Some Common Plots Arcs

I’ve noticed that one of the things that can paralyze me in the middle of writing a story is when I suddenly recognize my plot arc as something I’ve seen quite often before elsewhere. Then the kernel in my head about killing your literary fathers revolts and that’s pretty much it for trying to finish the story in an organic and believable way.

Happily, I’ve also realized that if I write down those common plot arcs and tack it up somewhere visible when I’m writing (plus a quote from Stephen King about how only God gets things right the first time), it’s all clear and honest between me and the editor psyche that not everything I write has to have too many visions of Pynchon originality.

Here’s a couple that I quickly  recognize; some of them are quite fluid and do overlap, and the terms have large spaces for interpretation. (Caveat: Yes, they’re meant to simplify things.)

1. Protagonist wants something. Takes action (which is interesting by itself / unique to the protagonist). Gets it / doesn’t get it (and the journey is equally, or sometimes more, revealing). Example: Neil Gaiman’s “Harlequin Valentine.” OR all kinds of interesting, (sometimes ironic) consequences crop up. Example: Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-tale Heart.”

2. Protagonist initially has a certain personality. Protagonist is put into a situation. Takes action. Watch how it changes him / her (or reveals an opposite, ironic quality in him / her). Example: The Godfather. And while we’re at it, Citizen Kane.

3. Protagonist is in Conflict A. “Bumps” into a Conflict B, with varying degrees of relevance to Conflict A. But of course it is very relevant. Conflict B unfolds and is resolved (or not), and in the journey Protagonist learns, comes up with a resolution for Conflict A. Example: Stuart Marlow’s “The Search for the Lost Condom.”

4. Protagonist does things a certain way that is a huge part of his/her personality (usually not a particularly nice one). A certain situation of irony and role reversal forces that exact “way” upon him/her. Example: Wit.

5. Something / somebody new descends upon the town and changes / reveals something about someone/everyone/everything. Or not. (Reverse: something is taken away and so forth.) Example: Peter Carey’s “Do You Love Me?”

6. Something of huge consequence is about to happen. All the while, very few people notice (or most people misconstrue it), until it’s too late. Example: Martin Amis’s “Insight at Flame Lake”, Goethe’s “Der Erlkönig”. Or if “most people” can be applied to the reader, then Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.”

I did think of the classical tragic hero (a la Oedipus Rex) but seems like you can fit it into Arc 1.

7. But anyway, while we’re at it, here goes the modern tragic hero…Protagonist behaves a certain way (usually tends to be something that ought to be commended). Wants something, takes action. But because of the way society is, said action flops in grandly ironic fashion (and sometimes puts Protagonist in an even worse state). Example: Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.

The list isn’t  meant to be complete, so if anyone has any other ideas or I got something off, I’d love it if you can tell me. Catharsis for all.


Posted on July 2, 2010, in Writing. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Thanks for this. Have you read King’s “On Writing?” I’ve been writing a few awkward stories of my own, still quite stumbling about in the dark.

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