The Plot Beckons

16 Jan

Oh my, where to begin? Remember in my last blog,  I said theme and plot were different? It’s only fair I talk about plot today. I’ll start with why genre fiction often gets slammed for not being “good enough” to be considered real writing. “It’s formulaic.” “Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back.” “They are all the same. They just change places and names.”

Anyone who’s researched plot has found that there are no new plots. It is how the writer presents them with twists, freshness, and unique voice that makes the book successful. Check out the internet and you will find 7, 20, and 36 plots, all with overlaps of one or more component. This is true for the classic literature as well as any modern literary work.

Going back to the difference between theme and plot, I shared that my theme usually involves transformation. My books with that theme involve: a waitress & a teacher in a romance; a home health care nurse & a bounty hunter in a romantic suspense; a librarian & a cop in a romantic suspense; and a photojournalist & a land developer in a paranormal light. All very different plots with the same theme.

Skim through the following, but don’t let it make you crazy. I would argue that plot and theme are merged a number of times.

7 Basic Plots according to the Internet Public Library:

  1. [wo]man vs. nature
  2. [wo]man vs. man
  3. [wo]man vs. the environment
  4. [wo]man vs. machines/technology
  5. [wo]man vs. the supernatural
  6. [wo]man vs. self
  7. [wo]man vs. god/religion

20 Basic Plots by Ronald Tobias, author of “Twenty Basic Plots

See also

Ronald B. Tobias, 20 Master Plots, and how to build them, Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1993 for explanations.

Polti’s 36 Dramatic Situations

  1. Supplication: Persecutor, Suppliant, Authority Figure
  2. Deliverance: Unfortunate, Threatener, Rescuer
  3. Crime Pursued by Vengeance: Criminal, Avenger
  4. Vengeance taken for Kindred upon Kindred: Avenger, Guilty Remembrance, a Relative of Both
  5. Pursuit: Punishment and Fugitive
  6. Disaster: Vanquished Power, Victorious Enemy, Messenger.
  7. Falling Prey to Cruelty or Misfortune: Unfortunate, Master
  8. Revolt: Tyrant, Conspirator
  9. Daring Enterprise: Bold Leader, Object, Adversary
  10. Abduction: Abductor, the Abducted, Guardian
  11. Enigma: Interrogator, Seeker, Problem
  12. Obtaining: Solicitor, Adversary or Arbitrator & Opposing Parties
  13. Enmity of Kinsmen: Malevolent Kinsmen, Reciprocally Hated Kin
  14. Rivalry of Kinsmen: Preferred Kinsman, Rejected Kin, Object
  15. Murderous Adultery: Two Adulterers, Murdered Spouse
  16. Madness: Madman, Victim
  17. Fatal Imprudence: Imprudent, Victim, Object Lost
  18. Involuntary Crimes of Love: Lover, Beloved, Revealer
  19. Slaying of Kinsman Unrecognized: Slayer, Unrecognized Victim
  20. Self-sacrificing for an Ideal: Hero, Ideal, Creditor, Sacrifice
  21. Self-sacrificing for Kindred: Hero, Kinsman, Creditor, Sacrifice
  22. All Sacrificed for Passion: Lover, Object of Passion, Sacrifice
  23. Necessity of Sacrificing Loved Ones: Hero, Beloved, Necessity
  24. Rivalry of Superior & Inferior: Superior, Inferior, Object
  25. Adultery: Two Adulterers, Betrayed Spouse
  26. Crimes of Love: Lover, Beloved, Social Norm
  27. Discovery of Dishonor of Beloved: Discoverer, Guilty One
  28. Obstacles to Love: Two Lovers, Obstacles
  29. An Enemy Loved: Beloved Enemy, Lover, Hater
  30. Ambition: Ambitious Person, Thing Coveted, Adversary
  31. Conflict with (a) God: A Mortal, an Immortal or Holy Principle
  32. Mistaken Jealousy: Jealous, Object, Accomplice, Perpetrator
  33. Erroneous Judgment: Mistaken One, Victim, Cause, Guilty
  34. Remorse: Culprit, Victim or Sin, Interrogator
  35. Recovery of Lost One: Seeker, One Found
  36. Murder of Loved One: Slain Kinsman, Spectator, Executioner.

That’s a lot to digest. I ran across a funny guy, Cecil Adams, who writes a syndicated weekly column called the Straight Dope. These plot scenarios are honed efficiently to 3-2-1 (Check out the literary plot. LOL).

Three. From The Basic Patterns of Plot by William Foster-Harris (1959). Not one to be distracted by unnecessary detail, F-H divines three basic plots: (1) happy ending, (2) unhappy ending, and (3) the “literary” plot, “in which the whole plot is done backwards [and] the story winds up in futility and unhappiness.” Examples of literary plots are drawn from Joyce, Pirandello, and other highfalutin’ types for whom F-H obviously has no use.

Two. Tobias concedes that his 20 plots boil down to 2, “plots of the body” and “plots of the mind.” Plots of the body are your action flicks, full of sound and fury, not necessarily signifying anything. Plots of the mind are more cerebral and often involve “searching for some kind of meaning,” which sounds dangerously like the literary plot disdained by Foster-Harris.

One. One school of thought holds that all stories can be summed up as Exposition/Rising Action/Climax/Falling Action/Denouement or to simplify it even further, Stuff Happens, although even at this level of generality we seem to have left out Proust.

My take-away from my research is:

  1. Recognize that writing has been around long enough to cover about every scenario, so don’t sweat it.
  2. Write your most creative vision of your story; it’s all you can do.
  3. These lists might come in handy when I’m looking for my next plot!

Posted by on January 16, 2012 in plotting, research, Theme, writers, writing craft


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10 responses to “The Plot Beckons

  1. Mary Vine

    January 16, 2012 at 10:23 AM

    This is great, Janis. I’m going to save it for plot ideas. Thanks for the research!

    • Janis

      January 16, 2012 at 3:59 PM

      It was interesting finding so many sources.

  2. ramblingsfromtheleft

    January 16, 2012 at 11:14 AM

    Janis, this is an amazing amount of research !! I love the conclusion that “stuff” happens 🙂

    • Janis

      January 16, 2012 at 4:00 PM

      Yeah, the stuff happens kind of says it all!

  3. Peggy Staggs

    January 16, 2012 at 1:59 PM

    I’m going to have to wrap my head with duct tape to keep it from exploding with all this information. My favorite plot situations is, Stuff Happens. Now that’s something I can work with.

    • Janis

      January 16, 2012 at 4:06 PM

      Exploding Head Syndrome affects many writers.

  4. Liz Fredericks

    January 16, 2012 at 2:59 PM

    Janis, this all comes in very handy for me as I’ve no formal training in fiction. It’s also comforting to have a sense we aren’t somehow missing some secret ingredient known only to the ‘cool kids’ on the writing scene. Thank you!

    • Janis

      January 16, 2012 at 4:06 PM

      You’re welcome. We are all the cool kids.

  5. rodstar1019

    January 22, 2012 at 5:59 PM

    Thanks for the research Janis. Most often you would have to pay for information like this.

    • Janis McCurry

      January 23, 2012 at 7:25 AM

      It was very interesting to me as well. Thanks for your comment.


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