a partial and evolving list
My philosophy about stories is one of influence, imitation, and inheritance. We start to hear stories, and then we hear variations. We first begin to tell stories through imitation, and if we try to create meaningfully, we suffer an anxiety of influence. Because, see, we know that we are imitating. We are following convention and conventional plots.
I was listening to Brandon Sanderson’s lectures on Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy (which I think are great, by the way). (Here is the link to them: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-6HOdHEeosc&list=PLSH_xM-KC3Zv-79sVZTTj-YA6IAqh8qeQ)
Sanderson talks about writing as a writer in ways that the writing courses that I took in college did not — the lectures cover the mechanics of it, the business of it, the harsh reality of it. Really, go check those videos out if you are at all interested in writing. (Doesn’t necessarily have to be SF&F, and it really doesn’t matter if you read his work.)
In one of the lectures on plot and outlines Sanderson talks about “plot archetypes,” and how they nest together, and that they are fairly standard and specific. In lecture four, one of the students asks for a list, and Sanderson mentions that there isn’t a list that he finds helpful. Most lists of plots have 2, 4, 7, or 9 plots that are too vague to be really helpful to a writer, in my estimation. To say something is “a quest” or “a tragedy” is too general. It might get to the overarching arc, but it doesn’t help understand the mechanics–what action needs to happen and, critically, where the protagonist (and the reader / viewer) are going to end up.
Also, it doesn’t help with the nesting and sequencing of plots, and the idea of nesting that Sanderson mentioned was incredibly interesting because I think that’s where the excitement of a narrative comes out. Because here’s the thing about great stories–there should be a lot going on. Action is happening, people are changing, things are being revealed, and something that you thought at the beginning changes with a twist. And, maybe the plot you thought you were in, really wasn’t the main plot at all. Plots mix and match.
I remember reading (and then watching again) Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and I realized that what made it so good was not just that it was a spy thriller, but that it had all the ingredients of a mystery. A whodunit. It was a whodunit nested inside a spy narrative. In his lectures, Sanderson shows how the first Star Wars movie is more like four narratives nested.
As there wasn’t a list, I started making my own based on what I’ve read or seen. And as I thought more about plot archetypes, I started going back and using them to map out some of the stories I was writing and revising. As I mapped my stories, I could see that actions that I thought would propel the story, actually stifled the story and the character arcs. I was using the wrong plot archetype. In this specific case, the characters needed to “Get to the Place,” but I gave them an unwarranted Escape plot that became a distraction. (These terms are from the list below.)
And so, I started looking at more and more stories thinking about plots and what works. I list some below with some general types as headers.
Now, I know that good categorization is supposed to be mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive, but by its nature, this list is neither. Plots are often nested and there are several things going on at the same time. Also, writers generally twist and modify plots, so they can’t be mutually exclusive. And, finally, I know that I am missing variations that many people might consider an archetype, but I expect this list to evolve over time–maybe with more specifics.
Also, this list tries to be specific enough so that we can indicate if something like what the plot describes is going on in the piece–that we understand the general mechanics. In his discussion of different “Heist” plots, Sanderson goes into the mechanics of The Italian Job vs. Ocean’s 11 in very specific detail. I don’t do that here. In general, I try to stay at a slightly higher level, but if I were writing one of these plots, I would go much deeper and more specific detailing how they might work compared to what already exists.
And, finally, while some plots are at a high level (e.g., “Transform to Become the Thing”), I realize other plots are much more specific, but as this is a list derived from inductive methods, alternatives that didn’t seem to fit elsewhere were given their own plot type.
As I reviewed and categorized, I bubbled it up to 8 types of general plots with more specific plot types underneath.
