First, let’s hear from the sceptics:
“All notions of paradigms and foolproof story models for commercial success are nonsense… No one needs another recipe book on how to reheat Hollywood leftovers… If your vision is deep and original, your story design will be unique… Great screenwriters are distinguished by a personal storytelling style, a style that’s not only inseparable from their vision, but in a profound way is their vision.”
—Robert McKee, ‘Story’ (p. 3, 9)
“I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless… and second, because I believe that plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible… Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and laboured… My books tend to be based on situation rather than story… I want to put a group of characters into some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free. My job isn’t to help them work their way free, or manipulate them to safety… but to watch what happens and then write it down.”
—Stephen King, ‘On Writing’ (p. 163-164)
There’s a lot to agree with here, but I think King in particular makes two ‘mistakes’, or maybe they're just over-simplifications. Firstly, stories are not simply life transcribed. Even seemingly plotless slice-of-life films and books have been given an aesthetic – therefore, fundamentally artificial – shape, by the selection and exclusion of events, if nothing else.
Secondly, I think King takes his obviously well developed sense of story for granted. He may not consciously ‘plot’ his stories, but he doesn’t need to. He doubtless has the sort of brain (whether by nature or by long practice) that unconsciously sees story patterns unfolding well out ahead of him before his conscious mind even knows that he’s doing it. And he chooses situations for his characters that naturally produce plot, as opposed, say, to a middle-aged woman going through a divorce. That's a perfectly legitimate literary subject, but it doesn't readily suggest a plot.
As McKee tells us, that 'story talent' is perhaps more rare than the literary talent of expressing one’s ideas beautifully (p. 26, 27). And like other talents, it needs to be nurtured and strengthened through practice.
The obvious way to do that is to read as much as possible (especially when young), and not just to read but also to analyse, to notice patterns, to know the kind of story you are reading and, later, trying to write. If you can’t do that, you are going to be groping in the dark to create stories of your own. Or, if you do succeed in writing something, you will be helpless to know why it does or doesn’t work. If you want to know why one story works—say a story you admire—and why another doesn’t (maybe the one you are working on), it may help you to have some tools to describe different story types and where they can go off the rails.
Furthermore, in other moods, I think King would agree with me. After all, like John Gardner (‘The Art of Fiction’), he recommends not writing what you know—that is, fictionalizing your autobiography—but writing the kind of story that you know best. If you love sci-fi or horror, and that’s what you read, as King did in his youth, write that kind of story. Surely part of the reason for this is that you know implicitly what the conventions of those stories are, the audience expectations, the pitfalls, and clichés, so that you have some hope of doing it better. (This is what McKee recommends, but in terms of knowing your genre, not a basic set of plots.)
To that end, then, what I want to do here is just to give readers some references to various useful ways of categorizing and identifying story types—whether by plot, genre, or some other criterion. Not so that anyone will sit down and say to themselves, “Oh, I’ve never written a ‘Voyage and Return’ story. Maybe I’ll try that.” (Not that you shouldn’t, of course; that’s as good a jumping off point as any other.) But rather as a diagnostic tool, so that a writer who is having trouble with a story might realize, “Oh, because my story IS a ‘Voyage and Return’ story – and I didn’t realize that – the audience is going to have certain expectations of that story type, and I need to both anticipate those expectations – to see what the story needs – and, if possible, meet them in a surprising way that the audience can’t predict – to give them the thrill of reading something really new.”
So let’s get to it. I'll give you my first chart - don't panic! - and then go through the sources one-by-one so you'll understand how to interpret it.
Type of Conflict - (Hu)man vs. X
We all remember this system from our elementary or secondary school educations. To avoid the taint of sexism, let’s call it ‘Human vs. X’. This helps us in three ways: (1) to focus on what kind of person our hero/protagonist is, (2) what he/she wants, and (3) what the obstacles or barriers are.
The Classic 3 are: Human vs. God, Human vs. Nature, Human vs. Human
But in more modern stories it might be: Human vs. Monster, Alien, the Supernatural, Human vs. Technology, Human vs. Society, an Institution (including something like the Family), and Human vs. Self.
