How to Use Plot Formulas

Plot formulasIf you’re a new writer, a plot formula is your shortcut to writing a great story. A plot formula can…

  1. Help you get an overview of your story.
  2. Help you figure out where to begin and end your story.
  3. Help you decide what happens next.
  4. Help you keep on track, know where you are, and how far you still have to go.
  5. Help you find and fix weak points in your story.
  6. Speed up plotting, writing, and editing.

Many writers, especially prolific writers of genre fiction, use plot formulas, although they may not have systematised, written, or perhaps even elaborated it to themselves.

However simple it may be, a plot formula is a powerful tool for crafting stories.

I ♥ plot formulas

I love them because they simplify something that can be very complicated and overwhelming.
I love them because I love the idea of a universal story that unites us all.
I love them because they help me turn ideas into stories fast (and the faster I progress with a project, the less likely I am to flake out).
I love them because I love to (try to) understand how things work.
I love them because they allowed me to finish (and publish) a story for the first time in my life.

What is a plot formula?

So… what IS a plot formula?
I’m sure everyone has their own definition, but for the purposes of this post, I’d like to define a plot formula as: any simplified story framework that helps you create your own story

In this post I’ve included two additional categories of “plot helpers”:

1 | PLOT FORMULAS: methods designed to help writers structure a story.
2 | PLOT CATALOGUES: lists (usually hoped to be exhaustive) of plots or plot elements that have been collated for readers or (less frequently) for writers.
3  | PLOT STUDIES: examinations of plots or plot elements, often with an anthropological bent, for the benefit of scholars, critics, or readers.

I’ll be detailing some of my favourite “purpose-built” plot formulas below, but your favourite novel, fairy tale, anecdote, triad, or mantra can also act as a story framework.
For example, one triad I really love is this one that my writing buddy, Andreea, shared with me one day:

  1. Something for beginners/first-timers/everyone
  2. Something for your tribe/frequent readers
  3. Something for yourself

I used it to write this post, and I use it in all of my stories too. It’s so simple, but it helps me in several ways:

  1. It reminds me to think of my audience and their specific needs.
  2. It reminds me that I need to guide readers through the levels of information or training that I’m providing.
  3. It reminds me to add my own personal touch.
  4. It reminds me to enjoy what I’m doing by including something for me, even if I’m the only one who understands or appreciates it.

A recent study found that literary works exhibited a fractal quality. I think good plot formulas also have this “fractal” trait – they can be applied at the macro or the micro level, or anywhere in between.

And if you use them to their fullest potential, you can take them beyond the written story. You can start shaping your life story too.

Won’t a plot formula make my story formulaic?

If by formulaic you mean, “predictable”, then no. How predictable your story is depends on how well you know the context you’re writing in, and how good you are at understanding your reader’s expectations and then thwarting them.

If by formulaic you mean, “unoriginal”, again, I would argue: no. Complete freedom in any creative project can be difficult or even paralysing. That’s why many writers fear the blank page.

All writers work within the arguably “formulaic” constraints of form, genre, and even formatting, and yet the variety of stories they generate is seemingly endless. Plot formulas, when used well, work to aid creativity, not to hinder it.

When to use a plot formula

The best plot formulas help you at all stages of creating a story:
– Brainstorming
– Plotting
– Outlining
– Structuring
– Writing
– Problem solving
– Editing
– Re-drafting

And you can never consult them too early or too late. We make much ado of being “plotters” or “pantsers”, but really everyone plots, whether before, during, or after writing the story.

Turn to your plot formula whenever you need guidance. But don’t be afraid to trust your own judgement and bend the “rules” of the plot formula, either!

How to Choose a Plot Formula

  1. Go with whichever one sparks more ideas.
  2. Go with whichever one helps with problems you’re facing.
  3. Choose one at random.
  4. Combine several together.

Once you’ve chosen a plot formula… stick with it. Don’t look for an alternative as soon as you start to become frustrated with your first choice. You’ll only end up wasting time. As with everything else, there is no single perfect choice. And it may be the case that different projects need different formulas.

Keep experimenting. Keep writing. Keep improving.

