Outlining your novel’s plot can be daunting.
Especially for you writers who are more character oriented. Or for those of you who just get so obsessed with the world building you completely forget to include a plot and realize, too late, your novel is actually an anthology of alien cultures.
Luckily, story arcs are here to help.
Humanity has been been telling stories for as long as we’ve been speaking languages (100,000+ years), so it’s hardly surprising to discover that every story we could possibly tell has been told a thousand times over and then a thousand times again. This repetition of stories has either engrained itself on the human subconscious, or the stories were already there to begin with, leading to the basic story arcs.
But this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Though there are only so many stories. Opinions vary on HOW MANY basic story structures there are, from Joseph Campbell’s “monomyth” the Hero’s Journey, to Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots, to Georges Polti’s 36 dramatic situations, and many, many more, but there’s only one you.
Individual thoughts, ideas, opinions, life experiences, voice, and characters are what make your story unique, even if the structure is found elsewhere.
Let’s look at ten of those standard plots and get your mind working on what kind of story arc to include in your book, as well as provide some ideas on how to make them not so standard.
Overcoming the Monster
There is some kind of creature or other (often evil) antagonistic force that the protagonist must overcome and defeat. For example, Beowulf must fight Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and a dragon in order to save the land. There is often some kind of treasure as a reward for the monster’s defeat.
But what if: your hero became friends with the monster? Or the monster was actually the good guy trying to make the world a better place?
Rags to Riches
The poor protagonist gains money, power, and/or a significant other by proving they deserve it. For example, Cinderella’s patience, kindness, and hard work demonstrate that she deserves the handsome prince when he comes calling.
In some variations, the protagonist starts out with money or power but with a nasty flaw, loses everything, and only regain their position after conquering that personal limitation. For example, Kuzco in Disney’s The Emporer’s New Groove is selfish and greedy before he is transformed into a llama, then regains his throne only after learning selflessness.
But what if: the protagonist never learns his lesson and doesn’t regain his riches? Or the protagonist realizes that life is better without the stress of what she was trying to gain?
The protagonist (and often a group of allies) set off to find or do something that takes them far away from their comfortable normal life. For example, Frodo and his companions leave the Shire to take the One Ring to Mount Doom.
But what if: the object the hero is seeking turns out to be a person rather than an object? Or the protagonist isn’t actually a hero but a villain?
Voyage and Return
The protagonist journeys through a strange world and comes back having learned something about the world or themselves. For example, Alice goes through Wonderland and comes home grateful to find the world is sensible once again. This story is similar to the Quest; the main difference being that the protagonist is usually trying to get home, rather than to find an object or accomplish a feat.
But what if: the hero never comes home? Or her friends go after her to find out what happened?
Someone is running. Someone else is chasing them. The story is the cat-and-mouse between them. This is the basis of many thrillers. In The Bourne Identity, Jason is trying to avoid the mysterious people hunting him while attempting to discover his past.
But what if: the reason the chaser is chasing wasn’t to ruin the other person’s life, but to improve it? Or what if the villain got away?
Betrayal and Revenge
Someone betrays your protagonist’s trust. Vengeance must be sought to make the world right again. Kill Bill and countless revenge thrillers have followed this pattern.
But what if: the hero falls into the cycle of vengeance and can’t get out again? Or the one he seeks vengeance on didn’t actually do what he thought she did?
Something is hidden — a secret, a treasure, a crime, or anything you as the author would like it to be. The protagonist struggles to uncover the mystery, often landing himself in trouble with those who covered it up in the first place. For an example, almost every Sherlock episode follows this arc.
But what if: the mystery only went deeper than anyone could ever know? Or the protagonist was actually trying to hide something from herself?
Something is tempting the protagonist, and she finally gives in to that temptation. But actions have consequences, and now she has to clean the mess she created. Eve eats the apple, Pandora opens the box, Bluebeard’s wife looks into the closet. A lot of the old forbidden fruit stories have women as the mistake-maker, because a lot of them are patriarchal stories about how women screwed up the world.
But what if: we finally get the see the woman also redeem herself? Or a man makes a mistake?
Boy meets girl. Girl rejects boy. Boy struggles to win girl. Boy and girl get together. They live happily ever after (or happily for now).
But what if: girl meets boy? Or (if you’re thinking of there being a third person in the mix, which is common) girl stays with her current partner because, while boy might be exciting, he’s not good for her?
A quick note: if you do vary the standard romance formula (especially by altering the happy ending), you won’t want to categorize your story as a romance when considering its genre. A happy ending is a genre requirement for romance. Not that your romance has to end happily, but you’ll want to call it drama if you choose to go that way, or you’ll have some VERY pissed-off readers.
The Prisoner Escapes
The hero is held captive, and no matter what it takes, he’s going to get out, or he’ll die trying. For example, Buttercup in The Princess Bride is determined to escape her arranged marriage with Prince Humperdinck.
But what if: the hero can’t escape through physical force and has to trick his captors? Or if the hero ends up seeing things from the villain’s point of view?
Hopefully one of these story arcs got your writing wheels turning. And if you already had a plot and realized your story fits into a category that’s “been done” before, don’t be upset. Chances are, that's exactly what you want, at least if you’re trying to be a commercially successful author.
The truth is, every story that’s ever existed has been done a lot more than you probably realize. The trick is to come up with something that makes your version of this story uniquely you.
So get out there, have fun, be creative, and write!