The Plot Thickens…Or Not?
By Leigh Holland.
“Mom? Mo-om?” I heard my teenaged daughter call for me. She sounded so far away as I clickety-clacked away merrily at my keyboard. Should this character groan and lean his head back or put his head in his hands and sigh deeply? What’s keeping in line with his personality?
I jumped. I mean, I knew she was there, I just didn’t realize she was right there. “That’s my name.”
“Technically, your name is Leigh, not ‘mom’.”
I rolled my eyes and sighed quasi-dramatically. I decided to try speaking that “young folk” lingo to better connect with my offspring. “True that is.”
“No.” She said.
“It’s not “true that is” it’s just “true that”. You’re not Yoda.” She grinned. I’m glad at least I amused her. “So, mom, I created these lit characters and I even made these incredible drawings of them. I know so much about them. But…I don’t know what to have happen to them in my story. I think I might have that thing that you’re always complaining very loudly about while you ignore your manuscript and surf the net. What’s that called again? Oh, yeah, writer’s block.”
“Hey,” it was my turn to correct her, “I don’t always surf the net. Sometimes I’m playing Town of Salem. Or Diablo. Or watching cat videos.”
“More like looking at memes.” She mumbled.
I pretended she said nothing. After all, why would I pass up this golden chance to be a helpful font of wisdom for my child? After pondering for a nano-second whether “lit” was some new slang abbreviation for “literature”, I continued. I decided it was.
“Well, it sounds like what you need is a “lit” plot.” I told her.
“Yeah, but no ideas are coming to me. I mean, where would I even start?”
How many plots are there? There are a variety of opinions on this topic. If you truly want to reduce things down to the common denominator, there’s only one plot. Or as Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero With A Thousand Faces, called it, the monomyth. The monomyth can easily be boiled down to a hero goes on a quest, facing challenges and overcoming in order to achieve a goal.
In The Basic Patterns of Plot, William Foster-Harris agrees that all plots come from the same basic source: conflict. Conflict drives the plot from start to finish. He advocates for a three plot world:
Type A: The hero makes a sacrifice for another and there is a happy ending.
Type B: The hero acts logically and fails to make a sacrifice.There is an unhappy ending.
Type C: A literary plot, one that hinges not on decisions of the hero, but on Fate itself. The critical event happens first and the ending is typically tragic.
Meanwhile, Christopher Booker in The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, expands the number to seven plots.
- Overcoming the Monster- The hero goes on a quest to overcome a great evil.
- Rags to Riches- A sad start leads to happiness at the end.
- The Quest- The hero goes on a quest to find something.
- Voyage and Return- The hero goes to a strange land or time and after facing challenges, returns home safely.
Kurt Vonnegut posited that there are basic shapes to stories. Take a piece of paper. Write a vertical line to the left. In the center, draw a horizontal line across. The top half represents the ups and the bottom half below the line is the downs that your hero experiences from beginning to end. Chart it on the graph and it shows you the shape of your story. Your story will likely fit into one of 8 basic shapes. Check it out at The Shapes of Stories.
Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Crouch’s list of seven plots were:
- Man against man
- Man against nature
- Man against himself
- Man against God
- Man against society
- Man caught in the middle
- Man and woman
John Lescroart, a bestselling author, prefers a list of eight plots. Here’s his take on plots:
PLOT 1 – CINDERELLA
The protagonist’s true potential for happiness and fulfilment is at last realised after many ups and downs.
PLOT 2 – ACHILLES
The fatal flaw of the main character.
PLOT 3 – FAUST
The debt that must be repaid when fate finally catches up with you, as Faust did when making a deal with the devil.
PLOT 4 – TRISTAN
The eternal triangle.
PLOT 5 – CIRCE
The spider and the fly.
PLOT 6 – ROMEO AND JULIET
Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl again (put these in any order you like).
PLOT 7 – ORPHEUS
The gift that is taken away.
PLOT 8 – THE INDOMITABLE HERO
The hero takes on all comers.
James Scott Bell in Plot and Structure came up with nine.
- The Quest
- The Chase
- One Against (The Underdog)
- One Apart
Ronald B. Tobias lists 20 plots in his work 20 Master Plots and How To Build Them.
The hero searches for something. They may be accompanied by a sidekick, who makes the hero look good as well as running his errands.
The hero goes on an adventure. It’s not about character development or an artifact that saves his hometown, it’s about lots of action.
I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.
The captive escapes, with little help from others, and may end up merging into the pursuit plot above. Usually, the captive was unjustly imprisoned.
My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.
7. The Riddle
There’s a bomb on this bus and if we go below 60 miles per hour, the bus will explode.
Monte Cristo: May I steal your wife?
Fernand: Excuse me?
Monte Cristo: For the waltz?
Rocky: I can’t do it.
Rocky: I can’t beat him.
Rocky: Yeah. I been out there walkin’ around, thinkin’. I mean, who am I kiddin’? I ain’t even in the guy’s league.
