Plot is the path you take through the story to the end; every turn it takes, however meandering it seems, is purposeful.
In almost all stories, this path is fraught with conflict, and leads to the protagonist either overcoming that conflict, or succumbing to it. Think of a conflict, and bam, you have a story with a plot. And most stories naturally follow a simple progression of stages as this plot unfolds:
Exposition setting up the situation––so, for example, Cinderella’s father marries a mean lady and dies, leaving Cinderella to the mercy of her wicked stepmother and –sisters
Rising action––the invitation to the ball breaks the monotony of Cinderella’s work, she longs to go to the ball, gets her hopes crushed, is visited by her fairy godmother and made over, attends the ball, charms the prince
The climax––the clock strikes midnight and Cinderella is forced to run away, knowing she’ll never see her prince again, losing her shoe along the way
Falling action––she returns to scrubbing floors; meanwhile, the prince searches for his mysterious partner
The denouement, French for, literally the “unknotting”––the glass slipper fits perfectly, Cinderella graciously forgives her wicked stepfamily, they live happily ever after
The rising action might be fraught with twists and turns, we might not get the exposition until just before the climax, or the whole arc might be bolstered by thematically resonant subplots, but for the most part, this useful frame can be applied to any story. If you’re having trouble working some element into yours, ask yourself where it fits in this progression.
Of course, it can be difficult to draw from life when creating the plot for your story, because life doesn’t fit neatly into frameworks; life is flawed, life is messy, and it’s important not to keep that from seeping into your story. Allow it to remain organic; that human messiness is often the heart and soul of the story, and that hits the reader more powerfully than any orderly progression of events, wrapped up and tied neatly with a bow.