MODELS OF SCREENPLAY PLOTS : Story, Motivators and Spicers

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    Introduction - Distinction Between Genre, Story and Plot.

    Many movie-goers think of screenplays in terms of ‘Genre’. The American Film Institute, Blockbuster and have whole lists of genres that range from Western, Romantic Comedy, Sport, Science Fiction, Courtroom Drama, Epic, Film Noir and Gangster. In this sense, ‘Genre’ really means ‘Setting’ or 'Context' - either the place where the action occurs or the mood of the film.

    But from the standpoint of screenplay analysis, however, it is much better to view screenplays in terms of ‘Motivation’ and ‘Emotion’. Put another way, an audience is far more interested in the impact of what your characters do and what they experience emotionally (as a way of vicarious experience), rather than where they are located. For instance, High Noon is a story set in the Wild West of the late 1800s with themes about justice, self-respect and love - that is what captures our emotional attention. But, High Noon would be just as compelling a story if it was set in a tough neighborhood in New York City today, or a new colony on Mars in the next millennium. Similarly, Alien parallels Jaws, Moby Dick and The Thing, but the stories are set in space, the ocean or the arctic. ‘Story’ refers to a chronicle of events - what happens, where and when. ‘Plot’ addresses why things happen. Plot is the chain of cause-and-effect relationships that constantly creates patterns of unified action and behavior. Plot requires the ability to remember what is already happened, to figure out the relationships between the events and people, and to try to project the outcome. In contrast, story only requires curiosity about what will happen next.

    Four useful books address the meaning of, and differences between, ‘Story’ and ‘Plot’, and generate ideas of what actually happens to the characters:

    • Robert McKee: Story (1997).
    • Ronald B. Tobias: 20 Master Plots (And How to Build Them) (1993).
    • June and William Noble: Steal This Plot: A Writers Guide to Story Structure and Plagiarism. (1985) .    
    • Tom Sawyer and Arthur David Weingarten: Plots Unlimited: A Creative Source for Generating a Virtually Limitless Number and Variety of Story Plots and Outlines. (2004).  
      Tobias's book classifies movies into 20 fundamental 'Master Plots', and provides a contemporary equivalent to Rudyard Kipling's sixty-nine plots and Georges Polti's 36 plots (Dramatic Situations). The Noble and Noble book also emphasizes 'Plot Motivators' (with overlaps into Tobias' Master Plots) and proposes the concept of 'Story Spicers'. If you combine the 20 Master Plots with the 13 Story Spicers there are 260 possible combinations. Sawyer and Weingarten's book provide strategies to develop options of what what actually happens in the story, including where the characters go, what they do and for what purpose.

      Tobias (1993) Master Plots:


      1. Quest

      6. Revenge

      11. Metamorphosis

      16. Sacrifice

      2. Adventure

      7. The Riddle

      12. Transformation

      17. Discovery

      3. Pursuit

      8. Rivalry

      13. Maturation

      18. Wretched Excess

      4. Rescue

      9. Underdog

      14. Love

      19. Ascension

      5. Escape

      10. Temptation

      15. Forbidden Love

      20. Descention


      Noble and Noble (1985) Plot Motivators:

      1. Vengeance

      5. The Chase

      9. Persecution

      13. Discovery-Quest

      2. Catastrophe

      6. Grief and Loss

      10. Self-Sacrifice

      3. Love and Hate

      7. Rebellion

      11. Deliverance

      4. Ambition

      8. Betrayal

      12. Rivalry


      Noble and Noble (1985) Story Spicer: 

      1. Deception

      5. Conspiracy

      9. Criminal Action

      13. Honor and Dishonor

      2. Material Well-Being

      6. Rescue

      10. Suspicion

      3. Authority

      7. Mistaken Identity

      11. Suicide

      4. Making Amends

      8. Unnatural Affection

      12. Searching


      Tobias (1993): 20 Master Plots
      1. Quest - Quest plots focus on the protagonist who searches for a person, place or thing (tangible or intangible) in order to change their life. Plots often travel full circle geographically while the protagonist's outer journey is mirrored by a parallel internal journey. Tobias argues that the protagonist must be changed by their experience. The object of the quest is wisdom in the form of self–realization for the hero. What the protagonists discover is often different from what he originally sought. The change is maturation and coming-of-age. Many protagonists are accompanied by a secondary character or 'side–kick' who takes care of minor details, becomes someone the protagonist bounces ideas off and someone to argue with, and whose limitations contrast with those of the protagonist.