Adrian: What are we gonna do?
Rocky: I don’t know.
Adrian: You worked so hard.
Rocky: Yeah, that don’t matter. ‘Cause I was nobody before.
Adrian: Don’t say that.
Rocky: Ah come on, Adrian, it’s true. I was nobody. But that don’t matter either, you know? ‘Cause I was thinkin’, it really don’t matter if I lose this fight. It really don’t matter if this guy opens my head, either. ‘Cause all I wanna do is go the distance. Nobody’s ever gone the distance with Creed, and if I can go that distance, you see, and that bell rings and I’m still standin’, I’m gonna know for the first time in my life, see, that I weren’t just another bum from the neighborhood.
Werewolves! Shapeshifters! Mermaids! Oh, my!
In this type of plot, a person, through a series of experiences and events, undergoes a metamorphosis of worldview or personality, typically for the better.
A coming of age plot, the main character grows up, emerging from youth as a wiser and more capable adult.
Two people fall in love, encounter obstacles and trials, overcome or resolve them, and end up together.
15. Forbidden Love
Jack Twist: I wish I knew how to quit you.
Belle: [in the darkness] Who’s there? Who are you?
Beast: The master of this castle.
Belle: I’ve come for my father. Please, let him out! Can’t you see, he’s sick?
Beast: Then he shouldn’t have trespassed here!
Belle: But he could die! Please, I’ll do anything!
Beast: There’s nothing you can do! He’s my prisoner.
Belle: Oh, there must be some way I can.
[to the Beast]
Belle: Wait! Take me instead.
Beast: You would take his place?
Maurice: Belle, no! You don’t know what you’re doing!
Belle: If I did, would you let him go?
Beast: Yes. But you must promise to stay here forever!
Belle: Come into the light.
[the Beast steps in the castle light to reveal himself; Belle gasps and turns away]
Maurice: No, Belle! I won’t let you do this!
Belle: You have my word.
The hero discovers a terrible thing and must make a life-altering choice.
18. Wretched Excess
A jerk becomes a hero; a lower class person ascends to higher rank.
A person of high standing and/or moral fiber falls from grace. This plot is often combined with Ascension. Examples include “Dangerous Liaisons” and “Trading Places”.
And of course, there’s the list of 36 Dramatic Situations by George Polti.
Wikipedia provided a great summary with the elements and description of each:
- a persecutor; a suppliant; a power in authority, whose decision is doubtful.
- The suppliant appeals to the power in authority for deliverance from the persecutor.
- Crime pursued by vengeance
- a criminal; an avenger
- The criminal commits a crime that will not see justice, so the avenger seeks justice by punishing the criminal. Example: The Count of Monte Cristo
- Vengeance taken for kin upon kin
- Guilty Kinsman; an Avenging Kinsman; remembrance of the Victim, a relative of both.
- Two entities, the Guilty and the Avenging Kinsmen, are put into conflict over wrongdoing to the Victim, who is allied to both. Example: Hamlet
- punishment; a fugitive
- the fugitive flees punishment for a misunderstood conflict. Example: Les Misérables
- a vanquished power; a victorious enemy or a messenger
- The vanquished power falls from their place after being defeated by the victorious enemy or being informed of such a defeat by the messenger. Example: Agamemnon (play)
- Falling prey to cruelty/misfortune
- an unfortunate; a master or a misfortune
- The unfortunate suffers from misfortune and/or at the hands of the master. Example: Job (biblical figure)
- a tyrant; a conspirator
- The tyrant, a cruel power, is plotted against by the conspirator. Example: Julius Caesar (play)
- Daring enterprise
- a bold leader; an object; an adversary
- The bold leader takes the object from the adversary by overpowering the adversary. Example: Queste del Saint Graal
- an abductor; the abducted; a guardian
- The abductor takes the abducted from the guardian. Example: Helen of Troy
- The enigma
- (a Solicitor & an adversary who is refusing) or (an arbitrator & opposing parties)
- The solicitor is at odds with the adversary who refuses to give the solicitor an object in the possession of the adversary, or an arbitrator decides who gets the object desired by opposing parties (the solicitor and the adversary). Example: Apple of Discord
- Enmity of kin
- a Malevolent Kinsman; a Hated or a reciprocally-hating Kinsman
- The Malevolent Kinsman and the Hated or a second Malevolent Kinsman conspire together. Example: As You Like It
- Rivalry of kin
- the Preferred Kinsman; the Rejected Kinsman; the Object of Rivalry
- The Object of Rivalry chooses the Preferred Kinsman over the Rejected Kinsman. Example: Wuthering Heights
- Murderous adultery
- a Madman; a Victim
- The Madman goes insane and wrongs the Victim. Example: Horace and Pete
- Fatal imprudence
- the Imprudent; a Victim or an Object Lost
- The Imprudent, by neglect or ignorance, loses the Object Lost or wrongs the Victim.