How to use a plot formula

You will probably be tempted to dive straight in and start applying your chosen plot formula to your current work in progress. Here’s how you might proceed:

  1. Create a detailed outline of your WIP. You might want to use a spreadsheet or outlining app. If you’d like to see an example of a completed novel outline, you can click here to download one I’ve prepared.
  2. Study your chosen plot formula, and see how your scenes (or beats) fit into the structure.
  3. Identify scenes that don’t fit. For each one ask:
    1. Would this scene work better at another part of the story?
    2. Is this scene unnecessary?
    3. If this scene feels right, do I need to adapt the plot formula?
  4. Check to see you haven’t skipped any stages. If you have, ask:
    1. What is the purpose of this stage?
    2. Does my story really need this stage?
    3. If it does, how can I incorporate this stage into my story?

To become more proficient with your chosen plot formula, it really helps to use it frequently.

  1. Practice plotting your own stories. Even if you never write any of them, just sit down and create plot outlines. If you don’t go into too much detail, you can easily create a plot in a few hours. Spend a week repeating this exercise and really putting the formula through its paces.
  2. Practice plotting other people’s stories. When you sit down to watch a film, or your favourite TV series, or even a music video, think about how closely it follows your chosen plot structure. Ask…
    1. How do the scenes fit into the various stages?
    2. What problems do you have assigning the scenes to stages, and why?
    3. Are any stages skipped?
    4. Are there any extra stages that your story structure doesn’t seem to account for?
    5. Do any stages seem to be in a different order?

Plot Formulas

Please note, this list is far from exhaustive! I’ve tried to fit as many as I can onto the cheatsheet, so don’t forget to pick it up here.

Plot formula cheatsheet

Lester Dent’s Plot Formula

This was the first plot formula I ever came across. It was a huge revelation for me that novels (or stories) could be written by numbers, and that doing so could provide the writer with a simple framework for checking pacing and action, among other things.

I’m not sure where the plot formula was originally published, but you can find a description of it here, and there’s a summary in your cheatsheet. Michael Moorcock talks about using the formula in an interview in the book, Death is No Obstacle:

MM: Another thing that made an impression on me, though nobody else seems ever to have benefited from it or to understand why I should find it worthwhile, was Lester Dent’s Master Plot Formula. Lester Dent was the write of Doc Savage, and hundreds of detective stories under different names. He’s credited by both Hammett and Chandler with being the first of the hardboiled detective writers, though his stories haven’t lasted. He claimed that he’d sold over four hundred stories under this formula, and he recommended it to everyone.

First, he says, split your six-thousand word story up into four fifteen hundred word parts. Part one, hit your hero with a heap of trouble. Part two, double it. Part three, put him in so much trouble there’s no way he could ever possibly get out of it. Then – now this could be Lester Dent or it could be what I learnt when I was on Sexton Blake Library, I forget – you must never have a revelation of something that wasn’t already established; so , you couldn’t unmask a murderer who wasn’t a character established already. All your main characters have to be in the first third. All your main themes and everything else has to be established in the first third, developed in the second third, and resolved in the last third. Basically, that’s all Lester Dent was saying.

CG: So you’ve piled up trouble on trouble: where does your resolution come from?

MM: Well, your resolution comes from whatever you’ve seeded into the first part. You can’t have a deus ex machina; so you have to have some event occurring, a minor problem, probably less emphasised, and a major problem; and in solving the major problem you also solve the minor problem. That’s one convention, anyway.

Lester Dent invented his formula as a way to help him write pulp fiction, but I think the specific break-down can be helpful for anyone writing adventure stories.

Where to find more information: this post on Paper Dragon, and the book Death is No Obstacle.

Save the Cat by Blake Snyder

Blake Snyder calls this plot formula a “beat sheet”, but “save the cat” – a related technique – is certainly more memorable. Save the Cat is a book on screenwriting, so the Beat Sheet provides page numbers that suit a film script. However, the “beats” can still be useful for structuring longer works, especially for those of us who write or visualise stories cinematically.

“Good structure is ironclad.” – Blake Snyder

ACT ONE (THESIS)

  1. Opening Image (1) – set tone, mood & style; give “before” snapshot of hero.
  2. Theme Stated (5)– declaration of theme, argument or story purpose (by minor to main character).
  3. Set-up (1-10) – introduce hero’s quirks; how & why they need to change
  4. Catalyst (12) – bad news that knocks down set-up, but ultimately leads the hero to happiness.
  5. Debate (12-25) – hero questions their ability to proceed.

