Sunday, October 2, 2011

Same Shit, Different Day

Why is it that short stories, books, TV shows, or films seem to have the same sort of plot over and over again? Can't anyone be original anymore?  Well, yes and no. There's really only so many kind of plots that exist in the universe, and the challenge is to find a way to be original despite the natural laws of story-telling.

The context surrounding the basic plot of a story might change, but the essential conflicts can fall into seven categories: 

MAN vs man, nature, self, supernatural, society, machine/technology, and fate (destiny)

Now if we take these types of conflict and expand them to plot, there's really only so many ways to go when telling a story. Many of these can be combined, but I subscribe to Ronald Tobias' 20 Master Plots:

1) Quest - where hero is looking to achieve a goal. Lots of fantasy/sci-fi use this one
2) Adventure - similar to quest, but objective tends to be less tangible
3) Pursuit - think Travolta/Cage in Face Off. Or Catch Me If You Can.
4) Rescue - fairy tales love this one. But many action films do too. The Princess Bride is my favorite.
5) Escape - self explanatory. Many stories will actually have the word "Escape" in it (Escape from New York, Escape from Alcatraz)
6) Revenge - a cornerstone plot in both Westerns and Kung Fu movies
7) The Riddle - Sherlock Holmes is a good one. So is National Treasure. Indiana Jones combines this one with Quest and Adventure
8) Rivalry - West Side Story. Sports stories love this one too.
9) Underdog - Rocky is one of the best. I'm a fan of Napoleon Dynamite
10) Temptation - Classic example is Homer's The Odyssey. Hell, The Odyssey pretty much covers every single one of these plots!
11) Metamorphosis - My daughter loves The Princess Diaries.
12) Transformation - Think coming of age stories. So many good ones to choose from. SE Hinton's The Outsiders is a great example
13) Maturation - See "Transformation" above.
14) Love - the most popular. I can watch Casablanca over and over again.
15) Forbidden Love - Romeo & Juliet set the standard. The Twilight Series by Stephanie Meyer made it relevant to many teens and their mothers!
16) Sacrifice - King Arthur. Many quest stories use this plot line as well
17) Discovery - dramatic stories use discovery. Especially those dealing with major life issues. Think Kramer vs Kramer
18) Wretched Excess - Arthur (the Dudley Moore original) is a good example. One of the best is Johnny Depp in 2001's Blow. Incredible.
19) Ascension - Love the movie Pursuit of Happiness. Excellent example.  This plot involves a "rags to riches" sort of storyline. Who can forget Charlie Bucket in Willy Wonka?
20) Descension - To have it all, then to lose it really sucks. The Jerk is one funny example. The Bible has a bunch of stories depicting riches to rags too.

Ever read a book or watch a movie or TV show that just felt like something was missing? Chances are the plot line wasn't developed well enough, as we seek these plot devices. We've come to expect them, and without them, the story feels pretty pointless. We need them.

Think about your favorite story. The best ones utilize as many of these plots as possible. They keep us engaged and interested in the characters and their stories.


Anonymous said...

Love this, Jay. Thanks for posting it.

The Desert Rocks said...

Thanks for sharing this list. I started wondering where something like Seven Pounds with Will Smith would go and I guess that would fall under Sacrifice. I then started thinking about my recent Noir story and wondered where that would fall-- I guess that is also sacrifice. I think this list is great!

Jay Noel said...

Okay, I LOVE that movie. Will Smith was great. I would say it definitely has Sacrifice. But I would add that there's some Forbidden Love. He fell in love with the heart failure girl, and that wasn't "supposed" to happen.

Phats said...

Great post for sure loved the list!

I had no idea you went to SEMO? You played any tennis? my last junior matches are tomorrow and wed

Jay Noel said...

Yeah Phats, I played tennis the 1st year they went to Division I. But they disbanded the men's team a year later. Just kept the womens (Title IX) and all. I didn't like college tennis, as the other guys were a bunch of pricks. High school tennis was an incredible experience - probably why I loved coaching it for the 5 yrs I was a teacher.

T. S. Bazelli said...

Good to be reminded of this list. I think I have it printed somewhere but haven't looked at it in a while!

Tiyana, aka "Yoyo" said...

This is great.

I feel like some of the best stories are the ones that several things going on in them. It's not all narrowly about "saving the world" or "getting the girl" or whatever it may be. Having layers adds richness and complexity.

Though, I guess you could just as likely take this too far until it has so much stuff going on that it just becomes convoluted, heh.

Jay Noel said...

I keep a list of these as well. It's a great reference.

I too like long as it's manageable. Too many layers becomes too much work for the writer AND reader!

Anonymous said...

Wow, this is super interesting. Thanks for commenting on my blog and leading me here!

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