Weekly Writing Memo: 3 Types of PlotPosted: March 2, 2016
In previous posts we’ve talked about minor issues such as 5 ways to Increase Tension, as well as whether your characters need to be Likable or Relatable. In this post we’re going to focus on a larger concept of story—the three types of plot. Every story should really have multiple levels of plot going on, and in general there are three types of plot that should be in most stories for them to have depth, and enough content to be fulfilling.
- The Grand Plot
The Grand Plot is the larger plot that is the overarching conflict of the story. This can be anything, really, as long as it is grand enough to run the length of the story. In a series, it can be the larger plot that spans the series, or in a single movie or novel, it’s the larger plot that is the focus of that one story.
For example, if you look at The Hunger Games, the Grand Plot in the first book is whether Katniss Everdeen will survive the games. As a series, however, the Grand Plot is about the fall of the Capital and President Snow.
Essentially the Grand Plot has to be something that has enough conflict to sustain the entire film or novel. It can be made up of a bunch of smaller conflicts, such as Katniss having smaller battles to face during the games (other players, poison berries, beasts, etc), but it essentially boils down to one thing (in The Hunger Games, it is survival).
When choosing a Grand Plot for your story, ask yourself what kinds of problems your protagonist could run into while pursuing a solution to that plot. If you can only think of one or two, then it is probably not a good Grand Plot. Returning to The Hunger Games example, Katniss has to face Capital politics, she has to face her urge to sacrifice herself for Peeta, she faces other tributes, and dangerous wildlife, and more. Those are all minor conflicts that arise during her pursuit of the Grand Plot, so there is plenty of conflict. If, however, The Hunger Games was just about Katniss being locked in a room and having to survive with no external factors, there probably wouldn’t be enough conflict to sustain a story and there would need to be a different Grand Plot. The Grand Plot has to be a big enough goal for there to be an entire story (novel or film) written about it.
- The Personal Plot
While the Grand Plot is something that is the overarching plot for a larger story, the personal plot is a plotline that may or may not last the entire main story. It is something that has meaning for the protagonist in some way, and is often the motivator for the protagonist to pursue the Grand Plot.
For example, if you look at the first Die Hard movie. The Grand Plot is that Bruce Willis has to stop the terrorists who are holding his wife’s office building hostage. The Personal Plot, however is what motivates Bruce Willis to take action beyond his sense of justice—his desire to protect his wife. The movie Taken with Liam Neeson has a similar plot makeup. The Grand Plot of the movie is really taking down this trafficking ring, however the Personal Plot is Liam saving his daughter.
The Personal Plot usually links up with the Grand Plot in some way, and in general, once the protagonist pursues the Personal Plot, they end up going a step further and achieving the Grand Plot. For example, as a series, the Grand Plot in The Hunger Games is the destruction of President Snow and the Capital. The Personal Plot for the series is Katniss surviving and protecting those she cares about. On a smaller scale, in the first book the Grand Plot is Katniss surviving the games, while her Personal Plot is still protecting those she loves (Peeta and Prim).
The key to writing the Personal Plot is that it has to be the thing that makes your protagonist want to act. It is what makes the goal personal for your protagonist, and it is the thing that keeps them from giving up because they have a personal investment in succeeding. If Katniss didn’t want to protect those she loved, she could have just given up and died in the games, instead she HAD to survive in order to make sure Peeta made it.
The Grand Plot and the Personal Plot will most likely overlap, but the Grand Plot is always at least one step bigger than the Personal Plot. Like in Die Hard, saving his wife is the first step for Bruce, while saving everyone else is the next. In The Hunger Games, saving herself and those she loves is the first step for Katniss, and taking down the Capital and President Snow in order to save their society as whole is the next. By doing one thing (saving the one they love), the protagonist is spiraled into doing the bigger thing (saving everyone) because they realize that only saving the one they love is not enough.
- Secondary Plot
Secondary Plot are the little plot arcs that pop up while the protagonist is pursuing the Grand Plot. For example, in John Wick when the assassin chick is hired to kill him, she is a secondary plot—a small problem along the way to him achieving his goal. Often times these Secondary Plots involve a problem of a secondary character. In The Hunger Games, the Secondary Plot often comes from Peeta. When he is injured and ill during the games, Katniss having to figure out a way to help him is a Secondary Plot.
There can be many, many layers of Secondary Plot within a story, and it all depends on how many characters there are and how long it takes the protagonist to complete the Grand Plot. The simpler your Grand Plot is, the more Secondary Plot you will probably need. For example, The Lord of the Rings has a pretty simple Grand Plot—deliver the ring to Mordor and destroy it. Much of the rest of the story is all Secondary Plot that arises through the secondary characters.
For example, conflicts with people trying to steal the ring from Frodo, such as Boromir or Gollum, are all Secondary Plot. These Secondary Plots often are roadblocks for the protagonist on the way to solving the Grand Plot, because they force the protagonist to stop and solve another problem before they can continue on their journey to solving the big problem. Often times these Secondary Plots serve as learning moments for the protagonist so that they can learn what they need in order to succeed at the Grand Plot. When Boromir tries to steal the ring, Frodo learns that he has to go out on his own and cannot rely on the safety of the group to help him achieve his mission.
These kinds of moments are minor, but they are the things that continue to propel the protagonist into action and renew their vigor to achieve the Grand Plot. They can be anything from minor stepping stones on the road to the Grand Plot, to major side arcs for the story—such as Aragorn becoming King in Lord of the Rings.
When figuring out the Grand Plot for a story, always ask yourself: What kind of problems your protagonist will run into along the way? How will secondary and tertiary characters be effected? What will they need from the protagonist? What does your protagonist need to learn in order to succeed at the Grand Plot? Once you know these answers, you know what kinds of Secondary Plots to add to your story that will seem natural, as well as have purpose.
The different layers of plot have different purpose, but they are all important in story. The Grand Plot is the big problem to be solved, so to speak. The Personal Plot is what motivates your protagonist to solve the big problem, and the Secondary Plot is the little conflicts that your protagonist has to overcome along the way and learn from. Without all three elements, your story can feel like it is light on depth and conflict.
The important thing is that all of the plot elements should tie together in some way and influence each other. Don’t have a random side plot where your character stops their big goal and goes to save a cat or something. Everything should be connected and serve a purpose, so whenever you have your character do something, make sure you have the larger plot in mind and can answer the question “what is the purpose of this?”
Later this week I’ll be doing a post on my blog (Author the World) about plotting specifically in Horror stories, so if you’re interested make sure to stop by and check it out.