These obstacles – or sources of antagonism – vary in the extent to which they overpower the protagonist and whether they are external or internal to your hero. As it shifts toward more and more interior sorts of obstacles, or a hybrid – the family is both an institution (external) and built out of deep personal bonds of love and affection (internal) – it gets closer to what McKee calls 'Miniplot'. Thus, these types of conflict produce rather different story forms and lend themselves to different genres: Human vs. the Supernatural (Horror), Human vs. Institution (Social Drama, Courtroom Drama, Prison break stories, etc.), Human vs. Self (any number of more and more interiorized forms of modern literary fiction, etc.).
Northrup Frye - Theory of Fictional Modes
‘Anatomy of Criticism’ (1957)
Canada's pre-eminent 20th century literary critic, Frye developed several ways of classifying stories. The one that concerns us here is based on the relative status of the audience vis-à-vis the hero. He had five categories: Mythic (a hero with God-like powers, maybe Superman), Romantic (a hero with superhuman or supernatural powers, say Luke Skywalker), High Mimetic (a high-status human, such a king or president, or maybe Batman or James Bond), Low Mimetic (the common man, like the reader), and Ironic (a lowly protagonist or one to whom the reader can comfortably condescend).
Why does this matter? It doesn’t really, if you are a child - or a child at heart - and you enjoy Superhero fantasies. But most adults have trouble identifying with such protagonists. They need something a little closer to their own real lived experience. If we are watching fantasy or something that goes well outside of our normal reality, we need a surrogate in the world of the story: a normal, rational, maybe sceptical human who reacts to and functions in this fantastical world the way we would.
If we take the example of ‘Star Wars’ and ‘The Matrix’, we start with a Low Mimetic protagonist (Luke/Neo) – an average guy just like us. Over the course of the story, however, he ascends into the realm of the Romantic or Mythic hero: Luke and Neo achieve superhuman status. Thus, they become quite remote from us. We can't ‘relate’ to them as easily as we could at the beginning, because they are no longer ‘like’ us (except in our fantasies). Which is why Han Solo is the REAL hero of ‘Star Wars’ (okay, maybe not the real hero, but the audience favourite), because he is a regular guy like us: sceptical, pragmatic, a bit self-serving. That is, a normal human. He is our surrogate in the world of the story. He helps us feel at home there while all this weird stuff is going on around him and the other characters.
Frye’s theory also helps us to understand the different emotions aroused by the same basic story type – the death of a good character – depending on where that hero sits on that hierarchy: Mythic (Jesus), Romantic (Icarus, King Arthur, Boromir), High Mimetic (Hamlet, Othello, Romeo, etc.), Low Mimetic (Willy Loman in ‘Death of a Salesman’), Ironic (Gregor Samsa in ‘The Metamorphosis’). Contra Arthur Miller’s famous essay about ‘Salesman’ as a modern tragedy, the death of an average schlub, like us, or someone we can comfortably feel superior to (Samsa), does not arouse the same feelings as that of someone we admire (our social superiors) or adore (our superhuman heroes) or worship (gods).
As we shall see, Norman Friedman – whose system of 14 plots is partially based on our emotional attitude toward the protagonist – would say the Jesus story is an Admiration Plot, ‘Hamlet’/’Othello’, etc., are properly Tragic, and that ‘Salesman’/’Metamorphosis’ are Pathetic Plots, because they show a more or less passive character experiencing a fate that – deserved or not – simply worsens and worsens.
Robert McKee – Archplot vs. Miniplot
‘Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting’ (1997)
In his excellent book ‘Story' Robert McKee presents two useful ways of categorizing stories, one based on the type of hero and conflict (similar to ‘Human vs. X’), and one that is simply a list of genres and some of their common elements. He strongly advises a writer to "know your genre" - and, he says, we are all genre writers. There is no story you can write that is not similar in some way, shape or form to another, so you had better know that form to avoid its pitfalls and clichés.
McKee’s four story patterns are: Archplot, Miniplot, Antiplot, and Non-plot. He structures these in a triangular relationship (with non-plot sitting outside the triangle, for obvious reasons), but there are only a few key insights that we need to focus on here. For the rest, I strongly encourage you to consult his book.
