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20 Master Plots

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#41 Michael Stuart Kelly

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Posted 25 March 2006 - 01:02 AM

Chapter 24 – Master Plot #18: Wretched Excess

This type of plot is one I find particularly fascinating since addiction fits into it (and I have had experience in dealing with addiction in my life). I found the title “Wretched Excess” funny, though.

But this plot is not only about addiction. It covers people who have passed the “limits of acceptable behavior, either by choice or by accident.” This kind of person – one who inhabits the margins of society – continually fascinates audiences. Frankly, I believe that it is a good choice for Objectivist literature, since it cuts right to the psychological roots of volition.

Obviously it is a character plot. From the book: “This plot is about character driven to extremes and the effects of those extremes.”

Tobias mentions that the protagonist is usually a normal person who receives a curve ball in life, like losing his job and family after 20 years. From the book: “The real tension inherent in this plot comes from convincing the readers that whatever the excess, it could happen to them too.”

Stephen King has pointed out that true horror lies in the commonplace. Monsters and vampires are good scary tales, but real horror that cuts to the core of the soul comes from “everyday people and everyday events.”

From the book: “The wretched excess plot is about people who have lost the veneer of civilization either because they are mentally unbalanced or because they have been trapped by circumstances that made them behave differently than they would under “normal” circumstances. Another way to put it: normal people under abnormal circumstances, and abnormal people under normal circumstances.” (My emphasis.)

I emphasized this last phrase because I think this should be one of the first decisions you make on deciding to write this kind of plot. Is the protagonist going to be normal and pushed to the edge, or is he going to be unbalanced and try to find his way to sanity? For Objectivist literature, I see all kinds of possibilities from both angles – basically testing the limits of character a person forms by the philosophy.

From the book: “The battleground can be alcoholism, greed, ambition, war or any number of other difficulties. These characters have been pushed to extremes, and almost anyone of them, under the right circumstances, could be us.”

Tobias analyzes Othello, which is not a plot about revenge (Iago) so much as it is about descent into extreme jealousy (Othello). One thing jumped out at me in the analysis is that Iago’s thirst for revenge is way out of proportion to the slight he received. He has a mean nature and a thin skin. (This got me to thinking that a disgruntled hardcore-type Objectivist would make a good villain because some are pretty mean and callous, and they have the traditional thin skin.) Iago is also an excellent judge of character and easily finds people’s soft spot to exploit them.

Iago does bad things and the audience does not empathize with him, because he is simply bad. Othello does far worse things, but the audience feels for him. That’s because he’s basically a good guy. Shakespeare used a literary device called a tragic flaw, which leads good guys to commit excesses.

An important plot observation is about the mystery element. If the audience had been kept wondering whether Desdemona did betray Othello or not, we would not be able to concentrate on sympathy for him. By knowing that she did not, the focus stayed on Othello’s descent into pathological jealousy. This illustrates that the emotional focus of this plot is to evoke sympathy from the audience.

Tobias makes one other highly important point. From the book: “Wretched excess is in fact an emotional disease.”

Works mentioned

Hunger by Knut Hamsun
Othello (play) by William Shakespeare
King Lear (play) by William Shakespeare
Hamlet (play) by William Shakespeare
Macbeth (play) by William Shakespeare

Movies mentioned

The Little Foxes
Mildred Pierce
Lost Weekend
Monsieur Verdoux
Apocalypse Now
Wall Street

Act 1 (or Phase 1) – Setup

The protagonist is shown how he is before the problem starts. Tobias warns against dwelling too long on this aspect as there is no tension.

Then there is a catalyst event that will start the protagonist on the way to loss of control. Tobias makes an interesting parallel with the story of the Garden of Eden and the serpent of temptation. He says to present the idyllic scene, then for the catalyst event, “introduce the serpent.”

Act 2 (or Phase 2) – Complications

This phase shows the gradual loss of control and how it affects both the protagonist and those around him. Obviously it should get increasingly worse.

Act 3 (or Phase 3) – Climax and resolution

This phase starts where the protagonist loses control and can no longer contain himself.

It can end two ways. Either the protagonist is destroyed (severely damaged) or he has a turn-around and starts the healing process.


1. The wretched excess plot is about the psychological decline of a person.

2. The decline should be based on a character flaw.

3. The protagonist’s decline goes through three stages: (1) how he was before the decline, (2) how he gradually deteriorates, and (3) how he is at the crisis point where he loses control – and he either gives in completely to the flaw or recovers from it.

4. Present the protagonist in a manner designed to evoke sympathy. Tobias cautions against presenting him as a raving lunatic.

