Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Using Story Archetypes to Find Your Plot

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Story archetypes are useful tools to develop a novel or story.

Although we hear about characters archetypes a lot in writing, I’ve found story archetypes much more useful when developing a story. They’re solid jumping off points to help shape an idea and figure out the best direction to take it.

Story archetypes are the common events or situations often seen in fiction. Coming of age, rags to riches, the quest, getting retribution, earning redemption, battle of the underdog. They’re classic story types readers have come to recognize and even seek out.

Some story archetypes offer clear tropes and plots to follow, while others are more thematic, fitting whichever style or process a writer has. Those looking for more direction might welcome a trope-laden archetype, while those looking for general inspiration might prefer the theme-laden side. For example:

Say you have a character in mind who has suffered a past trauma, and while you know this trauma affected her deeply, you’re not sure what the plot is yet. You might look through a list of story archetypes and find one that clicks for you, and the ideas start flowing.
  • Maybe it’s a story of redemption, and the trauma was her fault.
  • Maybe it’s a story of understanding that the trauma was not her fault.
  • Maybe it’s a revenge story punishing the people who caused the trauma.
  • Maybe it’s a love story bonding with someone who shares the trauma.
Each of these stories will be different, but they’re all based on a particular story archetype—redemption, understanding, revenge, romance. Knowing even this tiny piece of information helps clarify the story and how a writer might tell that story. Someone plotting a revenge novel probably won’t be pulling from the romance toolbox, and vice versa. Though another writer might choose to merge two dissimilar archetypes into something new.

That’s what I like best about story archetypes—they’re great for brainstorming and generating ideas.

(Here’s more on Storming the Brain: Coming Up With Ideas)

Using Story Archetypes in a Novel

If you have an idea and you’re not sure what to do with it, or need some guidance in plotting it, look through the following lists and pick the archetypes that resonate with you. Odds are something here fit with what’s in your head, and you saw the possibilities of where that story might go.

We often have a clearer idea of what we don’t want, so writers can skim through these lists and cross off what they aren't interested in. That leaves them with a shorter list of possibilities, and exploring each archetype for few minutes can narrow that down even further.

Once you choose the archetype you want to write, the tropes of that story can guide you to your plot.

The Different Types of Story Archetypes

Various writers have boiled down the essence of stories in a myriad of ways, from the most broad to the most specific.

John Gardner once said there are only two plots in all of literature:

  • A person goes on a journey.
  • A stranger comes to town.
Either the protagonist searches for something or someone enters the protagonist’s world. In both cases, things change.

Helpful or not? Tastes will vary, but this is too broad to be truly useful for me. Star Wars is a quest story, but so is An American Tail, and there’s a lot of difference between them. However, it’s not a bad starting point if you have no idea what you want to write about—do you want your protagonist to strive for something or is their world disrupted? Do you want internal or external forces driving the plot?

(Here’s more on The Difference Between Idea, Premise, Plot, and Story)

Christopher Booker claimed there were just seven story archetypes in The Seven Basic Plots:

This offers a few more options that are closer to the thematic categories most of us are used to.
  • Overcoming the Monster: The protagonist sets out to defeat an antagonistic force (often evil) which threatens the protagonist and/or protagonist's homeland.
  • Rags to Riches: The poor protagonist acquires power, wealth, and/or a mate, loses it all and gains it back, growing as a person as a result.
  • The Quest: The protagonist and companions set out to acquire an important object or to get to a location. They face temptations and other obstacles along the way.
  • Voyage and Return: The protagonist goes to a strange land and, after overcoming the threats it poses to them, they return with experience.
  • Comedy: Light and humorous character with a happy or cheerful ending; a dramatic work in which the central motif is the triumph over adverse circumstance, resulting in a successful or happy conclusion.
  • Tragedy: The protagonist's character flaw or great mistake which is their undoing. Their unfortunate end evokes pity at their folly and the fall of a fundamentally good character.
  • Rebirth: An event forces the main character to change their ways and often become a better person.
Helpful or not? This set can narrow down a story idea further, and provide a variety of options to help fuel that idea into a plot. However, it leans more toward the classic or mythic structure to me, and I can see contemporary or non-genre writers struggling to make their stories “fit” into one of these categories. Where does the traditional romance fit? Is that a comedy? But what if it’s not funny? Isn’t rebirth just the character arc? Helpful for some, but many writers will likely need more.