      2. Adventure - Adventure plots focus on the journey with action being the main strong force. Generally, the hero does not change to any significant extent. The journey involves new and strange places, and events. The same cause-and-effect relationships drive action throughout the story.

      3. Pursuit - The pursuit plot is the literary version of the game children play: hide-and-seek. At the outset, establish the ground rules and the motivation for the chase. Build tension by confining the action in a small geographic space as possible. There is a real danger that pursued may get caught. Generally, the chase is more important than the people in it. Keep the story consequences of each movement unpredictable. Character is represented by action.

      4. Rescue - Rescues rely heavily on a triangle between the hero, the victim and the antagonist where the hero must retrieve walk he has lost. Morally, the antagonist is wrong. The moral argument in rescue plots tend to be black and white. Generally, the villain’s role is to deny the hero of what he believes is rightfully his. Most rescue plots revolve around action. The most powerful motivation for the hero rescue is love. The antagonist repeatedly and creatively interferes with the protagonist’s efforts. We need to know very little about the characteristics of the victim. The three act structure is represented by: Act I, Separation; Act II, Pursuit; Act III, Confrontation between hero and villain. Generally, the confrontation occurs in the villain’s domain.

      5. Escape - The hero is often unjustly imprisoned and is often pursued after the escape. The moral argument in escape plots tend to be black and white. Act I, Imprisonment; Act II, Experience of imprisonment and plans for escape (often with failed attempts); Act III, Escape.

      6. Revenge - Revenge plots are very visceral and can be deeply emotional that create strong bonds between the hero and the audience. Generally, the hero single-mindedly and obsessively seeks retribution against the person or organization that wronged them. The hero may first try traditional and legal means to gain justice, but fails. Later, things go wrong for the hero and he must improvise. In the final confrontation, the heroes of vengeance equals but does not exceed the offense perpetrated against him: the punishment fits the crime.

      7. The Riddle - The riddle must be clever and the answer hide in plain sight. Act I, Generalities of the riddle; Act II, Specifics of the riddle; Act III, Solution to the riddle and explanations.

      8. Rivalry -Two individuals compete for the same object or goal. The adversaries should be equally matched: an irresistible force meets an immovable object. The antagonist generally begins with the advantage. The hero then gradually reverses his dissent to achieve parity with the antagonist. Act III deals with the final confrontation.

      9. Underdog - The underdog plot is a form of rivalry, but where the hero is disadvantaged and would be expected to lose. Victory against all odds is achieved through perseverance and creativity.

      10. Temptation - Temptation is to be induced or persuaded to do something that is either unwise, wrong or immoral. These plots are often plots of the mind. The plot focuses on morality and the effects of giving in to temptation. Act I, Introduced the nature of the protagonists (and antagonist); Act II, Specifics of the temptation, the struggles by the antagonist on his decision, initial gratification on yielding to temptation, denial, consequences and attempts to reverse their decision; Act III, Resolution of the protagonists internal conflicts, with an ending of atonement, reconciliation and forgiveness.

      11. Metamorphosis - Metamorphosis plots are about physical change, usually the result of a curse. The metamorph is an innately sad character. The goal of the protagonists is to reverse the transformation. The cure for the curse is generally love.

      12. Transformation - Here, the change is in the internal characteristics of the protagonist. It focuses on the question: How will this person react? Interest is derived from the fact that different people react in different ways. Act I, The transformation propels the protagonist into a crisis; Act II, Effects of the Transformation; Act III, Final stage of the transformation.

