I recently read 20 Master Plots by Ronald B. Tobias. You can get an overview of the 20 master plots here. To some extent, he was trying to find universal storytelling patterns which work across cultures, but he also had some cultural biases (which he sometimes acknowledges). The rationale he gave (indirectly – I’m reading between some of the lines) for some of his cultural biases is that the book is written for Anglophone writers of the late 20th century, and they break the parameters of late 20th century Anglophone culture at their peril. Fair enough. But I’m interested in analyzing story plots, not developing story plots, and some of the plots I want to consider aren’t from 20th century Anglophone cultures.
For example, 20th century English language novels tend to be less than 600 pages long, and 20th century English language movies tend to less than three hours long. Some of the guidelines in the book are based on these restrictions in length, in particular the guideline that a story stick to one dominant plot pattern because there is usually not enough space to support multiple plot patterns. He also recommends that the cast of major characters be kept very small for similar reasons. However, he also admits that 19th century Russian novels did not always follow these particular guidelines because they had the space to be more expansive.
While I was reading this book, I was also reading Way of Choices by Mao Ni (I read it in Chinese; it has also been translated into English). It isn’t just over 600 pages long, it’s a few thousand pages long. Since that was the novel I was reading at the time I was reading 20 Master Plots, I naturally tried to see how it fit with Tobias’ plot guidelines.
You know how I suggested that different cultures tend to produce novels of different lengths? Chinese language literature tends to produce much longer novels than 19th century Russia (though there are also short Chinese novels), so Way of Choices is in no way an anomaly. This list at Wikipedia used to be a total joke because it excluded Chinese novels, now I see it has been updated to include a few Chinese novels, though there are still glaring omissions – how the heck is Da Tang Shuang Long Zhuan not on there? It’s about 7000 pages long – I know, because I read the whole thing – it was published in a very traditional manner on physical paper, it was one of the most popular Chinese novels of the 1990s so it is in no way obscure…
Tobias claims that any plot can be summed up by a single core question. I can think of some counterexamples, but the basic question of Way of Choices is obvious: will Chen Changsheng (the protagonist) survive his youth? In the prologue, we learn that Chen Changsheng has a disease which will kill him before he reaches the age of 20 – unless something else kills him first. If that weren’t bad enough, his blood has such an irresistible aroma that most animals (including most humans) will try to eat him if they get a whiff, so he has to be very careful about shedding his own blood. Generally, Chen Changsheng is obsessed with finding a way to not die young.
Does the whole novel follow a single dominant plot pattern? In my opinion, no.
The first 60% of the novel does have a dominant plot pattern – what Tobias called the ‘quest’ plot. The object of Chen Changsheng’s quest is to find out how to change fate. At the beginning of the novel, he is fated to die young. Therefore, in order to not die young, he has to change his fate. Only three people in all of history have changed their fate, and his quest is to find out how they did it. This has great personal meaning to him, if he attains his object (the means to change his fate), it would dramatically change his life (he might not die young). And he picks up a lot of wisdom along the way, particularly concerning the value of life, how to cope with the prospect of death, and whether or not fate is a real thing.
Yet within that dominant pattern, there are numerous plot arcs, and they generally take other patterns. They are essentially smaller plots nested within the dominant plot arc. Tobias says that this can generally only be done in a minor way, and if a novel is only 300 pages long, he’s probably right, but Way of Choices ain’t that short.
For example, the Zhou’s Park arc follows the ‘Adventure’ master plot. Chen Changsheng doesn’t expect to find much to help him in his quest (changing fate to save his own life), but if he figures that if he is going to die young anyway, he would like to do some more traveling and see more places, and he might find some cool treasure in Zhou’s Park. That is why he chooses to go there. The Zhou’s Park arc is about exploring an interesting place and having interesting events happen (and many people/creatures/things trying to kill Chen Changsheng), and not much about character development. And just as Tobias suggests that ‘Adventure’ plots tend to have a romance subplot, Zhou’s Park is where Chen Changsheng has his first seriously romantic experiences.
Another plot arc is the Su Li arc, which follows the ‘Pursuit’ pattern. For a change, everyone is trying to kill Su Li, not (necessarily) Chen Changsheng. However, Chen Changsheng is with Su Li, and does not want to leave him, so they flee together from everyone who is trying to kill them. There is constant tension with regards to whether they are going to be discovered, caught, and killed by their (many) pursuers.
Of course, there are more plot arcs which follow other patterns described by Tobias, but I think these examples are enough to explain what I mean by ‘nesting’ plot arcs.
However, I said only the first 60% of the novel has the ‘Quest’ plot as a dominant narrative. What about the rest of the novel? The basic question (will Chen Changsheng survive) remains the same, but about 3/5 of the way through the novel there is a plot twist which twists the plot so dramatically that it completely changes the dominant plot pattern. After the super plot twist, the dominant pattern is what Tobias calls an ‘Underdog’ plot. Perhaps one could say that the whole plot has ‘Underdog’ as its dominant pattern, it’s just that Chen Changsheng and the reader did not know that for the first 60%.
This part of the novel also has plots nested within the overarching ‘Underdog’ plot. For example, Chen Changsheng’s close friend, Tang Thirty-Six, is being kept as a captive/prisoner, and his captor is waiting for favorable circumstances to outright kill him. Naturally, Chen Changsheng wants to set Tang Thirty-Six free. This plot arc follows what Tobias calls the ‘Rescue’ plot pattern.
And then there is the final plot arc which, frankly, was rushed. I think it would have been better if the novel had an extra thousand pages or two to fully flesh out the final arc, but perhaps Mao Ni was tired of writing this novel and wanted to wrap it up. It feels like an epilogue in the sense that it seems to be more about tying up dangling plot threads than letting them play out. It’s also the only plot arc in which the question ‘will Chen Changsheng survive’ is not an ever-present backdrop. That’s not to say that Chen Changsheng isn’t threatened with death in the final arc – he is very much is threatened with death – it’s just that not woven into the story the same way (it is hard to get specific without getting into spoilers). This final arc is most similar to what Tobias calls the ‘Discovery’ plot pattern, in that it is about Chen Changsheng finally learning the answers to various questions.
Based on all of the long novels I’ve read, it seems that, to form a plot for a very long story, nesting plots are not strictly necessary, but are a very common way to form plots which can run for thousands of pages (or many episodes of a TV show, or whatever the medium is). And I think this may be part of why I feel that novels which exceed 1000 pages are distinct from novels under 600 pages in the same way that novellas are distinct from novels. If a work of fiction is too short, using nesting plots is impractical, if a work of fiction is long enough, nesting plots is the most practical way to spin a story.