Plot Basics

What is a plot, anyway?

How many plots are there, really?  Ask a hundred writers and you may get a hundred answers, but you will find a consistent note in the answers: that the number of plots in this universe is limited and every storyteller since the beginning of history has merely tweaked the same plots over and over.

This question came up recently in a discussion.  One famous author, who shall remain nameless, was definitive in his answer.  He said:  “There are many themes. Hundreds to thousands. But there are only four basic plots. Man against man, man against nature, man against God, and man against himself.”

A second, nameless author came right back.  She said:  “As for basic plots, there are really only three and they were painted on their authors’ cave walls long ago: man against man. man against god [which includes ‘nature’], man against himself.”

Then someone (I’m sorry.  It may have been me) pointed out that Aristotle saw only two plots in the universe:  Internal (character oriented) plots and external (action or event oriented) plots.  Frankly, I like Aristotle better, because it avoids the word “against.”  At the same time, though, I think we can expand on these ideas a little.  Maybe we should call them “plot-themes” though, to avoid the ire of certain authors who shall remain nameless…

What is a plot?

When I began this series of posts, I compared a story to a house.  The setting was the house itself in a settled location and also the props: the furniture and all the little knick-knacks that turn a house into a home.  The characters are, naturally, the people and often the animals who live there and interact: from whence comes the story.  Plot, I said, was like the air.  It fills every room and is the medium through which all action takes place and through which all words must be spoken (since sound does not travel in a vacuum).  Without air, all die; and it has a peculiar virtue in that air is invisible.  So a plot should be invisible, at least until needed.

Plot is needed in two ways:  First, it is needed by the storyteller to keep them on track—to help them tell the story they intend to tell.  Second, it is needed by the storyteller to explain the story when the inevitable question arises:  “What is your story about?”


Sticking with the story we have butchered in the course of these posts, how would you describe the story of Cinderella?  If you are like my sixteen-year-old son, you will probably start at the beginning and tell the whole thing, taking longer than it would take to watch the Disney movie.  After the third sentence, though, the movie producer would be snoring and probably have you bodily ejected from the building.  I’ve read too many query letters like that.  So that won’t do.

How about setting?  It’s a medieval kind of story full of castles and clocks chiming twelve and shoes…  That really doesn’t tell us anything.  It might spark some interest in a medieval buff or someone with a clock fetish or Imelda Marcos, but even those people will ask for more information.

So maybe character?  It is about a good girl and a wicked step-mother and step-sisters, and a charming prince… Oh, and there’s a fairy in it. Can’t forget the fairy, to which the movie producer is likely to say, “So?”  Again, character alone doesn’t really say anything.  What is the story about?  You want to include character and maybe setting in a query letter for your novel, but the letter needs to be focused on something else.  Pot is what the story is about.  I can describe Cinderella with one word:


Not even venturing into the written word, mister movie producer, how many successful movies have been built around the underdog theme?  The Bad News Bears, the Mighty Ducks, Rocky…  How about Home Alone, You’ve Got Mail, It’s a Wonderful Life, or maybe Elf?? 

Not every one of these movies (and the larger list of movies, books, stories and plays that you can probably build) are purely underdog stories, but the gist of the story is there.  In Cinderella’s case, a good little girl is crushed under her stepmother’s thumb, but by her loving nature, and with a little magical help, she is able to overcome her adverse condition and leap-frog over the head of her oppressor into the arms of happiness…  Do you think?

Plot and Theme:  Finding a way in the story wilderness.

Last week I talked with two people, professional writers with numerous books to their credit, and even they can’t agree on the idea of plot.  What they came up with was (“J” 4, “M” 3):  Man against man, Man against God—with man against nature separate or included–and Man against himself. 

What I would like to talk about over the next few weeks is more than 3 or 4 plots.  Of course “J” would probably insist I was writing about themes.  Sheesh!  We can’t even agree on the terminology…  Then again, that may be a strong reason as to why plot has been so misunderstood and, I feel, poorly taught in so many settings.

Out of deference to my friend, I want to talk about 3 themes, each of which may be divided into several plots.  In every case (where I can) I will also try to show how these plots might be tailored to internal (character focused) stories and external (event or action) stories..  Working, then, from back to front:

The third theme I call plots of the heart (or maybe soul or spirit if you prefer those terms).  This is not to say all other plots are devoid of an emotional component, only…It will be a while before I get there.

The second theme will be journey plots.  There are many ways one pursues a quest, and they only occasionally end in funeral plots. (Sorry.  I had to work that in here somewhere)  ANYWAY…   This will be the second theme: a journey of one kind or another,

The first theme I want to tackle are plots of competition, and I put it first only because our study of Cinderella has already given us a competitive plot:  The Underdog.  Plots of competition really include all of the plots my professional writing friends named.  These are plots where there is an “against,” as in, Man against man (the obvious one), but also against God, against Nature and against the self. 

I also put plots of competition first because they are the ones that invariably (though not always) include a protagonist (good guy) and antagonist (bad guy) and so they are the ones everyone thinks of when they think of the word “plot.”  Every story has to have a protagonist and an antagonist, doesn’t it?  No… But for the most part, plots of competition do.

NOW THE DISCLAIMER:  I should maybe post this each time…  No plot is pure apart from some simple short stories and fairy tales.  Every story, and certainly every novel, movie and play will be complicated by sub-plots of one kind or another.  So when I give an example, I am NOT saying it is the ONLY thing the book is about.  I am only saying, in my opinion, it is the MAIN plot in the story (or if not main plot, I will point that out).  Your opinion may vary.  I repeat:  Your opinion may vary.

NOW THE PREPARATION:  In the course of these posts, I will not (normally) give much of a template.  The idea isn’t to plug your characters, and setting into the slots and produce a story.  It is enough to have examples and hopefully get the idea of how the particular plot works.  How you tailor the plot to your story is what will make your story great!

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