The 8 types of general plots that I came up with are:
- The Procedure Plot
- The Information / Mystery Plot
- The Relationship Plot
- The Family Plot
- The Work Plot
- The Becoming Plot
- The Journey/Travelogue/Discovery Plot
- The Defeat the Evil/Fix the System/Save the World Plot
The Procedure Plot – Get it Done
The Procedure Plot is about action. It will be the most apparent and conventionally understood idea of plot, and there are several variations. In a broad sense, the protagonist wants to get something done that is hard, and we are going to watch them do it. How they are going to get it done depending on who they get involved. It could be:
- Coordinate the team: Bring people together and lead them to get it done
- The Obsessed individual: I am going to do this on my own because I am special / obsessed
- The Person with the Plan: Similar to the “obsessed individual” but with a different tone
Whoever is doing the action, there are some common Procedure Plots–whether they are the entirety of the work or just several plots in a sequence:
- The Rescue–save the person
- Get to the Place–we have to get to X to do what we need to do
- Build the Thing–we have to build something
- The Competition–we have to win something. A subversion of this would be winning a court case, which I might cal Win the Trial
- The Chase–someone is chasing us and we have to get away
- The Escape–we have to get out of here
- Get Revenge–get even with someone who did us wrong
Now, there are variations of all of the above, and we could get more specific (what types of competitions? How do we win? etc.?), but I am going to leave that for a different time. I did want, however, to get more specific about two types of procedures: the Heist and the Con.
The Heist – Get the Thing
Sanderson goes into good detail about Heist Plot types, but in particular, I wanted to mention the size of the heist–A large crew heist where everyone has a specific role / function or the small crew heist, where we are all doing the heist together, at the same time, in the same scenes. Sanderson details the large crew heist differences of Ocean’s 11 and The Italian Job heists, and if you are intendended, you should watch it here.
The Con – Make Someone Believe
I’m using “The Con” pretty broadly here as just trying to make someone believe. And, while, students of cons will know the specific types (e.g., “The Wire” or “The Spanish Prisoner”), I wanted to think about it more like who is performing the con and how.
- The Team (Duo) Con — People work together to make someone else believe something that isn’t true.
- The Con Contest, the Cat and Mouse, or I know that you know that I know that you know. Nested cons, this is a battle of wits, where people are trying to dupe each other.
- The One with the Strings. Different from the team con, this is where one person is convincing everyone of something.
- Trading Places — This is when someone is switched (usually outside their control/designs), and becomes something they are / are not, but they make others believe it.
Now, when we consider nesting, cons and heists are often nested in each other. There are several cons going on in a movie like Ocean’s 11, for example. But, you don’t have to have both. A simple robbery is often a heist. And, even more interesting, is occasionally these don’t have to be crime movies. Movies like The Birdcage and The Farewell are great comedic Team Con Plots.
The Information / Mystery Plot
In an Information or Mystery Plot, the action is about the revelation of information. While some of these (that I list below) are pretty standard, I also consider a good amount of literary fiction to be an Information / Mystery Plot.
For example, Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is about putting the pieces together from the various narrators to understand what’s going on with this family. Or, Waiting for Godot. While, the “action” in Waiting for Godot is mirrored in both acts (i.e., two characters come. They wait for Godot. Godot doesn’t show), the revelation to the audience is that this will keep happening (likely) forever. If you analyze the dialogue, you will find out that there is more revealed (longer speeches) in Act II than Act I.
Those are generally Information Plots of Revelation, but there are also some common and specific Mystery Plots:
- Whodunit — a crime is committed, the suspects are known, and we have to determine who did the crime.
- Who do you work for? Who’s in control? (Spy Thriller) There’s tension on who can be trusted and where someone’s true allegiance lies. (Note: Many “spy” narratives are mostly just about Defeating the Evil–like the Bond movies. There really is little of an Information Plot at all–except maybe in understanding the evil plan, which the evil genius just tells you anyway.)
- Solve the Crime — Follow the clues to solve the crime, capture the perpetrator, reveal the mystery. In this version, the item (the crime, the perpetrator) is generally not known to the investigator; whereas, in a whodunit, the suspects are known.
The Relationship Plot
The Relationship Plot is about understanding how people are going to have a relationship with another person, 1-on-1. With a romantic comedy, this might be the umbrella plot (“how are they going to get together?) while the stated plot is some procedure plot that really acts as a contrivance.
Some Relationship Plots include:
- The Situational Romance / Get Over Yourself. For some reason (and sometimes that reason is just themselves), the couple can’t get together and they need to sort out the situation or themselves.
- The Mismatched Pair / Opposites Attract. A variation of the Situational Romance is about two people who shouldn’t be together who actually have to be together.
- The Choice / The Triangle. Multiple partners, and we have to pick.
- I’m Good on my Own. A modern flavor of the Relationship Plot (and also a Becoming Plot) where the relationship(s) is/are left aside because the person is actually better on their own
- The All Consuming Fire. A tempestuous relationship that causes both parties to blow up–their mutual love causes a fire that destroys one of them, both of them, or just the relationship.
