Are they bouncing around in your brain, multiplying over and over again until your cranium is packed full of furry little plots with cute wiggling noses and vicious, gnashing teeth? How in the world can you wrangle all this inspirational, yet horrific, furriness? Well, first off you can put on your boots, wade into the sea of bunnies, and start corralling them into archetypes.
Plot archetypes are the basic bones of a story. It defines the path that the characters, mainly the protagonist, will travel. Understanding and identifying a plot archetype may bring clarity to a story, allowing the writer to help strengthen and streamline the structure. Overall, there are 9 basic plot types that are widely used. Some of these plots can be broken down into smaller sub-plots, while others can be completely revamped and take on a new direction. Guess you better start separating those bunnies some more…
For the sanity of this post (and to keep within Chris’ word count limit… because he is watching, always watching with his horde of rabid bunnies), we will just focus on the 9 most widely used plots.
This list is adapted from Christopher Booker’s book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories
1. Quest – The call to action is initiated and the protagonist begins out on her journey. A grand prize is a gleam in her eye and she must travel to a far off destination to obtain it. Along the way she will battle monsters, overcome obstacles, and possibly find romance. There is the option that the protagonist may or may not live through the Quest.
Examples: Watership Down (get it… bunnies), Moby Dick, The Odyssey
2. Overcoming the Monster – The protagonist has an objective to destroy the monster / antagonist / villain. The battle between the two pivotal characters typically occurs within the “monster’s” lair. The protagonist always battles with a physical weapon (sometimes magical), and survives the battle by defeating the “monster”. This plot can sometime be a sub-plot of the Quest plot with the use of the “monster” hoarding a quest item, such as treasure or a princess.
Examples: The Hobbit, St. George and the Dragon, The Abhorsen trilogy
3. Voyage and Return – The protagonist journeys to a far away world that at first seems fantastical, enchanted, and unreal. He attempts to make a thrilling / violent escape from the world after feeling like he is trapped or threatened by the world itself or its inhabitants. Through the episode of the voyage, the protagonist either grows and learns from the adventure, finding harmony with the world, or he stays stagnant and rejects the world. With the first route, the protagonist will typically find love or happiness. With the second, he will find loss and peril.
Examples: Dinotopia Lost, The Lord of the Flies, Alice in Wonderland
4. Rebirth – The protagonist is trapped in life by darkness, dark powers, or a dark villain, and he or she can only be freed by an act of love from another character. This is the quintessential fairy tale princess plot. Rarely does the protagonist solve his or her own dilemma, and it takes an outside source to deliver the protagonist from evil and back into the light.
Examples: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Sleeping Beauty, The Secret Garden
5. Mystery – The protagonist comes across a gruesome event, like a murder, and becomes involved in trying to solve the event. The protagonist will go through several trials and tribulations in order to solve the puzzle of the crime or event. The Mystery plot may be a sub-plot of other plots, such as a Quest or Tragedy. The protagonist, depending on the impact of the ending that the author wants to instill, may or may not successfully solve the mystery. The world that the Mystery takes place in is never fully restored because there are still innocent lives that were affected by the crime or event. They Mystery plot will leave a reader with an overall foreboding feeling.
Examples: Hercule Poirot novels, Sherlock Holmes novels, Caroline Slade novels
6. Rebellion against “The One” – The protagonist exists in a situation or a world where he or she does not feel free (ie.; dystopia). The protagonist rebels against the entity that is controlling this situation or world. Typically, the protagonist is successful in overthrowing the overlord and establishing a new balance, new freedom. Sub-plots may be leveraged within this main plot such as the Quest, Overcoming the Monster, and Rebirth. The protagonist may or may not survive to the end of the story.
Examples: The MaddAddam trilogy, Brave New World, 1984
7. Rags to Riches – The protagonist begins life in a poor or common place where he or she is miserable with his or her current situation. Yet, deep down within the protagonist, he or she has the potential for greatness. As the story evolves and the protagonist runs through a gamut of trials and tribulations, he or she will typically reach the end of the journey successful. The protagonist can receive wealth, a higher status, knowledge, happiness, and / or success.
