Writers know how important the plot is to any good story. What exactly is a “plot?” Simply defined, a plot is the foundation of a novel or story which the characters and setting are built around. Plot is what forms a picture in the reader’s mind, allowing them to identify with the story characters; allowing readers to think about the book, and if they would like to recommend it to a friend, or even read the book again.

Writers are often told to read…read…read. But, what titles should writers read for examples of the varied types of plots and plot sub-genres?

The following plot definitions are based on Norman Friedman’s “Forms of Plot.” The purpose of this article is to give writers a list of novels and movies that are examples of varied type plots:

Action Plot – Readers simply sit back and vicariously enjoy the action, safe in their armchairs but experiencing the hazards, thrills and spills that the hero takes, while second-guessing the plot, trying to figure out what will happen next and ‘who done it’.

  • Hounds of Baskerville – Sherlock Holmes
  • Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Death on the Nile – Agatha Christie
  • Jurassic Park – Michael Crichton
  • Congo – Michael Crichton
  • Sahara – Clive Cussler

Pathetic Plot – The main character, who is often attractive in some way, falls into misfortune, being harmed or failing to achieve some desired end. After some brief respite, perhaps, the story ends unhappily, with death, loneliness, bitterness and other sad feelings.

  • A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
  • Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
  • Moby Dick – Herman Melville
  • Broke Back Mountain – Annie Proulx
  • The lovely Bones – Alice Sebold
  • Message in a Bottle – Nicholas Sparks
  • The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison

Tragic Plot – The tragic plot is similar to the pathetic plot in that failure plays a significant part. However, whereas the protagonist in the pathetic plot is weak and suffers from the actions of others, the tragic hero is a strong character and is more responsible for his own fate, although fate may be portrayed as a powerful force that cannot be overcome with strength or fortitude.

  • The Guardian – Nicholas Sparks
  • The Perfect Storm – Sebastian Junger
  • Ghost Walker – Ian Mackenzie Jeffers

Punitive Plot – The main character is pretty unsympathetic and generally unlikable, yet they have sufficient charisma or other power that we find them fascinating in some way. They thus take the part of an anti-hero whose exploits we follow with interest. With macabre interest, we are drawn into their evil work as they take advantage of trusting fools, naive innocents and pompous moralists. However, most punitive stories revert to standard morals and the protagonist eventually gets their just desserts, being exposed, imprisoned or killed.

  • Bonnie and Clyde – Nate Hindly
  • Kickin’ up Dust – Saron Dey
  • Thelma and Louise – Callie Khouri
  • Silence of the lambs – Thomas Harris

Sentimental Plot – The main character is generally frail, passive or with other weaknesses and limitations. Nevertheless, they are thrown into difficult storylines and have to survive, which they do by luck and necessity. Their passivity means that they are often done-to rather than taking the bull by the horns. In the end, they gain their just rewards, although succeeding may be as much a surprise to them as it is to us.

  • The Apple Dumpling Gang – Jack Bickham
  • The Ballad of Josey Wales – Forrest Carter
  • The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (aka Running Scared) – Jim Fritzell

Admiration Plot – The hero/heroine is someone who may seem like the ‘boy/girl next door’, but they show how ordinary people can have a depth of goodness that they can draw on in times of trouble. The storyline is often a basic theme of good versus evil, perhaps with the evil force trying to seduce or coerce the good person into immoral acts.

  • To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
  • A Time to Kill – John Grisham
  • Star Wars – created by George Lucas

Maturing Plot – The main character acquires maturity in some way. This may be the adolescent transition from child to adult. It may also be an adult transitioning as a new level of wisdom and realization is gained through hardship and difficulty. The maturation may be a ‘coming of age’ experience, with culturally classic rites of passage and symbolic transitioning. It may also come through tough experiences, from kidnap to war. An important element within this plotline are the turning points of the life decisions that the hero makes, hopefully taking responsibility for themselves and making wise choices.

  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
  • The Red Badge of Courage – Stephen Crane
  • Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte

Reform Plot – The main character starts off as attractive in some way, but flawed in their character such that they cause their own downfall, perhaps by making an unwise choice or being too immature or arrogant. The protagonist realizes the error of h/her ways and changes in time to recover and regain the reader’s confidence as the protagonist eventually show themselves worthy.

  • The Scarlet Letter – Nathanial Hawthorne
  • Carolina Moon – Nora Roberts

Testing Plot – The main character, although initially strong and noble, is pushed towards compromising high ideals. This may be by foul means, but can also be due to other circumstances such as poverty or difficult choices. The character wavers on the edge of decision, as there is no easy choice. Compromising the ideals seems easy but would the ‘wrong thing’ to do. Going the other way, sticking to the ideal, means the character loses out significantly in some other way, such as losing money or social position.

  • Gone with the Wind – Margaret Mitchell
  • Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien
  • For Whom the Bell Tolls – Ernest Hemingway

Degeneration Plot – the main character starts off as an attractive and sympathetic person, but gradually or radically degenerates into immorality, despair or other unattractive position.
This is often triggered by some crisis, whether it is general, such as a terrorist incident, or a personal circumstance, such as a divorce. The character is thus thrust into a situation where they must choose to pick up the pieces or give in to despair and degeneration

  • Shutter Island – Dennis Lehane
  • Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
  • The Help – Kathryn Stockett

Remember that a plot is a complication followed by a resolution. Think about the purpose of your plot–is it to cause readers to weep, laugh, be frightened, have an “aha” moment, or simply to be entertained.  Whatever your purpose, by forming a good plot, one that engages the reader, and keeps them turning the pages, you, the writer, are a successful story-teller. Give yourself a pat on the back.

Loretta C. Rogers is a national/international bestselling author of fifteen novels. She writes multi-genre romance novels, and is published by The Wild Rose Press.

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Loretta C. Rogers

Founding President at SSRA
Loretta C. Rogers, is a national/international best-selling author of fifteen novels. She conducts writing workshops nationally, and is a co-founder and past president of Sunshine State Romance Authors, Inc. and a member of Romance Writers of America®. A fourth generation Floridian, Loretta resides in Citrus County. She enjoys hearing from readers and invites them to visit her at LorettaCRogersBooks.com
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