5. The character of the protagonist needs to convince the audience that (1) he is real and (2) he is worthy of their feelings (sympathy).

6. Avoid melodrama. Do not force emotions beyond the limits the scene can carry.

7. Be straightforward about plot information. Avoid mysteries that do not focus on the flaw.

8. In order to maintain audience sympathy for the protagonist, do not have him commit crimes out of proportion to what he is, or even gruesome or disgusting crimes.

9. At the crisis point in Act 3, move the protagonist toward wither destruction or redemption. Audiences are not satisfied if he is left “swinging in the wind.”

10. All action should be in relation to the protagonist. The reason things happen is because the protagonist does or does not do something.

11. It is extremely important to understand the nature of the excess to be able to write about it convincingly. Either have personal experience to draw on or do a lot of research.

My comments

I remember a few minor characters in Rand’s fiction having problems with wretched excess (alcohol in particular), but she avoided portraying events where protagonists completely lost control.

The hardest part of understanding and applying Objectivism in life is getting the psychology and philosophy balance correct. Too many people get one or the other all wrong, with disastrous consequences. They become caricatures, descending into constant bickering with posed arrogance.

Writing is the same. If the psychology and philosophy balance are off, fictional characters will become stick figures. They will not only be unbelievable, they will be boring.

I see enormous possibilities in the process of an Objectivist protagonist who is in psychological trouble struggling and transforming into an Objectivist hero. I remember Rand once complained about Mike Hammer being portrayed with a drinking problem at the start of a book. I personally see nothing wrong with it as Mike chose life and action over pain. The drinking problem part merely showed how much he was hurting. I find the fact that he came out of it an extremely heroic denial of the importance of pain.

Denial of the importance of pain is such an Objectivist theme that it hurts.

#42 Michael Stuart Kelly

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Posted 18 April 2006 - 12:28 AM

Chapter 25 – Master Plots #19 - #20: Ascension & Descension

This is the next-to-last chapter and it includes the last two plots. The final chapter will be final remarks.

This plot can be about the fall of a person from a high place (especially with a tragic flaw), the ascent of a person from a low place (especially rags-to-riches), or even a complete cycle like a “rise and fall of …” story.

Both plots have the same characteristic; they are character plots solely about the protagonist. From the book:

The main character is the focus of the story. One way of thinking of the main character (who can be an antagonist for a protagonist) is to think of her as the sun in the solar system of characters; all of the other characters revolve around her.

That means you must develop a main character that is compelling and strong enough to carry the entire story, from beginning to end. If you fail to create a character that can carry the story, your plot will collapse.

Such a main character tends to have an overblown ego (Tobias means in the traditional sense – but Roark strongly comes to mind). The traditional overblown ego leads to downfall (but in Roark’s case, his kind of ego leads to triumph).

An important organizing principle for this kind of story is a “moral dilemma” for the protagonist – but this moral dilemma impacts all of the secondary characters.

Character flaws and strengths are extremely important and are the foundation of the protagonist’s gradual failure or success. From the book: “We watch him shape events, and we watch the events shape him. That is the core of this plot, perhaps more so than in any other: the intimate connection between character and events.”

Tobias warns against taking focus off the main character for too long, since everybody revolves around him. He also mentions that both intent and motivation need to be worked out very carefully.

I found the following observation interesting. From the book: “Whereas the descension plot serves as a cautionary tale, the ascension plot serves as a parable.” This conflicts with Objectivist aesthetics, which would see a descension plot as having a message that life is not worth living (“death premise”). Frankly, I like the idea of “cautionary tale.” It is an excellent way to illustrate a moral principle.

On the flip side of this, the grotesqueness of the protagonist of The Elephant Man could be seen from an Objectivist viewpoint as glorifying the ugly, thus being “death premise” again. However, it is the rising of the protagonist we identify with, not the ugliness. From the book:

Stories like The Elephant Man are uplifting because they ultimately explore the positive aspects of human character. Your main character should overcome odds not just as a hero who has obstacles to conquer but as a character in the process of becoming a better person. Obviously it’s easier to accomplish this task if your character starts out in something of a sorry state.

Ascension plots deal with parables of becoming better human beings, with increased wealth, position and power being optional. Descension plots “explore the negative values of human character under stress.” These are stories of power, corruption and greed (in the traditional sense) – the human spirit failing in a time of crisis.