Example: Oliver Twist, Aladdin, Pygmalion
And now for what I like to consider the “Elizabethan era” plot types. These are the plots that ran rampant in the scriptwriting of the plays during this era (how, Shakespearian!):
8. Comedy – This archetype can be defined in a few facets, and is usually defined by its ending.
* The story ends happily — The goal of the story is obtained; the protagonist’s inner conflict is resolved
* The story is satirical and humorous
* The protagonist always finds love (if the comedy is a Romantic Comedy), resulting in Marriage
Examples: Twelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing, The Alchemist
9. Tragedy – Also defined by its ending, this archetype can be broken down into these facets:
* The story does not end happily — The story’s goal is not achieved; the protagonist does not resolve his or her inner conflict
* The protagonist is destroyed in some fashion
* A pivotal character dies
Examples: MacBeth, Hamlet, Doctor Faustus
I hope that you now have an understanding of some structure to rein in those wild and rampant plot bunnies.
One last word that I want to leave you with is to be creative when developing a plot. While the archetypes that I have listed above are the most basic of all plot foundations, keep in mind your own individuality as a writer. These archetypes are not written in blood. Cut them up and sew pieces from other plot types together. Create your own Frankenstein of a plot – as long as it works and that there are no gaping holes or anticlimactic situations. Make your plot monster live and thrive, just don’t let the monster eat the bunnies. Michelle will not like it if bunnies are harmed… you have been warned.
Disclaimer: No plot bunnies (or living bunnies) were harmed in the writing of this post.
If you have enjoyed this topic, be sure to check out other posts in The Archetype Series.
Dang, Amanda. You know your stuff. This was very informative and I appreciate your wisdom.
Thanks, Marcy! Finally putting to use all the information that has been swimming in my head since the old college days.
Reblogged this on Dannie Marsden and commented:
Love plot monsters!
Thanks for the reblog, Dannie!
I think I’d prefer plot bunnies that weren’t so rabid. Lord knows they multiply fast enough as it is, lol. Just curious where you would classify coming-of-age stories. Rebirth?
I will keep mine rabid. They are more horrific that way. I don’t think that coming-of-age stories necessarily fall into the ‘Rebirth’ plot, because with this plot, the protagonist rarely solves the conflict on his or her own. The ‘Rebirth’ relies heavily on a secondary character solving the protagonist’s conflicts. Think Sleeping Beauty and how the Prince was the one that “saved” her, which made her reborn. She did not lift a finger to help herself out of the situation she was in, it was all left up to the Prince.
A coming-of-age story could really fall into any of the plots listed above, and have several sub-plot breakdowns. It could even fall into a plot that I have not mentioned. The goal of a good coming-of-age story is for the protagonist to stand on his or her own feet. Granted, there is a ‘rebirth’ of the protagonist into a more grown and well-rounded character, but the protagonist managed to come to that transformation by his or her own accord. He or she may have had help from a secondary character, but essentially the growth is a catalyst that is driven from within the protagonist.
Petra on July 25, 2005 Ik doe niet aan pools maar volg mijn oud klasgenoot Erik Breukink die nu niet fietste maar er wel bij was.Voor mij staat de tour gelijk aan boontjes afhalen. Op de moestuin van mijn vader waren altijd ki;#8o&217ls bonen goed tijdens de tour bonen afhalen en inmaken. Ik krijg nog steeds zin in boontjes als ik de tour zie. Vreemde afwijking!
These are awesome breadcrumbs, or should I say dangling carrots (unabashedly lame bunny reference), to guide us along the path of plot development. I am relatively new to the entire fiction genre and have not yet undertaken a project as grand as a novel. But, I presume that many of these ideas can be applied in a more condensed format such as a short story. I love the variety that each of these archetypes provide, and maybe something I will use to launch some new ideas in the future. Thanks also for the great reference on the book by Christopher Booker 🙂
I am cracking up over the ‘dangling carrot’ reference. Totally not lame!
Glad that you found this information useful, and it can definitely be applied to short stories. If you have not had a chance to read my past blogs, the last few Wednesdays I had posted about other archetypes used in fiction writing. This series of “Archetypes in Writing” will be continuing on for the next couple weeks.
I highly recommend reading Booker’s book, but you do not have to agree with everything he says. That is the beauty of fiction: There are ‘the rules’ and then there are the rules that are meant to be broken. The thing I love about archetypes is that everyone knows them, and everyone knows what to expect out of them. When you start off down a path with a specific archetype and then sharply delineate from its typical course, you will have your reader so hooked that they will be banging at your door, demanding for more. It is those twists and turns from the typical, when done in a seamless and believable way, that make a story memorable.
Reblogged this on Kat Webber and commented:
I am loving this metaphor. I will definitely start using this imagery when I’m jotting down plot notes.
That hits the target dead ceenrt! Great answer!
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