20 Master Plots

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20 Master Plots

This is a small report on an amazing little book I bought called 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them by Ronald B. Tobias. It is published by Writer’s Digest Books. I will give an overview of the essentials, but I highly advise anyone interested in writing fiction to purchase this book and study it.

Frankly, when I got it, I was interested in seeing what the cliché plots would be. What I got was something much more special. The first six chapters deal with plot essentials and are some of the most enlightening observations on plot I have ever read.

I will comment on those chapters. Then I will cover each of the 20 types of plot in separate posts as I study them. But before that and to kill the suspense, I will give the titles of 20 types of master plots:

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

Now on to the chapters.

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Chapter 1 – Invisible Fiction

Tobias got his title “Invisible Fiction” from the habit people have of telling stories by word of mouth and embellishing them until they fit the characteristics of a proper plot.

He makes an important observation that plot is not merely a static skeleton (although it is to some extent), but that it is a cohesive force that works dynamically. The metaphor of electromagnetism is used as being better for plot than skeleton, i.e., a force that arranges random bits into a pattern. This word, pattern, is used as the most important element of plot.

Plot is defined as “a chain of cause-and-effect relationships that constantly create a pattern of unified action and behavior.” The cause-and-effect element creates the question, “Why does this happen?” in the mind of the audience. “Behavior” means patterns of characters acting and feeling according to primal motivations like maternal instinct, wish to survive, defending oneself, etc. “Unified pattern” has the specific meaning of being in three parts: a beginning, a middle and an end.

The beginning is the setup, defining characters and what they want.

The middle is where the wants of the main characters are frustrated and new elements and paths are introduced through reversals. Aristotle used the term “rising action” for the tension of a character pursuing a goal and encountering increasingly difficult obstacles, and a point called “recognition” where the relationship between characters changes because of the series of reversals. From the book: “A reversal is an event, but recognition is the irreversible emotional change within the characters brought about by the event.”

The end is where the climax occurs. In a final resolution point, unresolved issues are exposed and clarified, and the wants of the main characters are settled (for better or worse).

A difference is made between story and plot. A story is merely a sequence of events that happen. A plot is a pattern imposed on a sequence of events.

Interesting information is given on the number of plots in existence. Some people say there are an untold number of plots in the world. Rudyard Kipling said there were 69. Carlo Gozzi said there were 36, but since half are out of date (like miracle plays), there are only 18. Aristotle said there are 2 (plots of action and plots of the mind, i.e., character).

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Chapter 2 – The Lowest Common Plot Denominators

There are eight lowest common denominators for plot according to Tobias.

1. Tension must be the fuel. There is no tension by simply saying that someone wants something, and then he gets it. He has to be denied – and it helps when further obstacles (including characters) and explanations of why it is denied are added.

2. Tension is created through opposition. There is a difference between what is called local tension and long lasting tension. Local tension is something like if a man proposed marriage to a woman and she refused him. An example of long lasting tension is if he is an alcoholic and this problem was her objection to marrying him, so he fights his demons during the story to stay on the wagon and sway her.

3. Tension has to grow as opposition increases. This must lead to a climax. Obviously, serious conflicts (long lasting tension) have to be used for building up to a climax. Local tension is no good for this. Local tension is useful only for immediate action, not for being used with increasing intensity. During an example, Tobias gave a wonderful little breakdown of the major sections of a plot (please do not confuse this with the acts of a play, although this could coincide:

Act 1 – Setup

Act 2 – Complications

Act 3 – Resolution

4. A change in personality should be the point of the story. This is one point where I think Tobias got ahead of himself. Change in personality does not apply to action stories. The good guys usually stay the same in these stories, even after kicking the ass of the bad guys. However, a change in personality does make a character, even an action character, vastly more interesting – especially if he/she becomes wiser.

5. When something happens, it has to be important. Warning is given to not let your characters do too much that does not contribute to the plot. A saying from Chekhov is given: “If you show a shotgun in the first act, it must go off in the third.”

All unimportant acts are trade-offs with tension and must be judged that way. Here is a very strong quote from the book about this. “The more you make side trips, the more you dilute the effect of tension you’ve been trying to create, the more you dilute the drama itself.”

6. The causal must look casual. As all important things introduced in a plot are cause-effect, but they come off better if they appear natural and casual.

7. Blind luck is not used as a plot element. There are two restrictions a good writer accepts: (a) he creates a world with its own set of rules which are consistent from beginning to end; and (b) when something happens, it does so for a reason, and this must be given at some point in the story.

8. The central character performs the central action of the climax. One nice observation Tobias made here is that the climax is the point of no return.

My comment: I have a real problem with thinking in terms of this kind of list, so I have the habit of breaking these things down into something simpler. Otherwise I forget them. Basically stated, I find more value in remembering that a good plot:

a - Uses increasing tension through opposition until it reaches a climax;

b - If possible, will make the main character change his personality;

c - Uses only details and acts that happen for plot-related reasons, despite appearing casual; and

d - Will have the main character do the important stuff in the climax.

These lowest common denominators can be simplified even further: The main character has to do things, being opposed with increasing tension, until he is involved in a climax, and he might change his personality doing it. All events, people and things in the story are used to this end.

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Chapter 3 – The Strong Force

To start with, the writer must think about how he works and thinks in order to figure out how to go about writing. Tobias researched everything he could get his hands on regarding plot and came to the conclusion that he was generally faced with “cookbook” type formulations (recipes) that should have been called, “This Is What Works For Me.” The funnies quote on this point is from Somerset Maugham: “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.”

This chapter deals with a division of plots into “plots of the body” and “plots of the mind.” Since plot to him is a pattern, then these are not seen as mutually exclusive categories, but rather as the focus of a story. He mentions that in Dante’s inferno, those damned for fraud were thrown into the lowest circles of Hell, and those damned for force were a bit higher. This is added to the conclusion that human beings value mental skills somewhat more than physical ones.

A very interesting observation is made about how tragedy and comedy evolved out of this division. Tragedy was considered as a plot of force (body) and comedy was a plot of fraud (mind). Modern literature has mixed this up a bit more – especially with psychodramas and the slapstick aspect in much comedy – but this observation is still very useful for doing some soul searching in deciding what to write.

An interesting comment on slapstick like The Three Stooges is that it lampooned society and its institutions; it was not just purely physical, but involved the mind also. A banker or other stiff-necked character getting a pie in the face is a lot funnier than an average person getting it.

The basic two characteristics of an action plot (force or body) is that (1) the main character does not change all that much at the end – the situation is given more emphasis than character motivations, which are usually clear-cut and unchanging; and (2) the audience is challenged to solve some kind of puzzle or mystery.

The basic characteristic of a plot of the mind is that the main character is searching for some kind of meaning. How that impacts him is the point of the story.

Thus the writer needs to state a bias to himself when he starts out. He needs to decide on a strong force and a weak force plot-wise. If his strong force is to be action, then the quest for meaning (or emphasis on people, i.e., a character-driven plot) will be his weak force and vice versa. Note that Tobias does not exclude one from the other, but puts them in a strong-weak balance instead.

