20 Master Plots

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I was reading MSK's last post and got thinking after he mentioned "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."

An excellent book that gets down to the primal stuff, and how it worked in "B" movie culture is Stephen King's Danse Macabre


It's worth mentioning just from the standpoint of how such a successful novelist as King views and incorporates those kinds of elements into his writing.

Another interesting thing about it is that it is one of his very few non-fiction pieces.


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Chapter 14 – Master Plot #8: Rivalry

Tobias emphasizes that rivalry is the story of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object.

Rival: (1) one who competes for the same goal and (2) one who disputes prominence or superiority.

The mother of all rivalries is the beginning of Christianity, with rivalry between God and Satan. However all mythologies contain rivalries of gods.

The main principle is that the strength of the rivals must be evenly matched, but they can have different weaknesses. Making exact strengths for both rivals is boring for storytelling and more suited to sports. The best is the idea of compensating strengths, where one rival will be more physical (strong or skillful) and the other more mental (clever).

Tension comes from opposition. As strengths are balanced, the tension is maintained by one rival winning one time and the other rival winning another. If strengths are uneven, one rival wins easily and that is not good storytelling. It is a good idea for tension to keep the audience unsure about who will win each time – being obvious and then not being obvious (i.e., the physical rival wins by physical prowess at times and by being clever at other times, and vice versa). Tobias suggests that the author create situations specifically designed to test each rival’s strengths.

A rivalry plot is one ripe for deep structure (morality). Tobias claims that the deep structure concept is the most apparent in the rivalry plot and most suited to it. Normal rivals are simply good and evil. However, sometimes a rivalry plot will include opponents who are good guys. (This reminds me of Rand’s technique of main conflicts being competition between heroes, especially the rivalry of the big three for Dagny’s hand in Atlas Shrugged.)

Rivalry is competition – and there must be a winner and a loser (and all the variations on this). Intent is easy, since the goal is the same for each rival. Weaving in emotional motivations like anger, jealousy, fear, love, etc., and highlighting the source of the rivals’ obsession makes for a better story.

There is the concept of power balance also, not just competition for the same goal. As one rival gains in general power and prominence, the other should lose in equivalent measure. Tobias calls this the power curve.

The love triangle is a classic rivalry plot.

Works mentioned

Paradise Lost by John Milton (rivals, God and Satan)

Moby Dick by Herman Melville (rivals, Captain Ahab and the whale)

Billy Budd by Herman Melville (rivals, Billy and Claggart)

Lord of the Flies by William Golding (rivals, the children)

The Virginian by Owen Wister (rivals, Virginian and Trampas)

Superheroes in general and their nemesises

The Odd Couple by Neil Simon (rivals, Felix Unger and Oscar Madison)

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (rivals, old man and fish)

Mutiny on the Bounty by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall (rivals, William Bligh and Fletcher Christian)

Comedies of William Shakespeare (two rivals competing for the love of a third)

Jules and Jim by Henri-Pierre Roché (movie by Francois Truffaut) (rivals, Jules and Jim)

Ben Hur by Lew Wallace (rivals, Ben Hur and Messala), made into several films, with the most famous one in 1959 with Charlton Heston

Act 1 (or Phase 1) – Setup

The rivals are introduced and find common ground.

There is a catalyst episode, introducing the main conflict and pitting the rivals against each other action-wise.

The antagonist gains superiority during this phase and is the one to take the initiative. The traditional story makes the antagonist ascend in power and influence while the protagonist gets banished to somewhere and disgraced.

Act 2 (or Phase 2) – Complications

This part is the gradual recovery of the protagonist. He ends up gaining superiority (or the threat of it) over the antagonist in this phase until he achieves a parity point. The protagonist is the one to take the initiative in this phase.

If the protagonist has been banished, this part is his struggle back to being able to confront the antagonist.

A good trick is to make the antagonist aware of the protagonist’s progress, so he is always looking over his shoulder and anticipating the final confrontation.

Act 3 (or Phase 3) – Climax and resolution

The confrontation. This cannot happen until the protagonist has reached a point of parity with the antagonist. This stage is usually pure action.


1. Source of conflict is irresistible force meeting immovable object.

2. There should be a struggle for power between protagonist and antagonist.

3. Rivals are equally matched.

4. Rivals do not have identical strengths, but compensating ones instead.

5. Begin story at initial conflict point, but show status quo before the conflict.

6. The catalyst scene is usually antagonist instigating the conflict against protagonist.

7. Power curve. As one rival ascends, the other descends.

8. Act 1 – Antagonist gains superiority. Make protagonist suffer from acts of antagonist,

9. Moral issues usually illustrate the sides.

10. Act 2 – Protagonist ascends.

11. Antagonist is usually aware of protagonist’s progress.

12. Protagonist must reach point of parity before final confrontation.

13. Act 3 – Final confrontation.

14. After resolution, protagonist restorers order.

My comments

I couldn’t help but think of the Ridley Scott’s film, Gladiator, while studying this.

Obviously this plot structure is a good one for creating variations on it. For example, The Fountainhead could be seen as a rivalry plot between Roark and Keating. The variation is that the goal is merely architectural success (surface), but the definition of success is vastly different (depth). These rivals even share the same woman (Dominique). The wild-card (and triangle to make things interesting) comes in with the appearance of Gail Wynand. Another variation is that the villain, Toohey, is a secondary character.

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Chapter 15 – Master Plot #9: Underdog

From the book: “The underdog plot is a form of rivalry plot (so you should read chapter fourteen before reading this), but it is distinct enough to be a separate category.”

A normal rivalry plot is based on matching strengths. In an underdog plot, the antagonist’s strength is far greater and the protagonist has to overcome impossible odds.

It is characterized as the prevailing of one over many, small over large, weak over powerful and apparently stupid over apparently smart.

The protagonist has to have tenacity and shrewdness, but he also much be virtuous.

Audiences respond more deeply to an underdog plot than to a rival plot. Everybody identifies with an underdog, since that is how all people feel at one time or another. This is heroism that can be felt by all, and most everybody comes up against situations in life where they have no chance to succeed.

Thus, to increase empathy, the protagonist should not have an emotional or intellectual level higher than the audience’s. That way the audience will identify with him more intensely.

The protagonist’s intent is to win. As the cost to himself and others is high, his motivation usually gets some attention – in addition to the action. Thus an underdog plot is essentially an action plot with a bit higher degree of emphasis on character development than normal.

This plot is pretty predictable, since people love it when the underdog wins. Tobias advises to pit the protagonist against overwhelming odds, but warns against making them so lopsided that the story turns into a cartoon.

Works mentioned

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey, and later very popular movie (underdog McMurphy against antagonist Ratched)

The Joan of Arc story (underdog Joan of Arc against antagonist The Church)

Cinderella (underdog Cinderella and the antagonists, the evil step sisters and stepmother)

Act 1 (or Phase 1) – Setup

The protagonist’s life is usually shown before the interruption that changes everything.

Then in an event, the antagonist gains the upper hand and the protagonist becomes disempowered.

As the nature of the protagonist is to resist, he does an action to reverse the descending movement of his life and start gaining strength.

Thus there are three parts to Act 1 – (1) the protagonist’s life before the change, (2) the change, with the antagonist on top and the protagonist on bottom, and (3) another change that turns the protagonist around toward ascent.

Act 2 (or Phase 2) – Complications

Challenges. The protagonist is strong enough now to challenge the antagonist, either directly or indirectly.

In this act, Tobias suggests two events that the protagonist fails at and a third that puts him in a much stronger position, without fully winning. The contest with the antagonist is not completely resolved, the protagonist merely becomes stronger. Tobias notes the magic number of three (two failures and a success).