One of the book’s most important statements on how to approach a moral theme in a story is given in this chapter. Tobias does not tell you which moral principle to adopt or why. He does tell you how to go about it. From the book:

Depending on the message you want to present to the reader, you should understand clearly the moral or social implications of the chain of events in your story. If power or money ultimately corrupts your hero, what are you saying about power or money? That these forces are stronger than any of us? This message would be particularity strong if your character is basically good before coming into power and is transformed into a character of dubious values as a result of the power. That would make a strong statement about the corruption of values as a result of power or money. You may be saying that these things in and of themselves are evil. Is that the message you want to give?

For an Objectivist villain, power with unearned adulation and wealth could gradually corrupt him. Altruism could be an excellent corrupting evil as a character device. On the flip side, Rand’s famous “denial of pain” when effort needs to be superhuman to build or produce a major feat reaps good character benefits.

From the book: “A lot of the other plots examine human nature and how character is affected under stress, but few plots do it as thoroughly as these two.”

Works mentioned

Agamemnon (Greek mythology)
Oedipus Rex by Sophocles
The Ragged Dick Series by Horatio Alger, Jr. (short stories)
Luck and Pluck Series by Horatio Alger, Jr. (short stories)
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (later made into the movie Apocalypse Now)
“Parker’s Back” by Flannery O’Connor
A Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
All the Kings Men by Robert Penn Warren (later made into a popular movie)
The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences by Sir Frederick Treves (later made into a popular movie)
Dark Victory by George Emerson Brewer, Jr., and Bertram Bloch (later made into a popular movie)
The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy
Richard III by William Shakespeare
Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller

Movies mentioned

Apocalypse Now (based on Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad)
Raging Bull
The Godfather (all three)
Citizen Kane
Elmer Gantry

Act 1 (or Phase 1) – Setup

The character is presented as he was before he started changing. This is to provide a basis for comparison as the story moves along and he starts his ascent or descent (and character change). Tobias is not explicit, but the moral dilemma that is the protagonist’s center should be present.

Also, Tobias does not mention it, but going from before, a catalyst event that starts the change probably should be included in this act.

Act 2 (or Phase 2) – Complications

Here a the series of events is presented that drives the main character “from his previous self into his emerging self.”

Act 3 (or Phase 3) – Climax and resolution

This is where the climax of character and events is presented. If there is a character flaw, its impact on the protagonist and those around him is highlighted. Often the protagonist will become aware of what he has become through some catastrophe or intense event.

Also there is a moral settlement. If the character has been cruel during the story, he should get his comeuppance. If the character is a good guy who has striven hard to attain his goals, he should move up into a higher spiritual plane because of his worthiness.


1. Keep the focus of the story on a single character.

2. The protagonist has to be “strong-willed, charismatic and seemingly unique.” This is because all of the other characters will revolve around him.

3. A moral dilemma should be at the heart of this story and it should be the basis of the character’s change.

4. The protagonist and events are completely intertwined. Events happen because of the protagonist or events affect him.

5. Show how the protagonist was before the change.

6. Make the protagonist progress through a lot of small changes because of events. Don’t jump from one state to the other. Show how motivation and intent impact character changes.

7. In a fall story, be careful that the reason for the fall is not superficial. It must be due to character traits, otherwise the plot collapses. In a rise story, the ascent may be due to something gratuitous like winning the lottery, but still the protagonist’s ability to overcome adversity must be because of his character. In other words, a superficial reason for decent is a no-no, but a superficial reason for ascent is acceptable. Still, the protagonist either causes the events or is highly affected by them.

8. Avoid “straight line” rises and falls. Make lots of ups and downs.

9. From the book: “Always focus on your main character. Relate all the events and characters to your main character. Show us the character before, during and after the change.”

My comments

The Fountainhead is an ascension plot depicting Roark’s rise as a “rags to riches” story with a lot of adversity along the way. Peter Keating’s story is a “rise and fall” subplot and Gail Wynand’s story is a descension subplot (although his early days of rising are told for character background). Dominique’s story is a “transformation” subplot.

#43 Michael Stuart Kelly

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Posted 09 May 2006 - 01:59 AM

Chapter 26 – Parting Shots

Finally we come to the last chapter. I think I have been delaying the discussion of this last chapter so long because it has been a rare pleasure to dally in this book.

From the book: “I am obliged to remind you that this book is not gospel. It is a guideline for some of the most common applications of major plots.”

It is important to remember that a plot is a process, not an object. In metaphorical terms, it is better to think of a plot as a lump of clay that needs constant molding rather than a mold where you pour events and characters to harden.

All writers have to worry about plot. Some have an easier time than others, but all have to fashion their plots. Tobias mentions two kinds of approach.

