The straight answer to this is: you can't.
Remember that people have been making up stories for millennia, so it shouldn't really come as a huge surprise that all the best stories have already been done. Especially when you consider that there were never that many original stories to begin with.
A professor of English once told me that there were basically only three plots in the whole of literature, and as two out of the three were the Iliad and the Odyssey that doesn't leave the rest of us with much room for originality. Other people have claimed that there only are seven plots, or twenty plots, or some other number in between - but I'm afraid that the true number is much, much worse.
There is, you see, only one plot in the whole of literature. Every novel ever written, every play, every film tells this one same story. It has to tell it with variations, of course, otherwise things would get extremely boring; but when you pare it right down to the bare bones then every story ultimately comes out the same.
And this is it:
'The central character needs something, very, very badly. Failure to get this thing or do this thing will have dire consequences for this character or his or her loved ones. To begin with, every effort she or he makes to get this thing only adds to the complications and makes success look even less likely, but in the end there is a resolution, and either the protagonist gets the thing, and avoids the dire consequences, or doesn't, and the feared dire consequences come to pass.'
And you will find that (or something very close to it) to be true for every single story that you've ever been told or read.
If you will forgive me getting a little more technical about it for a moment, the 'one true plot' consists of three distinct elements: the Inception (in which we find out what it is that the hero or heroine wants), the Complication (in which we suffer with him in his or her failed attempts to achieve it) and the Resolution (in which she or he finally either achieves it, or the dire consequences come to pass). And if a story doesn't have its Inception, its Complications and its Resolution, then really it's not going to be much of a story.
Or to put it more simply: every story must have a beginning, a middle and an end.
The good news for writers is that this one plot comes with almost an infinite number of variations. Just for starters, every central character is going to be different and behave in a different way. The specific thing that the central character is searching for is always going to be different - if the central character is Jim Hawkins, then it's the treasure of Treasure Island that he's looking for, if it's Hercule Poirot or Hamlet, then he's looking for a murderer.
Quite often the central character won't be looking for a physical thing at all, but something abstract, like love or happiness. Don Quixote wanted to become a knight errant - that was the 'thing' that motivated him. Maybe the thing sought for is the solution to a particular dilemma - Jane Austin's heroines often have to face this problem. Or maybe, instead of looking for something, the central character is trying to get away from something or someone - think of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. What the central character is searching for in this case is freedom.
The complications come in different guises too. Most often, they are the characters who have most to gain from the failure of the hero; the 'baddies' in the conventional thriller, or the murderer trying to evade capture in the crime novel. Hamlet's complications were as much in his own head as they were personified in the characters of Claudius and Gertrude. Many a romance is complicated merely by the presence of a jealous ex-lover. And finally the resolution. Hercule Poirot reveals the identity of the murderer, King Lear is reconciled with Cordelia, Jane Eyre marries Rochester, Pip discovers who his benefactor really was. This is the 'closure' (to use fashionable parlance), the denouement, the tying up of loose ends. This is where your central character finally gets what she or he has been searching for, if you want a happy ending - or if you don't, then this is when dire consequences finally catch up.
Why don't you take one of your favourite novels down from the shelf and analyse it. Identify who the central character is, what it is that she or he is seeking, and where the complications come from, and how the conflict between the central characters motivation and the complications is resolved. You don't only need to apply this to a novel: many plays and nearly all films follow exactly the same pattern.
You might be thinking: this is all very well for popular fiction, for a novel written in a specific genre like crime or historical adventure or fantasy. What I want to write is something rather more literary. Surely this one simple plot doesn't apply to my stories, too?
The answer to that is: yes it does. Okay, so it might not lie so close to the surface as it might in a thriller, but it is still there. In a literary work it is embedded more deeply into the structure of the story and therefore harder to identify - the thing being sought after is likely to be more psychological or philosophical than an actual object, and the complications are probably going to be within the mind of the central character rather than external threats - but that same plot is certainly there, if you only care to dig deep enough.
For just a moment, consider what a story might be like if it didn't follow this strategy. Oh, it might be beautifully written, it might have a cast of wonderful characters, but how are we going to see them at their best (or worst) if there are no complications for them to struggle against? Would the story have a satisfying ending if there is no sense of the central character actually achieving something at the climax? It is possible to write a story like that - indeed, it is possible to write any sort of story that you can conceivably think of - but I believe that only the most skilled of writers would have the ability to pull it off successfully, and even then I think that the readership of such a piece would very likely be limited to the literary cognoscenti and the author's personal fans.