      13. Maturation - A transformation plot about growing up: Coming-of-Age. The protagonist is usually a sympathetic young person whose goals are either confused or not yet formed. Focus the story on the protagonists moral and psychological growth.Once we have met the protagonist and understood his world, a catalytic event causes a reaction typical of their developmental stage. Defenses are activated and responses ineffective. The protagonist has no choice but to develop a new system of beliefs and test them in an ultimate challenge. The key is to show the process of gradual change.

      14. Love - The classic structure is for lovers to meet, lovers part and for lovers to reconcile: the key is to make your story unique. There should always be a major obstacle to love. The lovers are usually fail–suited in some way. Love stories do not always have happy endings.

      15. Forbidden Love - Here, love must find itself despite challenges to being conventional. Characters often must overcome prejudice and ignorance from their own community. The threat is sometimes physical violence.

      16. Sacrifice - Sacrifices are made in the name of love, justice and principal. The protagonists transformation often starts at a lower psychological state where he is unaware of the nature and complexity of the problem that confronts them. The protagonist's transformation is forced by external events, but their internal reasons must be clear. We are intrigued  theby the profound internal struggle regarding the decisions the protagonists must make. Risk and consequences of failure are generally internal, and range from dishonor, shame to death. Success comes at great personal cost to the protagonist.

      17. Discovery - Characters must discover something fundamental about themselves and learn through discovery – much as the audience must discover the meaning of the screenplay. Act II explores the protagonists depth and it establishes that their struggle is deeply meaningful and demands someone re-evaluate their life.

      18. Wretched Excess - For many reasons, a sympathetic protagonist with a character flaw finds themselves outside of mainstream behavior - either by loss of self–control or circumstances forced upon them. From psychological stability to instability. Tobias argues that the real tension within this plot comes from convincing the audience that it could happen to them. The ending is either destructive or the beginning of reconstruction.

      19. Ascension - The protagonist begins at a clear little point in their life. The story follows their ascension against all odds to self–improvement in a broad spectrum of domains.

      20. Descension - Dissension plots follow the reverse of ascension. The protagonist declines through is a physical, moral and emotional turmoil.

      Noble and Noble in their book, Steal This Plot: A Writer's Guide to Story Structure and Plagiarism (1985) take a slightly different approach and emphasizes thirteen 'Plot Motivators' coupled with thirteen 'Story Spicers' to give a total of 169 combinations.

      Noble and Noble (1985): Plot Motivators
      1. Vengeance -

      2. Catastrophe -

      3. Love and Hate -

      4. The Chase -
      5. Grief and Loss -

      6. Rebellion -

      7. Betrayal -

      8. Persecution -

      9. Self-Sacrifice -

      10. Survival (deliverance) -

      11. Rivalry -
      12. Discovery (quest) -

        Dr. No,

      13. Ambition -

      Noble and Noble (1985): Plot Spicers
      1. Deception -

      2. Material Well-Being (Increase or Loss of) -

      3. Authority -

      4. Making Amends -

      5. Conspiracy -

      6. Rescue (Including rescue of self) -
      7. Mistaken Identity -

      8. Unnatural Affection -

      9. Criminal Action (Including Murder) -

      10. Suspicion -

      11. Suicide -

      12. Searching -

      13. Honor and Dishonor -

      Genre generally refers to the setting, mood, theme and character archetypes of a film. Again, many breakdowns and subcategories have been developed, such as those described by the American Film Institute, as well as commercial movie rental companies such as Blockbuster and Netflix. The principle film genres, including those from the American Film Institute are:
      Action -
      Adventure -
      Chase -

      'Chick Flicks -

      Comedy -

      Coming of Age -

      Courtroom Drama -

      Crime and Gangster -

      Detective -

      Disaster - 

      Drama -

      Epics/Historical -

      Escape -
      Fantasy -
       The Wizard of Oz,

      Femme Fatale -

      Film Noir -

      Friendship -

      Heist -
      Horror -


      Musicals/Dance -
        42nd Street, White Christmas

      Romance -

      Romantic Comedy -

      Sports -
      Hoosiers, The Natural,

      Supernatural -

      Suspense -

      Thriller -

      War/Anti-War -

      Westerns -