One note on Atlas Shrugged. I believe that this work achieved about the closest to a 50-50 balance between action and quest for meaning I have come across – but still, the emphasis to me comes across as being more on the character development of Dagny and Hank Rearden than on the action adventures of Francisco D’Anconia and John Galt and the secondary characters, or the philosophical speeches, which is a nonfiction element of this book (no character development and no action in them). I also believe that this is one of the strongest obstacles in getting it onto film, where time constraints and the nature of adding image do not allow easily for that kind of plot balance or nonfiction content.

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Chapter 4 – Deep Structure

This chapter will hit a nerve with Objectivists. The deep structure of a plot is morality.

To be clear, a story is not necessarily about adherence to a morality. But it will always include a moral system that is behind the world that the author creates. Thus the author not only creates a world, he creates a code of how people behave in that world.

Tobias mentions that the author is free to choose any underlying moral system he wishes to portray and draw whatever conclusions he wants to from it. The trick is to be convincing in order to affect the audience. The more convincingly portrayed the moral system is, which he also calls the “argument,” the more the audience is affected. He makes the remark that even bad works probably affect us to some extent, but great works affect us profoundly.

He gives several tips on how to be convincing in creating the moral part of the story’s world, but his language is in normal mainstream terms. As my comments and summary are for an Objectivist audience, I will use some Objectivist concepts (just a small few) where he phrased things a bit differently; however, I believe that the meaning is the same.

To start with, Tobias has a huge preference for character stories (mind), not action ones (body), so his advice is generally geared toward making things more complicated. He examines looking at issues in a black and white manner, then talks about gray.

Here is how he sees the black/white/gray morality question in action plots:

“Sure, no one cares about the moral universe of Indiana Jones or James Bond. They’re good guys and the good guys fight evil, period. Strip away the actions, and there’s nothing left.”

I would add that there is not supposed to be anything left, either. The purpose of that kind of plot is more focused on entertainment and less on reflection.

Where he discusses black and white, however, he gets very interesting.

A value can be good or bad. Making a value judgment is what he calls our manner of dividing the world into opposites and either-or arguments. Reality is usually much more complex and it presents us with facts that are full of grays. It is not made up of our value choices. It is what it is (A is A). Thus for Objectivist literature, I arrived at the following equation:

What something is (fact) = a vast array of grays (in terms of value to a person).

Morality (general chosen value judgments) = black and white.

This “what something is” can also include the psychological make-up of a character or other restrictions on his life. But his sense of morality (his overall value choices) should generally hold a good or bad (or evil) evaluation.

For the purpose of creating long range tension, a character needs to be put morally between a rock and a hard place. For Objectivists, this would mean that the black-and-white of his morality should collide with the grays reality presents him.

How Tobias suggests to do this is to present both sides of the argument from opposing forces as convincingly as possible. He says to let the characters tear into each other if they want – but for the writer to act as referee only and make sure the opposing characters stay within the situation. (All this reminds me strongly of Night of January 16th.)

He warns against making propaganda, which is more appropriate to nonfiction. The basic suggestions he gives for creating tension from presenting a moral system are as follows:

  1. Choose a great issue of the day that is irreconcilable, such as abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, divorce, custody, homosexuality, revenge and temptation, among others. Objectivists could probably add altruism, collectivism, the use of force and so forth, but real creativity would be needed to put a new spin on them to compete with Rand’s overkill.
  2. Make both sides of the argument logical. (In other words, avoid straw men.)
  3. Make both sides of the argument well founded and valid (from the character’s point of view).
  4. Make both sides of the argument compelling, with a strong emotional appeal.

Tobias uses an interesting phrase, “dynamic tension of irreconcilability.” As he states:

“To develop deep structure, you must develop an irreconcilable argument that has two mutually exclusive sides, both of which are logical, valid and compelling.

On a personal note, one treat for me was to discover the following Tolstoy quote in this book: “The best stories don’t come from ‘good vs. bad’ but from ‘good vs. good.’ ”

I always thought that this was an approach that was almost exclusive to Rand and it is refreshing to see that it is specifically stated in a classic. I am presuming that Tolstoy did not originate the concept, but merely stated it. So this makes me want to look harder at the classics, which is a very good thing to do for any writer.

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Chapter 5 – Triangles

The issue of the relationship between characters and plot is considered here. The first consideration is character dynamic. This means the relationship between any two characters. Relationship will heavily involve emotional interactions.

If the plot only has two main characters, [A] and , the character dynamic is two: the relationship of [A] to , especially as seen from the eyes of [A], and the relationship of to [A], especially as seen from the eyes of .

If the plot has three main characters, [A] and [C], the character dynamic is six:

[A] to and to [A]

[A] to [C] and [C] to [A]

to [C] and [C] to

If the plot has four main characters, [A] [C] and [D], the character dynamic is twelve:

[A] to and to [A]

[A] to [C] and [C] to [A]

[A] to [D] and [D] to [A]

to [C] and [C] to

to [D] and [D] to

[C] to [D] and [D] to [C]

Tobias warns against using a fifth main character, since the dynamic would be twenty. From the book: “Sounds like a nineteenth century Russian novel, doesn’t it?”

How about, “Sounds like a Rand novel, doesn’t it?” Notice that The Fountainhead has three main characters, Roark, Keating and Dominique, with two secondary ones, Wynand and Toohey. The rest is supporting cast. Notice that there are two heroes and one villain.

Atlas Shrugged has five main characters, Dagny, Rearden, D’Anconia, Galt and James Taggart. The list of secondary characters is numerous and so is the supporting cast. Notice that there are four heroes and one villain.

From the book (but thinking about Atlas Shrugged): “Think of the incredible burden on the writer trying to juggle twenty character interactions simultaneously. Juggling twelve is possible, but it takes great skill: You’d have major characters going in and out of phase constantly, with usually no more than three majors in a scene at any one time, except for big confrontation scenes and the climax.”

Tobias concludes that character triangles are the strongest character combinations and the most common. Not too simple and not too complicated for a good story.

Frankly, for anyone thinking about creating Objectivist type literature (or any other type), it is a good idea to start out with this kind of limitation. Trying to write Atlas Shrugged on the first time out is a bit too ambitious for much chance at success.

Tobias also makes the very interesting observation that three is also a great number for overcoming obstacles. The hero tries twice and fails, then succeeds the third time, which carries great balance for tension. One failure is not enough. If he keeps trying more than three times and not succeeding, it gets boring.

A charming characterization is given, calling plot and character the “dynamic duo.” Tobias emphasizes the need for the characters to do things, not just say them.

From the book: “Plot, then, is a function of character, and a character is a function of plot. The two can’t be divided in any meaningful way. Action is their common ground. Without action there is no character, and without action there is no plot.”

Don’t forget that a “plot of the mind” (character driven) and a “plot of the body” (action driven) is a matter of focus, and one will not exclude the other. One will be the strong force and the other the weak force and both need action and characters.

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Chapter 6 – Twenty Master Plots: Prologue

Plot as pattern is stressed in this chapter. Patterns of action and patterns of behavior are “integrated to make a whole.” (Remember, this “whole” means something that has a beginning – setup, middle – complications, and end – resolution, with increasing tension leading to a climax.)

Plots are not templates to fix events to, although they can be used like that.

