Category: Simple plots Page 1 of 3

Simple Epic Fantasy Plots, Part 4: Imposter Syndrome

If epic fantasy is often about coming of age…

  • In order to do/get the thing, the character has to pretend to be someone they’re not.
  • Sometimes that character isn’t willing to do so, and gets beaten down until they must fulfill that role.
  • Either they discover they’re not really faking it, OR they discover that no, it was just the hubris talking, and they were always a fake.
  • Often this type of story ends in a train wreck, especially if it’s a multi-volume series.  The end-end might turn out okay, but individual volumes can be a moral or literal bloodbath.

This would be things like the Mistborn series, the Farseer series, pretty much everything by KJ Parker (he almost always goes for the hubris path).  It all depends on whether you stay humble or get arrogant, and for how long.

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Simple Epic Fantasy Plots, Part 3: The Ambition

Okay, grimdark seems to love this plot like I love butter.

  • The thing must be accomplished at all costs, because reasons.
  • Hahahaha, reason.
  • Using methods the character never would have considered at the outset (and they considered more than a few things), the thing is accomplished!
  • And now they don’t want it, because the cost was too high.
  • But DAMN if it didn’t get accomplished.

I really, really love this type of story.  Mark Lawrence’s Prince of ThornsThe Lies of Locke Lamora, the Kingkiller Chronicles (so far).  Fullmetal Alchemist.  Even Frankenstein does this.

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Simple Epic Fantasy Plots, Part 2: Scope Creep

The characters have to do the thing.  Just one tiny little thing.  Uh-oh.  Remember the last time we had to do just a tiny little thing? It didn’t go well.

  • The characters have to do the thing, which is usually identified as being super-easy.  (Usually, there’s more than one character, although one of them is definitely in charge.  Someone has to listen to all the smartass remarks the main character is going to be making.)
  • FFFFFFFFF.  In order to the thing, we have to do this other thing.  And this other thing.
  • The tasks necessary in order to do the thing become all out of proportion in effort, risk, or stakes.
  • The characters beat the holy hell out of all the things by the skin of their teeth.
  • Either they emerge victorious, having done the thing, or they have been so vehement in their duty that they have made doing the thing impossible, mostly because they broke it.

This is Star Wars: A New Hope.  The Conan stories.  Roger Zelazny’s Amber (and a good bit of his other work).  Stephen Brust’s Dragaera stories.  Sword & Sorcery loves this:  the format is basically a heist story in fantasy clothes, or some other type of crime story in fantasy clothes, although I do love the Conan story where he and his ladyfriend are basically just looking for water in this deserted desert town they run across and all hell breaks loose.

It takes writing time to write these posts.  If you enjoyed this post, please take a moment to check out my latest book, One Dark Summer Night, or sign up for my newsletter.

Simple Epic Fantasy Plots, Part 1: Danger Behind Us

As far as I can tell, there are three main areas of contemporary fantasy that are so separated from each other that it’s pointless to try to lump them together.

  • Epic/high fantasy.
  • Urban fantasy.
  • Everything else.

Tropes and fans can and do cross over, but trying to figure out what’s going on seems to require some categorization.  Grimdark is another question entirely, because it has both fantasy and science fiction under its umbrella.  Portal fantasy fits comfortably under epic, at least as far as I can tell.

So when I talk about epic fantasy, I mean fantasy set in a secondary world, not Earth as we know it (although it may turn out to have been Earth all along), to which the term “grimdark” may or may not apply.

The first plot I’ve picked out:

  • There’s something that the main character must do.
  • In order to do this thing, the character must always go forward, never back.
  • Behind the character, everything is destroyed, ruined, and cut off.
  • It’s often only at the last moment that the character is able to move forward, before being destroyed.
  • If the character does manage to go back, it’s a really bad idea–traitors, traps, destruction, abomination.
  • In the end, the character reaches the final destination and does the thing; they may or may not sacrifice their life in order to do so.

This is The Lord of the Rings.  It’s some of the Narnia books (The Last Battle especially).  Exhaustion, PTSD, grief.  The Last Unicorn.  It’s not like the horror movie It Follows, where no matter where you go, the thing is following you.  It’s just not that personal.  This is more about war.  Strangely, Star Wars, which uses a ton of fantasy tropes, or rather tropes that were strongly adopted by the fantasy genre, doesn’t do this.  The characters in Star Wars are often going back to places they’ve been, or not going the places they were supposed to go.

It takes writing time to write these posts.  If you enjoyed this post, please take a moment to check out my latest book, One Dark Summer Night, or sign up for my newsletter.

