Wednesday, July 16, 2014

What's the Plot?

Ronald Tobias (professor, writer and documentary filmmaker) once wrote a book describing how the story lines of all novels, plays and movies fall into one of twenty "Master Plots." It's an interesting idea, one that has taken root in many literature classes and book club discussions. Here is Tobias' list.

1. Quest
2. Adventure
3. Pursuit
4. Rescue
5. Escape
6. Revenge
7. The Riddle
8. Rivalry
9. Underdog
10. Temptation
11. Metamorphosis
12. Transformation
13. Maturation
14. Love
15. Forbidden Love
16. Sacrifice
17. Discovery
18. Wretched Excess
19. Ascension
20. Descension.

Like I said, an interesting idea. But the problem is that Tobias' list ends up falling all over itself; that is, there is just too much combination, interconnection and blurring of themes. For instance, what would Tobias select as the "Master Plot" of Homer's Iliad? You see the difficulty. For the Iliad fits every single storyline in the list. No kidding, every single one.

No, I'm afraid Tobias' list is too much like the stuff of life itself. Complex, mixed, ironic, sometimes confused, even contrary. In my own biography (and, I'd guess, yours too), all twenty themes would be competing for the title of master plot.

So how does one best describe a novel's plot? Well, I truly do give kudos to Professor Tobias for giving it a shot (and thereby helping thousands of high school lit students). But I think one of my own high school teachers may have had the best approach. He believed the plot of a story was simply the answer to the question, "And then what happened?"