The plots in use today are the same ones that have been used over the centuries in the world’s oldest literature. They have taken centuries to evolve and they are based on common human experience.

There is no such thing as originality of plot, but in how a plot is presented instead. A plot can be bent and shaped to fit a story and a new spin can be put on one. But this entails learning the rules before learning when you can break them and still have a work that will satisfy an audience.

From the book: “The trick in learning how to use plot is not copying but adapting it to the needs of your story.” Thus plots are public domain and should be used without remorse.

As a humorous manner of stressing this, Tobias gives the following two quotes:

Lionel Trilling: “Immature artists imitate. Mature artists steal.”

T.S. Eliot: “The immature poet steals; the mature poet plagiarizes.”

In other words, it’s OK to get ideas from others.

My comment: This seems to contradict Rand’s approach, but not really. Even she had to learn her craft and she did learn it from others (she even took a course in film-writing at the State Institute of Cinema in Leningrad). Here is a quote from her in a letter to Gerald Loeb, June 3, 1944:

“The method I would recommend, and the one by which I learned is this: whenever you read any book or story, analyze it and ask yourself what makes it work. If you read a good passage which you enjoy—ask yourself what precisely makes it good, what is the technique used, how was the effect achieved. It is never accidental. If you read a bad passage, ask yourself what is the mistake, what makes it bad. Then, of course, don't ever copy what you find good, don't imitate—only learn the principle and apply it in your own way.”

So, to be clear, Tobias is not calling on the author to put his name on a work he did not create or be merely imitative, but instead to be attentive to the universal values and conditions present in the works of others and use them without shame.

A plot is a universal literary value.

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Since I don't think I'll be interupting the flow at this point I'll comment. I'd say in a lot of ways, if your review is any indication of the overall dirrection of the book this should be an essential addendum to the romantic manifesto.

One thing that seperates Objectivism from other schools of thought is the lack of focus on truly "original thought" (as in at the expense of learning from those who've come before you and building on that). There is no shame in learning from people who spent lifetimes developing a given skill and then applying that same determination in your own work to building on that foundation. But there is a method by which to accomplish this and this is very helpful insight.

Thanks for posting this.


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I don't mind you or anyone breaking the flow of this small report to make a constructive comment. I think that the learning that needs to be done is much more important than keeping to a format. I know that I am learning my butt off doing this. I am filling in gaps that have plagued me for years.

What I am doing in essence is planting seeds by providing an introduction to extremely important information. Frankly, outside of Rand and extremely sporadic exceptions, Objectivist fiction (and poetry) usually sucks. So we all need this kind of nuts-and-bolts stuff - me included.

btw - I have no relationship at all to the author, Ronald Tobias. I am giving an outline of his work, since I saw that it is really useful to Objectivists. I started reading it and got excited. If you or any other reader finds this information valuable, I think the author should be paid in the best manner we can, by buying his book - and I would like to emphasize that.

Also, I am giving his ideas partially intermingled with my own observations - both to keep an Objectivist slant and simply because I cannot contain my own excitement. However, his ideas should be read in their entirety. His observations on different works, going from the classics all the way up to Hollywood, are small gems.

Please feel free to add any comments along the way you feel that would clarify a point or raise a new angle. As questions. Not only do I not mind, I welcome these things.


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Chapter 7 – Master Plot #1: Quest

In this plot the protagonist will search for something tangible or intangible, be it a person, place or thing that will significantly change his life. This plot is one of the most enduring ones in the world and it is basically a character plot with action thrown in.

The works given as examples for a quest plot are:

Epic of Gilgamesh (probably the oldest written story on earth, from Ancient Sumeria)

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

Lost Horizon by James Hilton

Jason and the Golden Fleece (Greek mythology)

Treasure of the Sierra Madre by B. Traven (more well-known as a movie)

The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (more well-known as a movie)

Tobias makes a point of stating that Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade are not quests, but action stories instead. The main character does not change and what is sought has no value to the audience. This is an extremely important point: the thing sought in a quest plot is not a MacGuffin, but something that has a deep meaning to both the protagonist and the audience.

A MacGuffin is a charming word Alfred Hitchcock used for a plot device that is extremely important to the protagonist (and others), but not to the audience. In spy stories, it is secret papers or CD or tape recording, or in cops and robbers, it is a necklace or money, in short, any object that a character wants badly and cannot find – but one that means very little to the audience. MacGuffin. I like that word.

In a quest plot, the protagonist searches for something like immortality, a new life, lost honor, promised-land, Shangri-la, or something tangible like a ring of power or golden-fleece, so long as it will significantly change his life. A quest plot is all about the protagonist and his relationship to the object, so the protagonist needs to be fleshed out with inner conflicts and the object needs to have many levels of meaning. From the book: “Take out the object of their quest, and the story falls apart. In every case the hero is much different at the end of the story than at the beginning.”

Also, notice that the object of the quest always boils down to wisdom in some manner. As the story progresses, the protagonist increasingly becomes wiser, or more psychologically prepared to receive the final wisdom.

On the physical side, the action moves around a lot over large geographical areas. The stories are also episodic, where the protagonist has to ask directions, find and solve clues, pay some kind of dues to be admitted somewhere, and things of this nature.

Act 1 (or Phase 1) – Setup

This usually starts at the protagonist’s home and some force coming from need or desire prompts him to leave. At this point, not too much information is given about the protagonist – simply there is something that prompts an immediate decision to take off on a trial-run kind of basis.

Then there is a transitional phase, where the first event away from home occurs. This even causes the commitment to the journey and provides the character’s motivation – and is called a motivating incident in the book.

Tobias makes a big distinction between intent, which is what the character wants to achieve (which usually prompts him to take off initially), and motivation, which is why he wants to achieve it (which usually prompts him to commit).

A buddy is usually included as a traveling companion (or buddies) and is usually picked up in the motivating incident. A buddy is usually not present at the beginning so that proper focus gets placed on the protagonist. The buddy is a person or animal (or other type of character) the protagonist uses for sounding out his inner thoughts and arguing with, and the buddy is generally helpful along the way or gets into his own scrapes.

There is also usually a helpful character, (another character who can be a person, animal, robot or whatever) who provides information or conditions for the protagonist to find what he is seeking. This helpful character also should be included in Act I for the plot to not feel contrived later on. He should not pop up out of nowhere.

Act 2 (or Phase 2) – Complications

This act is where the question arises in the audience: Will the protagonist find what he is looking for? If the answer to that question is easy to answer, the story becomes boring.

All the obstacles that become created should be done to teach the protagonist something about himself or his quest (or about life). How the obstacles are kept interesting is in seeing how they affect the protagonist. If they are merely physical action like chases, landslides and so forth, they do not sustain the interest in the character’s inner growth. So it is important to see how these things teach the character something as he responds emotionally.

The character can move closer to his goal or come across red herrings that throw him off the track. As stated above, he will move around a lot, ask directions, find and solve clues, pay some kind of dues to be admitted somewhere, and things of this nature. Tobias does not mention it, but the protagonist normally fights, flees or chases enemies a lot too.

