The primary difference between a story, and a great story, is nuance. By this I mean that while each story is but a repetition of a series of events in one person’s life, if the course of that telling is not interesting, original, exciting and filled with simile and metaphor it will plod from one “So-what?” scene to the next.
To infuse nuance into your work, you must possess an extraordinary command of the language, an exemplary vocabulary, a quick wit, and a vivid imagination.
Or you could, as some do, hire a ghostwriter—after reading a sample his work of course— to see whether his literary best efforts jump off the page to keep you riveted to your chair as you race from page to page to see what happens next.
Most writing professionals and the inspired geniuses who school them, fundamentally agree there are three basic types of plot.
The most recognized and frequently used is archplot. Within archplot we are introduced to a focal character who—either willingly or unwittingly—sets off on a journey of learning and adventure, and must overcome a seemingly endless stream of increasingly challenging and insurmountable hurdles in an obsessive quest to attain his or her goal. When the focal character at last achieves not only that which he or she has set out to do, he/she also acquires great learning which stands out to reaffirm some deeply held belief that we the audience already hold dear.
In the end, the hero gets the girl and they ride off into the sunset—or else die heroic and self-sacrificing deaths while saving an entire population from certain doom.Everything is resolved, the world is somehow a better place and—whether dead or alive—the focal character ends up right back where he or she started from, only now they have new information.
Most importantly, a closed question—a question that can be answered with only a yes or no response—is answered unambiguously at the end of the archplot story.
Minimalist Plot (aka Miniplot):
A less frequently found plot is minimalist plot. This story plot style is best described as “First this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened, etc”. Sometimes the events in the story are loosely connected, sometimes they are simply obstacles placed before the focal character for effect. In the end, the story does not really end. The audience is left wondering, “What happens next?” or “Is this even the end?” or “Will there be a sequel?”
Sometimes, as in the case with the film Mystic River, the story ends, then ends again, and again, and again—you get the point.
Unlike a closed question found in archplot, miniplot ends with an open question—a question that cannot be answered with a simple yes or no—such as “What became of the lover?” for an ending—or maybe there is not really an ending at all, just an end to the telling. The Lord of The Rings is a good example.
In miniplot—whether intentionally or not—not everything is resolved. Questions remain, the characters will continue on their ultimate quest, and it is up to the audience to decide what did or did not happen in the end.
The least common style of plot for a story is antiplot. In this plot style, there is little reason behind the telling other than to entertain—like a magic trick.
We are all impressed and amazed by the magician’s talent—yet what can we do with the knowledge that this person can make an elephant disappear? What do we learn from this? What message does this impart that we already hold true?
Usually these loosely crafted stories have little or no connection from one scene to the next and unless brilliantly composed have little to do with linear storytelling. An example you may recognize for antiplot is Monty Python—brilliant work but what exactly is the story line? And what does it mean?
The next time you are watching TV, or reading a good book, or watching a great film, try at the end, to decide what style of plot you have just witnessed.
Here is a quick hint: TV shows with commercials are usually miniplot so that the story can continue next week, while good books and feature length films are predominately archplot, a complete story told from beginning to end in a single telling.
So the question now is, which story plot style are you going to use to write a great story?
Will you follow the masses and write a sure seller using a textbook archplot style?
Or will you break out of the norm and try your hand at becoming the next J.R.R. Tolkien?