PLOT: a Few Thoughts About Story Shape and the Pitfalls of the Plot Queens and Kings

CAVEAT #1: I am not a best-selling author.
If you’re looking for secrets to writing best-selling novels, I suspect you’ve come to the wrong site. Use the Back Arrow button up top, or retreat to your Google search, with my blessing.

CAVEAT #2: I am not a Writing Coach or English Composition Teacher.
People who teach this stuff daily almost certainly resent amateurs trying to instruct people on how to do things they aren’t qualified to teach.

CAVEAT #3: I’m not writing this for you. I’m writing it for me.
But I invite you to join in if you have any thoughts or observations.

Last night, my lovely wife, the brilliant and vastly better-read part-time book reviewer, Dawn ‘DSAFIRE’ Iwanowski, were discussing the famous plots of classic literature. See, we’ve been amusing ourselves with John Green’s Crash Course: Literature series. It occurred to me that I don’t really refer to them, but I’ve been aware for some time that many writers and scholars have made a lot of ballyhoo about the limited number of tried and true plots (themes, really) that have persisted throughout classic literature, from the Ancient Greeks through Shakespeare and Marlowe and Bacon to the Brontes and Austen and Dickinson and Byron and Shelley and Dunsany and Dickens and on and on up to present day. I believe it’s possible to write great fiction, and great literature, by making a careful study of these basic building blocks, to determine the most likely arc or arcs of a novel. I argue that it’s also possible to do so without studying, though I suspect it’s harder to get away with it these days, simply because there are so many damned fiction writers out there now that the field has been strip mined, and it takes a lot of careful reading and analysis to devise something truly ingenious, while retaining enough elegance and inner consistency to avoid the major pitfall of overloading the plot.

First off, for anyone who has read my stuff, you’ll probably notice that I don’t really think in plot. I know there’s plot in there, and I do give it some basic thought at the outset… or as near to the outset as I can manage. Every story is different for me, even when it consists of familiar elements. I know I’m not reinventing the wheel… or perhaps that’s exactly what I’m doing. I have an annoying habit of scrapping my tool kit and starting fresh every time. I keep pushing myself to do things I haven’t done before, even when i use the same cast or themes, or, as it happens, the same basic plot.

I tell you this to help you understand where I’m coming from as an author, and as the guy writing yet another unrequested blog on writing. I know my Shop Talk posts are few and far between, and not as authoritative as other perhaps more informative and useful teaching tools you can find online. Again: I do it for me, not you. But in looking at plot and how it does and does not work for me, I hope to demonstrate both how plot can work for you, and how you should avoid being slavish to it, if at all possible.

Okay, first of all, to do this, I Googled “Plots Lines of Classic Literature’ and got the old ipl2 website, which gave me these:
1 Plot:
Attempts to find the number of basic plots in literature cannot be resolved any more tightly than to describe a single basic plot. Foster-Harris claims that all plots stem from conflict. He describes this in terms of what the main character feels: “I have an inner conflict of emotions, feelings…. What, in any case, can I do to resolve the inner problems?” (p. 30-31) This is in accord with the canonical view that the basic elements of plot revolve around a problem dealt with in sequence: “Exposition – Rising Action – Climax – Falling Action – Denouement”. (Such description of plot can be found in many places, including: Holman, C. Hugh and William Harmon. A Handbook to Literature. 6th ed. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co, 1992.) Foster-Harris’ main argument is for 3 Plots (which are contained within this one), described below.

3 Plots:
Foster-Harris. The Basic Patterns of Plot. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1959. Foster-Harris contends that there are three basic patterns of plot (p. 66):
“’Type A, happy ending’”; Foster-Harris argues that the “Type A” pattern results when the central character (which he calls the “I-nitial” character) makes a sacrifice (a decision that seems logically “wrong”) for the sake of another.
“’Type B, unhappy ending’”; this pattern follows when the “I-nitial” character does what seems logically “right” and thus fails to make the needed sacrifice.
“’Type C,’ the literary plot, in which, no matter whether we start from the happy or the unhappy fork, proceeding backwards we arrive inevitably at the question, where we stop to wail.” This pattern requires more explanation (Foster-Harris devotes a chapter to the literary plot.) In short, the “literary plot” is one that does not hinge upon decision, but fate; in it, the critical event takes place at the beginning of the story rather than the end. What follows from that event is inevitable, often tragedy. (This in fact coincides with the classical Greek notion of tragedy, which is that such events are fated and inexorable.)

