More on Plot as the One Guiding Decision
A Continuation of the Previous Blog — which was shorter 😉 .

Detailed Look at the 7 Types of Plot

The title of this chapter in Think like a Pro is “One Guiding Decision :: Plot It”, and plot is truly the guiding decision for any writing.

While many plot structures abound (and several are discussed later in the Think/Pro chapter), it is the 7 Plot Types that will give the KEY that every writer needs to use to unlock story.

That KEY is coming, I promise, but first let’s look at the three required elements for each of the 7 Plot Types.

Even NonFiction Uses Plot

Most nonfiction writing is explaining / informing or persuading / arguing.  Even so, Booker’s 7 Types of plot work equally well as a guide for the informing / persuading writer. 

Just remember, in nonfiction, the plot may look more like the outline of an essay.

  • The famed Who Moved my Cheese? by Spencer Johnson is actually Overcoming the Monster.
  • Dave Ramsay’s Financial Peace is classic Rags to Riches.
  • Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihali is The Quest.
  • The influential Seven Habits of Highly Influential People (Stephen Covey) teaches a basic reformation of thought: Rebirth.

On and on, when we look at nonfiction, we see that Booker’s 7 Types are also guiding decisions that focus the text.

Think like a Pro could be cast as Rebirth or Overcoming the Monster, but I have focused my little manual as the Quest.  Elements of the other types do come into play, just as any informative writing includes elements of argument, of description, and of narration (the so-called four modes of writing).

Fiction Definitely Uses Plot

Let’s examine the 7 Types of Plot more closely to determine the three required elements demanded of each.

Overcoming the Monster

This category is not as simple as it seems.  We often have difficulty overcoming monsters in our lives.  The monsters are not as easily identified as they are in the movies.

Always remember:  Not all monsters wear black hats, as they did in Roy Rogers westerns.

  1. We must identify the scaring and scarring evil with blood-stained claws. Be it a vampire or merely a life-sucking job, a philandering spouse or an oppressive dictator, all are monsters who destroy other people’s lives.  The invidious monsters are the ones who seem friendly, the ones who seem to help our protagonist, the ones who would never, not in a million years, do anything to hurt anyone.  In writing more than basic genre, have your protagonist struggle to identify the real monster.
  2. We have to acquire the tools needed to defeat the monster. To become a vampire slayer, Buffy had a training schedule;  our protagonists must train as well.  If the monster is a life-sucking boss, what does the protagonist need to do to re-set the boundaries between job and life?  How will the philandering spouse be discovered?  What will enlighten the protagonist to the invidious monsters who present themselves as friends?  How will the now-aware protagonist develop the skills necessary to step up and stand against the seemingly-innocent monster?
  3. The actual battle often requires the sacrifice of something dear, with no guarantee that anything will ever replace our sacrifice.
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the famed movie poster
Jaws (Peter Benchley)

No one believed that a monster shark was terrorizing Amity Island.  The protagonist didn’t have the skills to locate and fight the monster.  Needed to defeat the monstrous shark was not only an academic but also a battered seaman:  neither of those two would have succeeded without the persistently determined protagonist.  The seaman even sacrificed his life in the struggle;  the academic nearly did;  the protagonist would have died without the academic’s miraculous return.

Atonement (Ian McEwan)

First, who is the protagonist in the novel?  The young girl, not the older sister.  The girl identified the wrong monster—a fact which is not revealed for many years.  Her mis-identification sends the sister’s love interest to prison which ultimately destroys the relationship between the sisters.  Discovering the true monster (the pedophile who marries his victim) takes years.  The tragedy of this novel is not just the doomed love;  it continues to the end of the protagonist’s life as she admits that she will never get atonement for her early mistake. (I’m leaving out whole parts of the novel;  this is the skeleton.)

Rags to Riches

In badly-written stories, logic is tossed out as writers drag their protagonists into the luxurious wealth that they think is deserved.  In well-written stories, the protagonist is shown developing the skills necessary to gain wealth and succeed in that new environment.