(Here’s more on What a Concept! Plotting Your Novel Conceptually)

Blake Snyder goes a step further and gives us ten in his book, Save the Cat:

While Gardener and Booker offered more thematic archetypes, Snyder’s screenwriting background makes his archetypes a bit more plotting friendly.
  • Monster in the House: This plot deals with something trying to eat or kill you.
  • Out of the Bottle: This plot deals with wishes and curses.
  • Whydunit: This plot deals with the why of unraveling a mystery.
  • Golden Fleece: The typical quest plot. Road trip stories fall into this as well as classic fantasies.
  • Rites of Passage: This plot is all about life transitions.
  • Institutionalized: A group of people stuck together.
  • Buddy Love: Relationships and partnerships.
  • Superhero: Someone with an extraordinary ability in the normal world.
  • Dude with a Problem: Average Joe, major problem.
  • The Fool Triumphant: The overlooked underdog who triumphs.
Helpful or not? Since Synder’s archetypes are based on movies and not novels, they have a more modern and commercial feel that covers a wider range of plots. They’re also geared toward plotting, so they’re quite handy for developing an idea into a plot.

(Here’s more on Plotting With the Save the Cat Beat Sheet Structure)

And finally, Ronald B. Tobias has twenty in his book, Twenty Master Plots and How to Build Them:

This has broadest view of the set, allowing for both classic and modern stories that fit any genre.
  • Quest: A search for a person, place or things.
  • Adventure: A journey that's more about the road taken, not who's taking it.
  • Pursuit: A tale that focuses on being pursued.
  • Rescue: The classic "save the person" story.
  • Escape: Any tale that requires an literal escape.
  • Revenge: Getting even for an injustice.
  • The Riddle: A story that revolved around hiding something in plain sight.
  • Rivalry: An irresistible force meets an immovable object, or competition. Two equal sides battling it out over something.
  • Underdog: A lesser version of the rivalry plot.
  • Temptation: Stories that surround the motives, needs, and impulses of a character.
  • Metamorphosis: A transformation back to humanity.
  • Transformation: The process of change through one of the stages of life.
  • Maturation: Stories dealing with the cusp of adulthood. Almost any coming of age story fits here.
  • Love: The base for nearly every romance novel, though it can be other types of love.
  • Forbidden Love: Any love that goes against the conventions of society.
  • Sacrifice: Undergoing a major transformation at great personal cost.
  • Discovery: Stories more about making the discovery than the discovery itself, it's a search for understanding about human nature and who you are.
  • Wretched Excess: The psychological decline of a character.
  • Ascension and Dissension: The story revolved around a moral dilemma that is the foundation for change (positive or negative) for the character.
Helpful or not? This is my favorite of the group, because each archetype captures the essence of a story idea and offers a clear path on how to develop, but not limit, that idea. For example, a Quest archetype is the search for a person, place, or thing, which works just as well for the classic fantasy hero quest, a historical exploration, or a literary emotional journey to find oneself. The simple yet specific nature of each type sparks a multitude of ideas without limiting those idea to any particular genre.

(Here’s more on I Have An Idea for a Novel! Now What?)

Sometimes, all we need is a little direction for our brainstorming to figure out our stories and plot. Running through a list of classic story types is an easy way to direct our creativity and spark ideas.

Do you use story archetypes to develop a novel? What are your favorites? What ones are you tired of seeing?

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. I am actually in the middle of reading Save The Cat Writes a Novel. After thinking my WIP was monster in the house for months, it turns out it is more kiklik dude with a problem. I sat down, reworked my key plot points and sketched out act 1s 15 scenes in a day. Suddenly the sci fi thriller had gas. Great post, wasnt aware of the other models.

    1. There are quite a few of them. Dude with a problem does fit your story well.

  2. I don’t think adventure plots are more about the road than the characters

    1. That's just Tobias' category for that type of plot. I agree, I think adventures can be all kinds of things, and if it's more of a growth adventure, it's definitely about the person, not the road. The "road trip" story is almost always a character journey story.