Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Fiction Workshops 15 Christopher Booker's Seven Basic Plots

Christopher Booker has produced a great tome of a book in which he defines seven plot outlines.  These don't actually contradict Campbell, McKee, Propp or Vogler but flesh out and fine tune some story lines. The rest of Booker's book discusses story in more detail. It is well worth a read and after you've read it you may want to go back to it from time to time.

You can take a short-cut to remembering the seven plots by just looking at the cover of the book. You'll see what I mean if you look at the link below.
Here's a summary:


The Seven Plots

Overcoming the Monster
Rags to Riches
The Quest
Voyage and Return


Overcoming the monster

The call
Initial success
Final Ordeal
Miraculous escape   


Rags to Riches

Initial wretchedness at home (call)
Out in the world – initial success
Central crisis
Independence and the final ordeal
Final union, completion and fulfilment


Quest- Odyssey

Problems encountered:
Deadly opposites
Journey to the underworld

Story arc:

Arrival and frustration
Final ordeals


Voyage and return

Dream stage
Frustrations stage
Nightmare stage
Thrilling escape and return



Often contains:
  • Characters dressing up in disguise or swapping clothes 
  • Men dressing up as women  or vice versa
  • Secret assignations when the wrong person turns up
  • Characters hastily concealed in cupboards etc. 
Types of comedy:
  • Burlesque
  • Dark figure is hero themself
  • No dark figures


Macbeth (and other tragedies) 

Act One - anticipation
Act Two – dream stage
Act Three – frustration stage
Act Four – nightmare stage  
Act Five – destruction stage 



Hero falls under shadow of dark power
Threat may seem to recede
Threat approaches with full force
Dark power seems to triumph
Miraculous recovery – some input from hero, though


Some archetypes

Booker also mentions some common archetypes:
  • Good old man
  • Innocent young girl
  • Rival or “shadow”
  • Temptress


Dark figures

As well as archetypes, Booker identifies some common dark figures:
  • Father
  • Mother
  • Rivals
  • Other self 

Underlying shape

Booker also defines an underlying shape that is very similar to the ones we've met before.  
  • Initial phase
  • Opening out
  • Severe – constriction
  • Dark power dominant
  • Reversal and liberation

Reading exercise

Consider the novel you have most recently read. Which of Booker's stories does it conform to? Does it follow the underlying shape? Can you identify any archetypes or dark figures?

Writing exercises

1.Your work in progress

Take a look at your story. Does it follow one of Booker's templates? If not, would making it adhere more closely also make it more effective?
Would the inclusion of additional archetypes or dark figures make it more engaging?   

2. Start a new story

Take one of Booker's templates that appeal to you. You might like to consider one you've not used before. Now craft a story according to that template.    

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Fiction Workshops 14 The Universal Story

Three people have analysed stories and found a template. Vladimir Propp 1895-1970 analysed folk, Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) in his Hero with a Thousand Faces discusses the journey of the archetypal hero in world mythologies. (1949 - ) adapts Campbell's work for use with the film industry. What Vogler suggest is also very helpful for novelists. An important note from Vogler: this works best when it is slightly skewed.
I have found much overlap between the three templates and have produced an amalgamated template:

Campbell, Propp, Vogler amalgamated theory

a. The Ordinary World (V)
b. Call to adventure (V) Hero leaves society (P) 
c. Refusal of the Call (C,V)
d. Meeting with the Mentor (V) Supernatural Aid (C) Meets a stranger (P)
e. Crossing the First Threshold (V)
f. The Belly of the Whale (V), Trials, Allies, Enemies (V), The Road of Trials, Arduous Journey (P) Capture by Strange Warriors (P)
g. The Meeting with the Goddess (C) Protection by ugly girl (P)
h. Woman as temptress (C) Appearance of the Queen, the beloved one (P)
i. The Approach to the Innermost Cave (V) Lovemaking (P)
j. Ordeal (V) 
k. Atonement with the Father
l. Apotheosis ( C )
m. The Ultimate Boon (C), Reward (V), Resolution (P)
n. Refusal of the Return (C)
o. The Magical Flight (V)
p. Rescue from without (C)
q. The Road Back (V)
r. Master of Two Worlds (C) Resurrection (V)
s. Freedom to Live (C) Return with the Elixir (V)
Possibly one does not need not to include each element every time. Also, we may need to skew it a little as Vogler suggests, so that our stories remain fresh. Nevertheless, this can make a useful planning tool

Exercise 1

Find a novel you love and see how well it pins itself to this template

Exercise 2 (for those writing a novel)

Check your plan to see if you have all of these elements.  You may not have, and that may be fine but would it hurt to add the missing ones in? You will probably realise after completing exercise 1 that you can interpret these themes very broadly.  And don't forget to skew them. If you don't plan, skip this exercise and go on to exercise 3.

