How To Use Story Archetypes To Subvert Expectations

by Kayla Dean
published in Writing

A few weeks ago while I browsed through the YA aisle in Barnes and Noble, I flipped through the Q&A section in the back of one of Lauren Oliver’s books. One of the things Oliver cited as inspiration for her popular Delirium trilogy was something she’d read that said all stories are either about love or death. That line hit me like really great truths do when you read them on paper. Could that really be true?

We’ve all heard of story archetypes, like Rags to Riches, Voyage and Return, or Overcoming the Monster (or worse yet those Man vs. whatever categories that we learned in school), but it’s almost hard to believe that all the world’s stories could fit into a handful of categories. Yet the 2004 book Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker attempts to diagram every plot archetype throughout time. Booker’s theory is that the world only has seven stories to tell. Booker is not alone. In the 19th century, Georges Polti wrote about the 36 dramatic situations. There are even theories that as many as 20 plots exist.

Everyone seems to agree that there are only so many stories, but no one is quite sure how many of them there actually are. That might feel frustrating and limiting. It’s all too easy to believe that learning what those plot structures are might make you fall into clichéd patterns. Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, there’s a way to make story archetypes work for you and allow you to subvert expectations. Here’s how.

Study Up on the Story Archetypes

If you aren’t sure whether Beauty and the Beast is a Rebirth plot or a Tragedy, study up on the categories. See how stories fall into the patterns because you’ll find that many stories do fit a mold. This may seem frustrating, but it’s actually an exciting look into human psychology. Isn’t it amazing to think that we’ve gone thousands of years telling the same stories over and over again, yet somehow we haven’t finished saying what we want to say?

A great thing about these archetypes is that they can tell you a lot about genre reader expectations. Just remember to challenge yourself to dig deeper: while some stories may appear to be cookie-cutter, you may have to look for the moments that subvert expectations. If you can’t find any, take the opportunity to think about how a story might do so.

Understand Your Story in Terms of a Power Struggle

In other words, don’t put your story in a box. Just because you understand the patterns of stories that doesn’t mean there isn’t a way to break those types. It’s quite likely that there are many books that don’t fit the handful of plots out there (hint: ever heard of an anti-story?). In the DIY MFA book, Gabriela writes that story archetypes can be helpful, but they can also be restricting. A helpful tip that Gabriela gives is to think of your novel in terms of the power struggle. Instead of directly planning your story with an archetype in mind, think about your character’s goals, who they’re fighting, and what they’re fighting for.  You must think about the conflict that drives the story first. Don’t think of your story as a Rags to Riches or Rebirth plot in the first draft.

Start With Character

Have you ever heard that character is the heart of fiction? If you want to have a successful story, start with your character’s struggles, emotions, and voice. When you know your characters well, you can understand what they’re up against.

To get extra perspective on your plot, see how the story looks from every character’s angle. Just as Gabriela advises in the DIY MFA book, think of supporting characters as protagonists of their own life. Then you can see how the story looks through their eyes.

Use the Rule of Three

Before you dismiss it, try a three-act structure to see how your novel’s timeline progresses through each stage of events. Ultimately, your novel must have a beginning, middle, and end, which usually climbs towards a crisis near the end of the novel that the characters must resolve.

Get Stuck Before You Look At Archetypes A Second Time

A good method to follow if you’re a plotter is to plan your novel scene-by-scene early on, keeping in mind the archetype your story falls into. Try to plan scenes that subvert or answer reader expectations. But when you’re writing your scenes, let yourself fall into the story and make things happen. If you’re a pantser, let yourself get stuck before you look at story archetypes. Once you’ve lost track of where you’re going, assess your plot to see what category it falls into. Then decide if your power struggle is powerful enough to sustain your novel. If not, go back to the drawing board.

What pantsers and plotters both have in common is that their stories ultimately deal with a power struggle. Instead of obsessing over fitting your story into a box, there’s a way to make sure that your story is unique.

The plot archetypes are a helpful way to imagine how the situations you create might fit an overall framework. Instead of thinking scene-by-scene, you’re thinking big-picture. Archetypes may not be the only or best way to plan a story, but they are helpful because they reduce the likelihood that you’ll write scenes with no direction or purpose, or risk over-planning scenes until you don’t care to write them anymore.

Kayla Pinterest PhotoKayla Dean is an arts and entertainment writer in Las Vegas, where she has interviewed several celebrities for publications like Vegas Seven. She has several YA stories in the works and blogs about writing and creativity on her personal website, where she also hosts the Millennial Writer Series. She received her BA in English from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and will pursue her Master’s in English Literature this fall. You can find her on Twitter@kayladeanwrites.


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