15 Sep

Moving Right Along: The Ins and Outs of Plot

Posted in Craft, DIY MFA, Plot

John Gardner once said that there are two types of stories in literature:

(1) Man goes on a journey.
(2) Stranger comes to town.

While it might seem simplistic to think that all stories in literature boil down to these two categories, but let’s look a little closer, shall we?


  • Odyssey (Homer) – clearly (1), as the story revolves around Odysseus’ journey but also (2) when you consider all that happens when he shows up back in Ithaca.
  • Feed (M.T. Anderson)- definitely fits category (2), but we can also view the book as a journey into understanding the feed (1).
  • The Wizard of Oz (L. Frank Baum) – again, it appears on the surface to be about a journey (1) but if we look more closely, we realize that it also fits category (2), in that Dorothy is the stranger that comes to the “town” of Oz and shakes things up.

So if we have all these examples where books fit both of Gardner’s categories, how can we define plot?  Are all stories about both going on journeys and strangers coming to town?

The thing is, stories aren’t just about people going out into the world or facing a hostile environment.  Stories are about people facing other people and that is where a lot of the conflict arises that drives the story.  And the minute we start talking about conflict, the issue of power comes up.

The way I see it, narratives break down into three categories of conflict:
   (A) Protagonist must confront an entity with more power.
   (B) Protagonist must confront an entity with equal power.
   (C) Protagonist must confront herself.

Notice how there is no category for the protagonist to confront an entity of lesser power.  This is because if the protagonist faces off with someone or something that is easily overcome, there is no conflict.  Remember: conflict drives the story.

Let’s take a look at some plot archetypes that fall into these categories.

(A) is the classic Underdog Story.  Some archetypes in this category are:

  • Fish Out of Water – The protagonist is confronted with a foreign environment where he/she feels like an outsider.  Note that the protagonist can already be in this environment to begin with and events transpire that make the environment hostile.  In this case, the environment is the entity with power.
  • Cinderella Narrative – In a “Rags-to-Riches” story, a character of lower status (Cinderella) must convince a character of higher status (Prince) to recognize qualities of value in her.  Notice also that this story fits the “Fish Out of Water” scenario where Cinderella must pretend to be someone she is not in order to be accepted by the prince.
  • David & Goliath – The underdog (David) is faced with a character much more powerful than he, but because of his innate qualities, he manages to vanquish his powerful opponent.  This is the ultimate underdog story.
  • Come-Back Story – The protagonist used to have power but now has none and must turn his fate around to resume his position of power.  Revenge stories fall under this category because in this case the character resumes power by exacting revenge.
  • Pygmalion – A powerful character “creates” a less powerful one, intending to use him, but the “creation” develops enough power to take on a life of its own and causes trouble. (Ex: Frankenstein)
  • Secrets – The protagonist discovers a secret that threatens a powerful person or institution.  The central conflict then is whether the protagonist will be able to unlock the full secret while the entity in power tries to stop him.  (Ex: Da Vinci Code.)
  • Knight (or Hobbit) in Shining Armor – There is an antagonist–a great force or opponent–and the protagonist is the only one who can stop it.  In many cases, this protagonist is not a powerful knight, but a humble character who gets pulled into the adventure.  (Ex: Fellowship of the Ring)

(B) is a Narrative of Connections story.  Some archetypes here are:

  • Submission to Love – Love blinds the protagonists causing them to do things that lead them into more and more trouble.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers – A couple wants to be together but they are being kept apart by some outside force.  This is a subset of the Submission to Love story.
  • Lost Twin – Two characters (often enemies) are thrown together and discover a kinship or likeness between them.  (Ex: the movie The Parent Trap is a literal example)

Note: This analysis of story structure and some of these examples have been adapted  from a lecture given by Perry Brass in April 2007.