Exercise 3 (for those writing a novel)

Check your novel against the template. Are there any elements missing? Would your novel benefit from including them? Is there something about your novel that is not working? Is there anything in this template that can help?      


Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Fiction Workshop 13 Plot Pyramids

Novels, plays, films and longer short stories will have plots and sub-plots. Andrew Melrose identifies a pyramid. The main plot takes up most of the room and the smallest plot the least of the text. Pile these plots one upon another – we get a pyramid. There is a strict relationship between the size of the plots. Possibly it relates to the Golden Segment and the Fibonacci series. It may be a learnt response; even if it is, it is what we are used to and what we enjoy and expect.  

I add to Melrose's proposal. I argue that subplots are not extra plots but that they are part of the main plot. Thus we get in Cinderella:
Main Plot = transformation
Plot 2 = battle with Ugly Sisters and Stepmother
Plot 3 = Can she get to the ball? (aka her rightful place in society)
Plot 4 = Cinders and the Prince
Plot 5 = The Prince and the shoe
Plot 6 = The shoe and the foot
Plot 6 is the small one at the top. 

All plots resolve at the same moment. As the shoe fits on to Cinders' foot, the Prince is rewarded for persevering. Cinders' relationship with the Prince is confirmed. Cinders takes up her rightful place in society. She wins her battle with her stepsisters and her life is transformed.  

Note also how that important final small sub-plot contains that all important crisis point; if the shoe does not find its way to the foot, life will be forever different for both Cinders and the Prince. There's a good argument here also for having one last nasty thing happen before it all resolves. This heightens the tension. So, sometimes Cinders is hidden in a cupboard. In more gruesome versions the sisters chop off toes.  


Creative reading exercise:

Take a novel you've enjoyed and work out what are its sub-plots. Do they relate to each other to form a pyramid? Do they all resolve at the same time? Does the smallest one include the crisis point?

Creative writing exercise

For planners

Look at the plan of your latest story. Does it contain balanced sub-plots? If not, can you put them in? Can they all resolve at the same time? Does the smallest contain the crisis point?  

For pansters

Use the sub-plot / plot theory to see whether your text has balance. Possibly if it seems out of kilter something is not quite right here. Try balancing these plots / sub-plots in a pyramid. Remember to have all the drama in the smallest sub-plot and let them all resolve at the same time.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Fiction Workshop 12 Working with Gustav Freytag's Triangle

Freytag's triangle can be extremely useful. It is a two dimensional model and show us that the story develops in more than one way. Last time, we concentrated on getting you to understand exactly what your story is about and giving it a very rough outline.
This time we're looking a little more at emphasis.
This diagram is probably self-explanatory.  
How can you stress and downplay cause and effects? Then see how the action rises and becomes more complex – desis.
Find the crisis point. Dénouement comes from the French and literally means unknotting. During the "unknotting" both reader and protagonist will get some enlightenment. The action "falls" as we hurtle towards the resolution.

Creative writing exercise

Take the story outline that you developed last time and plot onto a triangle the same shape as this one what are the causes and effects.
Make sure you say a few words about each of these terms as well:
Incentive moment
Rising action
Falling action
Are you now getting some more meat on to the bones?  
You may also find it useful to analyse a story you have read and see how well it fits this model. Even if you are a "punster", you may find it useful to see how well your finished story fits this model. Possibly, if something is not working, it may be because this scheme is too skewed.      



Thursday, 27 July 2017

Fiction Workshop 11 Getting the story right

As an editor who both selects texts and works on them with writers to improve them I find a frequent problem is that there is no story. The writing can be technically perfect and perhaps also aesthetically pleasing but what actually happens?
The trick is to be able to tell anyone who needs to know what your story is about. This video explains it all beautifully.See it here.
You should be able to tell your story in two lines or a couple of sentences. Even if you're a "panster", someone who never plans their work in detail, it can be quite useful to know how your story ends.
If you're a planner, the brief outline may be useful:
Inciting incident
·         Complexity 1
·         Complexity 2
·         Complexity 3
Crisis point (the point of no return)
           Climax (Filling the gap between the crisis and the resolution
However, this will not be useful at all if you are not absolutely clear on what your story is about.  Not only is this important when you are shaping your story it is also crucial when you come to pitch your perfectly formed story later. As well as being able to write a story that is convincing you must be able to persuade others that it has merit.
Editors can fix poor writing. They can't always help you to fix your story.
More on story shape next time.  
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