Act 3 (or Phase 3) – Climax and resolution

The climax is the moment of revelation, where the protagonist obtains or is denied his object he is searching for. Additional complications are often presented from the protagonist achieving his goal or being denied it, but finding out that what he was seeking (intent) was not what he really wanted (motivation).

The final result is that the protagonist learns about himself or he learns about life and the nature of his quest. He either changes inside or rejects the lessons and goes back to the way he was. The important thing is that he is wiser.


There is a checklist at the end of each plot. As this is a study guide and not a plagiary, I will give a very brief summary of the checklist, since it is extremely important, but I will not give it in an elaborated form. Buy the book. It is well worth it.

1. The quest should be for a person, place or thing, with some kind of connection between intent and motivation.

2. Cover a large area and move around a lot.

3. Consider ending up geographically back where you started.

4. Make the change in character at the end clear, showing what he was and the gradual changes, including final state.

5. As the object of the quest is ultimately wisdom, this can be a process of growing up or maturation as an adult, covering years.

6. Motivating incident in Act 1.

7. Include buddy as traveling companion in Act 1.

8. Include helpful character in Act 1.

9. Revelation.

10. See if you want to make what he was seeking different in essence than what he thought it was.

My comments

This sounds so much like Atlas Shrugged that it isn’t funny. Ayn Rand always said that her novel was a mystery story. After reading this chapter, many dots got connected and light bulbs went off in my head. I now see Atlas Shrugged essentially as a quest by Dagny. I see Rand’s stated idea of theme (the crucial value of the mind) and plot-theme (the mind on strike) being entirely secondary to Dagny’s quest to find out why the world was collapsing. The whole structure is based on that. It sits on it. Dagny seeks wisdom. If you take her quest out of the story, it practically collapses into nonfiction and a series of short stories. Even Galt’s speech is an element of her own revelation, more so in terms of the quest plot than for Galt's design for the rest of the world.

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Soon as my financial situation gets more stable I'm fairly certain I'll be picking this up.

The weird thing is your last entry reminds me of a point I read in a comics specific writing publication (Sketch Magazine). One specific thing that comes to mind is a collumn Chuck Dixon (best known as a writer on several Batman centric comic series) wrote.

The gist is what makes you a writer the quote went something like this: "People tend to want to make this kind of an exclusive club, thus barring people like the guy who writes the old navy commercials from membership. But I think a lot can be learned from someone who can get his point accross in 30 seconds when it takes some people thousands of pages."

You might not want to include Indiana Jones in quest plots but that is still the foundation being used.


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That thing you said about Indian Jones - and especially about learning from those who know how to communicate easily - is very, very true. I learned that the hard way. I used to be a classical composer (I even won composition competitions) and just about everything I wrote was performed professionally. Then one day I decided to fool around with popular music and tried to write a song.


(I have some pretty good stuff now, but Lord, what a learning experience!) Maybe part of what I am trying to provide on this thread is a way to focus on simplicity. Getting a simple idea across convincingly is not as easy as it looks.

You, as a comic writer, know what is needed to make a simple chase scene come off correctly with excitement.

Still, one thing I have noticed with Tobias is that he vastly prefers character plots to action plots.

Anyway, Indiana Jones seems to be coming in the next chapter, "Adventure," which, from the looks of things, is a quest plot (in the voyage sense) with a MacGuffin and a rather strict "good versus evil" profile of heroes and villains. More action than character development.

But remember what Tobias said earlier. Both "character plot" and "action plot" are always present in all good fiction. They are merely in a "strong force" and "weak force" balance.


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Chapter 8 – Master Plot #2: Adventure

The quest plot is character driven and the adventure plot is action driven. This means that the focus of the quest plot is on the person making the travels and the focus of the adventure plot is on the travels themselves.

It is not important for the main character to change in any fundamental manner. But he leaves to seek his fortune (or MacGuffin), since “fortune is never found at home, but somewhere over the rainbow.”

Tobias says that a sense of breathlessness is important to this kind of plot and that the event is always larger than the character.

Examples of adventure plot characters given in the book:

Indiana Jones

Luke Skywalker

James Bond

Robin Hood

Examples of adventure plots given in the book:

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

The Sea Wolf by Jack London

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

Gullivers’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

The Three Languages by Brothers Grimm

Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

An interesting comment Tobias makes is that the adventure story probably grew out of fairy tales, since the point of most fairy tales is to venture out into the unknown – fairy tales probably have some kind of origin in the fear a child has of leaving his mother’s protection.

He also notes that the audience likes these stories not only for the action, but because they get to go to exotic places. This can include foreign lands, a sunken continent, jungle, other planet, etc. (Science fiction and fantasy seem to fit this kind of plot well.)

As the setting and events are of prime importance, the author (at the end of the chapter) is told to make sure that he has first hand knowledge of the events and/or places. If he does not, then he must do a lot of homework at the library. The focus will be on places and events, so a wealth of detail will be needed. Sensory detail is especially important (look, smell, taste, sound and even touch.) This provides authenticity, but also gives the audience what they are seeking. i.e., branching out and learning about other places and things.

Tobias makes an excellent suggestion. During research, make notes, but especially write down where the information came from – like the name and author of a book, or film, or magazine (including article).

From the book: “Nothing is more frustrating than reading a detail you didn’t think was important and then realizing as you write that it’s the perfect detail – but you have no idea which book it was in.”

As an aside, Tobias mentions that a romance is usually involved (so the guy can finally get the gal at the end, or the gal is a traveling companion), but he does not elaborate. Also, this is not a requirement. (I find sex scenes to be almost a required cliché in current adventure fiction.)

Act 1 (or Phase 1) – Setup

An event impels the main character to move off. It is not enough for the protagonist to want to go. Something must push him hard. Thus this will be a motivating incident. (And don’t forget the MacGuffin if you need one.)

A question is asked. This question is the point of Act 1 and it should derive from the motivating incident.

(In this kind of story, the motivating incident will provide the protagonist with intent [what he wants], but not too much emphasis will be placed on motivation [why he wants it]. If it is a typical good guy versus bad guy story, the motivation will be grounded strongly in the fact that he is good.)

The groundwork for the entire journey should be laid in Act 1.

Tobias makes an interesting comment on the power of the first line in a fairy tale: “Once upon a time…” (It certainly gets the job done of making a start in a strange and wonderful place.)

Note that the protagonist simply enjoys or reacts to the events as they occur. He is not challenged by their meaning and they do not affect his character. The author is warned, however, to not abandon cause and effect and always try to find a correlation between the place/event and the hero.

Act 2 (or Phase 2) – Complications

The series of events and obstacles must relate back to the setup. Seeds that are sown in the setup start sprouting here. All events should have some tie-in to the protagonist’s intent (and motivation, when pertinent). Tobias warns against getting sidetracked (wandering too far from what the protagonist wants).

However, the focus should be on the event itself, not the character. (A simple example to me is the chase scene, which is in practically all adventure stories. Here the chase is in focus almost to the exclusion of why it is happening and how it affects the characters on a deep level. This especially includes the overly used Hollywood cliché, the car chase. In Westerns, it was a horse chase.)

Act 3 (or Phase 3) – Climax and resolution

The hero doesn’t change all that much when he gets his MacGuffin (or is denied it) or performs the crowning action.

