Know Your Archetypes

Perhaps one of the most high-stakes aspect of drafting your novel is the creation of the plot. It draws together all the hard work you’ve put into making the characters and setting up the world, creating enough conflict to make it all worthwhile for you and your future readers. Theoretically, strong characters can hold a story even with a weak plot, but if you build off of what you know of your characters’ strengths and weaknesses, a strong plot should come naturally.

That doesn’t mean, however, that it will come easily. Good storytellers need to be familiar with as many different stories as possible; that’s why it’s so important to read both in and out of your genre . The more you read, the more familiar you get with the different plot archetypes that could offer the foundation of your own plot. If you want to learn more about the different plot archetypes directly, you can read The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker or get summaries about each item simply by researching “The Seven Basic Plots.” Since dozens of other blogs have described it, I won’t waste time going over them here.

Instead, I’m going to be focusing on the importance of using these archetypes when it comes to trying to create a novel. Many people might try to shun the use of archetypes because it makes novel-writing look like a cookie-cutting exercise. I would be the first in line to insist novel-writing is not that easy, and if my blog posts are anything to go by, I’d probably also get in line a half-dozen more times just to drive that point home.

The problem with archetypes is not that they automatically make novels too similar; it’s that people get too stuck on following the step-by-step guide that the archetypes provide that they don’t realize the archetypes are simply a baseline to create a unique version of that narrative. If you use the seven basic plots as a blueprint, it’ll make the plotting that much easier. Just like making your characters and setting up your world, plotting is no easy beast to conquer. Even if the beginning and end come easily, you still have to get from point A to point B, and as the saying goes, it’s not the destination that matters, but the journey. Or, to put it another way, just because you know where your character needs to get to doesn’t mean it’s any easier to get them there.

The job of the plot archetypes, should you choose to use them, is simply to offer a roadmap for that journey. This is especially if you’re a writer like me, who feels confident with their world-building but gets pretty lost in the plotting. You can take whatever idea you got as your baseline, and in your abstract , choose which of the seven stories might align best with the idea you have. Rather than trying to take this half-formed blob of a concept and hammering it into some semblance of a story (whose characters’ paths will probably end up resembling one of the seven basic plots anyway), you can use the seven basic plots to fill in the blanks of your story, and then begin to ask questions about it to ensure that nothing is happening in the story simply for the sake of Plot. When you ask those why questions, you’ll find yourself supplying explanations that will also help flesh out the world that the story is taking place in.

From there, all that’s left is filling in the quiet moments with a different brand of conflict that will let your readers see what kind of characters they’re rooting for. That, however, is an entirely different beast.


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