An upfront refinement: the challenge isn’t coming up with story ideas. The challenge is coming up with your interpretation of the plot you have chosen from the finite pool of story ideas that have existed for all time.
So a surefire way to come up with story ideas is to fill your head with narrative structure. In my case, that means read, read, read.
If you google ‘basic plots in literature,’ you’ll find oodles of lists of that finite pool of story ideas. I chose Christopher Booker’s because it’s a tidy rehash of the work of Joseph Campbell, Bruno Bettelheim, Carl Jung, and others.
According to Booker, there are seven story types:
- Overcoming the monster
- Rags to riches
- The quest
- Voyage and return
Here’s how I understand them:
Overcoming the monster. Historical versions are found in Greek myths such as the Minotaur and the Old English epic Beowulf. A modern version is Jaws.
Rags to riches. Cinderella, 19th-century Horatio Alger stories of poor boys working hard to make it to the middle class, early 20th-century Mills & Boon books (the precursor to Harlequin) whose plot staple was the secretary marrying the boss.
More recently, we have rappers from the hood who make it big, as in Straight Outta Compton.
The quest. The Iliad, Star Wars, and Indiana Jones. Take your pick of the sports narrative that culminates in the championship game.
Voyage and return. The Odyssey two thousand years ago, The Martian today.
Comedy. Here I part company with Brooks’s list and follow Northrup Frye to say that Comedy and Tragedy are not plots in and of themselves. Rather, they divide the plots into two categories.
For Frye, comedy occurs when the hero is accepted into the social group to which he is trying to belong. The leader prevails. The family unites.
In Blue Crush (sports-themed quest), washed-up surfer girl catches the perfect wave in the Pipe Masters championship; although she doesn’t win the contest, she is asked to join the Billabong family, that is, the women’s surf team.
Tragedy. Tragedy occurs when the hero is excluded from the social group to which he is trying to belong. The leader falls. The family breaks up.
In Oedipus Rex (voyage-and-return), Oedipus is sent away from his family as a baby, returns as an adult, and we all know the ending, a true family tragedy.
Rebirth. The Greek myth of Persephone, Jesus Christ, and any story involving a Scrooge-like character.
Because there is a death or near-death experience followed by a rebirth into social life, the rebirth narrative is necessarily comic. It comes in two hues:
Dark: The Heroin Diaries by Mötley Crüe’s Nikki Sixx; and
Light: Devil Wears Prada where the young intern has to decide to reconnect with her original self.
Both of these stories could be seen as narratives of overcoming the metaphoric monster in the form of drugs or an evil fashionista.
The story I’m currently finishing, Love After All, is a rebirth narrative. It features two fifty-somethings who are at the top of their professional games but who have rusty dating chops. They both have to transform and find something new in themselves that will allow them to connect.
A story can have more than one plot trajectory. Searching for Sugar Man, the 2013 Academy Award winner for Best Feature Documentary, has at least two of the above. I won’t tell you which ones, so as not to spoil your viewing experience. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.
Similarly, Lamar Odom’s life story has more than one plot trajectory (rags to riches and quest and possibly overcoming the metaphoric monster) that might end in either tragedy or rebirth.
My point is: you will never make up anything new. Don’t shy away from convention; go further into it. The Odyssey is a great work, but modern audiences no longer relate to the perils of seafaring in Ancient Greece. We can relate to the perils of being stranded on Mars.
Find the plot structure that grabs you. Imagine how to make it yours and make it modern.
See also: All My Writing Blogs
Cover photo credit: Odysseus and the Sirens, by J. W. Waterhouse (Public Domain)
This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen