Book Review: 20 Master Plots by Ronald B. Tobias

Some people seek the meaning of life; for writers an understanding of plot becomes the ultimate intellectual goal. As anyone who has attempted fiction writing knows, comprehending it can be as challenging as finding life’s ultimate purpose. Fortunately for us, Ronald B. Tobias crafted an easy-to-understand guideline. In addition to defining the concept, he included 20 sample plots for reference.

Mr.Tobias commenced his narrative by exploring the–at times elusive–concept. Plot is structure, he wrote. (Page 4) He elaborated by noting that plot is a process, not an object. (Page 5) Personally, I preferred Ayn Rand’s observation that “plot is a purposeful progression of events leading to the climax.” Still, I thought Tobias’s explanation pretty good and comprehensible.

Before analyzing different plots, the author detailed a number of technical aspects of story writing. He delved into Artistotle’s view that a unified action consists of a three act structure: a beginning, middle and an end. He explained how “reversals” and “recognition” play into the overall narrative. “Deep tension” works better for an overall work than “local tension” which is ephemeral obstacle a protagonist faces. (Page 18) He defined “incidents” as “plot beats.” (Page 64) These concepts can be difficult to explain, but the author phrased his ideas lucidly. I didn’t encounter any difficulty following his narrative.

One key point I leaned from this book is that there are two fundamental plots. They are “the action plot” and “plots of the mind”. (Pages 40 – 42) That may seem self-evident. However, any story ever written can be broken down into one of those. Before moving on to the “master” plots, all authors need to understand this.

Of course, the real crux of the book came from the 20 “master” plots Mr. Tobias analyzed. I liked the detailed way he explored the nuances of each one. He showed how a “quest” plot differs from an “adventure” plot. In covering plots such as “transformation”, “maturation” and “ascension and descension” he explained the subtleties that make each unique.

The end of each chapter contained a checklist showing the various key points about each plot. As an added bonus, one can go on-line and download a PDF version of all the checklists. I’m not going to include the website here, because it’s such a great reference, it really is worth taking the time to read the book.

The inclusion of quotes from famous authors livened up the text. Towards the beginning the author quoted Somerset Maugham. “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” (Page 38) He included Mickey Spillane’s statement that, “I have no fans. You know what I got? Customers.” (Page 140) The best tip came from Leo Tolstoy. Many writers believe that a great story comes from a “good vs. bad” conflict. Tolstoy argued that the best stem from “good vs. good.” (Page 105)

My one criticism of the book it’s really a criticism. It’s an observation. The author used numerous novels and short stories by famous writers to bolster his points. As one can see from the names in the preceding paragraph, he used a diverse variety. In the early sections of the book, it seemed like he disproportionately used movies as examples. I specifically recall Fatal Attraction coming up several times. It’s possible that he intended this work as a guide for screenwriters, as well as “print” authors. He may also have chosen Rebecca, Lawrence of Arabia and Ghost because they were more familiar to his target audience, too. I mention this because the abundance of cinematic examples jumped out at me in the earlier chapters.

This book isn’t just an outstanding reference source: it’s a great read. I’d recommend authors think about a story (s)he is writing. Examine the chapters of 20 Master Plots that would apply to it. You’ll probably pick-up some valuable pointers to lift your piece to the next level. I know I did. Depending on how fast my plot comes together, I just may take on the meaning of life next.


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