Thus this third event is a turning point for the protagonist. He goes to a position of much greater strength.

Act 3 (or Phase 3) – Climax and resolution

The final direct confrontation with a much empowered underdog.

The protagonist has to play fair while the antagonist cheats. It is permissible to let the protagonist use the antagonist’s own dirty tricks against him.

Not only does the good guy usually win (but not always), he should strongly feel his triumph (or other climatic emotion), as this is a powerful empathy moment for the audience.


1. Similar to rivalry plot except there is a discrepancy of strength, with underdog much weaker than antagonist. The antagonist can be a person, place or thing (like a bureaucracy).

2. The acts are similar to rivalry plot and the power curves are similar (including who initiates the actions).

3. The underdog usually overcomes his opposition at the end.

My comments

There are lots of marital arts films that fit this bill.

Although there are elements of the underdog in The Fountainhead, it involves more the imbalanced competition between Roark and the architectural world, not necessarily the one between Roark and Keating.

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Chapter 16 – Master Plot #10: Temptation

From the book: “To be tempted is to be induced or persuaded to do something that is either unwise, wrong or immoral.”

There is a distinction that needs to be made for the purposes of plot – temptation is not for good things, only for bad things that appear to be good. This story is a powerful one because we all have tempting opportunities that appear daily. And it cuts across all classes and types of people.

From the book: “The story of temptation is the story of the frailty of human nature.”

On one end are the benefits that are gained and on the other are the penalties that are weighed and/or ignored. The inner struggle (“yes and no, pro and con, why and why not”) always comes from knowledge – from knowing what to do and from not doing the right thing, but doing the wrong thing instead.

Tobias calls the temptation plot the one that is the most religiously oriented. Frankly, it seems particularly suited to Objectivist type literature, since it illuminates moral choices so well.

Temptation is also very common in fairy tales.

This is a character plot, not an action one. It is good for examining motives, needs and impulses and supports a great deal of character development.

One interesting thing Tobias mentioned is that sometimes (like in the “Our Lady’s Child” story), there is no formal antagonist – the protagonist is the good side of the main character and the antagonist is the bad side. However, there is a concrete antagonist in many plots. Still, making both moral sides inhabit the same character is a nice resource an author can choose for character development.

From the book: “In many ways, this plot creates parables about behavior.”

Tobias warns against focusing the plot too much on the temptation itself and not enough on motivations (including inner struggles with guilt and anger). He advises to give the character a wide range of emotions resulting from the inner turmoil.

Regardless of whether the main character has matured or not at the end, a high emotional cost should be paid.

Works mentioned

The Garden of Eden story from the Bible

“Our Lady’s Child” by Brothers Grimm

Fatal Attraction (movie)

Doctor Faustus (books by Johann von Goethe and Thomas Mann and operas by Boito, Busoni and Gounod)

Act 1 (or Phase 1) – Setup

The protagonist and antagonist are introduced with emphasis on their natures.

The type of temptation is established, (maybe including an examination of gains and punishments).

The first event is when the protagonist succumbs to the temptation. Obviously the protagonist has to fight against himself before giving in.

Usually he rationalizes his behavior. Also, a period of denial can follow.

Act 2 (or Phase 2) – Complications

The benefits enjoyed start going bad and the problems start arising. The protagonist tries to escape punishment. He can continue to deny.

The more he tries to get out of the punishment, the closer it comes to being a reality – the burden becomes heavier and heavier. It finally reaches the point where it is no longer bearable.

Act 3 (or Phase 3) – Climax and resolution

Resolution of the inner conflicts. It can be a happy ending or a sad one. What is important is to show the impact on the main character – whether he matured or not, the emotional price paid and the lesson learned.


1. This is a character plot with emphasis on motives, needs and impulses.

2. Morality oriented, with the main character usually moving from a lower moral position (giving in to temptation) to a higher one (lesson learned).

3. Conflict comes from protagonist knowing what to do and not doing it. Tension comes from the interior conflict, but can be shown in exterior actions.

4. Act 1 – Nature of protagonist and antagonist (or two sides of protagonist) is given.

5. Act 1 – Then the type of temptation is presented, its impact on protagonist and protagonist’s struggle against it.

6. Act 1 – Protagonist gives in to temptation, and this can include short-term gratification.

7. Act 1 – Rationalizations.

8. Act 1 – Period of denial after giving in.

9. Act 2 – Effects of giving in. Gains start going sour and the negative side emerges.

10. Act 2 – Protagonist tries to escape punishment.

11. Act 2 – The negative effects should increase in intensity until becoming unbearable.

12. Act 3 – Inner conflicts resolved. Atonement, reconciliation, forgiveness, lesson learned (or full regret of error and damage or destruction for sad endings).

My comments

Doctor Faustus is obviously a variation on this. Instead of giving in to temptation in Act 1, a wager is made between the devil and him. In Act 3, instead of resolving the inner conflicts from giving in, he actually gives in. But still, there are the three acts: setup, complications and resolution, with lots of inner conflicts along the way.

One of the subplots of Atlas Shrugged deals with temptation. It is the story of Dr. Robert Stadler. It is interesting how his story follows the above plot outline to a tee (with a tragic ending for Stadler).

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Chapter 17 – Master Plot #11: Metamorphosis

This is one type of plot that most Objectivists will not be interested in, since it is not grounded in reality, but still, it is a good idea to analyze it. I can even see possibilities for entertainment with some Objectivist overtones, like for comic books and movies aimed at the young people audience. This is because good literature, regardless of how fantastic it gets, is about human problems and human solutions.

From the book: “In the metamorphosis plot, the physical characteristics of the protagonist actually change from one form to another.”

This includes vampires, werewolves, princes coming from toads, men becoming cockroaches and things of this nature. This plot is always about a physical change in the basic form of a human being.

The grounds of this are in metaphor and allegory – mostly applied to the animal kingdom. The lion symbolizes strength, the fox cunning, and the wolf (in fairy tails) power, greed and evil, etc. Tobias notes that “we have maintained our animal links through the ages…” And that: “The modern era hasn’t diminished our fascination with the connection between beast and human.”

The metamorphosis usually happens because of a curse. The reason for the curse is wrongdoing or an offense against nature (or the supernatural, but it could be due to jealousy/envy by the one making the curse or even other motives). The curse always comes with a set of conditions, prohibitions and rituals. The person or entity who makes the curse is the one who sets these terms.

If there is a cure for the curse (not just a release from it through death), it is always love. The idea is that love can overcome our “beast” instincts. From the book: “Love can correct wrong, it can heal the wounded and strengthen the weak at heart.” Tobias notes that love comes in many forms, old, young, romantic, family, fraternal, and even the supernatural (God). Thus it becomes a plot that is concerned with the grotesque and the curative power of love.

One interesting thing Tobias implied is that the evil portrayed by a metamorph is essentially the evil within all of us, and the release from the curse is to restore the good that is within all of us.

There are a few metamorphs who are not capable of being redeemed by love, like Dracula and the werewolf. Still, death will release them from their curse.

Not all metamorphs are evil, either (fairy tales, for instance).

An antagonist (who may be the good guy or bad guy, depending on the nature of the metamorph and the curse) is usually put up against the metamorph to help him overcome the curse – usually as a catalyst. Often the antagonist has to do some kind of ritual for the release from the curse to happen. If this is the case, the metamorph has to wait on him to do all the stages of the ritual.

This is a character plot with some physical-change fireworks thrown in. (Focus for the author can be on both character development and special effects.) There is a mystery – what did the protagonist do to become afflicted with the metamorphosis and what needs to be done to free himself?

