Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Is There More Than One Plot Type?

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

Everywhere you look, it feels like it's more of the same. Hero saves the day. Boy gets girl, loses girl, gets girl back. Rebels expose corrupt government. Action hero saves the world and doesn't get a scratch. There is a protagonist, maybe two, if it's a romance. And all these stories fit into nifty three-act structures.

But is that the only way to tell a story? What if your story doesn't have a disaster? What if you have four acts instead of three? What if you have five protagonists? What if your story is all narration and you like it that way? Does that mean you are doing things wrong?

Not necessarily.

The three-act structure is, indeed, the most popular model for storytelling today. It's been around a really long time, too. Greek philosopher Aristotle gets credit for the idea since he said in his Poetics, "A whole is what has a beginning and middle and end." And Hollywood has perfected this structure, as have novelists. The thing works. Readers and viewers like it. But sometimes it feels wrong for your story idea. Sometimes you want to do something different. But what?

I once wrote a post on Georges Polti's 36 Plot Structures. And that list might get your brain thinking of new ideas. But I recently stumbled upon another list of plot types that enthralled me, and I wanted to share them with you. Dr. Charles Ramírez Berg has written numerous articles on film and is currently a professor of film history, screenwriting, and criticism. He created a list of alternative plot types for filmmakers, but I think that we can learn much from his analysis of films. I've listed several of them below.

The Daisy Chain Plot
This type of story has no main protagonist. One character's entire story leads right into the next character's entire story, and so on. Sometimes the story will come back to the first protagonist. Sometimes not. But this is a fun way to tell a story. My husband had an idea for a Daisy Chain Plot once. He wanted to tell a story that followed a one dollar bill.

The Ensemble Plot
In this type of plot, there are many protagonists. No one character is more important than another. The stories may intertwine. Or they might not. But each protagonist has his or her own story to tell. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is a good literary example of an ensemble plot.

The Multiple Personality Plot
Here the main character plays more than one role. Maybe one person is living two lives. Or maybe he's schizophrenic. Or maybe he's been cloned. Or maybe he's a time traveler, so there is two of the him in the story at once. Or maybe he's George Bailey, getting to see what life would be like if he were never born, though, I suppose, there is only ever one George in the story at a time, so maybe that doesn't count.

The Subjective/Internal Plot
In this type of story, the plot is all inside the main character's mind. It's personal, emotional, internal. And it's very subjective or one-sided. We only get the perspective of once character. You might argue that all first person stories are this way. But a Subjective Plot is different. The story happens more in the characters thoughts than in his actions. This type of storytelling requires a unique voice and lots of narration.

The Backwards Plot 
This story is told backwards. Best example I can think of is the movie Memento. If you haven't seen it, it's pretty cool. Warning: it's scary. But these types of stories are told in reverse. There was an episode of Seinfeld told this way once. It was pretty entertaining.

The Repeated Action Plot
Ever seen the movie Groundhog's Day? How about 50 First Dates? Both are examples of the Repeated Action Plot in which the hero re-lives the same event over and over and over until he, somehow, manages to break the cycle. I saw one last Christmas called 12 Dates of Christmas. You can probably see the whole movie in your head just from that title.

The Repeated Event Plot
Picture a police detective trying to get the facts at a crime scene. He might hear over and over, "That's not how it happened." That's the gist of this plot type in which we have one event happening over and over, each time seen through a different character's eyes.

The Jumbled Plot
Here you have a number of scenes that appear to make no sense at all. But the story is like a puzzle. A nonlinear sequence of events. Out of order. Confusing at first. But each time a scene is added, the story will make more sense until it all comes together in the end. Quentin Tarantino really seems to like this style of storytelling.

The Existential Plot
In this type of story, the goal is often simply "stay alive." Many war stories fit into this category, and the reader/viewer experiences the action first hand. We often don't have a clue what is going on. At all. But we'll figure it out eventually. This type of story is meant to be honest and immerse you into the existence of the main character. You experience life as is, and it might not be pretty in the beginning, middle, or end.

So what do you think? Ever thought of writing a story that didn't fit the typical three-act structure or didn't have a main character and a happy ending? Which one of these plot types most interests you? Share in the comments.


  1. I'm really interested in the jumbled plot. :D
    For the jumbled plot is it recommended to write the novel in chronological order first and then mix the chapters
    in a logical order?
    The challenge that I see is how to hook the reader even if he/she might be slightly confused/get bored from
    not understanding. :)

    1. I'm trying to write one and I'd say it's best to write it as it comes--as in, not in chronological. After all, if you're ABLE to tell it in chronological order, why tell it jumbled? The story has to be one that's better told jumbled--as in, tension steadily increases more if it's non-linear than if it's sequential. But that's just my two cents, I'm still learning about it. :)

    2. Yeah, I think that is a personal preference. If it were me, I'd likely write it out of order, but I probably would have penciled out the plan in advance, not just winged it, seat-of-the-pants style.

  2. I'm trying to turn my existential into a three-act.

  3. I want to write a story with a 'backwards plot', but I haven't been able to do it yet. My problem is finding the right story and figuring out how to keep readers interested.