7 Plots:
7 basic plots as remembered from second grade by IPL volunteer librarian Jessamyn West:
[wo]man vs. nature
[wo]man vs. [wo]man
[wo]man vs. the environment
[wo]man vs. machines/technology
[wo]man vs. the supernatural
[wo]man vs. self
[wo]man vs. god/religion

20 Plots:
Tobias, Ronald B. 20 Master Plots. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1993. (ISBN 0-89879-595-8)
This book proposes twenty basic plots:
The Riddle
Forbidden Love
Wretched Excess

36 Plots:
Polti, Georges. The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations. trans. Lucille Ray.
Polti claims to be trying to reconstruct the 36 plots that Goethe alleges someone named [Carlo] Gozzi came up with. (In the following list, the words in parentheses are our annotations to try to explain some of the less helpful titles.):
Supplication (in which the Supplicant must beg something from Power in authority)
Crime Pursued by Vengeance
Vengeance taken for kindred upon kindred
Falling Prey to Cruelty of Misfortune
Daring Enterprise
The Enigma (temptation or a riddle)
Enmity of Kinsmen
Rivalry of Kinsmen
Murderous Adultery
Fatal Imprudence
Involuntary Crimes of Love (example: discovery that one has married one’s mother, sister, etc.)
Slaying of a Kinsman Unrecognized
Self-Sacrificing for an Ideal
Self-Sacrifice for Kindred
All Sacrificed for Passion
Necessity of Sacrificing Loved Ones
Rivalry of Superior and Inferior
Crimes of Love
Discovery of the Dishonor of a Loved One
Obstacles to Love
An Enemy Loved
Conflict with a God
Mistaken Jealousy
Erroneous Judgement
Recovery of a Lost One
Loss of Loved Ones.

I also picked up 29 plotlines from Darci Pattison, who strikes me as pretty thorough:
Quest. Character oriented story, the protagonist searches for something and winds up changing him/herself.
Adventure. Plot oriented, this features a goal-oriented series of events.
Pursuit. This is the typical Chase Plot. Definitely action-oriented.
Rescue. Another easy to recognize action-oriented plot.
Escape. A variation on the Rescue is when the protagonist escapes on his/her own.
Revenge. Ah, character comes back in with this one. Someone is wronged and vows to take revenge.
The Riddle. Love a good mystery? This is the plot for you.
Rivalry. Character oriented, this story follows two main characters, one on a downward track and one on an upward track and their interactions.
Underdog. Everyone is the US roots for the Underdog. This is the plot where the under-privileged (handicapped, poor, etc) triumphs despite overwhelming odds.
Temptation. Pandora’s Box extended to novel form.
Metamorphosis. This is a physical transformation of some kind. If you recently watched the movie, “District 9”, you’ll recognize this plot form. It’s Dracula, Beauty and the Beast, or the one I remember best is The Fly.
Transformation. Similar to the previous, this plot features an inner change, instead of changing the outer form.
Maturation. Bildungsroman, rite of passage, coming-of-age–these terms all refer to someone growing up morally, spiritually or emotionally. Often, it’s just a hint of growth, or a tiny change that hints at larger changes.
Love. The classic Boy-meets-Girl plot.
Forbidden Love. Oh, hasn’t Stephenie Meyer milked this one in her Twilight series? Brilliant use of the forces that keep her characters apart, while still attracting.
Sacrifice. From the Biblical tale of Jesus to the story of parents sacrificing for their children, this is a staple of literature.
Discovery. You know those secrets you’ve buried deep in your past? This story digs around, exposes secrets and watches them affect the characters.
Wretched Excess. When a character is in a downward spiral from alcohol, drugs, greed, etc. this is the plot form.
Ascension or Descension. A rise or fall from power puts a character into this plot form.

Darci also posts this:
Hero’s Journey: Adapted from Joseph Campbell’s Mythic Hero
Christopher Vogler’s explanation of the Hero’s Journey is excellent. The basic stages, along with the corresponding character arc are these:
Ordinary World – Limited awareness of problem
Call to Adventure – increased awareness
Refusal of Call – reluctance to change
Meeting the Mentor – overcoming reluctance
Crossing the First Threshold – committing to change
Tests, Allies, Enemies – experimenting with 1st change
Approach to the Inmost Cave- preparing for big change
Supreme Ordeal – attempting big change
Reward – consequences of the attempt
The Road Back – rededication to change
Resurrection – final attempt at big change
Return with Elixir – final mastery of the problem

Now, I post these not because I want to steal, but because I want to comment on them, and see which ones are relevant to me. The borrowed lists that I copied and pasted above go from a very general point of view (ie: conflict creates story) to a series of very specific and in-depth scenarios that can either stand alone or be connected in a series of chapters and acts to create a fuller, richer, more complex story. However, if we consider each of the main subjects both from a conflict and non-conflict approach, I think we can do a little bit better than the lists we’ve seen above.

First, let’s try to reorganize this stuff to make a little more sense in the way I approach these things. To whit:
LEVEL ONE: Direction (Approach)
Conflict | No Conflict
LEVEL TWO: Subject (Interaction)
Self | Event | The Other | Environment | Concept
LEVEL THREE: Setting (Situation)
Home | Occupation | Recreation | Exploration
LEVEL FOUR: Object (Conclusion)
Establish | Maintain | Observe | Change
Resolution | Continuation | Transformation | Sublimation

See, I’m not interested in a linear approach to story, because in my head, each story has an intrinsic shape, not just a straight line. I know most folks will have trouble with this at first, but I feel this is true of all storytelling, regardless of how direct or indirect the author may be in their approach. This makes deciding how immediate and direct the plot must be to convey not simply the events and details of the story, but the attitude toward it as well.

This is more relevant to the subject than you might think. Imagine how you would react to a simple scenario where a person brings another person a gift. If you go into the story with the preconceived notion that something must come of giving and receiving a gift, then you create expectation, and set up a scenario that requires some sort of payoff. But if you go into the act of giving the gift without any preconceived notion, the payoff is simply in the recipient receiving the gift, and the salutary reward of knowing that they are now aware on some level that you were thinking of them. No conflict. Not even any real tension. But meaning is conveyed here, and it is touching, particularly if you realize that we do this a million times a day, and get much the same results most of the time. The meaning might be fraught with subtext and yearning, but on a certain level, it’s enough to know that these people have had a nice interaction and no one had to yell or bleed or die or cry or what have you.

In modern Western storytelling, convention states pretty clearly that this is boring. Boredom is an interesting phenomenon, though, because it happens when a person refuses to engage with their immediate situation or environment. It denotes a lack of appreciation for the full significance of their current situation, not that there is no meaning present at all. Often, the conflict we are presented with here leads us to conclude that the only answer is to break out and walk off heroically. And yet, life is nothing if not a long series of refusals to give in to this impulse because we realise that it is folly. Oh sure, there is an awful lot of walking away being done in our society these days, and that may be in part because we’ve enshrined in our very culture this precept that conflict must be identified and resolved conclusively to achieve maximum happiness.

But what would our society look like if we didn’t turn every conceivable situation into a conflict? Let’s examine that further, by looking at the way we tell stories.

LEVEL ONE: Direction (Approach)
Conflict | No Conflict

Conventional Western philosophy about storytelling dictates that all captivating fiction, and indeed, all interaction of any kind, is by its very nature a form of conflict resolution. I’m as guilty of being an unconscious adherent to this way of writing as anyone in the Western World. It dominates my thinking, and that of everyone else I know, and it’s really not a wonder, given how aggressive a philosophy it actually is.

Kishōtenketsu, by contrast, is an Eastern idea about plotting a story that has no violent conflict, but does have contrast and simple resolution. No muss, no fuss. I like to think I’ve written things that take some of this onboard, but I’m not convinced I’ve achieved true contrast without conflict. I may never really wrap my head fully around it. But it’s not as dull as it sounds, because our lives are made up of these clever negotiations of zero conflict.

We can suppose that somebody wins and somebody loses in these scenarios, but only if we are not particularly thoughtful or appreciative of the situation as it presently stands. We can project our expectations and desires onto the simple interaction (such as the giving of the gift), and thus derive some sort of resolution based on our perception of the meaning of the events. We can even ratchet up the tension and thus put our thoughts in sharp relief by conveying that both people in the interaction have differing expectations (as they often do in real life) that conflict with one another, and thus change the meaning of the interaction. Suddenly, it’s no longer about giving and receiving and acknowledging the pleasantness of being appreciated; it becomes about getting what you want, either from the giving or the accepting of the gift. It may seem pretty straightforward to most of us, but really, doesn’t it sound like a recipe for disappointment, no matter how it turns out? Life is full of these little disappointments, but really, if we don’t project our expectations on a situation so much, we can enjoy simple interactions and situations so much better.