The protagonist is usually an innately sad person who carries his burden. He also usually dearly desires release from the curse, whether by love or by death. The curse not only affects how a metamorph looks, it also affects how he acts. His life also is governed by the rituals and prohibitions of the curse (avoiding daylight for vampires, effect of full moon for werewolves, etc.).

From the book: “The metamorph is cornered, looking for a way out. There’s usually a way out.” As mentioned, if there is a cure, it is love. If not, it is death. So if death is his only release from the curse, he resists it (which is what a lot of the action is all about), but ends up welcoming his own death on a very deep level.

Works mentioned

The Wolf Man (movie – including many myths, books and films about werewolves)

Dracula by Bram Stoker (including many myths, books and films about vampires)

Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

“Frog King” by the Grimm Brothers

Beauty and the Beast by Jeanne-Marie LePrince de Beaumont (including many folk tales, and later books and films)

Act 1 (or Phase 1) – Setup

The protagonist (the accursed) is introduced. What he has become is given, but not why he has become that way. (Disclosure of the reason for the curse is usually reserved for Act 3.) So the story usually starts somewhere before the resolution of the curse.

The antagonist (“the chosen one”) is introduced. He is often a victim, but he is usually the one the metamorph has been waiting for. He will provide the means (as catalyst or otherwise) for the metamorph’s release. He is also usually repulsed by the metamorph, but falls under his spell, becoming a physical or mental prisoner. Showing the antagonist becoming a direct or indirect captive of the metamorph is one of the points of Act 1. From the book: “By the end of the first dramatic phase, however, the curse is evident, and the antagonist has felt the effects of it.”

An implicit law of the curse is that there is nothing that the metamorph can do or say to explain or hurry the antagonist along with what he has to do.

Act 2 (or Phase 2) – Complications

This act explores the relationship between the metamorph and the antagonist. Most action centers on escape and recapture.

The metamorph shows both the full range of his dark “animal” side, and can also show a human side (like tenderness, etc.).

Both metamorph and the antagonist advance through complications toward fulfilling the terms of the release. One interesting observation by Tobias is that this advance toward release is the whole point of Act 2, but the audience is rarely aware of it.

Both metamorph and the antagonist also move toward each other emotionally.

Act 3 (or Phase 3) – Climax and resolution

The terms of release come to the critical stage and an incident happens (catalyst or otherwise) that causes the metamorph’s release from the curse and/or effects a physical change.

The full explanation for the curse and its causes is usually given.


1. The metamorphosis is usually the result of curse.

2. The cure is generally love.

3. Forms of love: parent/child, romantic, fraternal, God.

4. The protagonist is usually the metamorph.

5. The point of the plot is to show the metamorph’s “process of transformation back to humanity.”

6. This is a character plot, with more focus on the nature of the metamorph than on action. (I mention special effects and the escape/recapture parts for action, however.)

7. The metamorph is usually a sad character.

8. Lots of rituals and prohibitions for the metamorph.

9. The metamorph usually desperately desires an end to his curse.

10. There is normally a way out, called release.

11. The terms of release are most often carried out by antagonist.

12. When this is the case, the metamorph cannot explain or hurry the antagonist’s acts.

13. Act 1 – The metamorph is presented in his state of curse and usually cannot or does not explain why.

14. Act 1 – You should begin the story at some point before release from the curse.

15. Act 1 – The antagonist is presented, often being a catalyst who “propels the protagonist toward release.”

16. Act 1 – The antagonist often starts as a victim, but eventually becomes “the chosen one.”

17. Act 2 – Focus is on the evolving relationship between the metamorph and antagonist. (Action will be mostly escape/recapture.)

18. Act 2 – The metamorph and antagonist move toward each other emotionally.

19. Act 3 – Terms of release are fulfilled. The metamorph reverts to his original state or dies.

20. Act 3 – The reasons for the curse and its causes are given.

My comments

If I remember my vampire (and other metamorph) movies correctly, Act 2 can also gradually reveal details of the terms of the curse’s release ritual – at key moments – as a manner of reversing action, causing plot reversals.

A variation on this plot is that the protagonist can purposefully use magic for the metamorphosis, instead of being cursed by another.

One thing Tobias does not mention is that the attraction of this kind of story is rooted in the human psyche’s fascination with the grotesque. This is almost a view contrary to Objectivism, however fascination with the grotesque has been manifest throughout all of recorded history in various forms of the circus. This plot appeals to that innate fascination.

One good variation that I am thinking about for making some kind of Objectivist metamorphosis story is to make it a psychological story where the metamorphosis is all in the protagonist’s head, it is imagined, and only the protagonist’s love of his own mind, reason and truth brings him back and cures the “curse.” This reason for losing it like that could be drug induced.


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One good variation that I am thinking about for making some kind of Objectivist metamorphosis story is to make it a psychological story where the metamorphosis is all in the protagonist’s head, it is imagined, and only the protagonist’s love of his own mind, reason and truth brings him back and cures the “curse.” This reason for losing it like that could be drug induced.

Kind of sounds like the plot for a Beautiful Mind.


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Chapter 18 – Master Plot #12: Transformation

Transformation is a character plot. It is close to the metamorphosis plot, except the transformation is internal, not physical.

Tobias remarks that the study of humanity is the study of change. But some things do not change. From the book: “Time, however, hasn’t altered certain aspects of humanity, and we share much with a Greek citizen in Athens three thousand years ago or an Egyptian trader in Memphis five thousand years ago. The denominators of basic human psychology have remained the same. We’re born, we grow up and mature and we die.

The transformation plot concerns the process of change during the many stages of life. The protagonist moves from one significant state of character to another. The change in character is the result of the action (however what he does is governed by what he thinks). The main character is different at the end than at the beginning.

What the transformation plot does is focus on the nature of the change and “how it affects the character from the start to the end of her experience.” Since different people react differently to the same situations, the core of interest is how the main person is affected by a situation (as people are affected differently, also).

Tobias gives five examples of situations that prompt transformation:

1. Lessons of the adult world.

2. The lessons and impact of war.

3. Search for identity. (Tobias gives the dark side, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Invisible Man, but I see this category rich for Objectivists, like leaving the fold of religious or cultural groups where they grew up, or abandoning a collectivist mentality.)

4. Dramatic moments of transition in life (like divorce, death of a loved one, a time when using violence is unavoidable for a nonviolent person, etc.).

5. Someone tampering with the protagonist’s life (like in Pygmalion). (How’s this one also for Objectivists? How about a plot where a depressive collectivist is force-fed Objectivism? Or vice-versa? Wonderful comedy idea…)

It might be interesting to do some serious thinking on this and come up with other possibilities than just these five. (For instance, in “The Kiss,” which Tobias analyzes, there is a small accident – a strange woman kisses the protagonist by mistake, and that spins him into an inner crisis. So “chance event” could be a sixth category.)

Works mentioned

“Indian Camp” by Ernest Hemingway

“I’m a Fool” by Sherwood Anderson

The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells

Ordinary People by Judith Guest

“The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” by Ernest Hemingway

Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw (play, then musical and movie as My Fair Lady)

“The Kiss” by Anton Chekhov

Movies mentioned

The Last Picture Show

The Paper Chase

Kramer vs. Kramer

Straw Dogs (from the book Siege at Trencher’s Farm by Gordon Williams)

Act 1 (or Phase 1) – Setup

The protagonist is shown before the change.

The incident that prompts a crisis, and thus the change, is presented. This is called the initial transforming incident, or inciting incident.

The first effects on the protagonist of the incident unfold. Tobias cautions the author to keep to action and reaction, and cause and effect.

