AJ Reads ‘Plot & Structure’: Chapter 12

I’m amused that the chapter opens with this quote by Wilson Mizner:

When you steal from one author it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many, it’s research.

Someone should’ve told Quentin Rowan not to take Mizner that literally.

Anyways, getting onto this chapter’s awesome topic: plot patterns. You can take them straight, you can mix and match them, you can even stitch parts of them together to form different plot lines. ((For those who worry about following in Quentin’s steps, there’s a difference between patterns versus the copy-pasta of entire parts of stories.))

Bell doesn’t attempt to list all the possible plot patterns ever, but on a good, robust set. For each he includes the basic elements of a pattern (“rudiments”) and the structure. Like any good textbook, these incorporate lessons learned in previous chapters.

This all rather reminds me of the concept of design patterns in software—a skeleton against which more complex programs are created. Again, as in software, you put different patterns together, do your own spins to fit them to the purposes of your software, and develop insight from looking at patterns in the first place in new or existing code.

I think, if one is going for a complex plot with multiple leads, you need to assign each a different pattern to go for a nice weave. Heck, you could even assign different patterns to each villain, which would definitely round out their motives. And with extended stories that cover large periods of time, the patterns of the heroes and villains can gradually change. If there’s anything that seems the key to complexity, it’s this concept of mixing and matching to the needs of your story. Just like software engineering.

Of course, like in software, there must also be anti-patterns—patterns to avoid. They’re probably covered in TV Tropes, but I don’t think there’s a specific index for them yet.

The patterns covered by Bell include:

  • The Quest. This is definitely a large part of The Lord of the Rings.
  • Revenge. Lone Wolf & Cub, anyone?
  • Love. Romeo & Juliet, and now that I think of it, the much more recent Gosick.
  • Adventure (journey, specifically). Various journeys into the Underworld are probably the most basic and raw examples. I think also of Ulysses.
  • The Chase. A lot of thrillers turn into this, or actually are this.
  • One Against. This is actually the heart of The Matrix.
  • One Apart. The complement to One Against, but the lead is played by an anti-hero.
  • Power. It corrupts, and tends to be a rise-and-fall story.
  • Allegory. Although I’d argue that this isn’t really a pattern of story, but a pattern of motif and symbolism. If it is a pattern, it’s a Ruby mixin.

Are there more patterns? Almost certainly, but you can quibble over whether some are just special cases of others—though it would seem to me that variants of a plot line are as interesting to study.

Are there only 36 plots? Probably not. That’s way too pat a number.

I really love this part of the book. I want to go back and pick apart a bunch of stories across all sorts of media now. I can already think of another pattern: The Detective, which can be branched into the Amateur Detective, the Private Investigator, and the Police Procedural. If you read mysteries, you already know what I’m talking about, and how what may be terms the “case story” is what follows the more traditional patterns.

Which means that genres contain specific patterns that could be levied in other genres or even in general fiction, resulting in interesting ripples. And that’s just another reason to read outside the genres you work in.