ACT TWO (ANTITHESIS)

  1. Break into Two (25) – hero (through their own decision) moves into the antithetical world.
  2. B Story (30) – break from main story; often a “love” story; meet new characters antithetical to earlier ones.
  3. Fun and Games (30-55) – provides the promise of the premise; movie trailer moments; whatever’s cool.
  4. Midpoint (55) – fun and games over; hero reaches false peak or false collapse; changes dynamic; raises stakes.
  5. Bad Guys Close In (55-75) – bad guys regroup; internal dissent in hero’s team; hero isolated and headed for fall.
  6. All Is Lost (75) – false defeat (that feels real); “whiff of death” (often of mentor); end of old way.
  7. Dark Night of the Soul (75-85) – darkness before the dawn; hero feels they’re beaten and forsaken.
  8. Break into Three (85) – internal B story provides solution to A story.

ACT THREE (SYNTHESIS)

  1. Finale (85-110) – triumph for hero; bad guys dispatched (in ascending order); hero changes world.
  2. Final Image (110) – opposite of opening image; proof of real change.
Where to find more information: read the book and browse the website.

Nigel Watts’s Eight-Point Arc

Almost every book on novel writing includes its own version of a plot formula, but I thought Nigel Watts’s was especially practical.

  1. Stasis: once upon a time
  2. Trigger: something out of the ordinary happens
  3. Quest: causing the protagonist to seek something
  4. Surprise: but things don’t go as expected
  5. Critical Choice: forcing the protagonist to make a difficult decision
  6. Climax: which has consequences
  7. Reversal: the result of which is a change in status
  8. Resolution: and they all lived happily ever after (or didn’t).

“So, how to use this information? Rather than using it to build a story, I find it most useful as a checklist against which to measure a work in progress. If I sense a story is going wrong, I see if I’ve unwittingly missed out a stage of the eight-point arc. It may not guarantee you write a brilliant story, but it will help you avoid some of the pitfalls of a brilliant idea gone wrong.” – Nigel Watts

Dan Wells’s 7-Point Plot Structure

I don’t know if Dan Wells (who you might also know from the Writing Excuses podcast) ever wrote about his 7-stage structure, but the presentation he gave to explain it has been very influential.

This is the first plot formula I came across that introduced the idea of plotting a story out of order.

Plotting order:

  1. Resolution
  2. Hook
  3. Midpoint
  4. Plot turn 1
  5. Plot turn 2
  6. Pinch 1
  7. Pinch 2

Story order:

  1. Hook
  2. Plot turn 1
  3. Pinch 1
  4. Midpoint
  5. Pinch 2
  6. Plot turn 2
  7. Resolution
Where to find more information: watch Dan Wells’s presentation.

The Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermanson

The Snowflake Method is closer to a plot process than a plot formula, in the sense that (at least in its basic form) it helps writers brainstorm story ideas and character profiles, but doesn’t provide guidance on the story’s content.

  1. 1-sentence summary (1 hour)
  2. Expand sentence to full paragraph summary (1 hour)
  3. One page summary for each character (1 hour each)
  4. Expand each sentence in summary (#2) to full paragraphs. (several hours)
  5. 1 page description of each major character (1-2 days)
  6. Expand each paragraph from #4 into full page synopses. (1 week)
  7. Expand character descriptions from #3 into full character charts. (1 week)
  8. Turn 4-page summary from #6 into a scene spreadsheet.
  9. (optional) Expand each scene from spreadsheet into multi-paragraph description.
  10. Start writing first draft.

In my opinion, the Snowflake Method’s greatest strengths are:

  1. It guides the writer to follow a top-down approach, which can save so much time in the long-run.
  2. It provides an estimated timeline for completing each stage of the plotting process.
Where to find more information: read more on the website.

The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler

The Writer’s Journey was initially titled: “A Practical Guide to The Hero With a Thousand Faces“, which is a fair description, in my opinion. In his book, Campbell is purposefully vague about the monomyth’s structure, because his overall aim is to unify human experience, not to delineate it.

Vogler, on the other hand, wants to simplify the teachings of the monomyth in order to tell a better story – specifically, a film story.

