Formulas, Plots, and Narratives

As my latest manuscript is moving closer to getting done every day, I’ve started to undertake the less-fun parts of the writing business: thinking very seriously about editing; how many and which beta readers I’ll run this by and when I want them to have it read; editing again; figuring out which markets, publishing houses, services, and/or agents will work for this particular manuscript; working out query letters, synopses, and pitches; putting together a marketing platform so that my mom won’t be the only person who buys it (as much as I love her); and basically all of the other stuff that falls under “unpleasant but important.” Of this particular “to do” list, I’ve been thinking about the synopsis the most, with the platform as a very close second (because I really, really should be putting together an e-newsletter). The synopsis is simply the most relevant right now because while the story isn’t perfectly polished just yet, everything is coming together, and I’m at the point where I need to practice my pitch on my poor, unsuspecting friends and family. Frankly, I’m fumbling a little bit at that part, but that’s the beauty of being in a business where things move pretty slowly: I still have time to figure things out completely.

There are so many methods out there for summarizing a plot, as it turns out (There will be a lot of linking to TV Tropes in this post, for which I’m going to apologize right now, because I know that TV Tropes is a notorious rabbit hole of reading and procrastination. All of the links will open in new windows or tabs). If you retold a classic story or recreated something famous, the process is marginally easier for you (Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies is Romeo and Juliet with zombies; Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country is everything H.P. Lovecraft ever did in his career transplanted into Jim Crow America; etc.), but unfortunately I didn’t go that route this time. Some of what I’ve read suggests summing up each chapter or story beat as a sentence, and in the case of a pitch, leaving the final act or so a mystery. There’s the Pixar Prompt/Method, which I’ve found fairly helpful at getting the bare-bones kind of stuff on the page: when you’re given six sentences to summarize your plot, you need to economize a bit. When you get to a certain point in reducing your story down to what matters, though, it might start to sound… familiar.

This is where The Seven Basic Plots, as described by Christopher Booker, comes in. You might remember them from a high school English class, which, if I remember correctly, was my first exposure to them, along with The Hero’s Journey/Monomyth. The long short of the seven basic plots is that there are seven different stories or themes—Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth—that, when taken individually or together, in theory make up literally every story ever told. As neat as it is, it tends to reduce stories down to checklists. For instance:

  • Harry Potter: Any of the books and movies will fit. You get Rags to Riches as he gets removed from his life with the Dursleys and into a world where he’s not only financially secure but acquires magical powers, friendships, and a family, thereby going from nothing to having a plethora of literal and metaphorical riches. It’s a story of Overcoming the Monster as well, especially when you get to the later books, when the “monster” takes the form of everything from the ultimate bad guy Voldemort to the magical governing body that is exercising more power than it should ever have been allowed to have.
  • Nightmare Before Christmas: Jack Skellington has a Quest—he’s having the holiday icon equivalent of a midlife crisis and is searching for a spark of inspiration in order to get back to enjoying what he does. You could also make a convincing case for Voyage and Return because of his journey into Christmas and his encounters with the (to him) foreign inhabitants and philosophies that he takes back with him, which change him and ultimately the creatures he lives and works with year-round. His actions in his attempt to take over Christmas spiral toward tragedy, but as is the case with a Rebirth plotline, he hits rock-bottom, realizes what he’s done, and ultimately corrects his mistakes and sorts everything out before the finale.
  • Even the manuscript I’m working on isn’t immune to this. Without giving away too much (hey, I plan on publishing this, and it’s also not done yet), Familiaris revolves around Overcoming the Monster (where “monster” is defined as both the societal expectations and pressures on my protagonist and an actual human antagonist) with shades of Rags to Riches. Depending on how optimistic you are about his life situation, Rebirth could be argued as well.

I’m aware that synopses don’t require plots to be distilled into formulas: they’re supposed to be more detailed than a few broad sentences. But as much as we crave originality in our entertainment, is it really true that there are only a limited number of stories that can possibly be told? Even if you look at a more generous theory, like Georges Polti’s The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations, that’s still a list that you can point at and say “This story fits here.” It seems like, after a while, you’re going to come back to the same couple of plots no matter what you do.

It turns out that there are ways around it, though.

Not even works inspired by the same archetypical story have to be identical. Would you believe me if I told you that Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves and Suzanne Collins’  The Hunger Games have functionally the same roots as stories? Take a look at Greek mythology, specifically the Labyrinth of Crete and the Minotaur within. House of Leaves takes the homage a little more literally (depending on your reading—it’s one of those books) by having a labyrinth and monster within the house. Suzanne Collins cited this legend as a major influence on the world of The Hunger Games, and the plot, rather than elements from it, shapes the entire story. She sets up Katniss as her Theseus, has her volunteer to undertake a dangerous challenge that will probably kill her, and ultimately plots to destroy the oppressive system that claims so many lives. Two creators took the same legend and, by looking at and focusing on different parts, created very different stories for different audiences.

The other way to avoid feeling trapped by a formula, I recently had an epiphany about, is by way of your characters. Even if there are only seven plots in the world and a limited number of ways that they can be combined, there are way more than seven people. Just like you have story archetypes, you have a number of character archetypes, too, but people are different. You can have, for instance, a Mother archetype, and while that comes with a few expectations (namely being compassionate and nurturing) she can still have a variety of personality traits. Maybe she doesn’t have literal children and instead is maternal to her friends, the less fortunate, or animals. She could be very depressed and channels all of her energy into helping others in an effort to give herself a reason to keep going, or to feel something. Because of something in her background, she might not know how to show her unconditional love to her children in a way that they understand, and this could cause conflicts.

There are certain characters that belong in certain worlds. Your Innocent Child is going to be right at home in a Voyage and Return story, which are often used in children’s media to allow children to explore ideas and worlds safely and return wiser but otherwise unchanged. A Messiah is going to be fine in a Quest, because he understands what he’s getting into and what the stakes are if he shirks his responsibilities or fails to live up to them. But what if the King is sent on a Voyage and Return—taken away from the kingdom and structure he knows and put into a position where he has no power? Can a Guardian Angel do the very thing she was tasked with in a Tragedy if she is the one that falls? What would it take for a Jester to recognize the gravity of his Quest?

It’s in these mixtures that complex, interesting plots can happen. And I also realize now that this is what all of those creative writing classes meant when they said that character-driven, rather than plot-driven, fiction was what writing should be. I and probably a lot of other people assumed that the dichotomy was by genre because of the emphasis that a lot of these classes had on reading and producing literary fiction: literary fiction was character-driven because characters were all it had, and genre fiction was plot-driven because of tropes and worldbuilding. It doesn’t have to be that way, though, and stories become better if it isn’t. Fiction happens when characters, plots, and worlds all collide, but all that the term character-driven asks us to do is look a little harder at the people we’re with when we take these journeys.