What McKee calls the ‘Archplot’ is the complex of elements that go into any classically composed story, things like: a single, active protagonist pursuing a definite goal, a causal – rather than coincidental – relationship between story events, and linear progression through time. Furthermore, the protagonist must undergo irrevocable change, and all the major tensions the story arouses must be resolved.
He insists this is not Western or culturally-determined, this is the fundamental way humans create and understand most stories, indeed, it is the way we construct our own memories and project ourselves toward our future hopes and aspirations. For that reason, the further you move away from this master plot, the smaller the audience for such stories necessarily is.
The hallmarks of what he calls ‘minimalism’ (or ‘Miniplot’) are passive protagonists with unclear goals/motivations who are just knocked about by random forces and don’t undergo any clear, permanent change, and the story as a whole lacks a satisfying resolution. These are less popular not because they are terrible works of art—he explicitly acknowledges that there are “glittering masterpieces” at each corner of the story triangle—but because they just don’t reflect the way most people experience or conceptualize their own lives.
For the purposes of what follows, I am not going to address ‘Antiplot’ or ‘Non-plot’, since probably 95% of all stories that audiences actually read, watch or hear fall along the ‘Archplot’ / ‘Miniplot’ side of the triangle. And most of the problems writers run into starting out—passive protagonists, unclear motivation—lie there too.
His list of genres is extremely useful for being so extensive (he lists no less than 11 types of crime story), but I share Booker and Snyder’s desire to look past genre to basic plot types, and I think their systems are broadly successful at doing so. However, do consult McKee’s list (p. 80-86). And see the section on Christopher Booker & Blake Snyder below.
Kurt Vonnegut – The Shapes of Stories
Palm Sunday (1981), A Man Without A Country (2005)
Vonnegut comes at the question of basic stories types from a different direction, that of shape – the rise and fall, on a kind of graph, of the protagonist’s progression through the story. This is, indeed, an insightful and convenient way to conceptualize stories. Vonnegut comes up with 8 variations, but I would suggest that there are substantial similarities that allow us to reduce it to essentially 4 patterns (take a look at Maya Eilan’s beautiful info graphics and see if you agree):
I am going to rename this Masterplot (but it would include Vonnegut’s ‘Man in a Hole’, ‘Boy Meets Girl’, ‘Cinderella’, ‘New Testament’, and 'Creation')
Rise–Rise–Fall (‘Old Testament’, and maybe a tragedy of the ‘Macbeth’ type)
- (Fall)-Rise-Fall-Rise-Fall, etc. (‘Which Way Is Up?’)
- Fall–Fall–Fall (‘From Bad to Worse’)
(There is also Rise–Rise–Rise (‘Creation’), which Vonnegut acknowledges is a rare form in modern storytelling. I would include it as the very beginning of the Masterplot.)
Obviously, the Masterplot would map onto McKee’s Archplot. Any Shakespearean tragedy, except ‘Hamlet’ (which Vonnegut places in ‘Which Way is Up?’), would also fall into the broad category of an Archplot because the protagonist is active and has a goal, it’s just that the results are catastrophic instead of triumphant. (McKee’s ‘Archplot’ says nothing about happy or unhappy endings; it just requires irrevocable change, and death certainly is that!)
With modern examples of ‘From Bad to Worse’ stories, like Kafka’s ‘The Metamorphosis’, it makes more sense to group them with McKee’s ‘Miniplot’, because it is not clear that Gregor Samsa has done anything to deserve his miserable fate. It seems rather like a random curse, perhaps from a cruel or mischievous God. And there is nothing Gregor can do to get himself out of that hole.
One of the problems Vonnegut discovers is that in some cases – ‘Hamlet’ is his signal example – it is not really possible to say whether each development of the plot is positive or negative. So, he says, these ‘Which Way is Up?’ stories have a life-like ambiguity to them, and we can group them with McKee’s ‘Miniplot’.