Tobias does not mention a denouement (climax) here, but a good adventure story will have one. He does mention, however, that the question asked in Act 1 is finally answered here.

An analysis of a variation on the adventure plot was used to illustrate. I don’t know why Tobias used a variation on the normal plot to teach it (I suspect that he does not sympathize with action stories), but I will mention it to show how a variation on a plot can happen, I found this to be very interesting. He analyzes The Three Languages by Brothers Grimm.

Act 1 – A Swiss Count orders his son to leave for a year to become educated, then to come back and say what he had learned. In three different years of going out and coming back the boy said, respectively, that he had learned the language of dogs, frogs and birds. All three times the Count is displeased sends him away. The last time he even disowns the boy.

Act 2 – The boy comes to a tower and asks to sleep there for the night. The lord offers him a place in the ruins of an old tower nearby, but warns him that wild dogs might kill him. Since the boy knows what dogs say, he eavesdrops on them and learns that they are under a curse and are guarding a treasure. The boy goes back to the lord and tells him what he has learned and the lord offers to adopt him if he can deliver the treasure. The boy gets the treasure and hands it over to the lord, releases the dogs from their curse, and is adopted.

Act 3 – The boy decides to visit Rome (with the blessing of his new father). On the way he hears frogs croaking and understands them, but it makes him sad and thoughtful. When he gets to Rome the Pope has just died and there is a deadlock on who the new one should be. The Cardinals decide to wait for a sign from God. As the boy (now a young Count) enters the cathedral, two white doves fly down and land on his shoulders. This is taken as the sign from God and he is invited to become the new Pope. Despite not knowing how to do that, the birds tell him to accept. The frogs had told him he would be the new Pope also. He becomes anointed and consecrated. The birds even help him with Mass.

Notice that this is a variation on plot in general – not just the adventure plot – because there is a series of events in Act 1 (the boy leaves and comes back three times) and only one main event in Act 2. The opposite is usually the case.

Notice also that the actions in Act 2 and Act 3 rely on the boy having learned the language of three different animals. Also, the boy moves through three different fathers, from one who rejects him, to one who adopts him, to being son No. 1 of the Heavenly Father (the climax). The question in Act 1 that is asked and answered in Act 3 is if the boy will be able to make it in the world (and maybe find a new father).


1. Focus more on journey than on the character.

2. Go to new and exotic places and do strange new things.

3. The protagonist seeks fortune in the world, as it is not found at home.

4. A motivating event set the protagonist off.

5. The same cause-and-effect relationships in Act 1 should hold for Act 2 and Act 3.

6. The hero doesn’t change in any profound manner.

7. Often there is a romance.

My comments

This particular chapter is a bit more disorganized than the others. I believe that Tobias finds action stories somewhat boring because he, as an author, is more character oriented. He even illustrates this kind of plot by an exception (a variation).

The Three Languages sounds like a terrific outline for martial arts story to me – taking the religious aspect out and changing the fathers for masters. That popped into my head as I was reading it.

Rand apparently didn’t like her action characters to change. In a review of The Girl Hunters by Mickey Spillane, she wrote with distaste about Mike Hammer recovering from a drinking problem, saying that it was out of character (and implying that she was disappointed with that). In the sense of not changing, Roark is more of an action hero than one who grows in some meaningful manner – emotionally or morally.

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Chapter 9 – Master Plot #3: Pursuit

This type of plot is an action plot. The chase is more important than the characters.

The thrill derives from the children’s games of tag and hide-and-seek. As we grow older, we never lose our appetite for them, but the form changes. From the book: “The pursuit plot is the literary version of hide-and-seek.”

The cast boils down to two, usually a hero and a villain. (But others are usually involved.) Either side can chase the other.

The distinguishing characteristic is the quality of the chase. Unpredictability is a top value for this kind of plot. Too many clichés make it dull. Putting a new spin on clichés is a very good idea. There is a need for lots of physical action, clever dodges and ruses.

Tension comes from the proximity of the two characters. From the book: “Tension is greatest at the moment just before it seems capture is inevitable.”

As Aristotle said, action defines character. From the book: “There comes a point where action no longer defines character, where action is solely for the sake of action.” Obviously, this is not high quality, even in a pursuit plot.

Tobias stresses confinement as a good plot device. At some point the one being pursued becomes trapped or confined. Tension is greater in confined quarters (so this is a good thing to place at climax points). But too much confinement makes movement and action difficult.

Pursuit plots are extremely well suited for motion pictures.

Movies that are pursuit plots


Sugarland Express


Smokey and the Bandit

The French Connection

Night of the Living Dead


Midnight Run

Romancing the Stone

Friday the Thirteenth


Nightmare on Elm Street

Bonnie and Clyde

Moby Dick (movie version only)

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

The Hunt for Red October

Other works

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

Sherlock Holmes series

Lots of cartoons (especially Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner)

Works featuring confinement


Narrow Margin

Murder on the Orient Express

Die Hard

Under Siege

Passenger 57 (Tobias thinks this confined space, hijacked airplane, was too small for the story)

Act 1 (or Phase 1) – Setup

The following are identified in the setup:

- Who the good guy and bad guy are;

- Who is chasing whom; and

- Why one is chasing the other. (Sometimes only intent is given, like “to kill the chased person” in a horror film, but not the motivation, which is optional.)

A motivating incident sets the pursuit in motion.

Act 2 (or Phase 2) – Complications

Twists, turns and reversals are more important here than practically for any other kind of plot.

Act 3 (or Phase 3) – Climax and resolution

Here the one being pursued permanently escapes or is permanently caught. (Lots of films leave an out at the end, though, for a sequel.)


1. The pursuit is more important than the characters in it.

2. Make the dangers of getting caught real.

3. The pursuer has to have reasonable chances throughout the story of catching the pursued person, and can even catch him for awhile.

4. Lots of physical action.

5. Make the story and characters exciting (avoid worn-out clichés).

6. Make characters that are contrary to standard ones to avoid clichés. (Make bad guys into good guys, tough guys into weak, etc.)

7. Use confinement to increase tension.

8. Act 1 sets the ground rules, sets the stakes and starts with motivating incident.

My comments

This type of plot is frequently a long sequence in another kind of plot. Also, I HATE car chases in films, but I guess we have to live with them.

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Chapter 10 – Master Plot #4: Rescue

This is also a type of action plot. The rescue is more important than the characters. The point of this plot is to save someone or something.

Tobias tries to make is a synthesis of the three preceding plots, adventure (the hero goes forth in the world), quest (the hero seeks something of high value) and pursuit (the hero chases the villain). Then he adds the third ingredient, the victim.

There are three main characters: the protagonist, the antagonist and the victim.

This type of plot is seen as one of the strongest ones in terms of moral black-and-white. The abductor is evil and the rescuer is good. Period. From the book: “… in rescue plots, the concept of rescue seems to imply right vs. wrong. It’s inherent in the word, ‘rescue.’ To be rescued is to be delivered from confinement, danger, violence or evil.”

However a spin is sometimes put on it, like both the protagonist and antagonist being good guys, or the victim ending up having staged the abduction.


Normally the plot is vehicle for the protagonist, who carries the brunt of the action.