  1. Logic tells us that no one receives something (great) for nothing.[1] The impoverished state needs to contrast with the dream of greatness that the protagonist has.  That dream should be possible, not improbable.
  2. The steps from rags to riches are presented. What will each step entail?  Who/what is essential to gaining the skills that are the part of each step? Who/what will block the step?
  3. The wealth needs to be reasonable. Not everyone is descended from royalty or nobility, you know.  Some of us were dirt farmers eager to escape our serfdom.  (Welcome to America!)  Not everyone will walk into a top editor position just because of an association with a mysterious billionaire.  By the way, what is wealth?  Money?  Time?  Knowledge?  Or relationships?  If no money is ever obtained but relationships are deepened, is that an example of the best riches in the world? (Preaching. Sorry. Not.)
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a still from the original Disney version
Cinderella (classic fairy tale)

In rags, scrubbing the sooty hearth, she once was the privileged daughter of a wealthy nobleman.  (See, she already comes with a knowledge of the etiquette and behavior necessary for a life as a queen.)  She was cast into her impoverished position by her father’s death and her stepmother’s evil.  Her stepmother and stepsisters seemingly conspire to prevent her return to her former status if she wins the prince’s lottery (random pick, you know).  Thankfully, she has helpful birds and mice and an extremely helpful fairy godmother who wants to restore balance to this little community.  And don’t forget the pumpkin!  While her path still has problems, she does manage to return to the life into which she was born (see, that’s logical.)

Good Deeds (Tyler Perry)

Wesley Deeds has been the good son, running his deceased father’s successful family business while his brother acts the prodigal.  He dreams of pursuing his own dreams, but he feels bound by his obligations.  In an interesting juxtaposition, an impoverished single mother begins to enlighten him to the pursuit of what’s most important:  1st, in recognizing what a true relationship should be;  2nd, in recognizing that living life is not merely existing.  Wesley’s blocks are his fiancée, his mother, and his brother as well as his own misguided sense of responsibility.  He has an impoverished life barren of what he needs.  Reaching for what he wants becomes the pivotal step to a richness of life that he never expected.

The Quest

Searching for a treasure (tangible or intangible) requires a long journey to distant places in order to achieve a goal—whether that is a physical journey encountering exotic people for material treasure or an intellectual journey encountering exotic ideas for spiritual treasure.  Thus, the three elements require ~

  1. Removal from the settled, day-to-day existence. The writer must present that mundane existence, showing the protagonist’s contrasting satisfaction and dissatisfaction.  An impelling event must drive the protagonist into the quest.  What is the protagonist’s quest?  What makes the treasure so necessary to be obtained?  The protagonist will be uncomfortable and awkward as s/he launches into the quest;  however, the dissatisfaction is strong enough to remaining in the status quo is not an option.
  2. Entrance to the place completely new.  Know your story’s definition of exotic.  How is this new place exotic / different from what the protagonist has known before?  How are the people in this new place also part of the exotic experience for the protagonist?  What is charming about the exotic experience?  What remains unsatisfactory, preventing the new place from becoming a paradise?
  3. Discovery of the treasure. Whether it’s the pot at the end of the rainbow that the protagonist finds and uses to improve life back home or the discovery of something richer than was ever anticipated, how is that treasure discovered?  Is it at first mistakenly avoided or ignored?  If so, what brings the protagonist’s attention back to it?  How is the treasure a great richness?  Does the treasure create such a temptation that return to the ordinary world is no longer a requirement?
Northanger Abbey (Jane Austen)

Our protagonist loves her family and life there, but she wants to experience a daring and racy world.  A trip to Bath offers her the opportunity to experience the ton’s social whirl and a dash of romance from two different suitors along with a spark or two of danger.  The invitation to Northanger Abbey provides her with a suitably mysterious atmosphere—that she mistakenly tries to twist into a dark mystery.  Her childish imaginings deeply disappoint the suitor that she cares about.  When she is banished, she rises to an adult’s responsibility and recognition of her mistakes.  Her reward comes when her beloved suitor tracks her down, giving her the sacrifice that true love will willingly make in order to achieve the treasure it most wants.  (This change—marriage to her beloved, the treasure that the protagonist wanted—prevents Northanger Abbey from being a plot of Voyage and Return.)

