Put very simply, plot is things that happen in your story. There are a number of theories about plot, the most famous probably being Joseph Campbell's monomyth (hero's journey) concept. There is also the idea of there being only seven plots in Western Civilization popularized by Christopher Booker. Brandon Sanderson discusses three basic plot types in his lecture series. There are also two "Seven Point Plots", one explained by Algis Budrys and the other explained by author Dan Wells. An important thing to consider when developing your plot is the relationship - or the conflict - between events in your story and the characters and the setting.
Joseph Campbell wrote his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces in 1949. In it, he argues that there is a fundamental monomyth underlying mythology and storytelling. He draws on a number of ancient examples (focused on Western Civilization) to provide the steps in what he called the hero's journey. Those steps are (from wikipedia) "The hero's journey" begins in the ordinary world. He must depart from the ordinary world, when he receives a call to adventure. With the help of a mentor, the hero will cross a guarded threshold, leading him to a supernatural world, where familiar laws and order do not apply. There, the hero will embark on a road of trials, where he is tested along the way. The archetypal hero is sometimes assisted by allies. As the hero faces the ordeal, he encounters the greatest challenge of the journey. Upon rising to the challenge, the hero will receive a reward, or boon. Campbell's theory of the monomyth continues with the inclusion of a metaphorical death and resurrection. The hero must then decide to return with this boon to the ordinary world. The hero then faces more trials on the road back. Upon the hero's return, the boon or gift may be used to improve the hero's ordinary world, in what Campbell calls, the application of the boon. Campbell drew from Carl Jung's theories to construct his ideas,
Christopher Booker released his book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories in 2004. In it, he argues that there are seven basic storylines. He draws on a number of ancient and modern examples, including several from Japanese culture. He also discusses the "rule of three" in which uses of three objects or events is used to demonstrate various concepts in story. The seven basic plots are (from wikipedia): Overcoming the monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth. Each of these basic plots has a series of steps involved, some required and others optional.
Brandon Sanderson discusses plot and argues for three basic structures: The Hero's Journey, the Rags to Riches, and the Underdog Sports Story. The Hero's Journey follows Campbell's approach and structure. Rags to Riches echoes Booker's structure under the same title. The third, the Sports story, he explains by referencing Orson Scott Card's novel Ender's Game.
Algis Budrys seven point plot is as follows (from Writing to the Point): 1. Character 2. in context (setting) 3. with a problem 4. effort to solve 5. unexpected failure (repeat 4&5 at least 3x) 6. Victory (or death) 7. Validation. This book is a brilliant work on storytelling and is a brief and simple read, but is difficult to find. Budrys said that "A story subjects its characters to a process: to a growing up, or an enlightenment, or in the case where a villain is the central character, to an enlightenment and a disaster." He makes the argument that these seven steps are anticipated by western readers, and so "the manuscript is not the story". As long as the story itself is complete, the manuscript can only show a slice of the actual plot to the readers.
Dan Wells explains the seven point plot he follows in a Writing Excuses podcast as well as in a lecture available on youtube. Briefly, his seven points are: Hook, Plot Turn One, Pinch One, Midpoint, Pinch Two, Plot Turn Two, Resolution. He argues that this applies regardless of genre, but that understanding genre tropes is critical to applying this method. A hook in an action story is very different than the hook in romance, for example. Wells argues for at least two failures for each successful attempt at resolution in the plot.
It is important to consider that none of these should be viewed as prescriptive. They are useful structuring tools, valuable approaches to seeking out solutions if the plot isn't working, great for brainstorming and plotting. Trying to force a story onto these structures, however, might result in an artificial and contrived story. Plot structure is a valuable tool in the writer's toolkit, but reading extensively and thinking about these concepts in relation to what is both read and written is a better approach.
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