(It is also important to foreshadow the transformation, showing there are lessons to be learned or insights to be made, etc.)

Act 2 (or Phase 2) – Complications

This act shows the “full effects of the transforming incident.” As this is a process plot, the process of transformation is developed by degrees.

Being a character plot, self-examination is used greatly. From the book: “Whatever actions the character takes are a direct expression of what the character thinks. The character’s nature determines the action…”

Act 3 (or Phase 3) – Climax and resolution

This act shows the incident that defines the outcome of the change (final transforming incident or clarifying incident).

Tobias mentions that in this act, it is common for the protagonist to have learned a lesson, or learned a lesson other than what he thought he would learn (where illusion is replaced by reality).

He also is usually a bit sadder but wiser. (This last is not a very Objectivist outcome, although it does have roots in human nature.)

Growth and understanding occur.


1. This is a plot that covers “the process of change as the protagonist journeys through one of the many stages of life.”

2. A portion of the protagonist’s life is isolated, concentrating on moving from one significant state to another.

3. Focus should be on the nature of the change and how it affects the protagonist, both before, during and after.

4. Act 1 – Here the initial transforming (inciting) incident that prompts a crisis and starts the process of change is presented.

5. Act 2 – The effects of the transformation develop (the process unfolding). Lots of self-examination is made.

6. Act 3 – Final transforming or clarifying incident. This is where the change is completed. The protagonist understands his experience and how it affected him.

7. Often wisdom comes with a bit of sadness.

My comments

One extremely good piece of advice that Tobias unwittingly gave in the middle of the Act 1 discussion is a comment that a character was “primed” for an event to affect him. Tobias was discussing the disproportionate impact of a mistaken kiss on a Chekhov character. Had he not been “primed” (given proper description of his psychology and actions illustrating it), then the extreme impact would have fallen flat.

A common criticism about Ayn Rand’s characters is their black-and-white nature. This is because they rarely show any significant transformation. The good guys seem to be born that way and so do the bad guys. The only thing the heroes usually do is learn about the world (or “man’s nature”) for becoming wiser than they already are, not learning about an inner state so that they can move on to another more mature state (or better one).

In other words, transformation-wise, Rand’s good guys generally learn how to become “gooder” and the bad guys learn how to become “badder.” That’s all. I think that is why writing her kind of character is so hard for another person to do without coming off as being completely derivative and mediocre. I remember looking through Rand’s Journal and seeing “the curse” popping up as an initial character trait for heroes. This curse is always some innate goodness that the character has, but does not thoroughly understand, and is unable to betray.

The main Rand character that comes to mind where a personality transformation did happen is the subplot of the Wet Nurse in Atlas Shrugged. What made his transformation exceptionally poignant is that he was killed right after the transformation was complete. Rand might have written this to highlight the evil of altruism, but to me, the whole Wet Nurse subplot in itself is one of Rand’s finest dramatic creations.

In short, I see the transformation plot is a great one for Objectivists to use and show some originality, i.e., writing something that does not come off as a weak imitation of Rand.

Edit - After my first read of this chapter, I mentioned “coming of age” above as another name for this kind of plot, but that was not correct. So I deleted that reference. A transformation plot concerns adults. “Coming of age” is a maturation plot.

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Chapter 19 – Master Plot #13: Maturation

This is the actual "coming of age" plot. The transformation plot is essentially about adults who are in the process of change (but I can see where it could apply to a younger age group for stories directed at youth). The maturation plot involves growing up – children becoming adults.

One thing usually not noticed is that this kind of plot is very optimistic. The lesson may be difficult, but the person will almost always become better for learning it.

From the book: “The maturation plot is a close relative to transformation and metamorphosis plots, and yet it’s distinct enough to have its own category.” Thus Tobias makes an interesting observation that maturation involves both metamorphosis and transformation. Although not a strict plot requirement, there is a physical change (metamorphosis) of a person from child to adult. And this plot moves the protagonist from innocence to experience.

Obviously it is a character plot, not an action based one. The young person is often a nice person, but his goals are confused or not yet formed. This plot also traces his moral and psychological growth.

The best place to start a story like this is at a point where the young person needs to be tested as an adult.

Many times the action is seen through the eyes of the young protagonist and involves other people, not him. From the book: “The position of observer is quite common, because the young person isn’t old enough to understand or to participate in the action in any meaningful way.”

Works mentioned

“Flight” by John Steinbeck

The Nick Adams stories by Ernest Hemingway

“Indian Camp” by Ernest Hemingway (a Nick Adams story)

“The Killers” by Ernest Hemingway (a Nick Adams story)

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

A Separate Peace by John Knowles

Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

“Hansel and Gretel” by Brothers Grimm (although a fairy tale is not very psychological)

Act 1 (or Phase 1) – Setup

The full transformation from child to adult is a process that covers many years, however a maturation plot can set the time frame as one day, a few months or years. So deciding the time frame is important to setting up Act 1 properly.

The child is shown here as he is before his life gets changed. He can have a lot of negative or childlike traits. Typical ones are “irresponsible (but fun-loving), duplicitous, selfish, naive.” In other words, one who has not yet understood or accepted the responsibilities of adulthood. (Obviously for Objectivists, “selfish” here means the childish form of the term, not the Objectivist one.) Even though he will have these negative traits, he will probably be endearing, since the audience will forgive a child of many shortcomings at the start.

Then there is a catalytic event. The protagonist is happily in his “child” world when something comes along and shakes it up. This event has to be serious enough to get his attention and seriously challenge his beliefs. Tobias suggests possibly “the death of a parent, a divorce, or suddenly being cast out of the home” as typical events. Challenging a child’s belief in his own immortality and that of his family is emotionally very powerful.

One wise and interesting observation by Tobias is that sometimes and event that will be seen as normal to an adult will actually be world-shattering to a child. He cautions the writer to find those buried emotions in his soul and delve into the child’s psyche so that reactions to events will seem real. From the book: “Don’t let your reader react as an adult, because that will undercut the emotional upheaval your protagonist feels.”

He also cautions that there are some writers who simply cannot tap the inner world of children, so they should avoid this kind of story.

The protagonist usually needs to have a believable balance of maturity and immaturity. Too much on one side or the other will make the character seem phony.

Act 2 (or Phase 2) – Complications

A child never becomes an adult from a single sudden insight. He resists the lessons he needs to learn and tries to maintain his own “child” beliefs, which the world is challenging. This resistance will be a driving force behind the complications.

In terms of the catalytic event (like the death of a parent, etc.), he usually denies it. From the book: “Denial is a strong emotion. It tries to protect the protagonist from reality.” (How’s that for an Objectivist theme for growing up?) Basically, children prefer to stay in their safe comfortable worlds over dealing with cruel facts.

The protagonist also might be trying to do the right thing, but simply not know what that is yet. So he can make many mistakes with severe consequences. He goes from innocence to experience (i.e., grows up some).

There is usually a price that comes with wisdom. Tobias suggests the possibility of loss of self-confidence or self-worth, or loss of worldly possessions, or he may go from his safe “child” world to an unpredictable and hostile adult one.

Act 3 (or Phase 3) – Climax and resolution

This is where the protagonist will accept or reject the change in his life. Most maturation plots end upbeat and the protagonist will accept his new maturity in a meaningful manner, not in a token one.

This lesson will always be a turning point in the life of the protagonist, although it will be learned in stages (and even this lesson is usually just one stage of further growing up).

Advice from Tobias:

“Don’t rush all the growing in one day.”

“Don’t lecture or moralize.”

“Don’t try to capture all good an evil in your story.” (This will seem anti-Objectivist, but remember that this is a story about learning and maturing, not cops and robbers.)