  1. Ordinary World
  2. Call to Adventure
  3. (Acceptance or) Refusal of the Call
  4. Meeting with the Mentor
  5. Crossing the Threshold to the Special World
  6. Tests, Allies and Enemies
  7. Approach to the Inmost Cave
  8. The Ordeal
  9. Reward
  10. The Road Back
  11. The Resurrection
  12. Return with the Elixir

“The Hero’s Journey, I discovered, is more than just a description of the hidden patterns of mythology. It is a useful guide to life, especially the writer’s life. In the perilous adventure of my own writing, I found the stages of the Hero’s Journey showing up just as reliably and usefully as they did in books, myths, and movies. In my personal life, I was thankful to have this map to guide my quest and help me anticipate what was around the next bend.” – Christopher Vogler

Where to find more information: read The Writer’s Journey.

The New & Improved Gary Provost Paragraph

Yet another example that a plot formula doesn’t need to be complicated. Here is an archetypal story summarised in one paragraph:

Once upon a time, something happened to someone, and he decided that he would pursue a goal. So he devised a plan of action, and even though there were forces trying to stop him, he moved forward because there was a lot at stake. And just as things seemed as bad as they could get, he learned an important lesson, and when offered the prize he had sought so strenuously, he had to decide whether or not to take it, and in making that decision he satisfied a need that had been created by something in his past.

You may also have come across Gary Provost’s sentence length paragraph, which can help you with your writing style. What else could you need?

Where to find more information: read How to Tell a Story by Peter Rubie and Gary Provost

The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby

Stars (★) mark the minimum 7 steps that, according to Truby, are essential to every story.

  1. Self-revelation, need and desire – combination of steps 20, 3 & 5.
  2. Ghost and story world – the hero’s counterdesire.
  3. ★ Weakness and need – the hero’s flaws are keeping them from having the life they desire.
  4. Inciting event – outside event that spurs the hero to action.
  5. ★ Desire – the hero’s story goal.
  6. Ally or allies – the hero gains an ally.
  7. ★ Opponent and/or mystery – an opponent or mystery that keeps the hero from reaching their goal.
  8. Fake-ally opponent – a shapeshifter or false friend.
  9. First revelation and decision: changed desire and motive – a revelation causes the hero to make a decision that results in a change in direction.
  10. Plan – the hero’s plan to overcome their opponent and reach their goal.
  11. Opponent’s plan main counterattack – the opponent’s plan to overcome their opponent and reach their goal.
  12. Drive – increasingly desperate (and possibly immoral) series of actions the hero takes to defeat the opponent and reach the goal.
  13. Attack by ally – an ally confronts the hero about their increasing desperation and immorality.
  14. Apparent defeat – lowest point when the hero believes they’ve lost. For fall arcs, this may be an “Apparent victory” instead.
  15. Second revelation and decision: obsessive drive, changed desire 
and motive – the hero receives a new piece of information that allows them to continue towards their goal.
  16. Audience revelation – the audience learns a vital piece of information that’s kept from the hero.
  17. Third revelation and decision – the hero learns something about the opponent that will help them win.
  18. Gate, gauntlet, visit to death – pressure on the hero grows and they’re forced to face difficult trials.
  19. Battle – a final (violent) conflict that determines who wins.
  20. Self-revelation – the hero learns who they truly are.
  21. Moral decision – a decision that proves what the hero has learnt in the self-revelation.
  22. New equilibrium – the need and desire have been fulfilled and the world goes back to normal, though the hero has changed.

I can’t say that Truby’s step-names strike me as very elegant or memorable, but he makes up for it by providing plenty of examples.

The One Page Novel by Eva Deverell

I created the One Page Novel as an amalgamation of some of my favourite methods. As the name suggests, it’s designed to fit on one page, and it uses example fill-in-the-blank scenes to speed up the plotting process.

The One Page Novel is an 8-stage method, and like Dan Well’s story structure, it’s plotted out of order…

Plotting order:

  1. Resolution
  2. Stasis
  3. Shift
  4. Trigger
  5. Quest
  6. Power
  7. Bolt
  8. Defeat

Story order:

  1. Stasis
  2. Trigger
  3. Quest
  4. Bolt
  5. Shift
  6. Defeat
  7. Power
  8. Resolution

Each stage has a unique function, and they all help to support the larger structure:

  1. Stasis: the character isn’t living to their full potential – opposite state to Resolution.
  2. Trigger: an internal or external impulse (or both) forces the character to take the first step towards their Resolution state.
  3. Quest: the character enters the new world of adventure, meets mentors or allies and makes a (bad) plan to solve the problem the Trigger created.
  4. Bolt: the (bad) Quest plan inevitably goes wrong.
  5. Shift: the character makes the paradigm shift necessary for them to inhabit their Resolution state.
  6. Defeat: the character makes the ultimate sacrifice.
  7. Power: the character finds a hidden power within themselves that allows them to seize the prize.
  8. Resolution: the character is living up to their full potential in their Resolution state.

