Six impossible things

Plot lists

I’m still listening to that 12-hour series of lectures on literature, and today’s talk was about plot. Practically the first thing the lecturer did was to quote the thing about there being only two plots: the hero takes a journey, and a stranger comes to town.

I’ve heard that before, but this time I got to thinking about how that fits with Heinlein’s three basic plots (Boy Meets Girl, The Little Tailor, and Man Learns Lesson), the five or six “man vs.” plots (vs. nature, man, society, etc.), and the various other lists of plots and plot patterns I’ve run across in writing books over the years. And the first thing I noticed is that most of the things on these lists aren’t actually plots, by my definition.

This was kind of a shock, as I’ve gone alone merrily for many years without particularly questioning the fundamental premise of most of these plot lists. But “The hero takes a journey” and “a stranger comes to town” are both precipitating incidents – they’re where the plot starts, but they’re not the plot. You can take any of the other lists of “types of plot” and map all of them to either opening – a stranger comes to town and meets a girl, faces a gigantic obstacle, or learns a lesson; the hero goes on a journey and ditto ditto ditto. “Man vs. nature/man/himself/society/etc.” is a list of types of conflict; again, not strictly plots. The hero can go on a journey and meet a girl whilst struggling against nature, another man, his own insecurities, social obstacles… Even in Heinlein’s three basic stories, the first two are technically the set-up for a plot, and the third is the ultimate resolution of the plot.

In other words, none of these lists of “the types of plot” match up the way they ought to if they were actually distillations of plots. Looking at it a little closer, I can see that many of these lists are in shorthand: for instance, “The Little Tailor” evokes the whole fairy tale reflected by the title, and “A stranger comes to town” implies that this arrival causes a whole lot of other things to happen. And if you start combining the lists, as I did above, you do get even closer to what I think of as plot. Even so, I find it kind of disturbing to realize that all these supposedly-helpful ways of looking at plot aren’t actually looking directly at plot.

The reason for this is fairly obvious, when I think about it. Plots – even plot skeletons that have been stripped down to the barest minimum – are tough to convey in only a few words. “Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl” is probably the most concise, and for listing purposes, this nearly always gets shortened still more, down to the first three words.

This can be very confusing and unhelpful, especially if one doesn’t have the sort of brain that automatically extends the shorthand description of conflict or situation or characters’ problems into the whole rest of the plot that the description is supposed to be shorthand for. If you think “A stranger comes to town” is all the plot there needs to be, then you will be very puzzled when people look at your description of someone arriving at the airport and say it has no plot.

Plots are about change – external or internal. It’s about the difficulties of the journey, not the starting or ending point.

The hero who takes a journey may be a Genghis Khan who drastically alters the world around him without apparently changing much himself, or she may be an ordinary person displaced by the sweeping armies who is profoundly altered by her trek to a new home without apparently having a large impact on the world, or he may be a Ghandi whose life-changing journeys to England and South Africa changed him into the man who could and did change India. The stranger who comes to town may change herself as a result, or call into question things that the town has taken for granted (causing them to change), or disrupt external things in ways ranging from opening a new store to murdering the mayor.

And change is a process, and what’s interesting about it is usually the how and why, not what. Change is also often difficult and uncomfortable, whether the characters are changing their opinions or trying to cope with massive disruptions in the world they’ve lived in until the start of the story. Change also generally involves causality – something that sets things moving, tipping over that first domino that knocks over the next, and the next.

All of this makes plot – the process of change – hard to sum up in a short, snappy entry on a list. This is, I think, part of why people always, always ask for sequels, even if the story ends “and they lived happily ever after” – because we know that change has consequences, and even good changes like winning one’s True Love or defeating the Evil Overlord are going to mean things work differently from now on, and we want to know what those new changes will be, and how and how the characters will cope with them.

I also think this is where my lecturer goes ever-so-slightly wrong, at least from the point of view of someone who is trying to write a story rather than read one. Because classifying plots according to any of these lists may be a useful way of looking at things from the reader’s perspective, but it’s the wrong focus for most writers, because it’s static. Classifying something assumes it’s going to stay classified, but you can’t ever guarantee that about a story until it’s finished. Writing is a dynamic process, not a static one.

  1. I wonder though if there is really only one plot, the one that starts with a catalyst, progresses through complications, reaches a moment where all seems lost, and then climaxes with either all being lost, all being won, or something in between.

    Although the way that these things happen can be infinitely various, if they don’t happen, do we really have a plot, or just a series of vignettes?

  2. @Cara: what you describe is what I would call plot structure, and there’s more than one, particularly when you get into multiple viewpoints.

    @Pat: This comes at the right moment as I realise I’m at 48K and have run out of plot. Thinking about it in terms of change – who wants it, who opposes it, which forms it will take – is very useful indeed.

