Helpful tools to plot your story

man and woman in library

“Excuse me, sir. Do you happen to remember that story where that guy dies and one of his sons thinks the other did the crime, but it turns out to be the mother instead?”

I was reading a post by Noelle Sterne on Writer’s Digest today where she describes “How to Prevent Predictable Plots.” She cites Georges Polti, who listed 36 classic plots which are constantly used and reused in literature and drama. (Sterne suggests that it’s inevitable you’ll use one of these basic plots, but that you can set yourself apart and introduce unpredictability through the details.)

Intrigued, I went to a description of these “dramatic situations.” I found Polti’s list pretty sound, but limited. Because it is SO basic, it doesn’t give you an idea of common twists & turns within each type, common themes, what’s overdone, what works and what doesn’t.

It also ignores a lot of stories that contain combinations of these plots. Off the top of my head, Hamlet contains elements of “Murderous Adultery,” “Discovery of the dishonour of a loved one,” and “Vengeance taken for kin upon kin.”

Here’s the resource that I prefer to supply both inspiration and guidance about plot: TV Tropes.

“What?” some of you might say. “I thought you don’t watch t.v.!” That’s true, I don’t. But despite the name, TV Tropes doesn’t just tap into television, but into the shared popular culture of contemporary Americans. Not only will you find common plots, but motifs, narrative devices, and more.

Say you have a story idea. But as you’re working on it, it reminds you of something else you’ve seen/read. Look it up on TV Tropes and compare your idea to the other story (and similar works) so you can find away to set yourself apart. Or you are writing a story, and you are stuck. Something just doesn’t seem right. Compare your story to other ones in the same sub-genre. Are there elements missing? Is there an easy but elegant solution to the issue that’s stumping you?

Has anyone else out there visited TV Tropes or other similar sites? Do you find it useful in your writing practice? How?

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