Honourable mention: The Fool’s Journey

Even though there hasn’t been a study of The Fool’s Journey as a plot structure, I do have a loooong 2-part blog post on how you can use the archetypal story of the Tarot’s major arcana to help you structure your story with myth motifs and imagery.

  1. The Fool
  2. The Magician
  3. The High Priestess
  4. The Emperor
  5. The Empress
  6. The Hierophant
  7. The Lovers
  8. The Chariot
  9. Strength / Justice
  10. The Hermit
  11. Wheel of Fortune
  12. Justice/Strength
  13. The Hanged Man
  14. Death
  15. Temperance
  16. The Devil
  17. The Tower
  18. The Star
  19. The Moon
  20. The Sun
  21. Judgement
  22. The World
Where to find more information: read the 2-part blog post or download the ebook.

Plot Catalogues

Twenty Master Plots and How to Build Them by Ronald Tobias

Tobias details each master plot according to the 3-act structure. The Writer’s Digest offers this PDF with checklists for each of the 20 plots, and Angela Booth has a great article on how to create plots using these 20 plot words.

“Story requires only curiosity to know what will happen next.
Plot requires the ability to remember what has already happened, to figure out the relationships between events and people, and to try to project the outcome.” – Ronald Tobias

  1. Quest
  2. Adventure
  3. Pursuit
  4. Rescue
  5. Escape
  6. Revenge
  7. The Riddle
  8. Rivalry
  9. Underdog
  10. Temptation
  11. Metamorphosis
  12. Transformation
  13. Maturation
  14. Love
  15. Forbidden Love
  16. Sacrifice
  17. Discovery
  18. Wretched Excess
  19. Ascension
  20. Descension
Where to find more information: read 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them.

Plotto

Plotto is a fascinating (and very thorough!) plotting method written by William Wallace Cook and published in 1928. It’s made up of a variety of plot components that fit together in somewhat complicated ways to create somewhat curious plot starters. I found this comment on Story Games, and I couldn’t have described the book better:

I own and love Plotto. It is like walking around in a filing cabinet that was organized by someone with very specific bad ideas about information management, and who lives in the late twenties. It is not particularly friendly or easy to use, but it is really, really fun once you get the hang of it.

I thought the masterplot chart would be the easiest part of the method to use in brainstorming, without spending a lot of time looking up the meaning of letters and numbers. To that end, I arranged the 3 clauses (A, B, and C) in a table. You can click here to download it.

Plotto Masterplot Chart
The clauses can be concatenated to create a “plot sentence”. Here are my favourite clauses strung together:

A subtle person / Falling into misfortune through the wiles of a crafty schemer, / Comes finally to the blank wall of enigma.

Bestseller? Hmm…

Where to find more information: download the book on Archive.org, use a hyperlinked version (with randomiser), or buy the book in print

The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations by Georges Polti

Georges Polti became fascinated by an anecdote about Schiller and Goethe looking to define the thirty-six dramatic (“tragic”) situations supposedly discovered by Gozzi… and found exactly thirty-six dramatic situations. However, a quick glance at any of the dramatic situations will show you that each of them has several sub-sections with possible plot permutations.

Leaving aside the number, the descriptions that Polti provides are probably too florid for modern tastes, and reference dramatic (stage) works that most of us aren’t familiar with. But the titles and sub-titles can be useful for brainstorming conflicts, and the “elements” are helpful for a quick reference. For example, the sub-sections of “Pursuit” are:

A. Fugitives from justice pursued for brigandage, political offences, etc.
B. Pursued for a fault of love
C. A hero struggling against power
D. A pseudo-madman struggling against an Iago-like alienist

And the elements are: Punishment and Fugitive.