But all that is a philosophical aside. Let’s look at what we tell stories about.

LEVEL TWO: Subject (Interaction)
Self | Event | The Other | Environment | Concept

Self versus Self: a person dealing with their own self-made conflict. We do this every day, from wrestling with the urge to stay in bed, to the urge to stay awake after bedtime, and everything inbetween. In a non-conflicted scenario, self merely meets self, in the figurative sense, through contemplation and coming to a better understanding of their own nature, which in turn helps them avoid unnecessary conflict.

Self versus Event: something new happens that challenges us to adjust or to reassert our status quo. Alternatively, we can observe the event and consider how it affects us on a personal level, hopefully to make peace with it or to derive some specific insight into our situation*.

Self versus The Other: Most of our genre fiction is made up of this, from elven rangers repelling troll hordes to human colonists defeating martian warlords to gumshoe detectives saving themselves from gun-toting henchmen, and everything inbetween. But if we make contact with the Other, do we need to react strongly and alienate them, or can we deal with them more openly, noting and appreciating our similarities, rather than being repelled by our differences? We do a lot of both in real life, though our confrontational outlook often makes it more of a progression from one to the other, rather than a clear and ever-present choice between the two.

Self versus Environment: This can be person coping with an inhospitable place or situation (jungle, desert, war, isolation, etc), or a person simply coming to grips with how the environment works, and figuring out a way to adapt to it, even accept it as is. This is harder if the inhospitable environment is a poisonous atmosphere, but that can be dealt with, and often in even in our own biosphere, given enough time. Either that, or we die.

Self versus Concept: Perhaps the most esoteric of the set, it nevertheless covers all of those intangibles, including confronting our maker, if we believe in such a thing and are given the chance to do so. But what often comes from these scenarios, both in fiction and in life, is that we must come to some sort of understanding of the bigger concepts of life, and not simply confront them head on. Most of our stories of man versus god involve some very human deities with some very human foibles. The real concepts that govern us are more ephemeral, and yet harder to come to grips with than a demigod with a hard-on for lightning bolts.

We should look a little closer at this whole ‘situation’ situation.

LEVEL THREE: Setting (Situation)
Home | Occupation | Recreation | Exploration

Self at Home: This can apply to a number of scenarios, really, but at what it really denotes is whether you are in a place where you can relax and let down your guard. Being in such a place and having conflict is always extremely unpleasant. Even minor changes in the home situation can be uncomfortable. Still, it is possible to tell stories in the home space that don’t involve domestic violence or CIA shootouts. For those of us who work at home, nothing adds more frisson to a day than going from waking up mode to checking mail mode to damnit, I have to do some work now mode in sixty seconds. Contrast, rather than conflict.

Self at Occupation: Work/School/Meeting, etc. Most people think of Meetings as Work, but as a volunteer community organizer, I’m at numerous meetings in a month that are not what I consider to be my work. The point is, you’re away from home, figurative, and you’re most likely following your default vocation. Lots of room for conflict and/or contrast there.

Self at Recreation: In these days of considerable cocooning, most people derive their recreation from sitting at home watching television or playing video games on their platform of choice. These can involve some conflict as well, but again, it’s possible to indulge in a rich recreational experience without conflict. In fact, it’s kind of the point. But what is meant by this category is to actually go out on the town and do something in a social or group setting, such as see a movie or a play or go dancing or singing karaoke or something of that nature. I once wrote four or five chapters involving being at a karaoke bar in lower Manhattan. Other than singing and flirting, not a whole lot else happens until the last of the karaoke chapters, where the protagonist is checking his laptop and discovers that it is no longer warning him of incoming secret agents, but is instead flashing pornographic pop up ads.

Self at Exploration: I think this pretty much speaks for itself, but it has to be said that, the difference between conflict and contrast here is the difference between Lara Croft and MYST.

Now, anyone who teaches drama will tell you that the secret to good drama is inherent in the structure of the story. A good structure has to have an opening, where the protagonists are revealed, a situation where their established status quo changes, a buildup of tension a the full ramifications of that change are realized, and a conclusion, where the change is either dealt with or the protagonist is somehow transformed by the experience and no longer has to deal with the discomfort of the change. We’ll come to that final part in Level Five, but for now, lets discuss how structure presents us with the objective of the story.

