How to talk about Plot Shapes, or Don’t tell Creative writers they aren’t creative

Well, you live and learn as a teacher. One thing I will never do again: give my high school writing students a handout on plot shapes. My goal was to tell them that if they needed to have some help in shaping a plot, that they could look to these “shapes” —forms that would give them patterns that might help them complete a plot.

Of course, I prefaced this with saying that some people believed there “are only 20 plots” and that everything boils down to these forms in some way or another.

Wake Up Call: These are teenagers. Do they want to be told that there are only 20 plots!?? NO. Do they set about trying to prove you wrong? Yes. And that’s fine. It was their ire at being told they could only have 20 choices that saved them.

At first, they looked pretty crestfallen–how could I stand there and tell them “there’s nothing new under the sun”?

I had a math and science teacher who told me that once. I hated that. I hated that he might be right. You hear it in church sometimes–I think it’s in Ecclesiastes somewhere–that there is nothing new under the sun–but we are creative people. CREATIVE writers. We do create something new. What I am writing now has never, never been written before.

I think books like 20 Master Plots are good for a person who’s ready to read about how to master certain forms in the same way that people who sing learn the 20 or so songs in one book together—to work their muscles. Or the way that autoshop kids learn to rebuild a few classic cars–at least ONE Mustang!  But the book is not for everyone.  I find it helpful —when I know which shape I’m writing— to know what reader expectations are for that shape.  But it can be diminishing…

I did much better job when I talked about Motifs–and they all loved stealing motifs from the Folklore and Fairy Tale index–they created the coolest plots using plot skeletons. And if you talk about plot skeletons, this will work. Masterplots are really plot skeletons too. DO NOT tell them that any person (sorry Ronald Tobias) ever said there were only 20.

If I had it to do again, I might offer the 20 as plot skeletons–and ask them to create a story using one plot skeleton or two. But, at all costs, no one should bust the creative impulse or dampen it by suggesting that someone else’s plot fits neatly into one of 20 formulas.

Seeing that storm clouds had entered the French library, where we meet every Wednesday for fun and writing, I instead challenged them to break the formulas with their own version of the plots–how do you subvert a Rescue plot (#17) or a Sacrifice plot (#15)? How do you masterfully up-end the Adventure plot? Then I had their hearts back into it!

Don’t do this to adults either. Just don’t. It makes you look hoity-toity, like you know what they can possibly do, and limits creativity.

Yep, I’m writing a Quest plot (plot#1) but you ain’t seen nothing like this quest! hehe.

2 thoughts on “How to talk about Plot Shapes, or Don’t tell Creative writers they aren’t creative

  1. David Wesley October 24, 2008 / 9:59

    My favorite plot book is “Story Structure Architect” by Victoria Lynn Schmidt, Ph.D. It’s the most comprehensive breakdown of plot I’ve ever seen. She breaks stories down into:
    – 5 dramatic throughlines
    – 6 conflicts
    – 11 master structures
    – 55 dramatic situations

    Theoretically, you can build a story from scratch by adding all the different elements in a cookie cutter approach, but I think that puts the creative process on its head. Instead, I think you have to start with a story in mind, then when it seems to bog down and you don’t know where it’s going, you flip through the different possibilities to look for something you might have been missing. The story should be supported by plot structure rather than the plot structure being fleshed out by the story (in my opinion).

  2. jstueart October 24, 2008 / 9:59

    Yep, I agree. Don’t give writers the structures till after they have a story. I hope I don’t do THAT again!

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