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a still from Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, starring Dame Judi Dench
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (Deborah Moggach)

Recently widowed, our protagonist is left in financial straits with a constraining life that will only stifle her.  She decides to take the little money that she has, seek a new life where she can be independent and her few skills might provide her more opportunities, and travels to India.  There, she discovers a world that presents difficulties but people who are charming.  She struggles with certain necessary adaptations but makes meaningful connections.  Not only does she find a job for which she is particularly suited, but she has an opportunity for love with a man who is willing to grow in a relationship with her (rather than the closed-off marriage that she had had with her late husband–whose death precipitated her quest).

Voyage and Return

This plot category seems very similar to the Quest, except the goal is the return back to the original existence, wiser through the experienced trials and ordeals of the journey.

  1. Normal existence for the protagonist must be presented as exactly what is wanted. The reason for the journey should be dire:  destruction of that existence is threatened. (The Identity Thief ’s protagonist, portrayed by Jason Bateman, is the perfect example:  He loves his life, and everything in it is threatened by a woman who steals his identity and runs up huge debts on his accounts.)
  2. The voyage itself may not be “exotic”; it may even seem ordinary on the surface, but it is enriching.  It may simply be getting back home, older but not necessarily wiser.  Many different kinds of events will occur on this voyage.  Great internal transformation will not occur. The goal of this voyage is not a treasure;  the goal may not even be specified.  If it is specified, then the goal will have much to do with returning home.
  3. Returning home may have obstacles, as events and people may have conspired to work against the protagonist’s easy settling back into the life that s/he loves. Thus, the return may be the point of greatest difficulty for the protagonist.  However, when all problems are overcome, the life that was threatened is restored, and the sun shines once again on the protagonist and what s/he holds most dear.
Odyssey (Homer)

the classic example of Voyage and Return.  Odysseus so enjoyed his home life that he pretended insanity to avoid participating in the Trojan War.  However, when he is discovered (by his little son being placed in danger because of his pretense), he agrees to honor his former vow and travels far from Ithaca to Troy.  The Odyssey presents his voyage home.  Among the things that delay his return are his stupid offense to the gods, more than one encounter with monsters, people who create problems, lovely distractions, and outright imprisonment.  Even when he reaches home, he’s not home, for outsiders are trying to take his place and no one recognizes him.  Thank the gods he’s clever, for he figures out a way to re-introduce himself to his son, now 21 years old, to discover who his loyal servants are, to defeat the invading outsiders, and to determine if his wife still loves him after two decades away.

The Hobbit (J.R.R. Tolkein)

Bilbo Baggins doesn’t really want to go on a dangerous

from The Hobbit, 2012
Bilbo Pushed & Tempted

adventure with complete strangers (and dwarves, of all people!), but he finds himself lured in by Gandalf the wizard.  There’s a lot of walking.  There’s a lot of hiding.  And there’s a lot of arguing.  He encounters trolls and elves, goblins and Golem, riddles and rock giants, and a dragon with fire and the dragon of gold.  He returns home, experienced but not really wiser, eager for his own cooking and his own hearth.  Oh, and with a dangerous ring.  But that’s another story.

Comedy

In story, we distinguish between humor and comedy.[2]  Humor is telling jokes.  Comedy is the protagonist achieving his goal.  I fought the mis-definition of comedy in my classroom;  Booker does so with more authority.  Comedy seems simple enough to write.  However, I will note that in comedy, pathos (deeply emotional moments) occurs quite a good bit (while tragedies are often filled with humor).  Pathos is hard to write.

