Plot building – Plots by Genre - article

Plotting isn't formula; it's structure. Each genre has a basic plot structure. The following quick snapshots should help you begin a novel writing journey. Remember these are broad generalizations, a place to get you started.  

Literary Fiction -- In literary fiction, character moves the plot forward. An elemental plots structure is in place like overcoming the monster, rags to riches, comedy, tragedy, the rebirth, the quest or voyage but the internal struggles of the character drive the story forward -- her need for acceptance, her desire for validation, her hunger for meaning. Literary fiction tends to shy away from huge action scenes. There may be romantic elements but the plot moves forward as the main character evolves or reinvents herself.  

Mystery-- This is the basic who-done-it plot. In a regular world, a detective is called to investigate something mysterious -- a murder, a piece of artwork gone missing, an empty vault. The detective uncovers clues -- a cryptic letter, a bloody knife, a smoking gun. Some clues are red herrings (false leads); some are not. The detective discovers suspects. The detective proceeds to eliminate suspects and find more clues with ever rising tension. Finally the detective assembles the suspects and reveals the culprit. Yay, the mystery is solved!

Action-Adventure -- The basic action adventure plot starts with a hero who is presented with a quest -- the chance to find a lost relic, the discovery of an ancient city, a mission to foil some extreme terrorists. The hero will gather gear and sidekicks and then head out. Oh, he is going to face plenty of physical action. And the bad news, everything is going to go wrong as he journeys toward his quest's end. There will be violence and mayhem at a bruising pace. Finally the hero is going to dig deep and complete the quest, yay!  

Romance -- The traditional romance story works something like this: Boy meets girl. Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth meet. Complications ensue as boy gets girl. Mr. Darcy proposes! Boy loses girl. Elizabeth turns him down. Boy meets girl, again. At Permberly. Boy gets girl, again. Elizabeth realizes she loves Mr. Darcy. Will all be ok? No! There is a disaster. Boy loses girl, again. Elizabeth's sister has run away with Mr. Wickham. Boy does whatever he can to get girl. Lydia is saved! Boy gets girl. And they live happily ever after.  

Science Fiction/Fantasy -- These two genres are close enough relatives to cover together. A hero with a destiny must defeat evil -- Frodo, Luke, or Neo. This hero lives in different world than the real one -- Middle Earth, Tatooine, or the Matrix. The hero goes on an epic journey to discover his destiny. Perilous events are mixed with (depending on genre) advanced technology, or magic or strange animals or combinations of all three. There are roadblocks at every turn. The hero must struggle through ever rising actions scenes to an ultimate battle with evil, and the hero defeats evil!  

For more in depth coverage of general plotting, take a look at Jim Hull's Story Fanatic site. For more practical genre plotting advice, you might also want to check out 20 Master Plots: And How to Build Them by Ronald B. Tobias.

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  • Great summaries, thank you Molly. Endeavouring to use elements of action, romance, social conflict about myth and tradition in historical fiction.
  • I believe that my personal semi-autobiographical novel contains positive elements of all of these types except for the science fiction. My main character is in pursuit of romance but is encumbered by social fanatics who are villains at every turn. Even his lover turns villainous and betrays him, leaving him defeated and hopeless. In the end, love wins out in a surprising victory, leaving all villains mortified. The mystery is "How will he overcome such powerful opposition and achieve his own happily ever after?"
  • Thanks so much Molly, I didn't know that there was a chemistry to writing. I see structure is a part of the beginning stages of a novel depending on a specific genre. Is there structure formatting for a nonfiction or memoir?