“Find meaning in the seemingly trivial.” (What is extremely important to a child is not seen the same way by an adult.)


1. Create a character near adulthood whose goals are confused or not clear.

2. Act 1 – Show how the protagonist thinks and feels before the change.

3. Contrast the naive child’s world (illusion) against unprotected adult’s world (reality).

4. Focus the story on the protagonist’s moral and psychological growth.

5. Act 1 – Create a catalytic event that challenges the protagonist’s child-world beliefs.

6. Questions to answer (from the book): “Does your character reject or accept change? Perhaps both? Does she resist the lesson? How does she act?”

7. Act 2 – Show the protagonist in the process of change. Make it gradual, not sudden.

8. For making a convincing character, do not give adult views to the protagonist until he is ready for them through the maturation process.

9. Act 2 – Don’t go into adulthood all at once. Make it gradual – where sometimes small lessons are major upheavals.

10. Act 3 – Decide on the psychological price of growing up and how the protagonist will deal with it.

My comments

There is a temptation to say that this is the most needed form of all in literature for Objectivists. Dayaamm!

But seriously, the maturation plot shows great promise. There is a wealth of Objectivist ideas that fit this plot. Just on one basic level, a child who is selfish in a “child” way can learn what being more responsibly selfish means, while he gives up his naive comfort but gains deeper happiness. Collectivism means very little to a child, but sharing means a lot in his world. So this could be another good theme to explore for growing up. The possibilities are many.

Rand’s literature for this kind of plot is not a good place to look, though. Her characters seem to be born good or born bad – and all they do is get more that way as they grow up.

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Chapter 20 – Master Plot #14: Love

Next to the quest plot, this is probably one of the most important plots Tobias looks at. I believe that his characterization remarks on sentiment and sentimentality are some of the most illuminating and practical ones I have come across (see below).

This is a story that is at least five thousand years old and there are thousands and thousands of writers who have written it. Any writer doing it will join a long line of others.

From the book: “A love story is a story about love denied and either recaptured or lost.”

For some strange reason, Tobias starts this discussion with some examples of “Forbidden Love,” which will be his next chapter. I will list the works given both here and there. He probably did this to highlight that the crux of a love plot is that there must be an obstacle, so showing “forbidden love” obstacles like race, rank (medieval), incest and adultery are easy examples.

The first critical element of a love plot is an obstacle for the consummation or continuation of the love. For comedy and tradicomedy, Tobias mentions that this obstacle can be “confusion, misunderstanding and general silliness, such as mistaken identities.” Or it can be a gimmick, like one party being a ghost, having an overly-long nose or the being a mermaid or other creature. Or it can be some agonizing and tortured secret, like a hidden illness or previous marriage to a lunatic. Or the lover can even be dead (unbeknownst to the other lover).

One form of obstacle is to give the lovers a taste of happiness, then have disaster strike. From the book: “This disaster could be anything from an automobile crash, to a disease, to the I.R.S. (mistakenly) deciding she owes a zillion dollars in back taxes or the I.N.S. (mistakenly) deciding he’s a former guard in a Nazi death camp. It doesn’t matter what the obstacle is: what matters is if the lovers can jump the hurdles and make it to the finish line.”

Tobias also reminds the reader of the soundness of using the rule of three – two failed attempts at overcoming the obstacle and a third successful one.

Part of the drive for love stories comes from fairy tales. From the book: “Love that hasn’t been tested isn’t true love. Love must be proved, generally through hardship.

Tobias makes an interesting comment that “the higher up you go in the hierarchy of literature, the more unhappy the love stories get.” One lover usually dies in a drama but in comedy, the lovers usually go off together. Federico Garcia mentioned that “life is a tragedy for those who feel and a comedy for those who think.”

Obviously a love plot is a character plot, not an action plot. However there is an added ingredient to the interaction of the characters. It is “chemistry.” If the lovers don’t click together, then they will not convince the audience.

This is where Tobias starts to make some extremely perceptive comments about characters. In the publishing industry, romance is big business with big bucks. Publishers even have “do and don’t do” lists for writing it. It boils down to stock characters. If you wish to write for that market, then you have to learn these types. Of course, unhappy endings are almost taboo.

The popular romance category concentrates on the love story as a general end in itself, while more profound literature uses the love story to examine deeper issues like, for instance, the conflict between spiritual and carnal life.

Higher forms of literature do not make use of stock characters. The following section illustrates essential components of stock characters. Although this is given for love plots, Tobias’s analysis is so penetrating that it applies to all literature.

Sentiment and sentimentality

Tobias starts with fairy tale characters. The reason these stock characters work for children is because they serve everychild (everyboy and everygirl).

What a fairy tale character has is an appearance that allows a young reader to project his own world onto the character. Thus, the character will come from “Far Away,” or “The Kingdom” or “The Forest,” and rarely from “Buffalo, Biloxi or Bozeman.” Their names will be generic names like Dick and Jane. They will not have too many distinguishing characteristics (tattoos or scars, etc.), they are usually in full health and biologically normal. Their parents don’t even have names, having professions or roles instead (woodcutter, fisherman or farmer, wife, stepmother, etc.).

From the book: “The more the reader knows about the character, the less the character is a part of the reader’s world and more a part of his own world.”

Also: “If you as a writer intend to appeal to all readers, you must rely on types that will allow the reader to identify situations and project herself onto them.”

Thus the wider the appeal, the less specific the character can be, being more stereotyped instead. (Finding a balance here between the vague and the specific is extremely important to making individualized characters universal. Both aspects can be included in the same character.)

Now we come to sentiment versus sentimentality. Tobais calls this honest emotion as opposed to prepackaged emotion. He makes a masterful analysis of an Edgar Guest poem to illustrate the vague sentimental language of Guest, where the reader drawn on her own experience.

Tobias calls sentimentality “subject-ive.” What he means is that you write about the subject of love, not about the people and situations. So, like Guest, if you mention motherhood, or say that she is “prettier now” or that she is “more settled” without giving what she looked like or was like before, then the reader supplies her own emotions. She draws on her own feelings to fill in the blanks.

From the book: “What sentimentality does is rely on the reader’s experience rather than the fictional experience created by the writer.”

Tobias calls sentiment “object-ive.” The objects are people, places and situations. A world is created with them and the people are the ones who have their own feelings. Then the reader can empathize with their emotions, instead of drawing on his own.

Tobias states that “we never feel so alive as when we are emotionally aroused.” That is why writers try to depict emotions. He warns against taking a short-cut and faking an emotion. From the book: “Sentimentality is the result of exaggerating any emotion beyond what the context of the moment can express.” (That almost sounds like an Objectivist statement.)

However, sentimentality is necessary for popular romance stories. Sentiment is called for in deeper plots. It is important to know when to talk about love (and make the reader provide his own feelings) and show love (and make the reader empathize with a specific character).

Negative love stories

From the book: “For every thousand stories about falling in love, there may be one story about falling out of love.”

The focus of this kind of story is the end of a relationship, not the beginning.

The emotional environment of the characters is more love/hate than love.

