20 Master Plots is an entertaining book about the twenty different categories that fictional plots can fall into. Ronald B. Tobias, the author, isn’t dogmatic about the divisions he created, but he makes an interesting point: It can be helpful to analyze plots according to the categories they fit – because successful plots of the same variety tend to follow a pattern. That pattern generally makes them satisfying to readers. So, if you’re writing a story with the escape plot, for example, you can read his chapter on Escape and study the principles that make such a story succeed. Yet he leaves a lot of room for creativity.
Besides just detailing different kinds of plots, however, Tobias gives insight into the working of plot in general. He explains the nature of character-driven plots (where character development keeps readers turning pages) and action-driven plots (where action grips the readers’ attentions). I found it refreshing and exciting – and was left with the desire to write stories for at least half of the categories! (I can tell a book is good if it inspires me like this.)
Here’s his list, with examples either he or I thought up. Some of them aren’t self-explanatory, so I explained them for you:
- Quest (The Lord of the Rings) – a character goes on a quest to accomplish something
- Adventure (Around the World in Eighty Days) – a character goes on an adventure, usually just for the sake of adventure
- Pursuit (Les Misérables) – a character is pursuing another character
- Rescue (The Last of the Mohicans)
- Escape (The Ransom of Red Chief)
- Revenge (The Count of Monte Cristo)
- The Riddle (Sherlock Holmes mysteries)
- Rivalry (Ben-Hur)
- Underdog (Cinderella)
- Temptation (Our Lady’s Child) – a character is challenged by temptation
- Metamorphosis (Beauty and the Beast) – a character literally morphs into another creature
- Transformation (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) – a character transforms from one state to another
- Maturation (Huckleberry Finn) – a child grows up, or moves one step closer to maturity
- Love (Pride and Prejudice)
- Forbidden Love (Romeo and Juliet)
- Sacrifice (A Tale of Two Cities)
- Discovery (Daniel Deronda) – a character discovers something about himself
- Wretched Excess (Othello) – a character loses all control
- Ascension (The Death of Ivan Ilyich) – a character becomes a better and greater person
- Descension (Citizen Kane) – a character becomes a despicable person
This book was also fun to read from a reader’s perspective…I enjoyed discovering what familiar works used what master plots, and tried to categorize the books I’ve read using Tobias’s system. A novel can contain more than one master plot (though one will usually predominate), so not everything fits neatly; but it’s an interesting activity regardless.
20 Master Plots won’t solve all your plotting problems, but it’s an intriguing book that may impart some helpful advice!
Which master plots sound like the most attractive to you, in either reading or writing?
Kelsey Bryant is an author, blogger, and copy editor who loves the Lord. She revels in many things: the beauty of God's Word, the music of English, the wonder of nature, the joy of creativity, the freedom of motion, the richness of literature, the intrigue of history ... and much more. To learn more about her, visit her website or blog.