Saturday, January 21, 2012

How Many Plots?

I’ve been reading about lots of journeys lately.  Call them quests or pursuits or escapes if you will – but they all boil down to a beginning point and a period of travelling to get to the end, right?

In Ronald Tobias’s book 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them, he reminds us that Rudyard Kipling thought there were exactly 69 distinct plots in the universe. Aristotle, on the other hand, through there were precisely two, from which all other plots could be derived. Writer Carlo Gozzi originally suggested there were 36 different plots, but Tobias suggests his list could be realistically pared down to 18 distinct plots in use by writers and storytellers today.

I’m no expert – and would not propose a different number than those above; however, lately….well, lately it seems to me all of the stories I’ve come across have been about journeys.

Tobias’s chapter on the Quest plot outlines three different acts of the story:

·         Act One – the Question. A force moves the hero to act, either out of necessity or by desire.

·         Act Two – The Path. The journey that connects Act One to Act Three, the spice, the flavor for the story.

·         Act Three – The Revelation. The hero obtains or is denied the object of her search.

Off the top of my head, I can list lots of my favorite stories that fit neatly into this pattern. Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars, True Grit, The Wizard of Oz, Shane, Outlander, Treasure of the Sierra Madre (or any other treasure hunt story). I could go on and on… I’m sure you could, too.

If pushed, I could start to break down some of these stories and categorize them differently. Tobias’s book offers 19 other options – like adventure, pursuit, revenge, rescue, riddle, temptation, metamorphosis, forbidden love, and sacrifice.

Is Dorothy on an adventure in Oz? Sure. Does Mattie convince Rooster to help her find revenge for her father’s murder? Absolutely. Does Anakin Skywalker transform from a little boy into one of film’s best villains while on his journey? Yes.

So while I’m stuck in a difficult patch with my own Work In Progress (see those capitals? After all the months of work…it deserves to be capitalized! Trust me!), I’m looking to other authors and other journey stories to help me find my way.

Beth Revis brought me Across the Universe – a journey across not only space but time. In it, our heroine must travel across the universe frozen like a human popsicle. When she is awakened after centuries (but still decades before the space ship’s landing) her journey takes an unexpected turn – and Revis uses her Act Two to give us one of the most claustrophobic dystopian settings in YA literature. I’m not sure Revis finishes the journey in this story and am interested to find the sequel so I can see the end.

(On a site note: Interesting to me that many YA stories lately are outgrowing a single book. In this one, I felt like I got Act One and Act Two (in part) before the last page…)

In Erin Morgenstern’s Night Circus, we have crossing journeys. Le Cirque des Rêves is open only at night and arrives in a new location without warning or advertisement. For decades, Le Cirque is the stage for a hidden competition as two magicians compete. No sure of what they are competing for, these orphans-turned-world-makers travel through cities and towns but also journey down internal paths of understanding and love. Is this a straightforward journey plot? No… There is nothing straightforward about Morgenstern’s book. But who wants to read about a trip that moves from home to far away and back again without some adventure?

Food for thought for this writer, to be sure. Does my WIP need to have all three acts solidly completed in one book? I think so…although if my story leads me elsewhere, maybe I should follow. Does my WIP need to stick strictly to a physical journey? Absolutely not. I think it needs to combine some of Tobias’s suggested plot types – merging adventure, escape, maturation, and quest together into one complete story.

But can I do it? Can I tell this story? Are there list of rules I need to follow – “acts” I need to be sure to structure and character development points I need before I can move my characters’ journey forward? I think the answer to all of those questions is yes… as long as I don’t let myself get strangled by the rules. Right?

Maybe that first rule of writing (WRITE!) should outweigh all structure and plot rules and regulations. If only for a while…until the story grows a little on its own.

In the meantime, I’m going to queue up a good Indiana Jones movie go work on chapter 23. Wish me luck!