  1. The protagonist confronts adversity.
  2. A series of confusing events deepens the adversity.
  3. The climax clears up all confusion and grants the protagonist the original goal which has transformed in an unexpected way.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (William Shakespeare)

Two young ladies are in love with two young men.  One young man returns the affection, but her father is an obstacle.  The second young man does not return the affection of the second young lady.  Acceptable as a suitor by the first young lady’s father, he’s after the money and status that marriage to her would bring.  (We won’t talk about Theseus’ problems with Hippolyta, Oberon’s problems with Titania, and Titania’s problem with Bottom, okay?—although they do add to the confusion.)  A Midsummer Night in the woods, with interference by Puck and fairies, causes all four to fall out of love and into love at cross-purposes.  We have funny lines and funny altercations.  The morning finds everyone restored to their wits.  The first couple remain in love;  the second couple are now in love.  All is worked out to the satisfaction of everyone (including the father).

A Walk in the Woods (Bill Bryson) nonfiction

Tasked with walking the Appalachian Trail, Bryson enlists the help of a buddy he hasn’t seen in years.  Both of them out of shape, they start walking the 2100-mile trail, beginning in Georgia.  Along the trail, they meet many different adventurers, some who are fellow hikers, some who merely live near the trail but never think about it.  Bryson shares the difficulties of hiking over the mountainous terrain in all sorts of weather over such an extended length of time.  Eventually, he finds a method to alter his original goal:  hop, skip, jump.  The reader begins to think Bryson will never truly achieve his goal.  He does reach the end, Mt. Katahdin in Maine, but he hasn’t walked every mile of the way.  However, we the readers are treated to Bryson’s humor and unique perspective, and the realization that original goals may have to change in order to achieve them.

Tragedy

In Comedy, all is achieved;  in tragedy, all is futile.  While death is not a requirement of tragedy, doom is.  To prevent unrelenting darkness, writers of tragedy will often stuff humor into a tragedy.  Shakespeare is a master of keeping the audience engaged in the tragic form:  the tragedies of Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth have several laugh-out loud moments that relieve the ratcheting suspense.

  1. The protagonist—through his own chosen actions—causes his own destruction. An inner flaw (chose one of the 7 Deadly Sins[3] when constructing a story) sets in motion a domino effect.
  2. While all may seem confused to the protagonist, we can see the steps that bring him to doom. At some point, usually toward the plot’s center, the protagonist takes an irrevocable step.
  3. The protagonist may see the doom’s approach. If he doesn’t believe it, he continues forward without check.  Most protagonists will act to reverse the approaching doom.  How the protagonist confronts his doom is equally key:  will he run away or will he lean into it?  (in the 1992 Last of the Mohicans, the despicable vengeance-focused Magua leans into his doom, his one redeeming moment).
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Lady Macbeth reveals her bloody hands to her husband, in the 2010 version
Macbeth (William Shakespeare)

Macbeth wants to be king (pride);  the witches prophesy that he will be king;  his wife presents a plan that can turn the king dream into reality.  The king is Macbeth’s cousin and a guest in his house, but that doesn’t stop the bloody duo.  And no one says anything, not even Macbeth’s best friend Banquo, the only person who might have guessed at Macbeth’s secret ambition.  Because Banquo might have suspected what happened, Macbeth killed his BFBanquo.  Now, the murder of Banquo does cause questions, and questions lead to rebellion.  So Macbeth kills more people, trying to stop the rebellion, but that backfires.  An army marches against him.  He meets Macduff (whose family Macbeth had killed), and cries, “Lay on, Macduff, and damned be him who cries ‘hold, enough!’ ”  Macduff kills him off-stage and comes back swinging Macbeth’s head.

Bonnie and Clyde (Robert Benton and David Newman)

Bonnie and Clyde are disaffected misfits who find in each other a love of thrills and violence.  The best thrills, they think, are breaking laws.  They join with another couple, equally disaffected and dissolute.  Content with their corrupted lives, they seek a thrilling and violent way to get money.  They rob small stores and rural gas stations—taking money from hard-working people who were merely trying to make ends meet.  They murder anyone who corners or confronts them.  As Shakespeare warned in R & J, “violent delights lead to violent ends”.  B & C willfully choose violence, they relish that violence, and they are brought to a violent death.

Rebirth

Transformation through reformation.  A special branch of the Rebirth story is apotheosis, when the protagonist is transformed into a god.

