by Jill Williamson
Looking for fresh plot ideas? Well... there probably aren't any. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. As I've said before, there are no new ideas, just fresh ways of writing them.
The book, Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations
by Georges Polti, gives thirty-six basic plots for all stories. According to Wikipedia, "The original French-language book was written in the 19th century. An English translation was published in 1916 and continues to be reprinted to this day."
This is really old and interesting information. I've listed Polti's plots below and given a brief description of each. I also tried to give a movie or book reference to help you get a visual example, but I wasn't always able to because some plots are more popular than others.
If you've got an idea for a story but are stuck on how to include a strong plot,
perhaps these thirty-six plot ideas will inspire you.
1. Supplication: A persecutor, a supplicant, or power in authority who
struggles to make a decision whether or not to do something. Usually, an
unfortunate person appeals to an authority figure for help. The authority
figure is the protagonist. Ex: The Rock; The Untouchables; Three Amigos.
2. Deliverance: The unfortunate, threatener, rescuer. Here the rescuer
helps the unfortunate person without being asked. Ex: The Terminator; Speed.
3. Crime Pursued
by Vengeance: An avenger, a criminal. This is your basic mystery or
detective story. The protagonist is out to find the truth. Ex: Lethal
Weapon; Die Hard; James Bond.
4. Vengeance for
Kin Upon Kin: Avenging relative(s), a guilty relative(s), relative(s) of
victim. Ex: The Lion King.
5. Pursuit: A
punished person, a fugitive. The protagonist is the fugitive, often wrongfully
accused. Ex: Les Miserables; The Fugitive.
6. Disaster: A
vanquished power, a victorious enemy, or a messenger. The powerful are
overthrown by the weak. Ex: Armageddon; Sydney White.
7. Falling Prey
to Cruelty or Misfortune: An unfortunate, a master, or a misfortune. Ex: Schindler’s
List; The Color Purple.
8. Revolt: A
tyrant, a conspirator. Ex: Swing Kids; The Matrix.
Enterprise: A bold leader, an object to be won, an adversary to be beaten.
Ex: Saving Private Ryan; Men in Black.
10. Abduction: An abductor, the abducted, a
guardian. The protagonist can be the abducted or the abductor. Ex: Ransom; A
Life Less Ordinary.
11. The Enigma: An
interrogator, a seeker, a problem. The protagonist could be seeking a person or
thing. Ex: Seven; National Treasure.
12. Obtaining: A
solicitor and an adversary who is refusing, or an arbitrator and opposing
parties. At what cost and by what means will the protagonist act in trying to
obtain his goal? Ex: Green Eggs and Ham; Outbreak.
13. Enmity of
Kin: A malevolent kinsman, a hated or a reciprocally hating kinsman. The
closer the relationship, the greater the conflict that divides them, the
greater the resulting hate. Example: Kramer vs. Kramer; Corky Romano.
14. Rivalry of
Kin: The preferred kinsman, the rejected kinsman, the object of their
rivalry. Ex: Legends of the Fall; A League of Their Own.
Adultery: Two adulterers, a betrayed spouse. Ex: Dangerous Liaisons;
A madman, a victim. Ex: The Shining; Psycho.
Imprudence: The imprudent or rash. The protagonist causes his own
misfortune (or the misfortune of those he cares about) through his rash
behavior, often to seek someone or something lost, or to settle his curiosity
about something. Ex: Meet the Parents; Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Crimes of Love: A lover, a beloved, a revealer. The protagonist may fall in
love with a relative, a relative’s spouse, a teacher/student, his employer,
someone who is planning to rip him off but he doesn't know it, or maybe just an
adulterous relationship. He may walk into the relationship willingly, knowing
that it is wrong, or he may not know. Sometimes the reader may know the truth
when the hero doesn't.
19. Slaying of
Unrecognized Kinsman: The slayer, an unrecognized victim. The plot focuses
on the protagonist planning to kill his kinsman without knowing his enemy is
related to him.
for an ideal: A hero, an ideal, or a thing sacrificed. Here the protagonist
gives up everything for his ideal. Ex: The Messenger.
21. Self-Sacrifice for Kindred: A hero, a kinsman, a person, or a thing sacrificed. Here the protagonist
gives up everything for a kinsman. Ex: Cyrano
de Bergerac; The Passion of the Christ.
Sacrificed for a Passion: A lover, an object of fatal passion, a person, a
thing sacrificed. The protagonist sacrifices everything for his passion. This
could be an addiction, a lover, or money. Ex: Leaving Las Vegas.
23. Necessity of
Sacrificing Loved Ones: A hero, a beloved victim, the necessity for
sacrifice. The protagonist is forced by necessity to sacrifice a loved one.
24. Rivalry of
Superior and Inferior: A superior rival, an inferior rival, the object of
rivalry. Ex: Rocky; Karate Kid.
A deceived husband or wife, two adulterers. Ex: Bridges of Madison County.
26. Crimes of
Love: The lover, the beloved. The protagonist commits a crime because of
his love. Ex: Chinatown (incest), The Apostle (murder), Saving
Grace (incest & murder).
27. Discovery of
a Loved One’s Dishonor: A discoverer, the guilty one. The protagonist is
caught in a sin toward their loved one or they catch their loved one in a
dishonorable act. Shame is key. Ex: The novel Redeeming Love by Francine
28. Obstacles to
Love: Two lovers, an obstacle. Some great obstacle stands in the way of two
lovers being together. Ex: Kate & Leopold; Ever After.
29. An Enemy
Loved: A lover, the beloved enemy, the hater. The protagonist falls in love
with an enemy. Ex: Twilight; Romeo and Juliet.
An ambitious person, a thing coveted, an adversary. Ex: Jerry McGuire; That
Thing You Do.
with a God: A mortal, an immortal. Most Greek myths focus on this plot. Ex:
Hercules; Rosemary’s Baby, Bruce Almighty.
Jealousy: A jealous one, an object of jealousy, a supposed accomplice, a
cause or author of the mistake, a traitor. Ex: Othello; The Hand That Rocks
Judgment: a mistaken one, a victim of the mistake, a cause or author of the
mistake, a guilty person. The protagonist may be falsely accused or accuse
another without proof or be guilty and try to frame another. Ex: The Green
Mile, Shawshank Redemption.
34. Remorse: A
culprit, a victim, the sin, an interrogator. Also false guilt.
35. Recovery of
a Lost One: The seeker, the one found. The protagonist may find a lost
loved one, a lost child. Ex: The Man in the Iron Mask, The Deep End of the
36. Loss of
Loved Ones: A kinsman slain, a kinsman spectator, an executioner. Ex: Love
Story, Return to Me.
When you look at example 35, Recovery of
a Lost One, you can see how different two stories can be even with the same basic plot. The
Man in the Iron Mask is a renaissance story of a brother hiding his twin so
that his rule could not be threatened. The Deep End of the Ocean is
about a kidnapped child being found years later. With example 13, Enmity of
Kin, Kramer v. Kramer is the story of a legal battle over child custody,
whereas Corky Romano is a comedy about a cop going after his mob family.
So when you’re
thinking of your plot, think of the characters you have already designed and
your basic premise. Your plot doesn't need to match any of these examples to a
T. These are simply starting points. Use them to spark ideas. You could base
the plot around a single character or a group of characters. Maybe instead of
murder, your character might plot the murder, then not go through with it. Or
instead of family members, you could substitute best friends in some of the
kinsmen examples. You could also combine some of these plot ideas into your
story. The opportunities are only limited by your imagination.
Do you see the plot of your work in progress here? What is it?