However, one could argue that Vonnegut’s mistake is in making his Y axis ‘Good vs. Ill Fortune’, since ‘Fortune’ concerns only external events – money, fame, success, wealth, etc. – and is neutral on the question of causation/coincidence, and whether these twists of fate are deserved/underserved. Good or ill fortune does not address internal changes of character or thought (worldview). So what he is really running into in ‘Hamlet’ is a genre problem: he’s treating it as an ‘Action Plot’ (Tragedy), but much of Hamlet’s meaning derives from a ‘Character Plot’ (whether Degeneration, Disillusionment, or actually a kind of Maturation – it remains open to debate, and has for over 400 years!). The question is not whether Hamlet met with good or bad fortune by the end; he is dead, so certainly that is bad fortune. The question is, has he improved or degenerated morally (is it a character plot?), has his view of the world changed meaningfully (is it a plot of thought?), and do we – as an audience – feel that his death is, if not deserved, then the poetically correct ending for his character? Such an assessment requires a more complex system of plots or story forms than Vonnegut’s system of 4 to 8 (depending on whether or not you accept my condensing of his list).
‘Form and Meaning in Fiction’ (1975)
American literary critic Norman Friedman identifies 14 plot ‘forms’ based on whether we sympathize with the protagonist or not, and thus, whether we think his or her ultimate fate is admirable, tragic, pathetic, etc. He makes the simple but useful point that: “A good man achieving good fortune [‘Forrest Gump’], a bad man achieving good fortune [Michael Corleone in ‘The Godfather’], a good man suffering bad fortune [‘Death of a Salesman’], and a bad man undergoing bad fortune [‘Macbeth’], for example, produce different effects and therefore comprise different kinds of plots” (p. 83) [Examples mine.]
He divides his scheme into 3 groups: Plots of Fortune, of Character, and of Thought – roughly mirroring McKee’s shift from external objectives and obstacles to internal ones.
Note that each story type has a positive or negative final (emotional) charge – Action (+), Admiration (+), Degeneration (-), Pathetic (-), and that some are positive and negative versions of the same basic plot: Education (+), Disillusionment (-). In the cases of ‘Revelation’ and ‘Affective’ plots, the charge depends on the type of change brought about, and could go either way.
Most of his plots turn either on our ATTITUDE toward the character’s fate – tragic, sentimental, punitive, admiring, etc. – or on the PROCESS of change the character goes through, be it one of education, maturation, reform, disillusionment, degeneration, change of affect, etc. But the ‘Revelation Plot’* doesn’t fit either of these two broad categories – it describes neither an attitude nor a process, but rather a story EVENT: the learning of some previously hidden or secret information.
So I would suggest that ‘Revelation’ is not a plot type, so much as it is a plot device or mechanic, and how it serves to shape a story depends on where, when and how it is deployed.
If early in the story – as in ‘The Matrix’ (Neo learns the world is an illusion) – it may serve as a kind of inciting incident that leads into a completely other type of story (a Hero’s Quest, an Action Plot, etc.). If it comes near the end of the story, as the revelations of incest in ‘Chinatown’ and John Sayles’ ‘Lone Star’ do, it is more likely to disillusion or change the affect of the characters, both plots of Thought. (For a story in which the revelation of incest actually leads to a positive resolution, see the excellent Alan Rickman film ‘Close My Eyes’.)
Christopher Booker & Blake Snyder
‘The Seven Basic Plots’ (Booker, 2004) and ‘Save the Cat’ (Snyder, 2005)
Booker, in the world of literature, and Snyder, in the world of film, each present a very concise system of basic plots or story types by which – they believe – all stories within their respective realms can be described, or at least understood. As McKee says, these systems are bound to fail (p. 79). Or, rather, by being too simple, they necessarily gloss over complexities and subtleties that are useful to readers and writers. Nonetheless, there is something appealing about the idea that there are only so many basic stories, as there are only so many basic human drives, vices and virtues: survival, ambition, pride, love, thirst for justice or freedom, self-sacrifice, etc.
What they share is to find the structures that lie below surface-level genre similarities – which has more to do with time and setting than with plot – in favour of plot types, which leads to interesting categorizations. I’ll give you the list, and then we’ll look at some clarifying examples. Fortunately, the names are pretty straightforward and should immediately call several stories to mind for you. (But see the additional large chart below for classical and modern examples of each type.