Works mentioned

Aucassin and Nicolette by anonymous (legend of forbidden love)

Tristan and Isolde (myth of forbidden love)

Much Ado About Nothing (play) by William Shakespeare

Twelfth Night (play) by William Shakespeare

Cymbelene (play) by William Shakespeare

Measure for Measure (play) by William Shakespeare

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir by Josephine Leslie (a.k.a. R. A. Dick – well known as movie and TV series)

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Cyrano de Bergerac (play) by Edmund Rostand

“Orpheus and Eurydice” (myth)

“A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner

The African Queen by C. S. Forester (well known as movie)

Adam Bede by George Eliot (a.k.a. Mary Ann Evans, and an example of unhappy ending)

La Boheme (opera) by Puccini

La Traviata (opera) by Verdi

Il Trovatore (opera) by Verdi

Rigoletto (opera) by Verdi

Madame Butterfly (opera) by Puccini

I Pagliacci (opera) by Leoncavallo

Love Story by Erich Segal (well known as movie)

Adam Bede by George Eliot (pseudonym of Marian Evans)

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

Psycho by Robert Bloch (well known as movie)

Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw (note unhappy ending as opposed to My Fair Lady)

My Fair Lady (musical – note happy ending as opposed to Pygmalion)

The Light That Failed by Rudyard Kipling

The Dance of Death by August Strindberg (example of negative love story)

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (play) by Edward Albee (example of negative love story)

The Cat by Geroges Simenon (example of negative love story)

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Heloise and Abelard (from their letters)

Movies mentioned

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (forbidden love)

Tis a Pity She’s a Whore (forbidden love)



The Player (as satire on happy endings)

Act 1 (or Phase 1) – Setup

Note: This is for the typical love story of lovers being separated. If another type of story (negative love, sad ending, gimmick, etc.) is used, then the three acts must be adapted accordingly.

Lovers found. The two lovers are presented and their relationship begins.

There is an event that separates the lovers. This may be due to an antagonist, or to circumstances.

This act usually ends with the lovers being separated.

Act 2 (or Phase 2) – Complications

Lovers split. Here one of the lovers assumes the active role and the other the passive role. The active lover seeks to “find/rescue/reunite” with the passive lover. The passive lover either waits or actively resists.

There are setbacks. Tobias suggests one step forward and two steps back. He also mentions that “short term, the protagonist only wins minor victories.”

Act 3 (or Phase 3) – Climax and resolution

The active lover finds a way to overcome all barriers and reunite with the passive lover.

Tobias suggest to not let the obvious way succeed, but make it surprising.

The emotional intensity of Act 1 is resumed and the bonds are stronger because the love was tested.


1. The prospect of love must meet an obstacle.

2. Lovers are usually ill-suited to each other in some manner.

3. The first attempt to overcome the obstacle should fail. Love is proven by insistent dedication.

4. One lover is usually more aggressive in seeking love than the other. A nice image Tobias mentioned is that one lover offers a kiss and the other offers a cheek.

5. Most love stories have happy endings, but forcing a happy ending on one that clearly doesn’t call for it will be rejected by audiences. (There are successful and popular tragic ending plots.)

6. Avoid stereotypes and concentrate on making characters convincing. Feel deeply for you characters.

7. Emotions are important. Since love has many other emotions associated with it, the full range should be developed (“fear, loathing, attraction, disappointment, reunion, consummation, etc.”).

8. Choose when to use sentiment and sentimentality (and the bag of standard sentimentality tricks).

9. Take the characters through the full ordeal of love and test them both.

My comments

I cannot resist mentioning a section title of this chapter that I found especially charming: “SOFT RAIN, KITTENS AND MAKING LOVE BY THE FIRE.” (Anyone want to guess why?)

One thing that has always stood out to me in Ayn Rand’s fiction is the emotional range of her characters. They feel intensely and the feel a wide variety of emotions. I haven’t seen her work analyzed too much from an emotional angle, but her characters are fueled by strong feelings, even when talking about reason. However, their intensity is usually focused on one emotion at a time.

Rand’s love stories in The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged usually have the woman as the active lover and the man as the passive one.

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Chapter 21 – Master Plot #15: Forbidden Love

Tobias opens the chapter with the traditional “Love is blind” message, to show how powerful love is before examining the forbidden part. From the book: “We believe in the power and the strength of love to overcome all obstacles. It is the supreme achievement of human emotion. In the perfect world there is only love, and all the petty meanness that holds human beings down to such an earthly plane is left behind. Love is a transcendent state, and we spend our lives seeking it.”

Tobias also mentions that “love is more powerful than any human strength.”

Then here comes the catch. Although Tobias does not specifically state that forbidden love is a character plot and that the principal antagonist is society, he heavily implies this throughout the chapter. (Reality sometimes is the antagonist as well, as in the case of large age differences or deformities that impede sex.) Society defines love and states what is proper or not. It teaches others to adopt these definitions. Here are some of the situations where love is not acceptable, depending on the society:

Rank or social standing

Social class

Faith (or philosophy for a more Objectivist spin)



Same sex


Large age differences

Extremely ugly or grotesque partner

(Within the forbidden love plot, Tobias omits pedophilia, most likely because (1) a child is incapable of feeling romantic love in the same way an adult can, and (2) a published story like would probably be a crime in today’s society. Still, he cites Death in Venice by Thomas Mann where the protagonist is a man and the person loved is a 14 year old boy.)

Thus there are some kinds of love that cross the lines drawn by society and “thrives in the cracks.”

Although the different kinds of prohibitions are given above, Tobias highlights four main categories.


This always includes a husband, wife (one being the betrayed spouse) and a lover – the traditional triangle.

The person who commits the adultery is often the protagonist and the betrayed spouse the antagonist. Revenge is a common motivation for the antagonist.

Sometimes the plot thickens as the lovers plan to kill the other spouse. Their motivation is usually the desire to get married or be together.


This is one of the darker forms of forbidden love. Society does not tolerate it at all – and does not forgive it, so the end is almost always extremely tragic.


From the book: “In pre-Christian times, homosexuality wasn’t seen as deviant behavior, but with the scriptural admonition against homosexuality and the rise of a puritanic frame of mind, we became less tolerant.”

(After adultery, this is the most common forbidden love theme. As society is becoming more tolerant, works are starting to appear with a less “forbidden” focus to them, focusing more on the love itself instead. But society is still intolerant enough for homosexuality to be considered in this category.)


This is one field where not only society, but reality is an antagonist, since time literally runs out for one of the partners.

Works mentioned

Aucassin and Nicolette by anonymous (legend – repeated from "Master Plot 14: Love")

Tristan and Isolde (myth – repeated from "Master Plot 14: Love")

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

Romeo and Jeanette by Jean Anouilh

Heloise and Abelard (from their letters – repeated from "Master Plot 14: Love")

The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo

Death in Venice by Thomas Mann

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

“The Miller’s Tale” (from Canterbury Tales) by Geoffrey Chaucer

Oedipus Rex (play) by Sophocles

The Sound and the Fury by William Faukner

Movies mentioned

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (repeated from "Master Plot 14: Love")

Tis a Pity She’s a Whore (repeated from "Master Plot 14: Love")

The Postman Always Rings Twice


Act 1 (or Phase 1) – Setup

The characters are introduced and the affair is set up. The nature of the prohibition or taboo by society (or reality) is highlighted.

The affair is almost always found out and society usually becomes an antagonist bent on punishing the lovers.

Act 2 (or Phase 2) – Complications

Here the lovers go into the heart of their relationship. This usually starts out very positive. By the middle of this section, seeds are planted of destruction of the relationship itself between the lovers, and by the end, the relationship is on the decline.

These seeds can come from the force of society (or reality), or from within one of the lovers.

Act 3 (or Phase 3) – Climax and resolution

The lovers pay for violating the rules of society (or reality). This kind of plot most often has a tragic ending. Death is usually involved.

When the death (or other kind of removal) of one partner is the case, the surviving partner can have the love continue to burn in his heart, or he may “surrender to disillusionment and despair.” Often he loses everything.

Society is almost always the winner in this kind of story


1. From the book: “Forbidden love is any love that goes against the conventions of society.” Society exerts force (explicit or implicit) against the lovers.