Here are Polti’s 36  Dramatic Situations:

  1. Supplication
  2. Deliverance
  3. Crime pursued by vengeance
  4. Vengeance taken for kin upon kin
  5. Pursuit
  6. Disaster
  7. Falling prey to cruelty/misfortune
  8. Revolt
  9. Daring enterprise
  10. Abduction
  11. The enigma
  12. Obtaining
  13. Enmity of kin
  14. Rivalry of kin
  15. Murderous adultery
  16. Madness
  17. Fatal imprudence
  18. Involuntary crimes of love
  19. Slaying of kin unrecognised
  20. Self-sacrifice for an ideal
  21. Self-sacrifice for kin
  22. All sacrificed for passion
  23. Necessity of sacrificing loved ones
  24. Rivalry of superior vs. inferior
  25. Adultery
  26. Crimes of love
  27. Discovery of the dishonour of a loved one
  28. Obstacles to love
  29. An enemy loved
  30. Ambition
  31. Conflict with a god
  32. Mistaken jealousy
  33. Erroneous judgement
  34. Remorse
  35. Recovery of a lost one
  36. Loss of loved ones

In Story Structure Architect, Victoria Schmidt re-interprets Polti’s list of dramatic situations, bringing the total up to 55 and updating the descriptions as well as the examples.

Plot Studies

Poetics by Aristotle

Despite the fact that it was written over 2000 years ago (two. thousand. years.) Poetics contains many statements about plot that are still amazingly thought-provoking and practical. For example:

VIII. Unity of plot does not, as some persons think, consist in the Unity of the hero. For infinitely various are the incidents in one man’s life which cannot be reduced to unity; and so, too, there are many actions of one man out of which we cannot make one action. Hence, the error, as it appears, of all poets who have composed a Heracleid, a Theseid, or other poems of the kind. They imagine that as Heracles was one man, the story of Heracles must also be a unity. But Homer, as in all else he is of surpassing merit, here too–whether from art or natural genius–seems to have happily discerned the truth. In composing the Odyssey he did not include all the adventures of Odysseus–such as his wound on Parnassus, or his feigned madness at the mustering of the host–incidents between which there was no necessary or probable connection: but he made the Odyssey, and likewise the Iliad, to centre round an action that in our sense of the word is one. As therefore, in the other imitative arts, the imitation is one when the object imitated is one, so the plot, being an imitation of an action, must imitate one action and that a whole, the structural union of the parts being such that, if any one of them is displaced or removed, the whole will be disjointed and disturbed. For a thing whose presence or absence makes no visible difference, is not an organic part of the whole.

Aristotle divides (tragic) plot into 3 parts – beginning, middle, and end – which make up a unified whole, and stresses that the structure should be probable, and the scenes should follow on from each other logically (and not employ the dreaded “deus ex machina”). He also stipulates the inclusion of the following scenes:

  1. Reversal of the Situation (peripeteia) – “a change from bad fortune to good, or from good fortune to bad”.
  2. Recognition (anagnorisis) – “a change from ignorance to knowledge, producing love or hate between the persons destined by the poet for good or bad fortune”.
  3. Scene of suffering (pathos) – a destructive or painful action, such as death on the stage, bodily agony, wounds and the like.

The first two rely on surprise, what we now call a “plot twist”. Aristotle writes that “the recognition which is most intimately connected with the plot and action is… the recognition of persons”. If you consider the best plot twists you’ve read or watched, you’ll probably find that mistaken identity plot twists are still the most popular.

The third element ensures drama, and a reaction from the audience. Aristotle warns against drama for mere spectacle, and goes on to explain (in excellent detail) what sorts of scenes will arouse true fear and pity.

I definitely think this is a book to keep by your bedside and dip into when you need some ancient wisdom.

Where to find more information: read Samuel Butcher’s translation of Poetics on Project Gutenberg or buy a lovely Loeb edition for your night-stand.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces (The Hero’s Journey or monomyth) by Joseph Campbell

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know how much I love Joseph Campbell. However, if you’re looking for a quick and simple plot formula to apply to your story, you may find The Writer’s Journey better suited to your needs.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces is a fascinating book that deserves a slow, ponderous reading. It has a lot to teach you about stories, and your place in them, so please don’t be satisfied with second-hand accounts.

