Tag Archives: plot

Seven Basic Plots and Other Story Tropes

Christopher Booker asserts in his book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories that there are (can you guess where I’m going with this yet?) only seven basic plots:

  1. Overcoming the monster
  2. Rags to riches
  3. A journey – the quest
  4. A journey – the voyage and return
  5. Comedies
  6. Tragedies
  7. Rebirth

His rather large tome asserts that all stories can be boiled down to these seven and that they all contain Jungian archetypes. I’m curious how he settled on the number seven.
I’m not sure that I believe that all the stories that ever have been written can be reduced to just seven, but I agree that there are limited plots, and many variations on just a few themes. I’m sure Booker could have picked almost any number and then made a sound argument for it. Looking at his list you can see that the bones of his plots are very spare indeed, which means quite a lot of meat can be added to that bone to make each one look very different from one another, much as one human looks very different from any other while sharing a basic biological blueprint.

Even allowing for the great variation and apparent complexity of most stories we will get quite a short list of plot devices, and then within these plot devices there will always be a set of stock character types as well as a set of recognized tropes. I could, like Booker, spend thirty-for years analyzing all the books and movies I have enjoyed (or not as the case may be) and dissect these for you, but I think everyone understands story tropes. For example the hero and heroine get into a misunderstanding and so much comedy and action ensues: in Mr. & Mrs. Smith from 2005 they are assassins that get sent on the same hit and each thinks the other is out to get them and so they battle each other with guns, knives, and incendiary devices, but they end up back together again in the end, in love stronger than ever. In the 1941 version, one of my favorite Hitchcock movies, a loving couple with decidedly oddball rules of engagement gets into a Battle Royale of loyalties and deceptions until they make up again at the end, more in love than they started. It’s the same basic storyline (though the 2005 version is not technically a remake of the 1941 version), but they vary in important details from what the couples do for a living, how they relate to each other, even the genre of the movies themselves.

It’s the details that make each one a unique experience, but at the same time our recurring themes are important in our storytelling experience. As a writer you are going to be confronted with telling the same story over and over again (there are only seven or eight or whatever after all) but it’s how you tell it – if you avoid the pitfalls of cliché and over-used tropes. Looking at another form of storytelling let’s consider briefly the Legend of Zelda franchise for the Nintendo gaming systems. In each episode there are at least some of the same features: the boy hero Link, the princess Zelda, the villain Ganondorf, the Master Sword, the Kingdom of Hyrule, the Triforce, etc. While each adventure seems to be an open-ended exploration of the setting with various dungeons, monsters to defeat, treasures, and side games to divert, the basic storyline is pushed through with a series of recognizable tropes such as can be found in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. These same recurring themes, or markers, can be found in such successful stories such as the Star Wars movies, or the ancient myths, or tales like King Arthur. These archetypes disguised can be discerned on analysis in many contemporary tales, movie or on the page.

On examination of the best loved stories of all time it is the combination of familiarity and archetypes that help to make a story engaging and universal so that many people can relate. It’s the details, the flesh you put on the bone that makes your story unique and fresh. You can never hope to avoid tropes – they are as essential to storytelling as having a beginning, middle, and end (even if you like to mess up the order you tell them in) – but you can make sure that your tropes aren’t clichés.

Dialogue Tips from the Postman Always Rings Twice

I have been reading the sensible dialogue tips at the Blood Red Pencil and thinking about my own dialogue tips.

Dialogue comes naturally to me as a writer, maybe because I started out being interested in acting and took that to my role-playing, but even my childish note books with my scrawled scifi story has those tell-tale quotes. Now that I think about it one of my first completed pieces of writing was actually a play with hefty dialogue between the three characters. Now I wonder where I stashed that little gem?

I can literally hear my characters speak and I pick up on their cadence and rhythm. In fact if I can’t hear a character speaking out loud in my head I know I’m in trouble with that character. They are not yet alive in my imagination.

My characters talk and jabber at me and I quite often run long monologues in my head from my particularly vocal characters. I have a friend who considers her own inner character monologues to be a form of channeling, and it may be. After all where does inspiration come from? The Muses?

Once I sit down to write a scene though the dialogue must not become a monologue however. It must reveal something about the story, conceal others if I’m still trying to keep my readers guessing, and it must interact with the other characters, even if they are only actively listening. The voice of my characters each must be distinct. It should be fairly clear who is talking even if you removed every tag, every reference to action outside of the dialogue.

For instance much of the plot of The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain is propelled by dialogue and little of it is tagged, yet the voice of his characters is so real and distinctive, each voice clear as a bell, that you know who is talking. And Cain does not write “he said” or “she said” either. I’m not sure, because I haven’t read it in years, but I’m pretty sure if you counted you wouldn’t find an example of either in the entire quick and explosive novel. He doesn’t replace ‘said’ with adverbs or with other possibilities like ‘growled, yelled, barked,’ or ‘throatily’. He lets the dialogue and the spare description do the work.