2. The lovers ignore society, usually ending in disaster.

3. Adultery is the most common of forbidden love stories. The adulterer can be either protagonist or antagonist. The same goes for the betrayed spouse. (Actually, Tobias doesn’t mention it, but this also could be the lover.)

4. Act 1 – Define the relationship and social context. Taboos. How do lovers react? How do the people around them react? Are the lovers blinded by love or realistic about society?

5. Act 2 – This goes to the heart of the affair. It usually starts idyllic, but gradually disintegrates under the different pressures.

6. Act 3 – The relationship ends and moral scores are settled. (Read society’s moral score here.) From the book: “The lovers are usually separated, either by death, force or desertion.”

My comments

I believe adultery is the only forbidden love in Ayn Rand’s works. She used this theme to great effect to illustrate her sanction of the victim principle in Atlas Shrugged (Hank Rearden and Dagny).

The issue of society being able to dictate what is proper or not in romance is very strong in Rand’s writing, even from the beginning (see “The Husband I Bought” in The Early Ayn Rand). Rand seemed to have an overly-strong aversion to sexual scandal. She gave extreme importance to it. For example, in Atlas Shrugged, there is a great deal of highlighted secrecy of affairs, then Hank wanted to punch out a casual stranger (during his car trip with Dagny) who insinuated that he was aware of the affair, and Dagny collapsed into tears after her tell-all radio broadcast.

I simply cannot imagine Rand writing about any of the other types of forbidden love, although she did live through an experience of a large age difference and adultery. It is interesting to see how society was an antagonist.

This theme could be a very rich one for an Objectivist-type story. Also, homosexual love.

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MSK wrote:

The issue of society being able to dictate what is proper or not in romance is very strong in Rand’s writing, even from the beginning (see “The Husband I Bought” in The Early Ayn Rand). Rand seemed to have an overly-strong aversion to sexual scandal. She gave extreme importance to it. For example, in Atlas Shrugged, there is a great deal of highlighted secrecy of affairs, then Hank wanted to punch out a casual stranger (during his car trip with Dagny) who insinuated that he was aware of the affair, and Dagny collapsed into tears after her tell-all radio broadcast.

I simply cannot imagine Rand writing about any of the other types of forbidden love, although she did live through an experience of a large age difference and adultery. It is interesting to see how society was an antagonist.

You said a mouthful there, Michael -- although one which would probably be better to discuss on some other thread. IMO, Rand was VERY conventional in her attitudes about sexual relationships. Truth is, this bothered me from the start (since I was very unconventional): I saw resemblances, for instance, between Dagny's and Fransisco's "forest glade" first encounter and my own relationship at the time with a certain person, but...(see my post about Rand's characters, if considered as real persons: I couldn't imagine myself being so ignorant as Dagny apparently was -- she's even presented as surprised that she could be interested in an activity she'd vaguely heard of others participating in).

Rand grew up in a Russian cultural scene. She seems to me, though in one respect to have rebelled against the mores, in other respects to have accepted them. And I wonder if Anna Karenina, which she read in highschool -- and hated -- didn't leave a lasting residue of fear of what would happen to the woman in society-flaunting, publicly-known circumstances. The odd thing is, for instance, that at the time of the break between her and Nathaniel, "society" -- the then-"in" mores -- were at the height of "sexual liberation." And yet she feared what the public would think. In truth, there probably wouldn't have been a more auspicious time, in terms of her winning points with cultural leading lights of the era, for her to have been upfront about her unconventional relationship. What I think is that basically she didn't sympathize with "bohemianism" or anything resembling it.



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Chapter 22 – Master Plot #16: Sacrifice

Before we even get started here, it needs to be stated that, in discussing this kind of plot, Tobias buys into the concept of altruism – that doing something for others is morally superior to doing it for yourself. For Objectivists, the tendency is to skip the value of this kind of plot, but it is useful if you use Rand’s adage, if you sacrifice a lower value for a higher one, it is not a sacrifice, but a gain. So please, keep this in mind in the following discussion.

From the book: “Originally, the concept of sacrifice meant to offer an object to a god to establish a relationship between yourself and that god.”

The ancient Greeks held sacrifice in high regard and even their own spin on it at times. There are stories where one must die, but he could live if he found someone to die in his place (Alcestis by Euripides).

In modern literature, the gods are gone, but replaced by “a concept such as love, honor, charity or the sake of humanity.” Thus a sacrifice plot is a character plot where the character sacrifices something extremely important to himself for an ideal.

(For Objectivists, such an ideal would have to be a higher value that what is sacrificed, like Galt saying that he would kill himself if Dagny fell into the hands of torturers in Atlas Shrugged. Such a situation is mentioned in an analysis of High Noon, but not with respect to the main character. Kane’s wife is a Quaker, but she finally takes up a rifle to protect her new husband. This is a secondary sacrifice, the sacrifice of her religion. In Kane’s willingness to sacrifice himself for a code of honor, he forced a situation where his wife sacrificed her beliefs.)

There are two important points to a sacrifice plot:

1. It must come at great cost to the protagonist (and this especially goes for the Objectivist version of sacrificing a lesser value).

2. The character should undergo a major transformation. Thus the sacrifice plot is a form of transformation plot.

Tobias suggests starting the character at a lower psychological level where he is unaware of the nature and complexity of what he about to face. Also, have him balk at doing the right thing because of the cost. The more he balks the greater the underlying tension.

A sacrifice made instantly and intuitively, like a hero suddenly taking a bullet for his sweetheart, is merely a plot device, not a full sacrifice plot, which should involve inner conflict. Usually shame (the easy way out) and honor (losing life) are the two major options.

It is important to establish a proper foundation for the character to be believable. If he has a low moral profile at the start, he also has to have the seeds of being able to make a noble decision.

Tobias does an interesting analysis of Casablanca.

As asides, he noted that in this film, the setting was a bit claustrophobic. The exits essentially were blocked and the antagonists were at arm’s length from each other, thus highly increasing the tension (as mentioned in an earlier chapter). Also, a nice symbolic touch was used for Rick’s lost love of Ilsa during a flashback. The rain blurs the ink on the farewell note.

Works mentioned

The story of Abraham and his son from Genesis

Alcestis by Euripides

Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Movies mentioned

On the Waterfront

High Noon

Casablanca (originally a bad play, Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett and Jean Allison)

Act 1 (or Phase 1) – Setup

The foundations of the main character are presented. If he is too highly principled, sacrifice comes easy, thus other elements of conflict must be presented. An inner conflict is the best. At the very least, the two values and what they mean to the protagonist must be presented. Great value should be placed on underlying tension and the moral dilemma.

The need to choose one of the values (usually provoked by an event) is presented.

Act 2 (or Phase 2) – Complications

The confrontation of the moral dilemma is developed with increasing tension. The protagonist’s motivation is a strong dramatic factor.

If he is not a normal idealist, then the conflict with his other value will be the motor driving all situations. The truth of the choices to him can be vague at the start and gradually become clear.

One important point is that the reader should not be entirely sure what the protagonist will choose. The stakes should be high. From the book: “Trivial events and trivial people usually make for trivial stories. Certainly the fate of at least one person should hang in the balance.”

Tobias makes a rather amusing reference to this plot being a Freudian drama of the id and the superego. He likens the id to a devil sitting on one shoulder and the superego to an angel sitting on the other. Both are whispering in the protagonist’s ear. Devil Id tells him what he wants to do and the Angel Superego tells him what the right thing to do is. (This is not Objectivist at all, but still, the symbols are useful in a practical manner for writing.)