LEVEL FOUR: Object (Conclusion)
Establish | Maintain | Observe | Change

Establishing of Situation: often the first point in the scenario, aside from introductions. However, it’s important to realise that a story can in fact end with the establishment of something, as well. It’s just a matter of scale**.

Maintaining of Situation: the status quo isn’t as popular as it once was, but it’s a fact of life. We struggle almost daily to keep our little worlds together, either by going to work, going to the shops, or going to war, amongst other things. This too is an opportunity to consider contrast and change rather than conflict for its own sake. Often the simple act of doing something to reassert the status quo in your life can bring a certain inner peace. Conveying that convincingly is the key.

Observation of Situation: bearing witness to a sequence of events can be its own reward, even though its passivity can sometimes lead to problems when the situation calls for more a proactive result.

Change of Situation: is where we think conflict is often called for, or where we believe conflict is inferred. All conflict leads to some sort of change, but not all change is born of conflict. Anyone who argues otherwise is making a false equivalency. Think for a moment about the many things you do in a day that invoke no real conflict, but which nevertheless involve a state change. Turning a light on. Making coffee. Letting the phone ring until the answer service picks up (I’m not the only one who does this, am I?). All of these minor state changes may seem boring compared to being attacked in a dark room or finding out the person on the phone is holding your beloved hostage, but on the whole, it’s more likely.

But ultimately, what needs to happen in a story can probably be determined best by considering the actual meaning underlining the story, if it’s not too soon to determine that for ourselves.

Resolution | Continuation | Transformation | Sublimation

Resolution of Situation: If the point of the story is to resolve the conflict or contrast, then you’re going to have to make some changes to the current status quo. It might be about reestablishing the previous status quo, but as we’ll see, sometimes the point is to accept that which cannot be changed, even though change is the only constant.

Continuation of Situation: The active encouragement of the scenario, where the process yields open ended results that allow for the establishing of a new status quo. this can be based in conflict, though I would argue that any such establishment scenario would devolve rapidly if conflict were applied.

Transformation of Situation: Now, this probably sounds like Resolution, but in truth, resolution can be used to (attempt to) reestablish a previous status quo, such as Donald Trump’s oft-expressed wish to ‘Make America Great Again’, if such a thing is even possible (FYI: it’s not). Transformation comes from realising that the status quo is no longer acceptable, and making whatever maneuvers are necessary to establish a new status quo. This can either be in changing the situation, or in changing something about the protagonist’s perceptions or nature.

Sublimation of Situation: This is the tricky one, because it involves a type of transformation where the protagonist experiences a fundamental shift in their reality. It suggests the supernatural, but could be as simple as having an epiphany that everything you thought was true isn’t. Kind of like learning that all interesting stories must have some form of conflict to achieve empathy and catharsis.

And that’s my post for today. It actually took me three days to put together, but I think it’s pretty good, if a bit academic sounding. I may revisit it in a while, to see if there is anything that needs to be added or explained better.

PLEASE LEAVE COMMENTS BELOW. Much like Scott McCloud, I don’t write this stuff to end the conversation, but to start it.

Thank you for reading. Have a good day.


* I think most of us can appreciate the notion that some people struggle daily with their own inner turmoil, be they based on mental health issues or disappointment or dealing with the stress of a seemingly intolerable situation. However, what most of us try to achieve in our own lives in these situations is balance, or homeostasis, where the tension is dissolved (though not necessarily resolved definitively) in the realisation that the situation isn’t absolutely intolerable; merely not ideal.

** If the scale of your story calls for something the size of a single room, you probably wind up with a chapter about moving furniture into or out of the room, or finding the elusive key to let yourself out of said room. However, if the bulk of the event being conveyed takes place in the next room, the less time spent in the first room, the better. But the real point is, if the object of the story is to establish something, then what you really need to do is to make the room, in some fashion. Perhaps the wall has a hole in it, and you’re on a plastering jag. Or perhaps it’s as simple as making your bed. For conflict, there may be somebody still in the bed. For extreme conflict, that somebody may be dead. I once wrote a story involving a woman strangled to death (sorry; I don’t like it any more than you do, but that’s what happened), and the protagonist covered up her naked body, despite knowing that it would be considered tampering with the forensic evidence.

Don't be shy. Tell me what you really think, now.


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