I’m now going to suggest something outrageous in the history of writing how-to tips: throw away the damned thesaurus. No good comes of a thesaurus. I have probably been guilty as hell in previous writing pieces in suggesting that people look for different words to say the same thing, but what you really need is to cultivate a love of words so that they are handy in your head, not fake it by grabbing the thesaurus. Do not, please I beg you, write ‘amber liquid’ instead of ‘beer’.

Back to dialogue: actually never do the preceding when writing dialogue unless the character is some kind of odd pedant with a penchant for thesaurus cruising and then peppering his speech with oddities. Do clip out all unnecessary tags when possible. Leave just enough to indicate who is talking at the beginning of passage of conversation. Occasionally you will have call to write a little description of what the characters are doing, but keep it spare and keep it important to the dialogue and to telling the story.

From The Postman Always Rings Twice:

“He suspicions us, Frank.”
“It’s the same one, he knew there was something wrong, soon as he saw me standing there, keeping watch, he still thinks so…”
“What are we going to do?”
“I don’t know. It all depends on the stepladder, whether he tumbles what it’s there for. What did you do with that slug, shot?”
“I still got here in the pocket of my dress.”
“God Almighty, if they had arrested you back there, and searched you we’d have been sunk.”
I gave her my knife, cut the string of the bag, and take the bearings out. Then I made her climb back, raise the back seat, and put the bag under it. It would look like a rag, like anybody would keep with the tools.
“You stay back there, now, and keep an eye on that cop. I’m going to snap these bearings into the bushes one at a time, and you’ve got to watch if he notices anything.”

It’s quite clear who is speaking. Cain starts us off in this passage with the name ‘Frank’ and goes from there without any other indicator but the order of the line and tone of voice. The description is spare and to the point. It serves the story. She doesn’t flick her auburn locks out of her eyes and give him a pert but ‘knowing’ look with her emerald eyes.

Of course not everyone writes like Cain nor should they. Your own style and unique voice is essential, but the basic principles of good writing are: show us, don’t tell us, and keep all the words, even the dialogue and description, in service of the plot.

Plotting Between Collaborative Writers

Or the plot goes on and on…

The traditional story will move from beginning to middle and finally to end but in the case of many or most collaborative fiction stories at Pan Historia the idea is never really to end. When it comes to the storyline I prefer to think of my stories more in the light of a serial or ongoing series. There may be story conclusions to individual stories but the characters need new challenges to crop up all the time.

This is where collaborative writing needs more than one head because, frankly, coming up with new plot ideas all the time to keep a train moving indefinitely into the future can be daunting. Some days you just don’t have the inspiration and bouncing ideas off the other writing partners can be a great thing.

I tend to assume that most of the readers of my fiction are writers in the same story (though I have found with great pleasure, on occasion, that there are other readers who enjoy the stories) and so I always have a little line drawn in the sand – how much to reveal and how much to conceal so that they will still have the joy of surprise over plot twists. This is a true balancing act for me though I understand different writers resolve this in different ways.

There are two ways to deal with writing discussions – one through private messages between two writers and the other through forum or chat room discussions between groups of writers. My problem with the chat room is that if you need everyone there you might be lacking a window of opportunity while bulletin boards allow for everyone’s unique time table. Generally I use the private messages over public discussions because of my desire to give everyone else the thrill of surprise, but eventually you will come to a place where everyone needs to be on board. However writers prefer to deal with plot discussions Pan Historia has the tools for it: forum boards available only to the group (novel as we say in Panspeak); chat room; or instant messaging onsite. With the recent re-enactment of the “Gunfight at the OK Corral” by my Tombstone writing group we used all of the available media. We posted widely on the forums in the weeks leading up to the writing event, then we instant messaged each other to work details between characters, and finally on the day we kept coordinated using the chat room.

Which leads me to an interesting aside: as far as I know most collaborative fiction sites are using models adapted for other kinds of interactive social media and Pan Historia is one of the few built specifically to cater to role-playing collaborative writers. I think once people try the site and get past the first “oh shit I don’t know where to find anything or what does this button do” feelings they should find themselves in a complete environment catering almost exclusively to their interests.

Another important thing to remember when discussing plot with your fellow writers is to remember to listen and to be flexible. You might have something in mind and it becomes your ‘darling’ and you want to control that plot, but don’t. You’ll end up writing alone – which is fine if you’re a novelist but kind of dull on in a collaborative situation. Also, and this has happened to me frequently, if you let someone else’s ideas help to shape yours you might just find that the resulting story is even better than the one you originally imagined.