There is a strong attachment between the protagonist and the victim. The most common one is love, but sometimes it is something else like mercenary work. Still, a mercenary ultimately will be guided by a noble virtue, like a sense of justice. From the book: “Whatever the motivation, it is a strong moral urge to right and wrong.”

The protagonist usually is led to places he is unfamiliar with and puts him at a strong disadvantage – and this increases tension. He usually fights on the antagonist’s turf.

The protagonist’s emotional focus is on the antagonist, much more so than on the victim.


The antagonist is most often a kidnapper. He is most often evil. Tobias says that the evil magician of yesteryear who kidnaps the princess and takes her to a dark castle is still alive and well in modern literature. He may not have any more magic, but he still has his powers intact to do evil.

The antagonist usually plays second fiddle. He comes on stage periodically to remind the audience of the protagonist’s troubles and he usually has hands-on involvement with the protagonist’s woes and obstacles (or he orders others to do his dirty work).

The antagonist is the plot device to deprive the protagonist of a value.

He is usually very clever and devious.


The victim is by far the least important character in the story. He is usually nothing more than a MacGuffin. He is incidental and usually “more object than human.”

Works mentioned:

Ruslan and Lyudmila (poem by Pushkin, then later opera by Glinka)

Madame Ranevskaya (play adapted by Yury Belof based on Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard)

The Rescuers (movie with John Wayne)

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

King Kong

The Golden Child (movie with Eddie Murphy)

The Searchers (movie with John Wayne)

Act 1 (or Phase 1) – Setup


The relationship between the protagonist and victim is established. The abduction takes place near the end of Act 1.

Act 2 (or Phase 2) – Complications


The antagonist deals the cards to the protagonist. What the protagonist does is defined by the actions of the antagonist. Tricks, traps, diversions, red herrings, etc., usually come from the antagonist.

Tobias states that since the outcome of this kind of plot is almost always known in advance, the pursuit must be as entertaining as possible, and the reversals, traps, tricks, etc., should be clever and surprising. Predictability will kill audience interest.

The protagonist rarely suffers any serious disability, but may receive a minor wound of some sort.

He mentions one interesting possibility, that the pursuit can “elevate the common person to heroic proportion.”

Act 3 (or Phase 3) – Climax and resolution

Confrontation and reunion.

Basically this is an “action-packed clash between the forces of good and evil.”

Tobias states that you might want to make the hero fail, but you better have a damn good reason for it if the audience is to accept it. If not, the work will lay an egg.

Despite being one of the most formula-type plots, with stock characters and situations, it is one of the most emotionally satisfying ones. From the book: “It confirms the moral order of the universe by overcoming evil; it restores order in a chaotic world; and it reaffirms the power of love.”


1. Action more than character.

2. Triangle: Hero, villain and victim, with hero rescuing victim from villain.

3. Black-and-white morality.

4. Focus is on the hero’s pursuit of villain (not on relationship to victim).

5. Hero goes out into the world to unfamiliar places and usually goes on villain’s turf.

6. Hero’s actions are defined by villain’s actions.

7. Villain is used to deprive hero (and this can go on a deeper level).

8. Villain constantly interferes hands-on (or by ordering others) with hero’s progress.

9. Victim is MacGuffin.

10. Three dramatic phases: (1) separation, (2) pursuit, and (3) confrontation and reunion.

My comments

I personally don’t see the synthesis Tobias tries to make with adventure, quest and pursuit. I see a rescue plot as more of a sub-category of a pursuit plot than anything else. At any rate, the protagonist chases the villain to recover what was taken from him or lost.

There is a strong rescue element in Atlas Shrugged, but it works on a subplot level. Dagny’s quest is far more important and the people “abducted” along the way are presented as part of that quest.

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Your point by point review has been great so far. I'm kind of curious though if Tobias had any observations of different plots that work well beside each other or can be successfully merged without possibility of overload or falling apart.

Either way great discussion so far keep it coming. :)


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I think the emphasis is on pattern, not mold. So long as a plot pattern fits your story, you can use it in any general manner you wish.

I see no problem with merging plots or changing them. Tobias comments that you learn the rules and thus learn where you can break them. This whole discussion is about learning some basic rules.

What I would not do, however, is throw out the standard setup/complications/climax sequence of plot parts.

If you look at a strange film like From Dusk Till Dawn with Quintin Tarantino, you actually see two separate plots strung together, one ofter the other. That worked commercially, but I don't know if you like that kind of film.

Tarantino seems to be the one in Hollywood doing the most horsing around with plot. (The Kill Bill films are completely episodic - a series of plots strung together.)

As I mentioned with Atlas Shrugged, if you take out Dagny's quest, you get a bunch of short stories, each with its own plot (and nonfiction essays presented with fiction dressing).


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I definitely like that type of story. I'm kind of an odd duck that way. But ideas like that work very well for my medium, most comics are episodic by nature so a big part of the skill invloved is in seamlessly streaming one plot into the next.

Long story short you're right I probably need to get this book.


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Chapter 11 – Master Plot #5: Escape

This is an action plot that is centered on capture and escape. It is not a character plot where the protagonist is trying to escape a personal demon (addiction, phobia, dependency, etc.).

The protagonist becomes confined and wants to escape. This is also used a lot in fairy tales (and myths). It is the other side of the rescue plot – instead of the protagonist chasing the antagonist, the protagonist frees himself runs away from the antagonist. The protagonist is the victim.

In general, the morality is simple: good versus evil, since the protagonist is confined unjustly. Sometimes, however, it is a contest of wills between strong personalities between the confined protagonist and the antagonist.

A surprise ending works well with this kind of plot

Works mentioned

The Prisoner of Zenda by Sir Anthony Hope Hawkins

Typee by Herman Melville

“The Ransom of Red Chief” by O. Henry

Midnight Express by William Hayes and William Hofer (later film by Alan Parker)

“Occurrence at Oak Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce

Movies mentioned


Invasion of the Body Snatchers

The Great Escape

Stalag 17

Act 1 (or Phase 1) – Setup

The protagonist is captured and confined or put in prison. It doesn’t matter if he deserves to be. The question asked, of course, is if the protagonist will escape.

The antagonist controls the situation here and in Act 2.

Act 2 (or Phase 2) – Complications

This part deals with details of the confinement and plans for escape. All the protagonist’s attempts to escape must (1) fail, or (2) result in recapture if they succeed.

Act 3 (or Phase 3) – Climax and resolution

This is the escape itself. Often, well laid plans in Act 2 simply fall apart and the protagonist has to improvise. “All hell breaks loose.”

Now the protagonist controls the situation. If there is a moral score to be settled with the antagonist, it is done here, too.

As stated above, surprise endings work well, since the standard outcome is so strongly imagined by the audience. Making things go wrong is a well-used device.


1. Hero is physically confined against his will and wants to literally escape.

2. Black and white morality.

3. Hero is victim (unlike rescue plot, where hero saves victim).

4. Act 1 – Confinement (imprisonment) and initial attempts at escape.

5. Act 2 – Hero makes plans to escape. They are thwarted.

6. Act 3 – Escape.

7. Villain controls Act 1 and 2. Hero controls Act 3.

My comments

There are elements of the escape plot in a subplot of Atlas Shrugged: when Galt is taken prisoner.