With that said, here are the myth motifs that make up the monomyth:

STAGE 1: SEPARATION

  • The Call to Adventure
  • The Refusal of the Call
  • Supernatural Aid
  • The Crossing of the First Threshold
  • Belly of the Whale

STAGE 2: INITIATION

  • The Road of Trials
  • Meeting with the Goddess
  • Woman as Temptress
  • Atonement with the Father
  • Apotheosis
  • The Ultimate Boon

STAGE 3: RETURN

  • Refusal of the Return
  • The Magic Flight
  • Rescue From Without
  • The Crossing of the Return Threshold
  • Master of Two Worlds
  • Freedom to Live

Story erupts, no matter how deeply repressed or buried. Whether in night-dreams, or through one’s creative products, or the tics and tocks of neurosis, the story will find its way up and out again. – Joseph Campbell

Where to find more information: read The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and watch The Power of Myth. If you’re enrolled in The One Page Novel, you can find a summary of each of these myth motifs in the bonus lesson titled, ‘Using the Hero’s Journey’.

Morphology of the Folk Tale by Vladimir Propp

This is an abridged form of a study conducted by Vladimir Propp to compare the elements of various folk tales. He managed to reduce his formula to a set of basic “functions” that are combined and embellished to create a huge variety of stories.

Each tale begins with an “initial situation” – a brief description of the hero’s state and character before the story takes him up – to which are added any of the following functions:

  1. ABSENTATION: One of the members of a family absents himself from home.
  2. INTERDICTION: An interdiction is addressed to the hero.
  3. VIOLATION: The interdiction is violated.
  4. RECONNAISSANCE: The villain makes an attempt at reconnaissance.
  5. DELIVERY: The villain receives information about his victim.
  6. TRICKERY: The villain attempts to deceive his victim in order to take possession of him or of his belongings.
  7. COMPLICITY: The victim submits to deception and thereby unwittingly helps his enemy.
  8. VILLAINY: The villain causes harm or injury to a member of a family; or 8a. LACK: One member of a family either lacks something or desire to have something.
  9. MEDIATION (THE CONNECTIVE INCIDENT): Misfortune or lack is make known; the hero is approached with a request or commend; he is allowed to go or he is dispatched.
  10. BEGINNING COUNTERACTION: The seeker agrees to or decides upon counteraction.
  11. DEPARTURE: The hero leaves home.
  12. FIRST FUNCTION OF THE DONOR: The hero is tested, interrogated, attacked, etc., which prepares the way for his receiving either a magical agent or helper.
  13. HERO’S REACTION: The hero reacts to the actions of the future donor.
  14. PROVISION OR RECEIPT OF MAGICAL AGENT: The hero acquires the use of a magical agent.
  15. SPATIAL TRANSFERENCE/GUIDANCE: The hero is transferred, delivered, or led to the whereabouts of an object of search.
  16. STRUGGLE: The hero and the villain join in direct combat.
  17. BRANDING: The hero is branded.
  18. VICTORY: The villain is defeated.
  19. LIQUIDATION: The initial misfortune or lack is liquidated.
  20. RETURN: The hero returns.
  21. PURSUIT/CHASE: The hero is pursued.
  22. RESCUE: Rescue of the hero from pursuit.
  23. UNRECOGNIZED ARRIVAL: The hero, unrecognized, arrives home or in another country.
  24. UNFOUNDED CLAIMS: A false hero presents unfounded claims.
  25. DIFFICULT TASK: A difficult task is proposed to the hero.
  26. SOLUTION: The task is resolved.
  27. RECOGNITION: The hero is recognized.
  28. EXPOSURE: The false hero or villain is exposed.
  29. TRANSFIGURATION: The hero is given a new appearance.
  30. PUNISHMENT: The villain is punished.
  31. WEDDING: The hero is married and ascends the throne.

Propp’s study is short and easy to read, and offers a lot of value to writers, especially if you’re fond of fairy tales and folklore.

Where to find more information: You can find the book on Amazon or download an English translation here (PDF)

Recap

I hope this post helped you learn a bit more about plotting, and that you found a plot formula to suit your needs.

As you read, I’m sure you noticed all the similarities between these plot formulas, plot catalogues, and plot studies. I highly recommend you take a few minutes to make some notes in your writing journal.

Thank you for reading!

Don’t forget to share this post with your writer friends, and pick up your cheatsheet below.

Plot formula cheatsheet