Mastering Plot

So you’ve decided to write a story. You have a cast of amazing characters, you’ve settled down with your drink of choice and your favorite writing accoutrements, and you’re all set to write The Best Story Ever.

And you have no idea what to do with those characters. You need a plot.

According to Ronald B. Tobias, there are twenty “master” plotsthat encompass all of human storytelling (or at least the whole of Western canon and the most famous examples of Asian and possibly African canon—literary theory is racist and imperfect so take this with a healthy grain of salt). These master plots are:

  1. Quest
  2. Adventure
  3. Pursuit
  4. Rescue
  5. Escape
  6. Revenge
  7. The Riddle
  8. Rivalry
  9. Underdog
  10. Temptation
  11. Metamorphosis
  12. Transformation
  13. Maturation
  14. Love
  15. Forbidden Love
  16. Sacrifice
  17. Discovery
  18. Wretched Excess
  19. Ascension
  20. Descension

I find Tobias’s Master Plots extremely useful as a guide to help frame a plot, because like many writers, I am very good at beginnings and endings but not as strong at middles.

So if you have a bunch of characters with personalities and backstories but you don’t quite know what to do with them, the master plots can help you decide on a plot structure that suits them. Remember: The key word here is “help.” The plot structure you choose should serve the characters’ extant goals, drives, and exploit the conflicts inherent to their personalities, not just be the one that makes you think, “Oh, that’d be cool!”

In my own work, I like to separate The Plot (macro) from The Story (micro). The Story is all the details of what happens to the characters, while The Plot is what’s happening at large to propel the story forward.

Example: The Story of Hamlet is everything with ghosts and murders and damned incest and depressed Danish princes, while the Plot is the backdrop of international politics that’s happening during Hamlet’s breakdown and in spite of it.

Another example in this vein would be a long-running D&D campaign if/when a character dies and a new one is created. The Plot, in this case a Quest, must still go on.

The Plot has to keep moving forward (somehow) in spite of the Story (or Stories) happening between the characters. I’d advise against having more than one or two Plots in a given piece, but you can have as many Stories as you can juggle, and you can use the same list of types for Stories as well as Plots.

So, let’s say you have a deeply religious fellow as your main character—we’ll call him George. You decide to build a Forbidden Love plot around George. (Tobias differentiates a Forbidden Love plot from a Love plot because in this master list, a Forbidden Love always ends tragically.)

In this plot, George can still have a Rivalry with another character or make Sacrifices for his friends or family, and even go on Adventures, but none of those are the central point of tension in the piece. The driving force of the narrative, the thing that pushes George forward, is that tragic Forbidden Love plot.

As I said above, the key thing to remember about using a master plot to structure your story is that one word, “help.” The plot structure hasto make sense for the characters you have—for all of your supporting characters as well as your main ones. You can make almost any set of characters work with almost any plot…but then the word to remember is “work.” Some plots aren’t a good fit for some characters, and while you can do the extra legwork to make them fit, it will take more time and more effort on your part and might well end up not being the story you wanted or needed to write.

Figure out who your characters are, what motivates them and what they need, and then decide on a plot that is most suited to those needs and motivations. It doesn’t necessarily mean the characters will all get what they want, in the end, but it does mean that you as the author will be utilizing your characters to their best advantage to serve the needs of the story.

Now go forth and plot!

A. F. Linley

A. F. Linley was born in Connecticut and raised in New York's Capital District. She is a long-time government copy editor and a casual writer of various types of fiction (including government copy). She wrote her first story when she was nine and decided to pursue writing as a career when some well-meaning but foolish elementary school teacher assured her that she could make a living at this. She lives with her partner near Saratoga and is frequently mistaken for a competent adult. You can find more of her writing at aflinley.com or or patreon.com/aflinley.