Most fiction stories have two simultaneous threads through them: the emotional arc and the narrative arc, which together form the plot.
The emotional arc is about the internal journey a character, or characters, progress through during the course of a story. This is usually encapsulated by the protagonist, and the struggle they go through in order to achieve the Story Goal.
The narrative arc is the course of the story that forces the protagonist and other major characters to struggle. It includes the setting, character beliefs and motivations, and decisions made by the protagonist and antagonist.
The protagonist/antagonist conflict is the linking factor between the emotional arc and narrative arc. Struggle is part of life, but in stories it has a focus which makes it central to the plot. Even when the antagonist is internal – like a character’s self-doubt – there will be a struggle to achieve want they want versus what is easy, or what they have gotten into the habit of doing.
Shaping the narrative involves manipulating or taking advantage of your character’s emotions. This is especially true for the protagonist. It’s also possible to do with the antagonist, usually after a setback in their plans.
To get more into detail, I’m remixing the seven basic plots premise and using them to talk about conflict.
- Overcoming the Monster (James Bond, Star Wars)
- Rags to Riches (Cinderella, Great Expectations)
- The Quest (Wizard of Oz, Lord of the Rings)
- Voyage and Return (Chronicles of Narnia, Alice in Wonderland)
- Comedy (Much Ado About Nothing, Bridget Jones’ Diary)
- Tragedy (The Picture of Dorian Grey, Romeo and Juliet)
- Rebirth (A Christmas Carol, Despicable Me)
In an Overcoming the Monster plot, the antagonist usually underestimates the protagonist. This gives the protagonist the ability to achieve the Story Goal without having to go through a too much of a crucible of an emotional arc. They will suffer self-doubt, but they will essentially rely on something internal to get the job done.
Rags to Riches involves an oppressed protagonist. They have a lot of things going against them, usually monetarily, socially, and societally. The antagonist will be from a more powerful group who doesn’t want a change to the status quo. The protagonist will need to persevere and not give up, either so they can save themselves or so they are in a position to be saved.
The Quest is more epic. There is usually more than one main character, but almost always there is one antagonist. If given the chance, the antagonist would probably kill the protagonist. To prevent that scenario, it’s common for there to be an obstacle preventing the antagonist from exploiting such a solution. This could be that either the main characters are smart enough to hide from the antagonist, or they have something the antagonist needs them alive to claim. The antagonist’s greed will get them in the end, although the protagonist will have to endure quite a lot of punishment – either physical, emotional, or both – to complete their Quest.
A Voyage and Return’s antagonist will end up teaching the protagonist (and possibly the other main characters) how to be better people, to allow them to do something fantastic that allows them to learn about an inner strength they might not have known they had. At the end, the protagonist (and/or main characters) will defeat the antagonist, but will be returned back into their normal life afterward. It’s a perilous journey of self-discovery, and they could have been lost along the way. Their victory is equivalent to their return home.
A Comedy often features an internal antagonist, even if there is also an external one. Often the external antagonists are similar to, or in fact are, foil and contrast characters, meaning their existence can be used to highlight things the audience should know about the protagonist, including both their weaknesses and other failings as well as the strengths they possess but typically don’t appreciate. Usually, the protagonist must overcome a false belief in themselves, and in doing so they will live happier, more fulfilled lives afterward. Their struggle to gain that clarity will often be a direct source of comedy as they bumble through trying to do things differently than they are used to. Their triumph will be in overcoming expectations, both of others and of themselves.
Tragedies are designed as commentaries on human nature. Not every protagonist will achieve their Story Goal, but tragedies are reserved for those who fail spectacularly and achieve the opposite of what they desired. Their struggle is meant to be flawed, although the ultimate failure of the protagonist is often not entirely within their control.
Rebirths are internal failings made manifest. Something during the course of the story will rock the protagonist’s worldview, and they will discover something about themselves that they would never have predicted at the beginning. Typically the change they undergo is in some way for the better, both personally and to the world around them.
There are a large number of derivative plots even if at the core they are one of those seven. Shaping your stories, discovering what kind of plot they want to have, is one of the most liberating, fun, and creative parts of being a writer, especially since it is often your own character’s motivations – as well as the antagonist’s goals – that push it to concretely be one plot versus all the others options.
To list an example of characters motivations shaping plots, the Quest and the Journey and Return share many surface elements. Changing a handful of details could reshape one into the other, such as the Hobbit being more of a Journey and Return while Lord of the Rings is a Quest. Frodo himself compares their journey to the one that Bilbo undertook, until the moment where the Fellowship decides to take the Ring to Mount Doom. Whether or not he fully understood it – and I’m certain a large part of him did even if it wasn’t acknowledged out loud – Frodo put the destruction of the Ring over his desire to return home to a normal life. Bilbo, in the Hobbit, wanted to make certain the job was done, but even in that desire his choices were always staying until the Goal was complete versus the option to quit and return home.
In your favorite stories, what are some ways that the endings seemed fitting? What struggles did the protagonist go through that made the ending feel that way? In your favorite stories, would you ever change the ending? What struggle would have needed to be in the forefront to accomadate your suggsted change? The comments are always open.