Plot Genres

In my last two posts I covered a variety of alternative plots that deviate from traditional arch plot. In this post I want to address what is known as a plot genre.

You’ve probably stumbled across craft books that told you there are x-number of plot types and the story you are writing probably falls into one of these catagories.  For example Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat offers the following list:

  1. save-the-catMonster in the House
  2. Golden Fleece
  3. Out of the Bottle
  4. Dude with a Problem
  5. Rites of Passage
  6. Buddy Love
  7. Whydunit
  8. The Fool Triumphant
  9. Institutionalized
  10. Superhero

Or maybe you’ve stumbled across Ronald Tobias’ 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them, which offers these as plot variations:

  1. 20 Master PlotsComing of Age Plot
  2. Atonement Plot
  3. Love Plot
  4. Forbidden Love Plot
  5. Revenge Plot
  6. Mystery Plot
  7. Adventure Plot
  8. Rescue Plot
  9. Escape Plot
  10. Temptation Plot
  11. You get the picture…

So, why aren’t these alternative plots? Why didn’t I include them in my alternative plot list?

Great question.

This is the difference between what I call a plot type and a plot genre. The list above is a category: romance, mystery, superhero, buddy flick, etc. They all come with conventions and audience expectations. And yes, they sometime even come with what one might call “obligatory scenes” (i.e. a scene you would expect from that genre of story). In my book, however, these are all still variations of the hero’s journey/goal-oriented plot. They don’t push the envelope of plot in a new way. Instead they use the conventions of arch plot to tell this variation of the goal-oriented story. Instead of a quest, it’s the goal to “get the girl” or “seek revenge” or “solve the mystery.” The reason we often hear that there is only “one type of story” is because we often lump everything (including all these genre variations) under the umbrella of a goal-oriented story.

Of course you can take any one of these genres and decide to use an alternative plot! Of course you can! And I’d love to see you do that.

But let’s not get confused. A plot-type is defined by the type of action and it’s cause-and-effect relationships. Whereas a plot-genre is defined by the category of the story-type and the expectations and conventions of that category.


TO PLOT OR NOT TO PLOT: Part 4 – Types of Plot

Be sure to read the first three parts of this essay:

Types of Plot

We’ve established that plot is the linear events chosen from the story and presented with a causal relationship. However, a writer might receive the comment: “This has no plot!” from a teacher, and the writer might then argue that he’s chosen events and presented them with profluence. This may be true, but it’s possible the teacher is referring to something more specific. One of the major issues when it comes to discussing plot, is the use of the word “plot” and how it often refers to a specific type of plot. What plot is that? Why it’s the grandpappy of dramatic theory’s concept of plot, of course: Aristotle’s energeic plot.

Energeia relates to action. John Garder says “the most common form of the novel is energeic” and by the word energeia “Aristotle meant ‘the actualization of the potential that exits in character and situation” (187). Philosophy professor Jeffrey Wattles explains Aristotle’s energeia as “when things are in activity,” further pointing out that “every activity is directed toward some good or goal.” And Klien explains that Aristotle’s tragedy is “a representation of a serious, complete action which has magnitude … represented by people acting and not by narration.” Therefore, when we speak of energeic plot we are talking about the action plot or the goal-oriented plot, where a protagonist has a goal and takes action to obtain that goal. This is the plot of Aristotelian tragedy, and the most common organizing principal used when plotting.

The energeic plot is the basis for most conversations on plotting. In fact, there are plenty of craft books claiming to have found the key to plot only to reiterate the same template of energeic plot (Doan).  Screenwriting guru Robert McKee explains plot as:

For better or worse, an event throws a character’s life out of balance, arousing in him the conscious and/or unconscious desire for that which he feels will restore balance, launching him on a quest for his object of desire against forces of antagonism (inner, personal, extra-personal). He may or may not achieve it. (McKee, qtd in Doan, 2)

And Gary Provost “The writer’s writer” explains plot similarly:

Once upon a time, something happened to someone, and he decided that he would pursue a goal. So he devised a plan of action, and even though there were forces trying to stop him, he moved forward because there was a lot at stake. And just as things seemed as bad as they could get, he learned an important lesson, and when offered the prize he had sought so strenuously, he had to decide whether or not to take it, and in making that decision he satisfied a need that had been created by something in his past. (Provost, qtd in Doan, 2)

This is the plot of The Hero’s Journey, it’s the plot taught in film school and found in myth and novel from contemporary times to the days of the Greeks.  But is it the end-all-to-be-all of plot?

The energeic plot may be the most common, but it’s not the only plot available to writers. In fact, film theorist Charles Ramirez Berg noticed an emergence of alternatively plotted films that don’t fall under the dominant energeic plot paradigm. He’s begun to classify films by new plot types and has come up with twelve categories, suggesting that this is just the beginning and not an all-inclusive list (8). A small sampling of his plot types include: The Polyphoic or Ensemble Plot: Multiple protagonists in a single location which is “characterized by the interaction of several voices, consciousnesses, or world views, none of which unifies or is superior to the others” (15).  There can be goals in this plot type, but more often it’s a character-driven story in the form of a portrait of a city or group of friends (example: The Big Chill)The Daisy Chain Plot: No central protagonist, one character leads to the next. In this plot we follow an object as it switches hands from character to character (example: The Red Violin) (25). The Repeated Action Plot: One character repeats a single action, as in the film Groundhog Day or Lauren Oliver’s YA novel Before I Fall, where the protagonist re-lives a day of her life multiple times (30). As we can see, many types of plot exist, and though goals can be a part of these plots, it’s not the only way in which to plot a story.

Another term to consider is that of the soft plot. Is this a new plot type or a reaction to a plot without much action? This is a tricky question as the distinction relates to the context in which the question is posed. I would postulate that most often a soft plot comment is a reaction to a slow energeic plot. “Lack of suspense or tension in a narrative can in part be explained by the absence of a tight plot. There is very little tension, for instance in Virginia Woolf’s short story Kew Gardens, mostly because practically nothing happens … Many modern and postmodern writers deliberately try to eschew event-dominated stories and tight plots because they feel it is not an accurate rendering of reality and they claim to be more interested in character than plot” (Basics of English Studies, 2). The reference in this quote to “tight plot” and a need for “things to happen” is a reflection of a desire for energeic plot, but the idea of being interested in authenticity and character has merit of its own. A character driven plot could be its own plot type as well, where the designing plot principal is to show causal events that create a portrait or context of a character and her life rather than a specific goal.

It seems action, character; even an object (daisy-chain plot) can be the designing principal of a plotline, but what about theme? Gardner postulates multiple ways one can organize a novel, saying:

Successful novel-length fictions can be organized: energetically, that is by a sequence of causally related events, juxtapositionally, when the novel’s parts have symbolic or thematic relationship but no flowing development through cause and effect; or lyrically, that is by some essentially musical principal – one may think, for example, of the novels of Marcel Proust or Virginia Woolf. (185)

He goes on to explain:

The lyrical novel is the most difficult to talk about. What carries the reader forward is not plot, basically – though the novel may contain, in disguised form, a sequence of causally related events – but some form of rhythmic repetition: a key image or cluster of images; a key event or groups of events, to which the writer returns repeatedly, then leaves for material that increasingly deepens and redefines the meaning of the event or events; or some central idea or cluster of ideas. (185)

It is here that we’ve begun to move away from plot. Here we have begun to talk about stories, but stories without plots. What we have here is a pattern of organization concerning a story that lacks causality and profluence (thus has no plot). What we’ve stumbled upon is structure.

Up Next: Part 5 – Structure and Looking at the Whole

** Full Bibliography will be provided at end of blog-post series.