1. From the book: “The first is to bulldoze your way through the work without ever looking back. Get to the end and then worry whether or not you got it right.” This approach relies heavily on rewrites.

2. The other is to draw up a general plan so you know what you are doing and where you are going while you write. This approach can become restricting, so care is needed.

The writer needs to see which kind of person he/she is and choose the approach accordingly. If he chooses the wrong approach, he could find himself in serious trouble.

All plots can be changed in the middle of writing the work. It is important to have a general idea of your plot, however, so if you wander off (which is often OK), you know you are wandering. If you wander too far, though, it is hard to get back.

The book should have one major plot and can have several minor plots (subplots). A charming metaphor for subplots is “satellites.” (This is the case for most of Rand’s fiction.)

Tobias warns against forcing your story too hard to fit a plot, but also getting “so loose that nothing fits.” He emphasizes that there are 20 plots in this book, which he considers to be the main ones, but those are not all that exist.

You be able to state your plot in 50 words or less.

Part of writing is maintaining a proper tension between staying on a path and veering off. Sometimes you can feel very good about something you write, but it doesn’t belong in your work. Tobias mentioned one such example from his own writing. From the book: “Those brilliant pages had no more home in the work than a worm in a bird’s nest.”

On the other hand, if you feel really, really good about having wandered off, it might be time to see if the plot you have been using is the right one. Tobias advises to try to understand the nature of the work you are writing, so you know whether to push the boundaries hard or stay more on your chosen path.


From the book: “As you develop your plot, consider the following questions. If you can answer all of them, you have a grasp of what your story is about. But if you can’t answer any of them, you still don’t know what your story is and what you want to do with it."

1. Can you state the story in 50 words or less?

2. “What is the central aim of the story?” Tobias recommends stating this as a question. (In Atlas Shrugged, for example, “Will Dagny find out who and what the destroyer is?”)

3. What does the protagonist want?

4. Why does the protagonist want it (motivation)?

5. Who/what is standing in the way of the protagonist getting what he wants?

6. What is the protagonist’s plan of action?

7. What is the main conflict of the story and is it internal or external?

8. How does the protagonist change during the story?

9. Is the plot driven by character or by action?

10. Where will you start for the best effect?

11. How will you keep tension going during the story?

12. What does the protagonist do at the climax and how does he affect it?

My comments

We have been able to filter some of Rand’s fiction through a traditional plot lens while learning about them. It is clear that Rand’s fiction stands up well to this kind of analysis. Rand characteristically used a master plot, with several subplots running throughout the story. The master plot of Atlas Shrugged is a quest plot and The Fountainhead is an ascension plot. It would be interesting to go through all of her fiction one day and analyze all the master plots and subplots according to the categories given here.

I hope you have learned some useful things about writing over the course of reading my notes. I know I have. Once again, I strongly urge you to buy the book, 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them by Ronald B. Tobias, as it contains much wealth of information and wisdom that was not given.

#44 C. Jordan

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Posted 26 May 2006 - 11:36 PM

As I post this, I have only read the first third of this thread, and I'm already impressed.

I'm still trying to figure out precisely which master plot I'm using. The protagonists are identical twin brothers. They're certainly travelling, given that their setting stretches from Siberia to Iran. Then again, I'm reading your (and Tobias') comments on the other master plots, and recognise that I've got that part as well.

Perhaps the best lesson is, don't ever try to write something as big and complex as I. Then again, I started. I may as well finish.
"Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, won't go away." Philip K. Dick

#45 Michael Stuart Kelly

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Posted 26 May 2006 - 11:45 PM


I am very pleased you got value out of this study. The work you are doing sounds extremely interesting.

For long stories, I think the main lesson in Tobias's plot book is to have one main plot and a bunch of subplots. Subplots can even involve the protagonist. So yes, it is important to get a grip on your master plot (but remember that it is a shapeable pattern, not a rigid mold).

As Atlas Shrugged is primarily a quest plot with Dagny at the center, your work sounds like it could be a quest plot also. I make this statement from the travel aspect only as that is about all I know so far.

Good luck with your adventure.


#46 gary williams

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Posted 27 June 2006 - 03:55 PM

Now how come I didn't know this was here?

Thanks MSK!

It will be well studied.


#47 sbeaulieu



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Posted 18 December 2007 - 04:35 PM

Ah, to be in the dark and grasp a ray of light! I'll be delving into this quite a bit. My problem always stems from having ideas (or ingredients), but lacking the tools in expressing them in story form.

Thanks, Michael!
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#48 Chris Grieb

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Posted 18 December 2007 - 06:11 PM

Where have I been? This is great!

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