Simple Horror Plots, Part 5: Here I Stand

A door opened, and an apocalypse stepped in.

  • It wasn’t something that could be helped, really.  I mean, it might have escaped from a government lab, but it was a perfect storm, a once in a million years incident of bad luck.
  • Only, something decided to exploit that bad luck.  It went beyond chance or an act of nature or anything like that.  It was of purely evil intent.
  • Good God, why?
  • We try to survive by keeping our heads low.  It doesn’t work.  Humans don’t work.  But if that’s the case, what’s even left?
  • Better just to lie down and die.
  • But I will not.  I will stand.
  • I may resist and defeat that which has opportunistically made the bad situation worse.  I may fall and be overcome.  But I have stood.

This is, obviously, The Stand.  But it’s also things like Braveheart, the Mad Max series, The Dark Tower, and more.  Epic horror?  Got it covered.

It takes writing time to write these posts.  If you enjoyed this post, please take a moment to check out my latest book, One Dark Summer Night, or sign up for my newsletter.

What Is a Cozy?

Cozies are a subset of the mystery genre in which the author distracts the reader from the PTSD areas of their lives.  They’re the gentle hugs of stories, and yet they revolve around some crime, because nothing is as entertaining as gossip.


Cozies actually:

  • Feature a main character you wouldn’t mind going on vacation with.  The character might be annoying, but in such a way that you could totally put up with for a weekend.
  • Are set in a place that you would like to go on vacation, or center around a job/lifestyle that you wouldn’t mind having yourself for a few days.
  • Are about the messiness of life finally getting sorted out for five minutes.
  • Are generally about the theory that if people would just talk to each other, it would all work out for the best.
  • Are about selfish geting what’s coming to them, and generous people who make terrible mistakes and get mercy and forgiveness instead, although they first have to be genuinely sorry.
  • Feature things that people enjoy as part of their relaxation rituals.  Pets, hobbies, food, hot beverages, walks through picturesque landscapes, warm blankets, friends who are there for you, hugs.
  • Should be like being offered a hand.  “Come with me,” says the author.  “We will make real life hurt less.”

An Agatha Christie quote I pulled from Goodreads:

“I like living. I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow; but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing.”

Like that 🙂

It takes writing time to write these posts.  If you enjoyed this post, please take a moment to check out my latest book, One Dark Summer Night, or sign up for my newsletter.


Plot Shapes: The Turn of the Screw

I’ve been studying The Turn of the Screw lately.

  • A group of people are sitting around the fire telling Christmas ghost stories, as you do (this is a Victorian UK thing).
  • Storyteller (Douglas) claims that the story he’s about to tell comes from his sister’s governess, who has been dead 20 years.
  • He sends away for story, which later, before his death many years later, he gives to the unnamed narrator.
  • Douglas reads the story at this post-Christmas house party back in the day, which the narrator copies out exactly from the manuscript.  However, the setup that the narrator gives is from memory.
  • Then we get to the main body of the story.  For now, let’s just leave it at that, but there are more layers there.
  • The “frame” story never intrudes again, and never closes.  You never go back to the narrator or Douglas again–it’s not a frame story at all.

At first the significance of this didn’t hit me.  Okay, so it’s not a frame story, it’s just an introduction; that’s fine.  But this is kind of a standout as far as stories go.  Much like An American Werewolf in London, the story just…stops.  There is no wrapup, no denoument, no validation.  It just stops.

But he had already jerked straight round, stared, glared again, and seen but the quiet day. With the stroke of the loss I was so proud of he uttered the cry of a creature hurled over an abyss, and the grasp with which I recovered him might have been that of catching him in his fall.  I caught him, yes, I held him–it may be imagined with what a passion; but at the end of a minute I began to feel what it truly was that I held. We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped.

That’s the last paragraph of the story.  We don’t get what happened to the governess, what happened when that was the end of the story among the friends listening, or what happened with the narrator, as he wrote that all down.

Everyone talks about how the plot of The Turn of the Screw is about whether or not the two children were seeing ghosts or had just gone mad–or whether the governess had seen ghosts, etc.

Nobody talks about how the governess could have just been writing fiction–nobody has heard of these two kids dying in the first place–or how Douglas could have written this–there’s a hint in the beginning that he did (“But Douglas, without heeding me, had begun to read with a fine clearness that was like a rendering to the ear of the beauty of his author’s hand”), or it could have been the narrator making all this up.  Clearly, Henry James made all this up–but which, if any, of the successive levels of narration are unreliable (if any?).  Is there a truth or a falsehood to this narrative at all, or is it all in the reader’s mind?

Is this a story more about readers than it is about ghosts?  About how we forget that we’re reading a story at all?

As far as I can tell, the shape of this plot is a downward spiral, not just in “madness,” but into what makes a story in the first place.


(A note on the pacing and style in The Turn of the Screw.  The sentences and paragraphs tend to be long, full of clauses and punctuation–and interruptions–and multiple layers of reality; a paragraph isn’t just a straightforward relation of events, but a description of how the governess tells the story of what happened to Mrs. Grose, that shifts into straight narration of what happened, completely ditching the level of narration by the end of the paragraph sometimes.


Mrs. Grose watched them with positive placidity; then I caught the suppressed intellectual creak with which she conscientiously turned to take form me a view of the back of the tapestry. I had made her a receptacle of lurid things, but there was an odd recognition of my superiority–my accomplishments and my function–in her patience under my pain.  She offered her mind to my disclosures as, had I wished to mix a witch’s broth and proposed it with assurance, she would have held out a large clean saucepan.  This had become thoroughly her attitude by the time that, in my recital of the events of the night, I reached the point of what Miles had said to me when, after seeing him, at such a monstrous hour, almost on the very spot where he happened now to be, I had gone down to bring him in; choosing then, at the window, with a concentrated need of not alarming the house, rather that method than a signal more resonant.  I had left her meanwhile in little doubt of my small hope of representing with success even to her actual sympathy my sense of the real splendor of the little inspiration with which, after I had got him into the house, the boy met my final articulate challenge. As soon as I appeared in the moonlight on the terrace, he had come to me as straight as possible; on which I had taken his hand without a word and led him, through the dark spaces, up the staircase where Quint had so hungrily hovered for him, along the lobby where I had listened and trembled, and so to his forsaken room.

This whole book is like an unclosed parenthesis.

Simple Horror Plots, Part 4: The Suckers

There’s always some sucker willing to bumble into the wrong part of town…or some small town willing to host something it shouldn’t.

  • Something’s looking for trouble.
  • Surprise, surprise, our characters are just the suckers needed–wrong place, wrong time, and distracted.
  • Technically, the characters didn’t ask for it, although maaaaybe they tried to get a little something for nothing.  Or they’re the kids of the people who actually deserve this crap.
  • Trapped, the characters decide to make some trouble for the something that made trouble for them.
  • The characters win–but they’re changed.  Or the characters lose–and are changed.  Or the characters die and someone else watches the tragic ending–and is changed.

I think this is the one for things like Cabin in the Woods and Stepford Wives and Rosemary’s Baby, that kind of thing.  ‘Salem’s Lot.  Stephen King practically has an industry based on this plot.

An interesting twist that Bentley Little sometimes does is to make it look like he’s doing The Suckers, and really it turns out that the characters deserved this shit all along (The Ignored).

Simple Horror Plots, Part 3: It’s Fine

The first signs of trouble were small.  So small that we ignored them.  Ditto the second, third, fourth, fifth…

  • There’s a relatively minor problem.
  • Everyone blows it off (although there might be one person who panics about the situation in an obviously useless, “it’s all in your head” fashion).
  • Until it’s too late to do anything preventative to head off major consequences.
  • Successively larger efforts to fix the problem may in fact just make things worse.
  • Grand Guignol moment.
  • Either it finally gets fixed and things are fine (mostly), or it doesn’t get fixed and everything’s fine because the relevant people are dead, so…yeah.

Gremlins.  The Orphanage.  Death Note.  The Haunting of Hill House.  Hamlet.*  When I was brainstorming this, I was thinking about The Cabin in the Woods, but now I’m not sure about movies of that type.  There are a lot of movies where the problem was always horrifically, massively bad, but the characters don’t find it out right away.  This is more, “Yeah…we kinda just helped make this even worse.”


*That is, if you look at Hamlet as a horror movie with Hamlet as the antagonist.

Simple Horror Plots, Part 2: Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

The main character has a dilemma.  It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation–but there’s damnation, and then there’s damnation.

  • The character has a problem, or is called in to deal with a problem.
  • The character has to choose between a couple of craptastic options.
  • They try to avoid choosing.
  • But eventually, they have to choose.
  • In the end, the choice comes from an instinct that shows the true character of the chooser.

This is stuff like The ExorcistThe Babysitter, anything having to do with John Constantine, a lot of Devil’s Bargain stuff (although not really demonic possession stuff).  Sometimes you’ll get devil’s advocates for one or both sides.

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