So, for Booker, both Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and Tolstoy’s ‘War and Piece’ are Comedies because they are about young people in love who face various obstacles before they can finally be together, which is an accurate description of both stories. If we think only in terms of genre, they might seem wildly different, one a kind of domestic Love Story and the other a Historical Epic (not that these aren’t also useful descriptors – just that they don’t tell us much about what actually has to happen in the story).
Similarly, Snyder would argue that ‘Home Alone’, ‘Alien’ and ‘Panic Room’ share the same basic plot (‘Monster in the House’), even though – in terms of genre – one is a Family Comedy, one a Sci-Fi Horror film, and the other a Thriller. Note too that the 'monster' in these stories can be a metaphorical monster, like an addiction, which is why I have classed 'Trainspotting' in this group.
According to Snyder, not just Batman and Superman, but James Bond, Indiana Jones and ‘The Gladiator’ are examples of ‘Superhero(es)’ – they have the same story structure, even though they fall into superficially different genres (superhero, spy thriller, adventure, historical epic).
Where I see inadequacies in Booker’s system is that he only has one story type (Tragedy) in which the main character usually dies at the end, and it always has a negative emotional charge. But there have to be other ways in which a story can end with the death of the protagonist in which there is a kind of victory in death (‘Martyrdom’), or in which death is accidental or natural and thus does nothing to diminish his/her previous achievements, nor to impugn his/her character (say, the accidental death of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’). I want to call this type ‘Epic’, because the focus of the story is on the protagonist's spectacular achievement - often in war or against a much bigger adversary, like the State - not on whether or how he/she dies at the end.
And then I think there is another type of happy ending that has been missed which is ‘Family Reunification’. These stories are driven by a more or less serious form of generational conflict. In Shakespeare, his later ‘Problem Plays’ and ‘Late Romances’ are essentially complicated comedies, wherein the love plot is less important than the chasm between the generations, or the alienation of family members, which must be healed. This could also be seen to include some contemporary sibling stories, such as Kenneth Lonnergan’s excellent ‘You Can Count On Me’ and the recent dramedy ‘Skeleton Twins’.
I’ve also added ‘Devil’s Bargain’ to the group of stories that includes ‘Voyage and Return’ (Booker) and ‘Out of the Bottle’ (Snyder). What these stories have in common is, usually, a magical transformation (a wish granted or a curse inflicted), a feeling of unreality – was it all just a dream? – and the usual result is the protagonist’s renewed appreciation for his/her regular life (so a Reform or Affective Plot). ‘Devil’s Bargain’ is the darkest version – ‘Faust’ being the classic example, ‘Dorian Gray’ the more modern one – wherein what seems initially to be a blessing (a wish granted or power bestowed) turns out to be a curse, even a trap that leads the character on to death. But sometimes it is the reverse, a curse that turns out to be a blessing, as in the excellent book and film ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ (with Sophie as the protagonist).
Snyder adds several plots that Booker does not address: Superhero, Dude With a Problem, Institutionalized, Rites of Passage, Whydunnit (Mystery), though some of them might be collapsed into some of Booker’s categories (which are essentially classical/literary in nature).
‘Institutionalized’ is an important modern plot type in which an individual or group of individuals fight for dignity, freedom or justice against an institution. (I believe McKee would call these ‘Social Dramas’, which is a useful categorization in other ways, but again, doesn’t tell us much about what has to happen in the story.) See my post on ‘Hopes & Fears’ for more on confinement as the underlying fear, and freedom as the underlying hope of these stories.
Snyder’s ‘Dude With a Problem’ maps neatly onto Vonnegut’s ‘Man in a Hole’ and may be taken to be – in its most general form – a kind of Masterplot: protagonist starts in one situation, things get dramatically worse, then through heroic struggle and strain things get better again and end happily. (See 90% of all stories ever written or filmed!)
‘Rites of Passage’ is a useful if very general category because it points out a problem we haven’t addressed yet, which is that the situation of the protagonist at the beginning of the story has a great deal to do with what the MEANING of the story will be, even if the plot is substantially the same. This would include things like class, age, gender, geographic location, even whether the person is human or super-human (think ‘Superman’, ‘Harry Potter’, etc.) and all the constraints imposed by the protagonist’s initial situation.