- Involuntary crimes of love
- a Lover; a Beloved; a Revealer
- The Lover and the Beloved have unknowingly broken a taboo through their romantic relationship, and the Revealer reveals this to them Example: Oedipus, Jocasta and the messenger from Corinth.
- Slaying of kin unrecognized
- the Slayer; an Unrecognized Victim
- The Slayer kills the Unrecognized Victim. Example: Oedipus and Laius
- Self-sacrifice for an ideal
- a Hero; an Ideal; a Creditor or a Person/Thing sacrificed
- The Hero sacrifices the Person or Thing for their Ideal, which is then taken by the Creditor.
- Self-sacrifice for kin
- a Hero; a Kinsman; a Creditor or a Person/Thing sacrificed
- The Hero sacrifices a Person or Thing for their Kinsman, which is then taken by the Creditor.
- All sacrificed for passion
- a Lover; an Object of fatal Passion; the Person/Thing sacrificed
- A Lover sacrifices a Person or Thing for the Object of their Passion, which is then lost forever.
- Necessity of sacrificing loved ones
- a Hero; a Beloved Victim; the Necessity for the Sacrifice
- The Hero wrongs the Beloved Victim because of the Necessity for their Sacrifice.
- Rivalry of superior vs. inferior
- a Superior Rival; an Inferior Rival; the Object of Rivalry
- A Superior Rival bests an Inferior Rival and wins the Object of Rivalry.
- two Adulterers; a Deceived Spouse
- Two Adulterers conspire against the Deceived Spouse.
- Crimes of love
- a Lover; the Beloved
- A Lover and the Beloved break a taboo by initiating a romantic relationship Example: Sigmund and his sister in The Valkyrie
- Discovery of the dishonour of a loved one
- a Discoverer; the Guilty One
- The Discoverer discovers the wrongdoing committed by the Guilty One.
- Obstacles to love
- two Lovers; an Obstacle
- Two Lovers face an Obstacle together. Example: Romeo and Juliet
- An enemy loved
- a Lover; the Beloved Enemy; the Hater
- The allied Lover and Hater have diametrically opposed attitudes towards the Beloved Enemy.
- an Ambitious Person; a Thing Coveted; an Adversary
- The Ambitious Person seeks the Thing Coveted and is opposed by the Adversary. Example: Macbeth
- Conflict with a god
- a Mortal; an Immortal
- The Mortal and the Immortal enter a conflict.
- Mistaken jealousy
- a Jealous One; an Object of whose Possession He is Jealous; a Supposed Accomplice; a Cause or an Author of the Mistake
- The Jealous One falls victim to the Cause or the Author of the Mistake and becomes jealous of the Object and becomes conflicted with the Supposed Accomplice.
- Erroneous judgment
- a Mistaken One; a Victim of the Mistake; a Cause or Author of the Mistake; the Guilty One
- The Mistaken One falls victim to the Cause or the Author of the Mistake and passes judgment against the Victim of the Mistake when it should be passed against the Guilty One instead.
- a Culprit; a Victim or the Sin; an Interrogator
- The Culprit wrongs the Victim or commits the Sin, and is at odds with the Interrogator who seeks to understand the situation.
- Recovery of a lost one
- a Seeker; the One Found
- The Seeker finds the One Found.
- Loss of loved ones
- a Kinsman Slain; a Kinsman Spectator; an Executioner
- The killing of the Kinsman Slain by the Executioner is witnessed by the Kinsman
And most recently, researchers at the University of Vermont’s Computational Story Lab using sentiment analysis discovered there may be only six basic plots. They are:
- Fall-rise-fall, like Oedipus Rex
- Rise and then a fall, like what happens to most villains
- Fall and then a rise, like what happens to most superheroes
- Steady fall, like in Romeo and Juliet
- Steady rise, like in a rags-to-riches story
- Rise-fall-rise, like in Cinderella
“Wow, Mom, that’s a lot of information. Now I think I have too many ideas instead of not enough!” My daughter said. “And now I’m in the mood for a movie and ice cream.”
“We could Netflix and chill.” I suggested.
She was livid. What had I said wrong?
“Mom, I don’t think that slang means what you think it means.”
I nodded knowingly. “But that one is obvious. It means we watch Netflix. And sit here and just chill out.”
“Nope. It means, uh, make out, and…stuff. So yeah, you sound creepy.”
I blinked rapidly. “Hmm. Well, that explains the weird looks the young people at the office give me when I say my best friend and I Netflix and chill every Friday night while your dad is out.”
“Shakin’ my head. I’ll get the ice cream. You remember how to turn on the TV with the remote, right?”
“I’m not that old! I’ll have you know in my household I was the tech guru growing up. I hooked up my parents’ Beta player for them.” I grumpily replied. “It’s the red button, right?”
“Yeah. What’s a Beta Player?”
Sigh. “Never mind.”