This is a list of some of the most ubiquitous understandings of plotting for fiction and sometimes for creative nonfiction or journalistic storytelling that have (for better or worse) defined popular examinations of story structure. (The word “plot” can refer to the sequence of events in a story and the major themes operative in that sequence.) These lists compartmentalize plots into simple classifications. They are useful because they reveal cross-cultural generalizations, idealizations, and clichés of story structure. Many stories (“low brow” and “high brow,” in magazines, books, film, television, video, and the Internet) are still unconsciously or consciously organized according to these plot types and many more. This compilation is presented as a means to highlight the popular classifications that are always vying with arguably more sophisticated understandings of narrative design.
This is the five-stage Neo-Aristotelian story structure derived from the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle's circa 335 BCE book Poetics, which (along with some of Plato’s writings) posited that stories should be cohesive in design with interrelated parts, a deficit of contrivance (or deus ex machina) and a beginning, middle and end.
A 19th century German playwright and novelist named Gustav Freytag posited that this Aristotelian story structure could be diagramed like a triangle in his 1863 book called Die Technik des Dramas.
George Polti's list of 36 common plots are drawn from his 1916 book entitled The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations, which was in turn purportedly based on Carlo Gozzi's ideas.
This is a list of Ronald Tobias's common plot structures from his 1993 book entitled 20 Master Plots, and How to Build Them. The explanations (presented as fragments without a final period) are drawn largely from his book too.
The hero searches for something, someone, or somewhere. In reality, they may be searching for themselves, with the outer journey mirrored internally; they may be joined by a companion, who takes care of minor detail and whose limitations contrast with the hero's greater qualities.
The protagonist goes on an adventure, much like a quest, but with less of a focus on the end goal or the personal development of hero; in the adventure, there is more action for action's sake.
In this plot, the focus is on chase, with one person chasing another (and perhaps with multiple and alternating chase); the pursued person may be often cornered and somehow escape, so that the pursuit can continue; depending on the story, the pursued person may be caught or may escape in the plot’s final acts.
In the rescue, someone is captured who must then be released by the hero or heroic party; a triangle may form between the protagonist, the antagonist and the victim; there may be a grand duel between the protagonist and antagonist, after which the victim is freed.
In a kind of reversal of the rescue, a person must escape, perhaps with little help from others; in this, there may well be elements of capture and unjust imprisonment. There may also be a pursuit after the escape.
In the revenge plot, a wronged person seeks retribution against the person or organization, which has betrayed or otherwise harmed him or her or her or his loved ones, physically or emotionally; this plot depends on moral outrage for gaining sympathy from the audience.
(7) The Riddle
The riddle plot entertains the audience and challenges them to find the solution before the hero (or the detective) steadily and carefully uncovers clues solves the riddle; the story may also be spiced up with terrible consequences if the riddle is not solved in time; or the riddle may be brought about by murder or a crime.
In rivalry, two people or groups are set as competitors that may be bitter enemies; rivals often face a zero-sum game, in which there can only be one winner, or where they compete for a scarce resource or the heart of another person.
The underdog plot is similar to rivalry, but where one person (usually the hero) has less advantage and might normally be expected to lose; the underdog usually wins through greater tenacity and determination (and perhaps with the help of friends).
In the temptation plot, a person is tempted by something that gradually diminishes them morally or physically over the course of the story; or their diminishment occurs suddenly and the story dramatizes the aftermath.
In this fantastic plot, the protagonist is physically transformed, perhaps into beast or perhaps into some spiritual or alien form; the story may then continue with the changed person struggling to be released or to use their new form for some particular purpose; eventually, the hero is released, perhaps through some great act of love.
The transformation plot leads to change of a person in some way, often driven by unexpected circumstance or event; after setbacks, the person learns and usually becomes something better.
The maturation plot is a special form of transformation, in which a person grows up; the veils of younger times are lost as they learn and grow; thus the rudderless youth finds meaning or perhaps an older person re-finds their purpose.
The love story is a perennial tale of lovers finding one another, perhaps through a background of danger and woe; along the way, they become separated, but eventually come together in a final joyous reunion.
(15) Forbidden Love
The story of forbidden love happens when lovers are breaking some social rules by falling in love, such as inter-family conflicts or an adulterous relationship; the story may then dramatize the manner in which the love affair unfolds in secret before being exposed.
A person gives up his life or some other urgent possession on behalf of others and the plot then dramatizes the repercussions of the sacrifice, the betrayal possibly posed by the sacrifice, the effect of the sacrifice on others, or the return of the possession.
The discovery plot is strongly focused a hero who discovers something great or terrible and hence must make a difficult choice; the importance of the discovery might not be known at first and either the finding of the object or knowledge is dramatized or the aftermath (the effects) of the discovery is dramatized.
(18) Wretched Excess
In stories of wretched excess, the protagonist goes beyond normally accepted behavior as the world looks on, horrified, perhaps in realization that 'there before the grace of God go I'; this plot often dramatizes social decay and functions as a moralistic cautionary tale.
In the ascension plot, the protagonist starts in the virtual gutter, as a debased person of some kind; then the plot dramatizes the ascension of that person to wealth, achievement or a radically or he plot then shows their ascension to becoming a better person, often in response to stress that would defeat a normal person. Thus they achieve deserved heroic status.
In the opposite to ascension, a person, family, or organization of initially high standing descends to the “gutter” or moral turpitude, and the plot dramatizes their “fall from grace”; similar to Wretched Excess.
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