Take the original ‘Star Wars’, ‘The Lord of the Rings’, ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, ‘BladeRunner’, and any mystery you care to name (let’s say ‘Chinatown’, just for example), are all essentially Quest stories: a protagonist with a clear goal to do, find, get, or get rid of something (whether it’s an object, an objective, or an answer to the question ‘Whodunit?’), and as they get closer to their goal, the stakes are continually raised, such that their very life will be in danger at several points along the way. Again, the genres differ – space opera, fantasy, adventure, science fiction, mystery – but the basic plot structure is substantially the same.
But if the hero is a child or young person (as in ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Lord of the Rings’), then the MEANING of the story is about maturation, about growing up and becoming an adult. So the story is also an example of ‘Rites of Passage’. If the hero is already an adult, as Indiana Jones, Jake Gittes and Rick Deckard are, the meaning is different. The character will be changed irrevocably by the experience, but it is not the same kind of educative or maturational experience as in a classical Quest. (See Joseph Campbell’s work on The Hero’s Journey.) Maybe the character moves from scepticism to belief, or the opposite – from relative certainty to deep existential confusion or even despair.
In any case, ‘Rites of Passage’ remains a useful category for stories about the more prosaic changes we all experience in our lives – puberty, driver’s licences, leaving home, marriage, divorce, death of parents, and on and on. 2014’s excellent ‘Boyhood’ – a virtually plotless, slice-of-life film – could hardly be described any other way than as a ‘Rites of Passage’ story.
The chart below shows some of the thematic, mechanical, and formal aspects of different story types. However, it is impossible to map many these stories in a one-to-one relationship onto Friedman’s (very useful) system of Fortune, Character and Thought plots, because it depends on how the story develops and resolves itself. You can have an ‘Institutionalized’ story that ends badly (‘1984’) and thus would be a Disillusionment plot, or that ends well (‘The Shawshank Redemption’) and thus becomes an Action or Admiration plot, or that ends ambivalently (‘Serpico’) and thus is a mix of Admiration and Disillusionment plots.
Similarly, you can have a ‘From Bad to Worse’ story (pathetic plot) that ends tragically – ‘Thelma & Louise’ – that nonetheless carries a positive final charge, because it is drawing on aspects of Comedy/Buddy Love (sentimental plot) and Rebirth (reform plot). Or a quest/search plot that ends well (‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’), ends in failure (‘Citizen Kane’), or ends in disillusionment (‘Chinatown’), all giving us a very different final emotional charge.
‘The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations’ (1916)
McKee is rather dismissive of these, but I think they are worth looking at. They are not plots or story types so much as they are events or episodes that might begin or end a story. I’ve organized them into THEMES, as that seems more useful to me. And if you think things like ‘supplication’ sound old-fashioned and out of date, which they do, nonetheless think about how the first ‘Godfather’ begins, or the trade in favours that any political drama is bound to get into at some point and I think you’ll see that until human nature changes, this situations will still give rise to compelling stories.
There is also a book called ‘20 Master Plots’ by Ronald Tobias (reprint 2012). Again, many of these are more plot devices, motives, inciting incidents, etc. But they too have their value, and overlap substantially with all the plots we’ve already looked at.
The goal here is to take what’s useful about these simplifications of complex matters and use them to get a better handle on the complex beast that is whatever you are writing. They can help us to avoid the clichés of the territory – by recognizing what territory you are in! – or help us to tap into the deep wells and resonances of story in each of us that enables audiences to relate to and engage with the stories we want to tell. Having a way to conceptualize what the range of basic story types is – whether McKee’s, Vonnegut’s, Booker’s or Snyder’s – can only help in that battle.
So, I will leave you with a gallery of all the charts to ponder over. These are just attempts to draw linkages and suggest branching out points or divergences between essentially similar stories. If the charts are not clear, reach out to me and I’ll try to explain!
Want more? For Part 1 of my series on Resources for Writers, click on 'Hopes & Fears'. And watch for the next instalment: Improv Rules for creating great scenes. Coming soon!