Friday, August 3, 2012

5 Classic Plots to Make Your Novel Shine

5 classic plots to make your novel shine

There are, of course, infinite possible plots to carry your novel forward. But if you feel a little lost about the direction of your story, think about whether it fits into one of these handy archetypal plots, and let it take you the next step forward.

What is your lead searching for?

In this novel, of course, your hero sets out in search of something. The objective of the quest could be a physical thing or an intangible one—knowledge, a secret, the Truth.

Main ingredients:

  •         Create an imperfect or deficient lead who has something to learn from his quest.
  •         Include a thing of vital importance to provide the goal of the quest.
  •       The hero must face tremendous adversity to impede her in her quest.
  •       The quest must change the protagonist in some way—he may learn something or become a better person.

We love reading about quests because we would each like to believe that our life is a quest, even if we really just slouch from one crisis to the next.

Think here of Heart of Darkness, Ulysses or Searching for Caleb by Anne Tyler. The quest may end happily, as in The Hobbit, or tragically, as in Moby Dick. This type of novel may feature a succession of encounters that result in an episodic structure, much like The Wizard of Oz. Each step may be more difficult, but brings the heroine closer to her goal. The Catcher in the Rye is often thought of as a quest plot, detailing Holden's search not for a tangible object but for a sense of purpose or reason. If you think your hero may be on a quest of one sort or another, try turning to these works, or one of countless other quest novels.

  • One or both lovers may be main character of this type of story.
  • The love may be requited or unrequited.
  • Immense obstacles must keep the lovers apart.
  • The story may end happily, tragically, or just unhappily.
  • The lovers will learn something or be transformed.

Obstacles like a rival lover, war, or a tragic flaw may keep your lovers apart. People adore a love stories because it gives them a chance to reflect on their own loves, happy or unhappy. It is something we all have in common.

If love is a prominent element in your tale, consider re-reading some of the great love stories or watching them on DVD. How do they match/diverge from the above formula? What parts of them do you like the best?


At last!
Probably as old an archetype as the first murder. Or the second.

Things to do:

  • -Create a likeable protagonist, to make sure that the reader sympathizes with her desire for revenge.
  • -Make the transgression against your hero out of proportion to any faults in her character.
  • -See to it that the desire for revenge changes your hero’s soul.

Betrayal, murder, the sky’s the limit. During the story, the main character may miss a prime opportunity for fulfillment or may suffer heinous injury or anguish, or make terrible sacrifices. He may go through with his vengeance, or may come to see a greater truth. In the end, the reader sees the self-destructive folly of revenge, or feels satisfaction at seeing justice done. Bone up on revenge by rereading The Count of Monte Cristo or watching a really good version of Hamlet.


  • As in a Quest novel, the main character sets forth on a journey, but this time only excitement is our main focus.
  • Colorful characters and situations are encountered along the way.
  • The main character should realize something about himself or his life.

Wild blue yonder
The lead may be thrust on her adventure, as in Treasure Island or Robinson Crusoe, or set out from home, as does Huckleberry Finn.  At the beginning of his story, Huck Finn plays juvenile jokes on Jim, but by the end – after many colorful escapes – he has learned responsibility. In Treasure Island, Jim Hawkins starts the story as a mere boy hiding from danger behind his mother, but grows bolder as he faces a series of dangers, ultimately taking command of the ship after the pirates. It is essential for the character to grow and change, but also for him to take us on a colorful romp through many dangerous encounters. Treasure Island, in particular, was vivid enough to inspire a whole genre of books and movies.


In this novel, your lead stands up for what is right, even though the world is against her. It may end happily and inspire us all, or it may end tragically and cast a dystopian cloud over our world view.
  • Your protagonist takes up arms against a tyrannical force
  • Her act of rebellion may inspire others to follow
  • The hero may die trying, or achieve his aim through martyrdom
  • Win or lose, the hero remains morally superior to the oppressive force

If you feel that you novel may be a get up, stand up novel, reread some classics like 1984 or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. If you need a break, watch Erin Brockovich or 12 Angry Men to get ideas and inspiration. The lead in Erin Brockovich (based on a true story, but still adhering to the classic plot) almost singlehandedly takes on a heartless corporation guilty of poisoning the local community’s drinking water. In 12 Angry Men, Henry Fonda holds out against the vociferous animosity of his 11 fellow jurors to finally prove the innocence of a young man accused of murder. This type of story inspires us or teaches us a hard lesson about life. 

You may feel that “locking yourself in” to a classic plot form will restrict your creativity, but often the opposite is the case. Because your novel has an inherent direction, you may find that you are free to write forward through your scenes without worrying “where it’s all going.” Ask yourself what archetypal plot best suits your novel and give yourself a leg up!