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Plot or Plod Part 5: Themes and Master Plots

Monday, October 29, 2007

Last Thursday, we discussed raising the stakes to keep our plots alive and moving forward. But a couple of you raised the question of how much conflict can we throw at our characters before it becomes melodramatic. To summarize the answers I gave there (check them out in the comments), You have to throw enough conflict at your character to make the reader fear the character will not reach his or her ultimate goal, but not so much that it’s realistically or logically insurmountable.

If, in the climax of the story, you have to give your character a new ability (whether natural or supernatural–example: the tone-deaf heroine must sing for the king or face losing her head; when she stands up before him and opens her mouth, she suddenly has a miraculously beautiful singing voice when she has never had anything supernatural happen to her before then), have a new charater (the cavalry, literally or figuratively) swoop in out of the blue to save the character, have the villain suddenly and inexplicably relent, or solve a crisis off stage because even you have no idea how the character will get out of it, you’ve either thrown too much or the wrong kind of conflict at your character.

As I explained in the post Conflict: Thematic vs. Actual, you need to know what the thematic conflict of your story is. Thematic conflicts include:
Man vs. Man (or Man vs. Woman in a romance)
Man vs. Himself
Man vs. Nature
Man vs. Society
Man vs. God
(see this Wikipedia article for definitions)

All of these are vague, lofty ideas, on par with defining what genre you’re writing. They don’t actually define the plot of your novel.

Depending on what article you read or what book you buy, there are anywhere from six to fifty master fiction plots. In addition to knowing your thematic conflict, you should know what your master plot is. Many popular fiction genres lend themselves toward certain master plots, but you will find that some of the best genre fiction writers use master plots not usually seen in their genre to take their stories to the next level. (Don Maass would call these people “breakout” novelists.) Here are eight master plots I came up with:

1. The PHYSICAL JOURNEY plot. The character must get from point A to point Z. Prime example: Lord of the Rings. Frodo must get from The Shire to Mount Doom to destroy the ring. Everything that happens to him along the way, all of the conflicts he encounters, happens because he must complete this journey.

2. The FIGURATIVE JOURNEY plot. If graphed, this plotline would look much like the physical journey plot. But this is a journey that takes place internally. “Coming of Age” novels are the best example of this type of plot. It’s less about what is happening on the outside and more about the change that is taking place internally for the character. Literary fiction many times will fall into this category.

3. The PROBLEM-to-SOLUTION plot. The character is presented with a problem at the beginng that must be solved. This can be a writer who has writer’s block (think of the movie Stranger than Fiction), an artist who has broken both hands and can’t paint, a visitor is stranded in a strange land (planet) and must figure out how to communicate with the locals to survive.

4. The MYSTERY-to-ANSWER (or QUESTION-to-ANSWER) plot. This is one of the plots that is very closely tied to a genre. When someone says they’re writing a mystery novel, they don’t really need to define the plot of it, do they? But this plot has a broader scope than just Murder, She Wrote or Law & Order. This is the baby left on the doorstep story—the characters must find out who left the baby there. This is the amnesiac trying to figure out who he or she is.

5. The DOWNWARD SPIRAL/DESTRUCTIVE plot. This is the plot we find in many short stories, including “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. This is where the character goes from a place of sanity/normalcy through a cycle of depression or self-destructiveness. Like the Figurative Journey, this deals more with what’s going on inside, but it moves in the opposite direction.

6. The LOVE STORY plot. Yes, this is the plotline most closely related to the romance genre. It goes deeper than just two characters falling in love. There is an expectation of what will happen in a love story: boy and girl meet, fall in love, are ripped apart, something climactic happens to bring the back together, boy and girl live happily ever after. However, not every love story plot necessarily follows this expectation. A prime example is the movie Roman Holiday, in which the hero and heroine don’t get together at the end. (Sorry if I’ve just ruined that for anyone.)

7. The BATTLE-to-VICTORY plot. Seen in historicals, action, SciFi, and many other genres. These are stories that center around war, or that use physical conflict as the main focus of the story. This is Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, Star Wars, Glory, or Behind Enemy Lines. The climax of the plot comes in the heat of battle, the resolution comes with the victory and the peace enjoyed afterward (no matter how short-lived).

8. The THWART THE DESTRUCTION OF THE WORLD plot. This could actually be considered a Battle-to-Victory plot, but it takes it to a grander scale. This is the ultimate Good Guy vs. Bad Guy matchup. This is James Bond versus Dr. No. Harry Potter versus Voldemort. Jean Luc Picard versus the Borg. Homeland Security Agent versus the Terrorists. The country/world/planet is about to be destroyed and the hero must stop it from happening.

What are some other basic plots you can think of? Does your story fit into one of these? Have you incorporated more than one of these into your story? (HeeHee . . . topic for tomorrow . . .)

  1. Monday, October 29, 2007 12:17 pm

    I’m definitely a #8 this time–at least I will be once I play up the terrorist guys angle. It’s a first for me, usually I’m more concerned about my heroines finding true love. Ahhh…..


  2. Tuesday, October 30, 2007 6:14 pm

    Mine is number six this time around, though hopefully with a few twists. 🙂


  3. Seralynn Lewis permalink
    Friday, October 14, 2016 8:14 pm

    Can any of the numbered master plots listed above co-exist with one another in the same story? I’m curious because it seems to me that sometimes that happens in various stories. Or am I overthinking it?



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