3 Basic Plot Types

Many critics subscribe to the idea that there is no original idea or thought anymore, hence, nothing completely original that anyone can write about. Themes or plots? There are books and lists discussing every possible plot there ever was for a story. Depending on who you want to follow or believe in, you can classify every story or plot as one of three, nine, thirteen, twenty, or thirty-six plots. In the years I have studied and taught literature, I find that all plots can be reduced to three very basic plots, which my senior high school literature teacher introduced to me, and which I later encountered again while taking my Masters in literature. I find that all other plots are simply variations or elaborations of these three plots, based on the actions of the protagonist. For my teaching, I have decided to modify them slightly to suit my personality and preferences:

  • Running Man
  • Standing Man
  • Trapped Man

Consider every possible motivation, action, reaction, and consequence you can think of putting into a story and you will find that your plot will always be one of these three. The RUNNING MAN plot is all about a person running towards something or away from something. It’s the classic action-adventure plot and, understandably, the most exciting. You should write with this plot if you want to keep your readers at the edge of their seats. The STANDING MAN plot is all about a person who hasn’t decided what to do and needs to make a decision. It’s the type of plot for anything cerebral or introspective. If you want to focus on a character’s thoughts, personal development, and reactions to external influences and use up your whole story waiting for that character to make a decision, this is your plot type. Remember that from a standing position, your character can sit, lie down, fall down, or remain standing, all of which symbolize defeat, regression, or retreat. On the other hand, your character can decide to move from his spot, either walking or running. If this happens early in your story, then your plot is really the running man. If this happens only at the end of the story, then your plot is the standing man. Many post-modern stories fall under this classification because of their focus on metacognitive thought. I would classify coming-of-age stories as having this type of plot, particulary when the main character is at a loss which way to go; the main character is “standing” figuratively because he is being affected by an uncontrollable (external) factor—growing up—and he doesn’t know if he really wants to grow up or change. Classically, Holden Caulfield of Catcher in the Rye comes to mind. Finally, when your character has a problem or is in a situation that he actively or desperately wants to get out of and the whole story involves trying to get out of that situation or problem, then your plot is the TRAPPED MAN. Unlike the standing man, who sometimes doesn’t know he’s actually “trapped”, the trapped man is fully aware of his situation. Being trapped can be literal, e.g., your person is in a physical prison, captured, shackled, or what have you; or it can be figurative entrapment, e.g., a loveless or bad relationship, an oppressive home. All other types can easily be fit into these three types, which is why I prefer to teach just these three. However, for more mature students or more advanced classes, I will mention other plot classifications because they are more specific and more descriptive. As for the use of “MAN” in the names, I’m neutral in this use. I don’t subscribe to being overly politically correct or excessively feminist. I like the use of the word because it’s short and universal. If I ever were to change this word, especially in the light of inhuman characters as main characters or protagonists, I might resort to just using the adjectives or replacing “man” with “protagonist” or “character”—both of which are such unwieldy long words. I do like brevity in titles.

2 thoughts on “3 Basic Plot Types

  1. This discussion is very useful, Cindy! How I wish I came across this explanation when I was teaching World Literature. I also agree with your preference for the use of “man” to refer to people in general. I don’t go against the idea of being biased or sexist; it is just that I go for brevity as well. Cheers! 🙂

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