Do you know?
Are you sure?
You may try the elevator pitch method to sum up your basic plot in no more than 20 seconds, or a sentence.
But what is the absolute – basic – all frills removed – plot?
According to many academics there are a handful of basic plots and pretty much every story will follow one of these formulas.
Are you outraged? Feeling like your creativity is being dismissed or subjugated to some scientific process that cannot possibly apply to imagination?!
Hmmm – I thought the same, initially.
Attempting to trip the basics of a story to give an ultimate formula, no way… I wasn’t in total agreement that this was possible. I am a writer! Someone is trying to reduce my concepts for dozens of stories down to a few words and claim that sums up everything ever told!
Then… with my logical mind in gear I did a bit of research and now I present a very simple premise:
- A guest
- A quest, and
- The Conclusion.
I started applying this to books, plays and films and soon realised that most stories do contain these elements. Of course pieces, especially poetry, may be purely descriptive of a scene, an emotion and not have these qualities but most stories are journeys with movement between characters and they do hit both main criteria and who can deny that a story always has an end…
The Guest = something or someone arrives
The Quest = what happens
The Conclusion = an end.
Guests don’t have to be wanted or welcomed, that creates conflict. Also it can be anything you can imagine! A person, an animal, an object, a force, an event. This simple ‘device’ interrupts the equilibrium and gets the story moving. Stories may have one guest that starts the action or multiples with roles from minor to major. Some will stay throughout the story and be vital components, others will drift in and out or appear once and disappear. Examples:
- a treasure map, a letter
- a secret, mystery, murder!
- A stranger who can be simply Strange or a friend, an enemy; perhaps someone back from years ago – back from the dead!
- the guest may be animal: a dog (you can think of lots of stories with animal guests, often they form bonds with a sad child and we hope (sniff sniff) for a ‘happy ever after’…
- imagine a great Storm, a fire, flood…
- an inheritance is sure to upset the equilibrium
- even getting hired/fired can be the ‘guest’
- An accident – that will be unwelcomed and can lead to tragedy or… recovery, love, friendship, discoveries – and off we go!
The guest may be the protagonist who has been forced to a place/situation that makes them the odd-one-out, so they become the unwelcome usurper – classic story-telling uses that set-up.
Classic love stories following the well-known formula of: they meet, probably hate/love each other for a bit then… fall in love, start with the ‘meeting’. Consider a story you know: who is the guest? Perhaps both romantic leads are guests…
You may also use Multiple guests that move story on or interact with each other. One thing may trigger a change that leads to another ‘guest’ and so on.
The Quest = the actions
This is the overall journey. The path your story takes. It may be running in forward time, hours/days or even skipping about in time. But the characters will face obstacles to reach the conclusion. It’s not all about running about in forests meeting strangers and building a rag-tag army. It can be actions like these:
- Fighting enemies
- Surviving (lost at sea, overcoming storms, severe winters, lost in space)
- Getting well
- Dealing with dying
- struggling against emotions
- Running away
- Discovering truth (the mystery of the ‘letter’)
- an actual Race, a simple story structure that can produce great effects: horse-races, life-death races etc.
- Handling set-backs and dealing with ‘normal events’ which is the standard of a good drama – no aliens required!
So we reach The end.
And it doesn’t have to be happy.
It doesn’t even have to really ‘end’ and you may leave it open, with questions left unanswered (for a sequel) or to let readers imagine their own endings or to annoy them into endless debates with friends over what really happened.
Or it can be closed with all issues finalised: understanding, acceptance, saying goodbye, moving on, everyone knows who ‘did it’ and they are locked-away – phew!
Yet, a classic spin for Horror stories: the monster is defeated but…”oh oh what is that! It’s still alive!!!!”
Of course, you may not agree with my stripped down plot for all stories, ever. But try it. I have applied it to some very weird tales of supernatural fantasy and I have to say that I can see the various guests and sometimes the ‘guest’ will switch positions from being someone else’s ‘device’ back to their own – it’s not always simple!
And don’t fear stripping your own story down to the basic elements. If you have a complex tale or like me write weird tales, it can be frustrating trying to explain concepts to others.
Let’s be honest – most people are fascinated when you tell them “Yes I am a writer.” But when they ask: ‘what do you write?’ – you need to keep it simple. If they like what you do, they’ll ask for more details, maybe want to read/buy (yippee!) but don’t expect everyone to want to read what you write (even if they seem interested).
So it’s fine to give the stripped-down version:
so there is XXX and Y turns up then XXX + Y [actions] = some kind of ending.
Now, I am off to practise stripping down my stories…