  1. A mirror is needed. Some starkly clear representation occurs that awakens the protagonist to “a better life”.
  2. The protagonist launches into an attempt to achieve that better life, with flashes of insight and stumbling steps, all of which teach the protagonist how to change from who s/he is into who s/he wants to become.
  3. Eventually, a new self emerges, often in a new place. While Eat, Pray, Love is often given as an excellent example of a Rebirth plot, I think better examples are Wild and Under the Tuscan SunWild contains a physical and intellectual transformation.  Under the Tuscan Sun is a three-part reformation of self:  the protagonist is no longer intellectually or physically or spiritually the person she was at the beginning.
Beauty and the Beast (Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve)

The Beast terrifies everyone and kills anyone who steals one of his magical roses.  When he threatens a merchant, the man promises that his daughter will come and live with Beast.  Gradually, her kindness and compassion transform his heart, just as he transforms her heart.  However, both of them still hesitate, for his physical appearance serves as an obstacle between them.  Only true love can break the curse that originally transformed him.  A different obstacle almost prevents Beauty from telling the Beast of her love. (In fairy tales, interfering families have a lot to answer for.)  She returns, just at the crucial moment, and gives her heart because she fears he is dying.  He is physically transformed, back into the man he once was, but he is no longer that man, having been intellectually and spiritually transformed by her love.

A Christmas Carol (Charles Dickens)

Miserly Scrooge counts money as more important than people.  He barely pays a living wage to his employees, and Dickens paints the Cratchit family in broad strokes designed to evoke our sympathy.  Reminders of Scrooge’s past coupled with the threat of his future (thank you, dear ghosts) change his heart.  His focus transforms, shifting him away from the accumulation of material gold to accumulating lasting relationships.  He becomes compassionate and generous, no longer hated but well-loved because of his benevolence.

The Key to all 7 Plot Types

I promised the KEY.  Anyone who considers writing will need this KEY.

Ready?  Here it is, sounding so simple.

Stick with the Plot you Pick.

If you pick one of the 7 Types of Plot, use it—and only that one—to guide you from beginning to end.

That sounds too simple, doesn’t it?  I need complexity, don’t I?  Shouldn’t I have intricate and intriguing stories.

Nope.  Not at the beginning.  At the beginning, when you are just starting to write the story, you need a clear view of where the story is going, what the main characters need to focus on, and how you are going to get from Point A to Point Z.

Pick one Plot.  Post it in front of you every time you sit down to work on that story.  That clear view will keep your developing characters and your exciting events and your selected tropes focused.  Not having a clear view?  You’ll wander off into a deep forest, to meet monsters that will get you lost.

Don’t get lost.  Pick a Plot.  Stick with that Plot.

People will argue with me and tell you that the story’s theme (tagline) is the all-important guide.

Nope.

Here’s the truth:  the TYPE OF PLOT is the first building block to discover the theme.  To say it more simply:  the theme depends on the plot type.   Or plot type + words to turn it into a sentence = theme.

Theme is no more than subject with words that will head in a particular direction.

Here’s another truth:  Without the plot type, the theme weakens, characters weaken, and story weakens.

And the whole thing will come crashing down.  Just like a house with a bad foundation.

Build strong.  Set a firm foundation.

Wrapping Up

Once you have selected from the 7 Types of Plot, you can begin looking at the structure of the whole story.

And that leads us to five different plot methods.  (Not plot types.  A method is a tool for developing a type.)

Coming up in our next blog:  4 of the 5 plot methods that will structure a story.  Don’t miss it.  We’re on the 20th.

 NOTES

[1] If you think that, I have a bridge in Brooklyn that I’d like to sell you.

[2] Hollywood doesn’t, but Hollywood’s not about story;  it’s about making money using the lowest common denominator possible [usually ridicule, usually raunchiness, usually violence].  Hollywood says that comedy is a show with lots of laugh.  Nope.  Just nope.

[3] 7 Deadly Sins: pride, wrath, greed, gluttony, sloth, lust, envy