These Relationship Plots are above are generally romantic, but there are a few that fall outside those bounds:
- Buddy: A non-romantic variation of any one of the above Relationship Plots.
- Master / Apprentice: Someone is there to teach (usually the protagonist) something. This relationship is often part of a Transformation / Becoming Plot, Underdog to Exec Work Plot or Underdog Plot. (See all below, and yes, I said these weren’t mutually exclusive and often nested.)
- Overcome Loss: A relationship has ended (often because of death), and much of the action is about putting that relationship in perspective. This can be a general relationship, but is often a variation of a Family Plot as well.
- Reconcile: Like Overcome Loss, this could be part of a Family Plot or it could even be part of a Becoming Plot, but someone needs to apologize to make amends for something that happened before the action of the story began.
The Family Plot
In a Family Plot (ha! Nice pun!), action centers around a Family–whether biological, inherited, or found. More than Relationship Plots, this has to do with how the protagonist (or protagonists) relate to a larger family. Some of these can be:
- Find a new Family and Fit In. Sure, this is Meet the Parents, but I would maintain that many comedies with introductions of family work this way. When I first saw While You Were Sleeping, even though I knew it was a romantic comedy, I also instinctively knew that the main character’s relationship to the family was a big part of what made it work.
- Build a Family. Fitting a family together, whether with babies or people thrown together. How can these people who are so different fit together? (The beats are similar to plots where people also build a team, whether as part of a Procedural Plot or Defeat the Evil.)
- Keep the Family Together. Sometimes, it’s just enough to keep the family together. In this case, some force–whether outside or just everyone’s character arc–is forcing the family apart, but often a character is trying to keep the family together.
- Coming Home to Your Family. What if you leave, change, and then come back and try to fit in again? Sometimes, you might want to do that. Sometimes, you might not.
- Overcoming your Biological Family. Not all families are good, and while most of the Family Plots (never going to tire of that pun) have a positive take on family, there is space for at least one plot where you have to overcome an evil in your family — whether it’s the wicked stepmother, the cruel uncle who you have to live with after your real parents die, or (like in Ordinary People) a parent who has no love for you.
The Work Plot
Although the workplace is a setting and not a plot, I believe that there are some specific work plots that center around someone’s profession. These include:
- Removing the Occlusion of Work – What you want is not really what you want. In this plot, someone is so focused on work/career and what they think is important, but something happens (over time or all at once) that makes them see that work isn’t the most important thing and something else is. The Apartment is a good example of this.
- Outcast to exec – The best person for the job is someone different. Someone who is not supposed to be the right person for the job is actually the best person for the job. It’s Secret of My Success, The Hudsucker Proxy, and Second Act.
- Underdog excels – Transform to become the best, gain mastery. A variation from “Outcast to Exec”, but in this plot the person needs to become practiced to gain mastery. Generally, usually for distaste of work, they don’t want to become good in the beginning, but with practice (perhaps because of a Master / Apprentice relationship) they become excellent. And, yes, there is an obvious sports variation of this.
- Victim turns table – Revenge against the boss. Another variation–perhaps just a setting (work) and a Revenge Procedural Plot, but sometimes, you have to stick it to the boss–like in 9 to 5 or Horrible Bosses.
A Journey / Travelogue / Discovery Plot
Common in SF&F, these plots are about discovering new worlds, but also can be about discovering a world for the first time. This includes:
- Discover the world outside – Travel to the known unknown. This is when someone goes to the world they know and learn more about it. And, while this often happens in SF&F, it doesn’t necessarily have to be. Cultural or class comedies (e.g., Coming to America) are a variation. Another variation of this is when someone new comes to a world and is revealed to them (and the audience) for the first time.
- Discover new worlds – Travel to the unknown unknown. This is mostly SF&F, and it involves worlds that are entirely novel. Quest narratives follow this type of plot–where we go to new and different worlds.
I’d include in these, the portal narratives as a variation, where a door opens up to someplace new, and we have to decide whether to go through. There is a good Tor.com essay about how these break down into Known / Unknown and Voluntary / Involuntary plots.
And lest we think traveling is just about location, I’m also going to wedge in the time travel plot here because time travel is still another form of traveling. And, generally, the time travel plot is about fixing (or defying) the past / future. (And, in a way, a prophecy variation is a time travel plot, but we are all just traveling through time as we normally would.)
