How Many Fantasy Plots are There Really?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Philip Overby, Mar 28, 2013.

  1. Philip Overby

    Philip Overby Staff Article Team

    This is something I'd like to posit. How many possible plots can actually be done in fantasy fiction? I'm going to list the ones that I've seen in good abundance:

    1. Quest to get something/defeat someone/destroy something/save someone
    2. Struggle between political factions or ideals/war between countries/struggle between good vs. evil
    3. Self-discovery/realization of powers/realization of true nature
    4. Attaining a birthright/destiny
    5. Preventing something from destroying the world/city/country/village
    6. A person of no virtues becomes a person of strong virtues/Vice versa
    7. Someone is called to do something against their will
    8. Finding true love

    These are all pretty broad, so I think most stories may fit in to some of these categories. You're free to add any that you think may also exist.

    Do you find that these plots speak to fiction in general, or do they seem more tailored to fantasy fiction? Why do you think these kind of plots arise so often? Are there are other plots that you think work well in other genres that could be applied to fantasy?

    Do you find a plot that you've seen many times before acceptable as long as the characters speak to you in some way? I would probably say yes, in my case. But I think oftentimes as readers, or writers even, we may not like the sound of a book because it sounds "too familiar" not allowing yourself to find out if the characters can carry the plot or not.


    Disclaimer: I'm not saying these plots are bad. I use these plots myself.
  2. Chilari

    Chilari Staff Moderator

    This seems like a categorisation exercise. Interesting, perhaps, and even useful in examining trends and what's popular, but it's still a situation of calling a rose a flower and a daffodil a flower too and not really acknowledging the differences between them. There are thousands of flowers, and they've all got similar features - petals, bright colours, function - but each species of flower is different from all the others. Similarly each story that fits in the "Finding a birthright/destiny" story type will be different, even if there are features that are the same.
  3. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    Those are pretty broad. There can be a big difference just between two "Quest" stories - that is, an original plot is going to be hard to find at this level of abstraction, but there are opportunities for creativity when it comes to the details. What I find more interesting is how many stories encompass all of those.

    As for adding to the list, I think "dealing with hidden traitors/threats from within" doesn't really fit seamlessly into any of those, or is at least different enough to be worth adding.
    TheCrystallineEntity likes this.
  4. Philip Overby

    Philip Overby Staff Article Team

    Actually, that is an interesting point. I would say Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire encompasses all of those. Without spoiling anything, I can pretty much say these would all fit one way or another.

    If these plots are too broad or general, how can they be broken down further?
  5. AVCortez

    AVCortez Apprentice

    There are seven basic plots in fiction:

    man vs. nature
    man vs. man
    man vs. the environment
    man vs. machines
    man vs. the supernatural
    man vs. self
    man vs. god

    All plots can in one way or another bit fit into these exceedingly broad groups because they are just that.

    In my latest novel I've used the monomyth as a template, but it bares little resemblance to anything else I've read with or without the monomyth....... Except refusal of the call, which after writing I realized was literally star wars. (guy meets old wise guy and receives learning, collects a sword, comes home: parents burnt alive) So I have some work to do there :p.

    To add to your list:

    9. Coming of age, sort of like your self-discovery one with a bit less grandeur.
    10. Journeys - Quite common in fantasy I find: A bunch of adventuring types have a place to get to, and a bunch of random fun stuff happens along the way.
  6. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    I think you could maybe look at the story beats, and see the steps towards resolving each mini conflict a little clearer.

    Those are seven basic sources of conflict, not really plots.
  7. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    I think there are as many fantasy plots as there are plots in any other genre of literature. You can take any plot you might use elsewhere and use the same basic ingredients in a fantasy setting.
  8. Nebuchadnezzar

    Nebuchadnezzar Lore Master

    I'm with Chilari on this one. To a certain extent you could draw up a list of 3/5/7/10/whatever categories that encompass all plots, but the categories would be so broad as to be mostly meaningless. They would miss the distinctions that make each individual story (more or less) unique.

    I suppose, but more often I'm looking for the writer's ideas to speak to me. In other words, what is the writer trying to say to me beneath the surface level of their plot? What thoughts, concepts or themes are they trying to communicate or what philosophical axe are they trying to grind?

    For me, there's nothing more tedious than a story about a quest to destroy the Dark Lord that is really only about a quest to destroy the Dark Lord.
  9. Philip Overby

    Philip Overby Staff Article Team

    Maybe my original post didn't capture what I wanted to discuss. Perhaps breaking down the generalizations would be a better approach. For instance, quests. Quests come up a lot in fantasy fiction, probably more than other types. Is it because of Tolkien or other writers before him that this persists in fantasy? Why is this idea attractive to readers/writers? I like quests myself, but just wondering what attracts people to them.
  10. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    I think a big part of the Quest/Journey in fantasy is that it sends your character out and gives them a chance to explore more of the setting and see the world that you've created. I think that's also why I've seen some people frown upon it - much of the story then becomes setting-based, instead of character or even plot based.

