5 classic plots you can use to tell meaningful stories

There are a few types of stories that get retold over and over, always slightly different, but always with the same journey from beginning to end. They are familiar stories, whether it takes place on a space station, in Ancient Rome, or in the present day. If you learn these plots and use them as the backbone for the stories you tell, it can make the process of storytelling much easier. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel to tell a story. People before us have done the hard work and laid the foundation for creating meaningful stories – all we have to do is start from there and continue to grow as storytellers.

In this post I will introduce five types of plots and their basic structure. Each of these plots is like a Mad Lib of storytelling – just insert your own setting, characters and ideas to make it your own. These can be used in a story literally or metaphorically, and of course, they can be tweaked and changed and flipped upside down – it’s up to you. It doesn’t have to be a grand and epic story, either. Applying these formulas can make even short, silly videos punch above their weight.

Overcoming the Monster (Terminator, Jaws)
1. This begins with an evil monster threatening the land. The hero sets out to defeat it.
2. The hero prepares for battle while moving closer to the monster.
3. The monster appears and displays his power, causing our hero to feel like he/she has no chance at defeating him.
4. The battle begins with the odds heavily stacked against the hero.
5. In a thrilling climax, the hero defeats the monster and escapes, returning home a changed person.

Rags to Riches/Coming of Age (Cinderella, Aladdin)
1. The story begins with the hero miserable, poor, and alone. There is a call to adventure (e.g., the invitation to the ball in Cinderella).
2. The hero has a small initial success. They are not ready for the big time, but this leaves our hero feeling hopeful.
3. Suddenly everything goes wrong. The hero often loses hope.
4. There is a final ordeal where the hero has to prove his/her strength and worthiness.
5. The hero overcomes the final obstacle and lives happily ever after.

Quest (The Lord of the Rings, Monty Python and the Holy Grail)
1. The hero learns of something he/she wants – an object, an ideal, it can be anything, and sets out to find it.
2. The hero comes across an obstacle, overcomes it, continues on, comes across another obstacle, overcomes it, continues on, etc. In between the obstacles there are periods of rest, where often our hero meets strangers who teach him/her about the journey ahead.
3. The hero can see the finish line and what stands in his/her way, often becoming frustrated.
4. There is a final ordeal before our hero can get what he/she is looking for, often paired with a thrilling escape from death.
5. The hero wins, finds what he/she is looking for, and returns home with the prize.

Voyage and Return (Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz)
This is similar to the Quest, except they aren’t looking for something specific.
1. The hero falls into another world, often because of a blow to the head or a supernatural event.
2. The hero explores the new world, which seems like a wonderful place.
3. The mood darkens and a shadow falls across the land as the hero comes across something unexpected. The journey becomes harder.
4. The shadow takes center stage and the hero seems doomed.
5. There is another thrilling escape and the hero returns home, but often a question remains: did the hero change or was it just a dream?

Rebirth (It’s a Wonderful Life, How the Grinch Stole Christmas)
1. The hero drifts over to the dark side, often because of greed or want of power.
2. There are no immediate negative effects and things are fine for a while.
3. The dark side takes center stage – maybe the hero is asked to do something evil.
4. This continues as the hero goes further into evil, until it seems like he/she cannot be saved.
5. There is a miraculous redemption as the hero realizes his/her mistakes and overcomes the evil.

The basic structure of these plots are very straightforward: it is easy to tell between good and evil, and there is always a happy ending. Of course, life doesn’t always work like that, and these plots can be molded and changed to tell the story you want to tell. You can play with convention and surprise the audience – some of the best stories of our time are twisted, manipulated versions of these plots. But these plots provide a solid foundation so that you can tell the story any way you want without sacrificing the narrative arc that viewers need to stay interested.