The Becoming Plot
The Becoming could also be considered the character arcs of the protagonist, but sometimes the action of the plot is completely centered around the character’s development. Some variations here are:
- Grow Up / Learn a Hard Truth–this is the “coming of age” story, the awakening–generally reserved for young protagonists, but not necessarily. In the end, the protagonist has learned something new.
- Transform to Become the Thing— this is the more profound version of the “coming of age” story because in this story the main character has to become something very different than when they began. The Hero’s Journey is a particular flavor of this plot, but this can often be about attaining mastery (see Work Plots above) without hitting all of the notes of the Hero’s Journey.
Defeat the Evil / Fight the System / Save the World
In some narratives (especially with Procedural Plots), there is often a bigger umbrella plot–the more important thing actually going on. This is the Defeat the Evil / Fight the System / Save the World Plot. For example, in a Win the Trial plot we might actually be showing how the system is rigged against the little guy, Exposing the Lie.
But, sometimes, the focus really is on just defeating the evil and saving the world. Most superhero movies are clear Defeat the Evil plots (with two-three Procedural subplots, a Transform to Become the Thing Plot thrown in for character development and a Relationship Plot for added interest).
The first flavor of this that I note is (again) how it is done. Like procedurals, it’s often either a team or an individual:
- Build the Team / Win Together. In this variation, we realize that we can’t do it on our own, and we need the team to defeat the evil
- The Hero Alone / Ultimate Sacrifice. In this variation, we realize that hero has to face the evil by themself (or maybe with a single partner) and (sometimes) sacrifice themself in order to save / change the world.
Then, there are some variations for the source of evil. Sure the evil can just be a single evil figure or army, but the evil can be bigger types of evil:
- Monster / Kaiju / Disaster / Aliens. There is evil that we did not know / could not anticipate, and it is overwhelming and coming for us.
- Frankenstein’s Dilemma. We have met the evil, and it is us. Something we created. Common in SF (and named after the first SF narrative), people have created something outside their control, and they need to defeat it.
And, of course, there are the cases where the evil is larger than a person, monster, or human-made technology. In those cases, it’s a system that is being challenged, and we can win by:
- Win Better (Underdog)–we figure out a way around the rules of the system and still win.
- Survive the Onslaught–sometimes winning is just a matter of surviving. The system, the evil keeps trying to defeat / kill you, and sometimes winning is just surviving.
- Defeat the Empire / Burn it Down–you find the source of the evil’s power and you defeat it.
- Expose the Lie–the evil is hidden, and just exposing the hidden evil changes the world.
As I wrote these plots, I assumed the plot resolved in a winning state, but of course, there is another state–the inability to win. This is the tragic variation, where the character loses in teh story, but the reader / viewer sees the real evil. Now, whether what I’m calling the “tragic variation” follows the strict rules of tragedy (e.g., “tragic flaw” and/or “hubris”), it’s the version of Defeat the Evil / Fight the System / Save the World where the evil wins, the system prevails, and the world suffers.
Additionally, there is another variation which intertwines the evil with the character development with the evil where the character embraces/rejects the evil at the end.
Play at Home
Now, that you have a list, I suggest playing at home. That’s what I’ve been doing since I came up with the list. I scroll through the movies on a streaming service and see what if I can name the archetypes I’ve presented.
So, something like War Games looks something like this: Frankenstein’s Dilemma (AI controls the nukes) inside another Frankenstein’s Dilemma (nuclear war) with a Relationship Plot (the two teenagers) and several Procedural Plots (hack the computer, get to the island, defeat the machine) that structure the three acts.
Or, as I mentioned, The Farewell is a beautiful movie with a Team Con (don’t tell grandma) with a Come Home to Your Family Plot (the family literally comes back to China) and a Becoming Plot (grow up and learn a hard truth).
I could even find patterns in a movie that I loved, Margin Call, that seemed relatively plotless at first. But, after thinking about it, I saw a strong Information Plot (this thing is going to explode), with Procedure Plots (find the guy, sell the shares) in different acts. And, maybe, in the end, it has a tragic variation of Expose the Lie.
I can keep going, but the point of this exercise was never to just categorize what I see or read. It was to see how something I liked work so that I could imitate it. It was for application to my own work. In sharing this, I hope others find it helpful. And, if there are suggestions to improve it, please comment or reach out.