Story Excerpts

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Name That Plot!

Have you ever been giddy over an ingenious plot idea, only to be knocked down with the discovery that someone already wrote a story with those same plot elements?

It happens to writers all the time. It happened to me recently. I was so excited over the new story I'd written during NaNo, that when I found a similar story already out there, it sent me into the depths of depression for a few days.

But how many plots are there, really? Some say seven. Some twenty. Some say thirty-six. The point is, every plot out there has been done. Don't exhaust yourself trying to come up with a new and fresh thirty-seventh plot. It won't happen. Anything you can write can be categorized under a basic plot. If not, I'd like to personally shake your hand.

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 went with the twenty basic plots, since I have the book. Hi, I'm a chronic plotter. Pansters run away from me, screaming.... But before you decide to never speak to me again, I do follow writing rabbit trails. ;-)

Why am I throwing such a constricting list at you? I'm finding it helpful in studying books and movies, to see what some have in common and how they're different.

"The Princess Bride" and "The Scarlet Pimpernel" both have "rescue" plot elements, and both feature a "masked" hero. But we'd never think of these stories as similar. Why? One is Fantasy, one is historical. "The Princess Bride" has a make-believe setting: the kingdom of Florin. "The Scarlet Pimpernel" is set in late 18th century France. They have a different focus. Save one princess, versus save many French aristocrats. And the subplots give them different flavors. Inigo is obsessed with avenging a death. Marguerite is desperate to save a life. Percy and Marguerite are married, while Wesley and Buttercup are not.

Want to do another?

How about "Les Miserables"? Talk about a complicated labyrinth of subplots, huh? Or maybe it just seems that way since there are so many characters. Transformation. Descension. Love. Sacrifice... So what is the main plot? I want to say "pursuit", since Hugo neatly links the destiny of his characters with that of Jean Valjean, but the overall theme is obviously injustice. (Number 7 in Polti's list of thirty-six plots--"falling prey to cruelty or misfortune".) Can you think of another story like it? The best I could do was Dickens' Oliver Twist and The Fugitive movie, which is pretty sad. Or maybe it means Hugo was just that good?

Your turn. What is the basic plot of Casablanca?

Did you say "love"? You're wrong.

Hey, the book says your wrong.

Ha ha, I heard that.

So.... The next time you sit down to watch a movie or curl up with a book, think about it. Play the game. Acknowledging plot themes can only make you a better writer, even if you're a die-hard panster.


Brandi Boddie said...

This is handy information, Gwen! And I'm sure your story's great. It can be frustrating to learn that a story idea has been done by another writer, especially with genre fiction. Even plot twists are repeated. I guess we just have to make it uniquely ours by creating interesting characters and intriguing dialogue. Thanks for the info!

Jessica R. Patch said...

This happened to me, well, it's probably happened a billion times but I've noticed it big time once.

What?! That's my plot! lol I admit to being a little in the dumps a couple of days and then I did the same thing you did. I realized that it was still a different story, different point of views, different message.

I always go back to the verse in Ecclesiastes. There's nothing new under the sun. :)

Heather Day Gilbert said...

Hm. Is Casablanca Revenge? I'm getting it confused with KEY LARGO, another Bogart flick.

Very interesting thoughts here, Gwen. I know when I read a book where the MC has the same name as mine, I *MIGHT* freak out just a little bit. But then I remember no one has her LAST NAME and her UPBRINGING and her set of ISSUES. So then I am comforted. Yes, we all have a different take on our universal themes.

And YOU are a plotter! Say it ain't so! Just kidding. I need you to give me tips!

Gwendolyn Gage said...

Thanks for your encouragement, Brandi, and I'm so glad this blessed you! You're right, the plot is just the skeleton of the story--there's so much more that goes into a story to make it a unique creation. :-)

Gwendolyn Gage said...

Jessica, I'm encouraged to hear of your experience. Thanks for sharing it with me. I did think of that Scripture in Ecclesiastes, too. ;-)

Gwendolyn Gage said...

Hey Heather! Nope. It's not "revenge". ;-)

I admit it. I am from the "other side", and I blame my left-brained analytical approach to things. I typically write out an entire outline before I even write the first chapter. Gasp! :-O But, in my defense, I only use it to get my brain working ideas, and I don't follow it religiously. In fact, by the time I've redone the draft a few times, it hardly resembles the outline. :-)

Jennifer Major said...


Whenever I say that, I hear the bugs in A Bug's Life. Then I hear Hopper saying "Do I LOOK stupid to YOU?"


Okay, my plot is basic Rescue/Transformation/Love story. And every time I see a book with a Native American hero, I freak. But then I remind myself, plots may not change, but the story is always fresh.

Gwendolyn Gage said...

Nope, its not transformation either. Here's a hint: remember the famous scene, "Here's looking at you, kid"? What was going on in that scene?

"A Bug's Life" and Transformation plots...Bhahahahaha! Thanks, Jenn. Now I'll be thinking of that movie too. And I love "Up"! I acutally bawled my eyes out with a friend when I saw it in the movie theatre. Yes, I cry over cartoons.

I agree, if we just tell the story with our unique perspectives, characters, and styles, it is a different story.