So when you plan your next story, take a few moments to consider how it is going to fit in with the 'one true plot' that I described above. Who is the central character, what are they searching for, and why? What (or who) are the complications that are standing in the way? Is the central character going to succeed in the quest or not? Answer those questions to your own satisfaction and you've got a lot of the ground work of plotting out your story sorted out already.
But the usefulness of the 'one true plot' doesn't end there. In a sense, every story contains a number of stories bundled together, one for each major character, and each of those characters are drawn along their own personal plotline as it interweaves with the central character's story. Each of these characters have their own personal desires to be sought after, and there are complications standing in the way just as there are for the central character. The stakes may not necessarily be quite as high (that's to stop them upstaging the central character) but they must be apparent, all the same.
Sometimes, one character's desire may be the exact inversion of what the central character wants: in a murder mystery, for instance, the murderer wants to evade capture every bit as much as the detective wants to ensure that justice is done - and one or the other is ultimately going to fail. In a romance, each party to the romance may initially start out with aspirations that will apparently lead them apart, rather than together - it is only in the course of the story, as the complications play themselves out, that they discover that what they really want is each other.
Sometimes a character's only apparent purpose is to be a companion, or perhaps a foil, to the central character (think of Horatio in Hamlet, or Dr. Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories), but even then, these characters must have a reason for wanting to do what they do, whether it be loyalty or love or even financial reward. There may also be complications that put their relationship with the central character in jeopardy; and their active participation in the story concludes when they have either conquered or succumbed to those complications.
One more thing to consider: although you should certainly know the motivating desire of each of your characters, the characters themselves may not necessarily be aware of what they are supposed to be looking for. One of the more interesting complications for a character to overcome is to discover for themselves what it is that they actually want.
So now you have a collection of plots: one for the central character, and one plot for each of the supporting cast; each of which will vary in complexity according to how big a role in the story that you want each character to play. Now comes the task of drawing them all together into a satisfying whole.
This is done by constructing one more plotline - this time one for the reader. Not surprisingly, this plot also follows the Inception-Complication-Resolution pattern that I described at the very start of the essay. For the Inception phase, you entice your reader by planting a desire into her or his mind - this is what is often referred to as 'the hook' (although I've always thought that 'the bait' would be a better analogy; but never mind) - and is basically the promise of exciting things to come. The simplest and most obvious 'hook' is the desire to find out 'what happens next' - but there are many others you might want to consider, both emotional and intellectual. The purely puzzle solving aspect of a whodunit may be sufficient to hold the reader's attention in many cases; for some stories, however, you may need to provide a philosophical, moral or psychological dilemma for the reader to ponder over.
As with the plots that you have already devised for your characters to follow, you must add complications for the reader to overcome. By this, I don't mean that you deliberately make the story difficult to read, or mystify the reader to the extent that they don't have a clue what's going on: I mean that you take them on a journey that interests them, and consequently encourages them to read on in the hope of further pleasures to come. Red herrings, cliffhanging chapter endings, suspense, and reversals of fortune are techniques that should be found in every writer's toolkit.
If you are using the story to explore a moral or philosophical issue, you may want to use this opportunity to put forward the different sides of an argument. You can do this by using two or more characters to represent the various points of view - however, avoid the temptation to turn the story into an actual debate, with representatives from the two sides putting forward their cases verbally as if they were contending barristers in a court case. Follow the age-old adage of 'show, don't tell' and make the characters act out the two conflicting arguments through their behaviour and their deeds.
And naturally, at the very end of the tale comes the resolution: the denouement, the solving of the problem, the point at which you say (implicitly rather than literally, I hope) 'they all lived happily ever after.' This is where you tie up the loose ends of your story; though whether or not you tie up all the loose ends, or leave some of them open, is up to you, and will generally be determined by the nature of the proceeding story (the more naturalistic the story, then greater the tendency to provide an 'open' ending).
So that's it, the one ultimate plot, the one that's common (in one form or another) to almost every story that's ever been told and ever will be told. You should have already realised that knowing this plot is not the answer to every writer's ills - but then, if you know anything about writing, you'll know already that such a panacea doesn't exist. However, if you stick to this scheme then you'll be able to concentrate your creative energies on the places where they will really count: on creating the characters and the relationships between them.
And write much better stories as a consequence.
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© 2002 Richard Young. All rights reserved.