(C) Finally we have an Introspective Narrative in which the protagonist confronts herself.  Here, the protagonist has some great inner conflict that must be resolved.  This type of narrative rarely occurs on its own; after all, 300 pages of introspective monologue would be seriously boring.  Usually (C) occurs as a parallel thread to a story structure that falls under one of the above categories.

Notice that in all of these plot archetypes we have a character who wants something (to fit in, to get revenge, to find love) but that want is thwarted by some entity of either equal or greater power.  The power struggle is part of what creates the conflict and conflict is what plot is all about.

Today’s Task: Examine the power in your story by answering the following questions.

1. What does your character want?
2. What’s standing in his/her way?
3. What specific obstacles prevent him/her from obtaining this goal?
4. Outcome: does the character obtain the goal? What are the implications of this outcome?

Additional Resources

  • The Plot Whisperer (Martha Alderson) has put together a series of podcasts that talk about plotting a story.  She also has a blog that discusses all things plot-related.
  • Antonette Hornsby (AKA Ant) recently write a post about the LOCK method in developing a plot.


Comments on this post

  1. Samantha Vérant says:

    I'm writing a memoir. If I told you what I wanted; I'd blow the story. (LOL)

    1. Lori says:

      Hi Gabi. Thank you for following my blog. This post is just what I needed today. I'm starting a rewrite on a YA and need to strengthen/redefine my protagonist. Great stuff-thanks!

      1. Michelle says:

        This is exactly where I am at! I am revamping and tweaking my ms and this is the area that needs the most power boost. Now I am duly inspired to go for the tackle.

        1. Mardougrrl says:

          Sigh. These posts always seem to confuse me, as my stories never seem to QUITE fit into these categories for me. Maybe I am just thinking about it the wrong way. And then I start to think that maybe it's because my story isn't a good plot story and that I should just give up and use my extra time making cupcakes (yum, cupcakes).

          Sorry for the view inside my anxious brain. The DIY MFA posts have been a huge inspiration. 🙂

          1. Amanda Sablan says:

            This was a very resourceful post! Thanks for sharing! There's no such thing as a story without conflict and the obstacles on the way.

            1. gabi says:

              Mardougrrl – Don't get discouraged. No story fits an archetype perfectly in every way. Really, what's important is to identify what your character wants and what's standing in his/her way. Then you have conflict and the conflict drives the story. And remember, there's no such thing as a "good plot" story vs. a "bad plot" story. Maybe your character's story is an internal one, and that's OK. Character-driven narratives can be just as engaging as plot-driven ones. So don't worry and definitely keep writing!

              1. Erin MacPherson says:

                Wow.. this is so helpful!! I have no idea how to develop a plot but if I ever try, now I know where to look!

                1. darksculptures says:

                  Conflict, I agree about the importance. Internal, external, or when the two combine to run parallel through the story makes the story.

                  Narrowing the question down to what does the character want and what is standing in the way is such a simplified way to look at it.

                  Definitely something you can wrap your head around and understand. Thanks Gabi!

                  1. Bess Weatherby says:

                    Do you find that it is helpful to outline a plot point-for-point before you start writing? I've always just kind of gone for it, and the plot works itself out. I start with the basic story in my head, but it always goes in twists I didn't expect.

                    On my new book, I've tried outlining more beforehand, and have found it very difficult. However, I have read that many very successful authors have extensive outlines before they ever start writing. Do you think a certain way works more effectively?

                    Just curious. Love this post!

                    1. gabi says:

                      Bess – Just as no two writers are alike, I don't think there is one way that's more effective than another in terms of outlining or not. It all depends on what works for the writer. I think the key is finding a method that's right for you.

                      As for my own process, I'm a compulsive outliner. But I rewrite my outlines as I go. I've been using Scrivener lately which has a built-in outline feature and I'm loving it!

                      I love to adjust my outlines as I go along so by the time I'm done with a project, I've probably gone through a dozen or so outlines and the story is completely different from where it started. Also, a lot of these outlines are really rough (just major points in the story) so I have the freedom to change things as I go.

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