Stories Are All Alike
The crafting of a good story is a formidable task. You struggle with the conceiving of characters, settings, and the inclusion of thematic layers of meaning. To write a story well, you need to be prepared for many revisions and many long sessions, some ending in frustration. The task of fleshing out a story is, indeed, a difficult process; the basic plot elements, however, are the same in every story you've ever read, seen, or heard.
Since storytelling always involves conflict (what does this say about us as human beings?), it seems natural that the moving into and out of that conflict follows a universal format. Once understood, this format can be used to design endless storylines. These storylines, in turn, can be used for any related medium--short stories, books, films, and television included. Creating a plot diagram is an essential part of writing a story. Once you have the hang of it, you'll find that it cuts down on those most frustrating revision sessions.
Streamline the Picture
Below you'll see an illustration of a streamlined plot diagram. Most teachers will utilize a diagram that includes rising action and falling action as categories, but I've never found these ideas to be intuitive. "Rising" and "falling" are too nondescript, especially since "rising" is often meant as conflict, and "falling" is often missing altogether from a given plot. This format only includes the basic four elements of plot: exposition, conflict, climax and resolution (sometimes referred to as denouement). Complications form a subgroup of conflict, but since you're writing this out, clearly there's more room to do so on the top side of the diagram.
The two points on this introductory segment are meaningful. This first point indicates the very opening of the story, and the second represents the precise moment that your story enters its conflict. You need to describe three attributes on the exposition of your plot diagram: character(s), setting(s), and intro to conflict. The first two can be swapped in order, but the third never is (consider the second section of the plot diagram, and this makes sense). In other words, your story might start by describing setting and then move on to characters, or your story might start by describing characters and then open up to establish setting. Think about just about any movie you've seen or book you've read, and you realize this is standard practice.
* Write a sentence about your protagonist, or main character; include quick background information, physical description, etc..
* Write a sentence about your setting; include season, time, quick inside/outside description, etc..
* Write a sentence describing the moment that your protagonist encounters his/her difficulty. This is the small event that sets your story up for the conflict. This moment does not have to enlighten the protagonist to the big-picture issue, but it should introduce it (oftentimes this is the first encounter between the protagonist and the antagonist). From this point forward, the conflict escalates.
Conflict and Complications
Your conflict is the central obstacle that your protagonist must overcome. This might be escaping an abandoned mill, defeating the enemy pirate crew, or finding a cure for a rare disease. Your complications are smaller events that feed the conflict. In the case of the mill scenario, your complications might include unsuccessfully prying the door open (this would occur immediately after the end of the exposition), navigating an unsteady staircase, and killing a rabid raccoon near an old assembly line (yes, I know that was a strange one!). All three of these events occur as part of the conflict, on the path to the climax.
* Write one sentence for your conflict, and only one. This is the single section on your plot diagram that can be somewhat vague (see samples above). This sentence sums up your big-picture problem.
* Write three sentences, representing three complications. This are very specific events that feed your conflict. Each one is a separate obstacle.
Stop thinking about the climax of a story as the most "exciting" moment. This is an unproductive, simplistic definition; I have no idea why it's taught so frequently in these terms. The climax of a story is the moment that the conflict can go no further (it has reached its height). In other words, it's the moment the conflict ends. The tension created by the conflict cannot go any further, which means it's settled, one way or the other. It might be the moment the protagonist kills the antagonist, or the moment the protagonist escapes the seemingly inescapable labyrinth. In the mill scenario, it might be the moment the protagonist crawls through a sewer pipe and comes up through a grate outside. The moment the conflict ends is the climax, and it doesn't have to be all that exciting. Retrain your brain to accept this.
* On your diagram, write one sentence. That's it, one. Describe the moment that your protagonist permanently settles the conflict on your diagram.
The resolution on your diagram is the outcome of your story (not your conflict) or the hint at what the outcome will be. This is why this segment is depicted as a dotted arrow. Your actual resolution might be as brief as a sentence. Anything that occurs after your climax is fair game, so consider the stories you've read or the movies you've seen. Often, a character will be seen having a drink back on her deck, or hitchhiking down the highway, or embracing a loved one. In the mill scenario, perhaps the resolution depicts the protagonist walking up the front steps of his colonial; this isn't the climax, since the moment he escaped the mill served that purpose.
* Write 2-3 sentences, if necessary, describing what happens after the climax.
Add Flesh to the Skeleton
If you're careful with your details, you now have a framework for a solid story. This structure is inherent in every story told, so there's no problem shifting the purpose of your storyline from one genre to another. The writing of your story will still be a time-consuming process, granted, but now you have a skeleton; fleshing out that skeleton will be easier with a basic sense of its shape. Creating a plot diagram is one of the first things you should do in the process of writing any story.