Once again, the cost must be high on both ends. An important point is that sacrifice will tend to show the human spirit at its best. Even people of lesser moral worth become heroes by standing by their ideals. The supreme sacrifice is the protagonist’s own life, since self-preservation is probably the strongest human impulse.

A very good driver for Act 2 is if the character seems incapable of making a sacrifice, but gradually comes face to face with the need to do it.

Act 3 (or Phase 3) – Climax and resolution

From the book: “The idea of sacrifice is to give up something in return for accomplishing a higher ideal.” I caution Objectivists to hold onto their dinner when they read the following phrase: “We attain a higher state of being when we put others before ourselves.” However, the kernel of truth that can be gained from this observation is that we attain a higher state of being when we hold onto our ideals – when they are true and rooted in reality.

Tobias also mentions that sacrifice often entails more than doing the right thing. It can mean doing the best thing.

Obviously in this act, the sacrifice is made. That is the main event. However, two impacts should be shown and developed: the impact of the sacrifice on the protagonist and the impact on the others around him. Both stories are extremely interesting to readers.

This act tends to be highly charged emotionally. Tobias warns against getting too sentimental or melodramatic, stating that underplaying the scenes here has far more effect than overplaying them.

As a final tip of the hat to his altruistic stance, Tobias writes in the last paragraph: “You might also want to avoid trying to make a saint out of your character.” (Like I implied, this is a rather hard chapter for Objectivists to swallow.)


1. The sacrifice should come at high personal cost to the protagonist. Go for high stakes, physically or mentally.

2. The protagonist should undergo a transformation from a lower moral state to a higher one.

3. Use events to force the decision.

4. Provide adequate foundation for the protagonist, especially if he starts out at a low moral plane. Otherwise his progress toward the sacrifice will not be believable.

5. Make events reflect, test and develop the character of the protagonist.

6. Make the main character’s motivations clear to the readers.

7. Provide a running line of thought in the protagonist that reflects the line of action.

8. Make a strong moral dilemma be the central focus of the story.

My comments

It is almost ironic that this chapter came up at the same time as other discussions that are ongoing right now. One thing this kind of plot could do for an Objectivist writer is highlight where he has his own doubts. If any doubts come from deep inside him, where his core convictions reside, then the tension he will project will be extremely engaging to the reader.

Probably the worst thing an Objectivist could do is make this kind of plot a teaching session. If one has a preachy tendency in his writing, he better have the talent of Ayn Rand to pull it off, because mostly it falls flat. He would do better to focus on the inner conflict, not make a formal presentation of a denunciation of society or altruism. Show, not tell, is better storytelling. Even in Rand, only after she “showed” in a highly emotional manner did she make the “tell” (lectures) come off.

But, once again, I am reminded of Wet Nurse in Atlas Shrugged. He is a superlative example of Objectivist sacrifice mixed with character growth. I also am reminded of Kira in We the Living, although she has little moral character growth, being essentially good from the start.

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Chapter 23 – Master Plot #17: Discovery

This plot is a character plot about the meaning of life. It is similar to a riddle plot, since it presents life as a riddle to be solved for the protagonist, but it is more slanted toward self-discovery and learning about the self than figuring out other kinds of riddles. (“Who am I?” and “Why am I here?”)

The basic premise behind this kind of plot is that people do not change, although times do. From the book: “It is a plot of character, and to this effect perhaps it’s among the most character-oriented plots in this collection. Discovery is about people and their quest to understand who they are.” The focus of the main character is on finding out something fundamental about himself.

It also usually covers the lifetime of the protagonist, or a good portion of it. Tobias mentions that one important form of the discovery plot is that it is a good children’s plot, since children are usually more interested in figuring out who they are than adults are. He advises against preaching, though. From the book: “If you write well, your intention will be clear.”

(I emphasize this because many Objectivist writers tend to try to include lectures in their writing like Rand did, and it is extremely difficult to pull that off. You have to have a natural inclination to preach to begin with for that to even have a chance to work. Most of us do not have such an inclination.)

The main difference between the discovery plot and the maturation plot is that discovery is about analyzing the meaning of life. A maturation plot moves the protagonist from innocence to experience (normally a childhood view to an adulthood view).

Basically, this will be in three parts: what the character was like before the journey, the events that lead him to examine life and then what he becomes after his revelations.

One caution about style. Tobias warns that these types of stories tend to become highly dramatic, so there is the danger of them becoming melodramatic. This is because the extremes of emotions involving love, hate, death, etc. are involved.

From the book: “When does a story become melodramatic? When the emotion being expressed is exaggerated beyond the subject matter’s ability to sustain that level of emotion.”

Works mentioned

Death of a Traveling Salesman by Eudora Welty (do not confuse with the play, Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller)

Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen (play)

Oedipus Rex by Sophocles (play)

Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

Act 1 (or Phase 1) – Setup

This act gives the protagonist as he was earlier in life before his journey. (It can be called the state of unawareness.)

There also is a catalyst event that starts him on his journey. Tobias’s advice is to start the story near the catalyst event so as to not bog down the beginning.

From the book: “Very often the main character is satisfied with his life and isn’t looking to change it. But then life happens. Events force change.”

Act 2 (or Phase 2) – Complications

Tobias states that this is the phase that is the most complicated to write. The character is fleshed out in depth by events. He often resists change because it brings uncertainty and pain.

Tobias warns against making the protagonist’s struggle too trivial. The example he gives is having someone reevaluate his life because his goldfish died.

(This phase can be called gradual awakening.)

Act 3 (or Phase 3) – Climax and resolution

This is when the revelation takes place. How the protagonist becomes afterward is shown.

The same warning as given in Act 2 is given here, i.e., to not let the revelation be too trivial. The example given is a long story of struggles resulting in the conclusion that the hero needs to go to church more often. This will leave the reader dissatisfied.

Tobias’s analysis of Mrs. Alving in Ghosts is really well inside the Objectivist orbit. She realizes at the end that by basing her actions on duty instead of love, she has been responsible for the tragedies in her family.

(This phase can be called full awareness. Thus the protagonist moves from a state of unawareness about some critical aspect of life to one of full awareness of the truth of his life.)


1. This plot is more about the character making the discovery than about the discovery itself. Focus should be more on the character than on what he does.

2. Show who the main character is before circumstances force him to start on his journey of discovery.

3. Don’t linger on the protagonist’s former life. Integrate it into the present and future. Start the action as late as possible, but be careful to make his “before” character strongly drawn and clear.

4. Don’t let the catalyst event be trivial (going from “equilibrium to disequilibrium”).

5. Move the protagonist into the clash between present and past as soon as possible, but keep the past-versus-present tension going throughout the story.

6. Proportion. Keep emotions and action in balance. Make the final revelations proportionate to the events.

7. Do not force or exaggerate emotions. Avoid melodrama.

8. Don’t preach. Show through characters and events and let the reader draw his own conclusions.

My comments

This kind of journey in Rand is Hank Rearden in Atlas Shrugged. His whole story is a discovery story. He is so unaware at the beginning of his life that he marries the wrong woman. He gradually moves to full awareness of how his acceptance of sanction of the victim has impacted his life.

Right before attacking this chapter, I saw the 1969 film of David Copperfield (Charles Dickens). This is essentially a discovery plot with a lot of subplots running throughout. For Objectivists, the revelation theme is not so bad. Copperfield concludes that we must be strong to face life’s challenges, not just flow with what we are given. To emphasize this, three people very close to Copperfield (his mother Clara, his friend Steerforth and his first bride Dora) are fortunate people who end up not amounting to much and dying. Of course, the girl he gets in the end (Agnes) is a strong person too. They fight for their values whereas the weaker, but more fortunate ones did not.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


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  • 1 year later...

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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