Edit - By coincidence, I happen to be reading a book about a serial killer by Michael Prescott, In Dark Places, which is an escape plot (so far). However, it is in reverse. The villain is captured and escapes. Then the hunt is on. Also, the protagonist is, in part, one of the ones on the jailer's side, but then I believe she will become hunted by the villain as he is being hunted (or, at least her daughter will be). I will post a breakdown after I finish the book.

Second Edit - I did finish the book. It is a wonderful example of modern storytelling. Essentially it played out as an escape plot, but with a twist. Someone on the good guy's side was captured and needed to escape too. So it was a double escape plot, with the villain and a good guy both being captured. I hope I don't spoil anything by saying the following: the number of major twists and reversals at the end was extremely entertaining. Item of interest: Michael Prescott used to be an Objectivist. He changed his views before becoming a best-selling author. That is why his subject is about a serial killer and not, say, an architect.

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Chapter 12 – Master Plot #6: Revenge

The revenge plot pattern is has not changed in over 3,000 years. Revenge is predominantly an action plot, but it can be a character plot too. It appeals to a deep emotional level and is vigilante justice. Simply stated, the protagonist suffers a real or imagined injustice and retaliates.

Most often, the hero must take justice in his own hands, since the system is inept, incompetent, full of loop-holes, extremely limited in some manner. This appeals to the audience’s frustration with bureaucracies.

The main rule is that the punishment must equal the crime. This holds absolutely true if the hero is the one seeking revenge. (Eye for an eye…)

If it is the villain is the one who seeks revenge, then blowing the injury and/or the punishment all out of proportion will make the audience despise him. It is also a good means to reveal a psychopath. From the book about a villain who managed to obtain revenge by killing the new wife of her former husband and the villain’s own children by him (Medea): “Even though she must suffer the same fate [loneliness and grief], it will always be tempered by the sweetness of her revenge.”

Older revenge tragedies wanted to show that there is a high price attached to revenge. Usually the hero dies (and many times, lots of people on both sides are killed).

More modern revenge tales let the hero “bask in self-righteousness,” feeling “justified and liberated by the act of vengeance.” There is very little emotional suffering by the hero at the end. This makes a strong appeal to the audience to feel cleansed – catharsis.

The revenge plot is a story about the dark side of human nature. Revenge is the intent, but the motivation can be two: (1) the hero remains a sympathetic person retaliating against injustice, or (2) the hero’s values become distorted through the desire for revenge. Revenge tends to emotionally possess the protagonist, so in addition to intent, it works well as a simple motivation.

As an interesting aside, Tobias mentioned a classic Western plot (which is not exactly a revenge plot, but close). From the book: “The hired sheriff cleans up the town, but the townspeople get fed up with all the violence associated with the clean-up and ask him to leave.”

Violence usually accompanies a revenge plot. Most revenge is violent. In comedies, however, fraud or less violent retaliation is more common. Once again, the rule prevails that the punishment must fit the crime.

Many sting and con-man type films are revenge plots (not all). (David Mamet is mentioned as a famous author of sting and con-man stories.) This type of plot takes a long time in the setup and usually delights the audience.

Works mentioned

The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd

Antonio’s Revenge by John Marston

The Revenge of Bussy d’Ambroise by George Chapman

Tragedy of Hoffman by Henry Chettle

The Revengers Tragedie by Cyril Tourneur

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

“The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allen Poe

Medea by Euripides

Movies mentioned

Death Wish

Sudden Impact

The Outlaw Josey Wales

Ulu (from New Zealand)

Act 1 (or Phase 1) – Setup

The crime.

A crime is committed against the hero, who is unable to rally a defense. He can be absent, or he can be present and made to watch (increasing the horror and outrage).

Some stories start after the crime has been committed, but Tobias advises against this. The audience is less likely to feel empathy for the protagonist. The crime sequence creates a strong bond between the audience and the victim (the protagonist).

Tobias gives some really good action advice here. This is one of the tricks of the trade that should be learned well. Then it can be followed or broken as needed.

From the book: “Generally it’s good advice for any writer to start a scene late and get out early; that is, don’t drag your reader through every detail leading up to the action, and don’t “hang around” after it. (…) But I don’t recommend cutting the scenes so tightly that the audience doesn’t witness the crime, because it may be an important element for the reader to experience emotionally.”

Another gem from the book: “One of your primary goals in this plot is to build a strong emotional bridge between your readers and your main character.”

Act 2 (or Phase 2) – Complications

The hero’s plans for revenge.

This phase often includes pursuit.

Also, there is frequently a third character who tries to stop the protagonist. (Police officer, superior, etc.)

In a serial revenge plot, where several people have to pay, the hero normally starts handing out justice in this phase.

In a non-violent revenge plot, especially one involving a con or sting, the plans are normally “complicated, unwieldy and seemingly impossible.”

Act 3 (or Phase 3) – Climax and resolution


This is the moment of triumph for the protagonist. If the hero also dies, his death is usually heroic.

If there is a serial revenge, the ringleader or most psychopathic villain is saved for last.

Often the plans go crazy and the hero has to improvise.


1. Protagonist seeks retaliation against antagonist for injury (real or imagined).

2. Most revenge plots focus more on action than character.

3. Most often, vigilante justice is used – outside the law.

4. One positive and powerful impact on the audience’s emotion of frustration at bureaucracy is by the hero avenging injustices that the normal justice institutions are too restricted to handle properly.

5. Hero should have a moral reason to seek revenge.

6. Hero’s vengeance must equal, but not exceed, the crime.

7. Act 1. First attempts to redress the wrong should go through normal channels and fail.

8. Act 1. At the beginning, plainly display the hero’s normal life so that the impact of the crime disrupts him so much that he seeks revenge. (Especially as he will probably step outside the law.)

9. Act 2. Plans for revenge and often pursuit. Usually pit two characters against each other.

10. Act 3. Confrontation between protagonist and antagonist. Often hero needs to improvise as his plans fall apart. He can succeed or fail. In modern revenge plots, the hero doesn’t pay a high emotional price for the revenge, so the audience feels catharsis.

My comments

Morally speaking, when revenge is an action plot, it is a simple one of black-and-white (justice). When the villain seeks revenge, it is still good against evil. When it is a character plot like Hamlet, the black-and-white fades to shades of gray.

In fact, Atlas Shrugged could be seen as a revenge story (a subplot to Dagny’s quest): Galt’s revenge on a humanity that adopted altruism, thus committing many crimes against producers.

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Chapter 13 – Master Plot #7: The Riddle

All chapters except the last start with a quote and I have decided to not include them (buy the book). The one at the head of this chapter is so charming, though, that I felt that I had to give it.

“The mystery story is really two stories in one: the story of what happened and the story of what appeared to happen.” – Mary Roberts Rinehart

Obviously a mystery story is a riddle plot.

However, Tobias first starts with discussing riddles themselves. He states that one of the delights of a human being is in solving riddles, brain teasers, conundrums, i.e., finding hidden meanings and searching for clues. He calls a riddle “a guessing game, often with a twist,” that is usually witty, shrewd and sometimes insightful.