    Not to pick on LOTR, with a quest we get to see the Mines of Moria, for instance, but what do they have to do with anything? We do get character and plot development through the quest, but mostly the conflict feels in some degree arbitrary, instead of necessary.

    So Quest:

    Advantage: See new and incredible aspects of the setting, give your characters conflicts to develop without the complications of a long and involving plot.

    Disadvantages: Many aspects may feel arbitrary or irrelevant in the greater scheme of things.

    A good use of the quest, I think, is done by GRRM, where he frequently uses it for characters like Arya or Brienne to explore the setting beyond what the main characters experience.
  11. MadMadys

    MadMadys Lore Master

    Speaking just to the quest idea, I think it's popular because it's rather easy. Take whatever MacGuffin you want, either give it to the MCs to take somewhere or have them try to recover it in order to stop some bad guy/girl/force. Start it with Character A, B, C which are your typical mix of quiet loner, funny character, and strong guy or a woman (with hidden power she has to discover). Heck, throw in a talking animal too for good measure and have at least a quarter of fantasy stories.

    You can mix and match certain elements but it saves the writer having to come up with a plot so they can instead focus on whatever else they'd like. Not saying it's lazy to do, at least not in all cases, because like with any plot it comes down to execution more than anything else. It all just intrinsically ties to what is really the plot of every fiction story: "Something happens"
  12. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    This would be my answer to the original post.

    As for number of different plots in all of existence, different writing theories claim different numbers. Here's an incomplete list of some of those plots Frequently Asked Reference Questions But I believe all of them could be used in a fantasy story.

    Maybe the quest is so appealing because its what can be described as a"Grand Gesture" that solves all problems and makes things right. Real life problems are complicated, but I venture that most of us dream of that one thing if it comes about, say winning the lottery or writing a best seller, will make everything just awesome.

    It's neat to day dream about that but life isn't that simple. Winning the lottery doesn't guarantee happiness... but I think that's part of the appeal, to imagine being able to do that one thing that is guaranteed to make your life and the lives of those around you better.

    EG. If I punch my boss in the face for being the big jerk that he is my life and the lives of my co-workers will be awesome again. AKA defeat the evil overlord.

    Winning the lottery is like questing for the secret treasure and when it's found I return to the praises of my friends and family and my life will be much better.
    Last edited: Mar 28, 2013
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  13. Jamber

    Jamber Mystagogue

    The woman avoiding bad/forced/evil marriage? It's not seeking love and not a quest, though it might fit faintly into the 'becoming a complete self' pattern (but only just, and it's not generally about elevation in status). Bluebeard is a fairly rough example, as are elements of the Persephone myth.
    It could be said it's often there in a novel as a subplot, but that's only a question of what a writer cares enough to make central.
    The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Brönte, semi-fits this story model (if it is one).

  14. Ireth

    Ireth Mythic Scribe

    Heh. My novel Winter's Queen is all about that. The heroine is kidnapped and forcibly engaged to an evil Fae prince, and she spends the whole novel trying various means of escaping him, while her father and uncle journey to find and rescue her.
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  15. Benjamin Clayborne

    Benjamin Clayborne Dark Lord

    I would submit that fantasy is just the window dressing; any story can be told in any environment. Typically we see heroic/adventure stories in fantasy settings, but there have been mysteries, romans a clef, Bildungsroman, and everything else you can conceive of, in every conceivable setting.

    I wouldn't worry about trying to come up with something horribly new; an old story well-executed is always in high demand.
  16. Anders Ämting

    Anders Ämting Dark Lord

    Technically speaking, Nr 1 encompasses numbers 4, 5 and 8. Possibly 2 and 7 as well.

    In fact, the first one is easily the broadest and most generalized, and can simply be stated as: "Someone must attain a goal."
  17. skip.knox

    skip.knox Staff Moderator

    I agree with Chilari, though I'd call it an exercise in abstraction. Comes to the same thing.

    We humans love to find patterns. So yeah, all plots can be categorized as ABCEDFG. Or as ABC. Or as red blue green cyan magenta black. Or any other pattern that tickles your fancy on a Tuesday. It doesn't actually *mean* anything when one comes to actual writing. When actually writing, there's only one plot. The one that fits this story. Leave it to others to sort the M&Ms.
  18. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

    Quests allow the characters to explore a variety of different settings and meet a variety of different people. I say their appeal for me lies in the world-building opportunities they provide.
  19. Nihal

    Nihal Valar Lord

    I might come off as naive, but aren't all the stories about quests? We are on quests too, we're always seeking something, moving towards some objective. Even looking for a meaning to your life is a sort of quest.
  20. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    "Quest" in this sense is usually, "quest giver, journey, do this specific task." In the strictest sense, Gandalf shows up on Bilbo's doorstep with a quest to slay the dragon Smaug, and Brienne sets out with a quest to find Sansa. I would say that Yorin finds Arya in the city streets, and they depart on a quest to go home.

    That specific task usually means the plot is pretty simple, and the journey is why I say that most of the conflict up to that point feels arbitrary and setting-based. That has advantages and disadvantages.

    You can relax the definition a bit - quest giver, specifically, could be anything - but who knows how much.

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