  3. Cara: That’s so general, it equally describes sonata form.

  4. I suspect a lot of literary critics—deliberately or not—confuse ‘plot’ and ‘story’ because they don’t have a lot of respect for plot. (Or jokes, usually.) Their loss.

    The distinction, to my mind, is that plot asks to be subdivided into events, where story is perceived more holistically, even instinctively. We know it when we see it (which doesn’t mean we can build it).

    My favourite descriptor of ‘story’ comes from impro(v): A routine is interrupted, and then something is reintegrated. The something doesn’t have to be the routine, by the way; any establishing detail can be echoed and our brains go “Oh, that’s an ending.”

    Just want to thank Patricia for this blog, as well—it sparks so many thoughts that I have more than once drafted a long response to a post and finally deleted it when I realised it was in the end not even slightly about the original topic.

    Apologies to all if that’s what I’ve done this time.

  5. For me, what happens in the story is what my backbrain informs me happens. I don’t have a lot of conscious control there, I just point myself in a direction I want to go and trust my demon. But sometimes, after the first draft is written, I need to go back and tweak things because although I have events happening, my betareaders wouldn’t get a sense of plot moving forward. So I’d have to clarify what the plot actually was, and show why the stuff that happened was in fact moving the story forward.

    To that end, I’ve been thinking of plot in terms of solving a problem, and although that was pretty much working, I couldn’t help feeling that it was overly limiting, and that I would one day run into a book where that approach wouldn’t work.

    Thinking about it as change seems to remove the limitation, but it also looks like a harder concept to use as a guide for wrestling a book into shape.

    Ah, well. Nobody said this was easy. 🙂

  6. When I started teaching, I made 9th graders outline the plots of stories because I thought — stupidly — stories that stories followed rules, rather than that rules are generalized from many stories. Not surprisingly, the kids argued about climax, especially; the psychological climax was usually different from the climax of the plot. Fortunately, I soon tossed the plot outline sheets. As a reader I find that generalizations about plots can reveal ties between otherwise different stories; however, generalizations often sterilize a story by pretending that unimportant aspects are key.

  7. The writers of Bonanza are alleged to have there are only 47 plots, and their trick was the ability to reuse them more effectively than other writers. Given that large number I suspect their idea of plot is closer to Pat’s.

    And about those sequels… Joss Wheden was asked if there’s going to be a sequel to “Cabin in the Woods.” (Answer: “Have you seen the movie?!?” Which means “No, doofus.”)

  8. I think most of my education focused on things from the reader’s perspective, rather than the writers – but maybe that’s why people say “those who can’t do, teach” …

  9. “The hero can go on a journey and meet a girl whilst struggling against nature, another man, his own insecurities, social obstacles”….. This sounds like hundreds of novels I’ve read in some form or another.

    @Cara…That sounds like a basic formula for book or movie…and how does formula differ from plot?

    A little different train of thought…what did JK Rowling do over and over so well (plot device?) in her Harry Potter books that kept the readers engaged. My answer is that whenever Harry had any moment of happiness, the rug was immediately pulled out from under him. Most writers allow their main characters to luxuriate themselves in happiness for a while, but she rarely did.

  10. Has any writer ever found these lists of plots useful in the process of writing?

    If so, I have yet to meet him.

    Same almost goes for the lists of characters, though one writer I have met online uses them to test her characters: if she can recognize what type her character is, more character development is needed.

  11. John: Very cool! Though I think that most sonateers would agree that having the form doesn’t always make it work, just like having the major plot elements doesn’t always make it work. But if you break the form, the listener/reader feels unsatisfied.

    As philosopher John Searle said, you can only give an analysis of something if there is a trait or set of traits which all instances of a type of work has in common and which constitute the necessary and sufficient conditions for being that type of work. An analysis doesn’t necessarily help you produce it (though it can be useful for triage). If we’re talking about the state of ‘having a plot’ a story must go through a set of dramatic moments and resolve. All of the lists that we’re given seem to be unsatisfactory, because it is not true that all stories involve a hero setting out on a quest or a stranger coming to town, and even if they did, that aspect is not a necessary and sufficient condition for having a plot. It’s sufficient for having a premise, but that’s all.

    Of course if you track the lines of philosophy and utility, shall ever the twain meet?

  12. DannyM: Considering the genesis of the Deadlines blog post, I think you will be fine. But, just to test my hypothesis, I will put my life on the line with:

    Patricia, what is the dividing line between editing and meddling? The retitling of one of the Harry Potter books comes to mind.

  13. Thinking about it in terms of change – who wants it, who opposes it, which forms it will take – is very useful indeed.”


    That sounds like instructions for a Tarot spread. Which might be a useful way to generate a plot from scratch. At least you’d know you had touched all the bases, and used a variety of characters, none redundant.

  14. Maybe that’s why it’s so important to know what kind of story you’re writing (frex, a redemption story) because that actually defines the journey.

  15. nice article about the plots.

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