    1. Yeah, these types of stories can be very tricky to do well. It will come to you at some point, I bet.

  4. Interesting post, Jill. The multiple personality plot sounds fun. :)

  5. I think I have an ensemble plot....I'm not positive, but there are two protagonists, and I can't tell which is the MC. They have equal importance in the story. Later on, I added more POV's and they grow to become as equally important.

  6. My book is non-linear, AND multiple personality. It's also a time travel, and when my protagonist goes back in time, she accidentally strips her soul from her body so she is in two places at once; a body and soul in one time period and just a body in another. Then I have two points of view; the guy taking care of her unconscious body and my protagonist going around and trying to figure out how to get back.

    This is such a cool post! I really enjoyed reading it. Do you think you could do a post sometime later on how to do a non-linear narrative? I find little about it on the internet and it'd be great coming from you and Stephanie. If not, that's alright. Thanks!

    1. Sounds cool, Anastasia! I'll have to think about the non-linear post. I've never written a story like that, so I don't know how I'd go about teaching it.

  7. I've never liked jumbled plots. I watched Shorts and it turned me away from them.
    The Daisy Chain sounds like it would be lots of fun. Right now I'm doing three structure. Sometime I'll have to try some of these. :)

    Thanks for the post!!

  8. I think that I have a subjective/internal plot....I'm not exactly sure, but I think so. :) I actually just started writing with this style about 2 weeks ago, and I am really enjoying it!

  9. I love the existential plot. Might try that one day. It would be bunches of fun!

  10. I really like the idea of the Repeated Event Plot. I think with a story like that, you could really delve into the lives of multiple characters while telling roughly the same plot line, just edited in each character's voice. This was done well in the animation Hoodwinked, and I think I'd really like to try it in a book.
    Thanks for the post Jill, it's given me loads of ideas!

  11. My current WIP doesn't have a happy ending at the moment, but it's changed from a happy ending already. Who knows. It might change back. :)

    1. LOL I understand. These things happen. :-)

  12. The Backwards and Jumbled plots are ones I have considered writing yet I couldn't figure out how to start. I tend to go with the strict basic story structure and can't make a story go out of order. I am to much of a in-the-box type of person. I think I am going to try to push through and write one soon. Thanks for the post! I loved the 36 plot post you did before! It helped me a ton!

  13. Love this post, Jill! Those are all so clever. I'd love to try some of those at some point ... when I'm feeling especially creative!

  14. Thank you for this post you gave me some great ideas!

  15. The Subjective/Internal Plot. Yes, please. I feel like I have too much natural voice & narration to fit into a regular plot. I've been told time and time again that I tell too much, but I think part of the problem was being in the wrong structure. Definitely need to look further into this before I try at it. I haven't written fiction in ages ... just got a little burned by it. Hard for me to finish things. I've mainly stuck to poetry, my blog, and song-writing.

    1. Subjective plots can be really hard sells. They are usually the artsy movies that you walk away from confused. See my comment below Maya's comment for some examples of movies. But you never know. Each writer needs to find what works for him or her. Yet at the same time, finishing a book is really hard work. It's not supposed to be easy or fun. And sometimes you just have to force yourself to finish. And you learn a lot from doing that too. So, give it a try. But poetry and song writers and bloggers take a special kind of writer too. I can't do those things well. My songs and poems are always cheesy and rhyme. And I'm a very inconsistent blogger. All that to say, if you love to write, keep at in in whatever way works for you.

  16. Do you have any suggestions for novels that follow a Subjective/Internal Plot? I think one of my stories may have elements of this but I'm struggling with it.

    And haha my first novel I tried to write I tried to do a Jumbled Plot inspired by Kazuo Ishiguro's books.... I wrote like ten scenes and gave up. I want to go back to that style, though, when done well it is unbelievably brilliant.

    And Jill, how acceptable are these in YA? I've seen Ensemble but not most of the other ones.

    1. I don't have a book example of this plot type. Dr. Berg lists only movie examples. You can read his article here:

      But here are a few of the movies from his Subjective Plot that I recognized. The ones I've seen are all REALLY weird, and I don't necessarily recommend them. Many are quite depressing and slow-paced. Being John Malcovich was funny, at least. But so weird. And I hated A Beautiful Mind. So Google the movies and read up on them before you decide to watch them. Adaptation is about a writer, so that's something. Ha ha.

      Adaptation (2002)
      A Beautiful Mind (2001)
      Being John Malkovich (1999)
      Donnie Darko (2001)
      Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

  17. You're all welcome! I'm glad the post was helpful. :-)

  18. I got an idea recently for a singer whose vocal cords were strained and had to be completely silent for months (I heard this actually happens). So I thought, with absolutely no MC dialogue, this story might be rather subjective/internal. Interesting. Haven't started writing it yet, but we'll have to see...

  19. I feel like the backwards plot could be used to write a series. Imagine in the Harry Potter Series started with the beautifully written epilogue that was in the last book? It slowly opened up from there...
    He was a good parent and a good wizard
    He defeated an evil genius person with a cool nose
    He got in a lot of trouble at school
    What if the Dursley's weren't even mentioned until the last book?

    This is making my mind explode...