A Riddle has three parts, (1) general, (2) specific, and (3) answer. Also, it is a mental test, not a physical one.

In ancient literature, it involved gods, ogres and beasts, where the hero must answer a riddle before he got the bride, freedom from captivity, access to someplace or something else he wanted.

In modern literature, it has transformed into the mystery story. The whodunit.

The heart of a mystery story is a paradox and the plot is physical, despite the intellectual appeal, since it must focus on events (who, what, where, when, and why) and not character development. From the book: “Things are not what they seem on the surface. Clues lie within the words. The answer is not obvious (which wouldn’t satisfy), but the answer is there. And in the best tradition of the mystery, the answer is in plain view.”

He also warns that a mystery plot, “… requires a lot of cleverness and the ability to deceive the reader.” Clues are important and the parlor game charades is discussed as a form of understanding how they work insinuation-wise.

A good clue is not obvious and does not have an absolute solution. It can mean one thing as well as another. It has to be understood, but it should be able to be easily misunderstood. It should be causal, but look casual. The best hiding place is in plain view. A clue should blend in with its background and not stand out. (Hide a chicken in a chicken coop, not in a living room.)

Tobias warns against using red herrings in mysteries, since that makes the reader mad. (A red herring is a clue “added for the sole purpose of throwing the reader off track.”)

Readers (the audience for films) usually think of mystery stories as contests between themselves and the author, where they try to figure out the riddle before the protagonist does. Thus it is important for the author to treat his story as a game and play fairly. The author has to find the tension balance between making the solution too easy and making it impossible to figure out.

The protagonist is usually a detective.

One of the conventions that evolved in mystery stories was the “intrusion of the dark, cruel criminal underworld into everyday life.” When used, this creates a good/evil imbalance that increases tension.

Works mentioned

The riddles in Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carol

Folklore since ancient times.

Fairy tales where the hero must answer a riddle before he gets the bride, access to someplace or something he wants.

“The Lady or the Tiger” by Frank R. Stockton (as example of unresolved paradox)

Authors of whodunits mentioned

Agatha Christie

Raymond Chandler

Dashiell Hammett

P. D. James

Georges Simenon

Mickey Spillane

Arthur Conan Doyle

H. P. Lovecraft

Dorothy Sayers

Ambrose Bierce

Guy de Maupassant

(Tobias says the list is too impossibly long to list.)

Movies mentioned

The Blue Dahlia

The Maltese Falcon

And Then there Were None

D.O.A (Originally Der Mann, Der Seiner Morder Sucht – A Man Searches for his Murderer)

Chinatown (with two riddles running throughout)

Act 1 (or Phase 1) – Setup

The riddle (Usually who did it and why?).

The general part is introduced, i.e., what/where was done and the main characters. The plot is physical. It is not character development.

Act 2 (or Phase 2) – Complications

Specifics – clues.

Appearance versus reality is the main theme when working with clues. Tension comes from both things and language that appear one way and mean something else.

Tobias warns against telegraphing clues or making them stand out. A good clue blends into the background. Camouflage is the rule for clues – same coloration, same background. Create an environment that is natural for clues.

This is where the bulk of the contest with the reader happens. The reader is trying to figure out the mystery before the protagonist does.

Act 3 (or Phase 3) – Climax and resolution

Solution of the riddle.

Tobias warns that the solution has to fit both the general part and the specifics.

The real sequence of events and the real motives are presented, as opposed to the ones that seemed to have happened.

Special consideration – Unsolved Riddles

There is a type of literature where life is seen to be absurd, so no solutions to the riddles presented are given.

Kafka is such an author (The Trial and Metamorphosis). There is no “why” in these stories, but there are riddles. The film 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick is also mentioned, being full of riddles without answers.

Tobias very generously states that some people get fun from trying to come up with different possibilities, since ultimately nobody knows what is meant. But he also warns that other people think these things are “frustrating and unfulfilling, rather like someone telling you a joke without a punch line.”

From the book: “Writers who are serious about dealing with and reflecting on the true nature of existence often find it presumptuous to present life as finite and clear.” (I can just see Objectivists slapping their hand to their forehead with that one.)

As a precaution against this kind of riddle plot, Tobias says that the general audience does not like it. The general audience demands that its riddles be solved. So the author should decide for whom he is writing.


1. Make the core of the riddle cleverness, hiding things in plain sight.

2. Tension comes from the contrast of what appears to happen and what actually does happen.

3. The audience tries to solve the riddle before the protagonist does.

4. The answer to the riddle should be in plain view without being obvious.

5. Act 1 – General: persons, places, events. (Also, the riddle itself.)

6. Act 2 – Specifics: details on how the persons, places and events relate to each other. (Also, clues.)

7. Act 3 – Solution. Present real sequence of events and real motives.

8. Choose audience and write to that one.

9. Choose open-ended (no answer) or close-ended (answer given).

My comments

Ayn Rand always said that Atlas Shrugged was a mystery story. Actually, the first big clue she gives is the unnamed worker Eddie Willers is always talking to. And she did use the mystery story device to put off introducing Galt until late in the book. However, as I mentioned earlier, Atlas Shrugged is essentially a quest plot about Dagny. The mystery is merely a subplot.

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Michael, this chapter has been especially helpful. The story I'm writing now is essentially a murder mystery and it was good to compare Tobias's notes to how I'm developing the story.

So far most of my choices stand up. And I think I was misnaming some of my characters as red herrings when there is a reason why they would be mistaken as the killer.

Sorry I can't get too specific (it is a mystery).


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Like a good selfish egoist, I am doing this study for myself. This thing is filling in gaps that have plagued me for years.

But I am simply delighted that it is helping you create better. Sharing is not a very respectable Objectivist value, but I get off on it.

There. I said it.

(uhhhh.... I feel dizzy all of a sudden..)

And I know that there are more of you out there. I really hope this stuff helps you all.



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As I mentioned in the edit to Master Plot #5: Escape, I was half way through a book with an escape plot when I wrote that. I finished the book and just posted the second edit to finish the thought.

I am giving both edits here so you don't have to go back. Still, I recommend going back and reviewing all this material from time to time so it will sink in properly. Even though I am the one writing it and learning oodles, I also do periodic reviews. My head is too hard to retain all that stuff in a once-over only.



Edit - By coincidence, I happen to be reading a book about a serial killer by Michael Prescott, In Dark Places, which is an escape plot (so far). However, it is in reverse. The villain is captured and escapes. Then the hunt is on. Also, the protagonist is, in part, one of the ones on the jailer's side, but then I believe she will become hunted by the villain as he is being hunted (or, at least her daughter will be). I will post a breakdown after I finish the book.

Second Edit - I did finish the book. It is a wonderful example of modern storytelling. Essentially it played out as an escape plot, but with a twist. Someone on the good guy's side was captured and needed to escape too. So it was a double escape plot, with the villain and a good guy both being captured. I hope I don't spoil anything by saying the following: the number of major twists and reversals at the end was extremely entertaining. Item of interest: Michael Prescott used to be an Objectivist. He changed his views before becoming a best-selling author. That is why his subject is about a serial killer and not, say, an architect.


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