31 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on October 3, 2012
After 60 years of reading novels and 55 years of trying to write one to my satisfaction, I decided to take a course in writing fiction. The syllabus recommended Tobias' 20 Master Plots, one among three suggested titles. I read it first and liked it so much because it met my temperament. Consequently, I read it eagerly, penciling notes in the margins as I hurried along.
Being selective for most of my reading life and favoring the classics or what is termed literary fiction, I suspect I am well into appreciating the craft required. However, what has troubled me about most guides to fiction writing is the continued emphasis on conflict in plot structure. Most conflicts bewilder me into wondering why I should care about the characters. Tobias makes clear that action plots drive most popular fiction today; the rest are character-driven plots. He uses as an alternative expression to conflict the prospects from tension in the story. This may be a subtly semantic difference, but it promises greater complexity and subtlety in story-telling than the out and out razzle-dazzle of action plots.
Tobias hits the mark when he says, quoting Picasso, that the creator must first know the rules before setting out to break them. Okay, let's start with action and character examples of the most common plot usages. This he does with pinpointed relevance and incisive clarity. Also practically useful are the lists of check questions along the way. In short, did you learn the lesson?
I've read enough novels over my lifetime to learn that in the few hundred years of novel development, authors have exercised a great deal of experiment not only in plot, but in style. What appeals to me as a reader spending his limited time on a novel is the author whose delivery shows a pertinent sentiment that no other writer reveals. Plot unravels the life of the protagonist or characters; and characters can propel the plot. Tobias shows why and how.
At the end of the week, I answered "A Final Checklist" of all twelve questions that shows my grasp of the story on which I am presently centered - two pages of responses. No other writing guide has given me the challenge and confidence to go forward as this one has.
Thank you, Mr. Tobias.
22 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on May 16, 2013
As a writing guide, this book was just ok. It was more of a survey than a how-to. Tobias assumes the reader already knows a lot about established literature. At times he names characters as examples without listing which work they are from, or references authors and expects the reader is familiar with their plot trends. Also, he was repetitive to the point of monotony. If you don't need examples or you don't want to read every point five times, everything instructional about each plot can be found in the checklist at the end of each chapter. It didn't make sense that he constantly repeated himself as if we are beginners while also assuming we know a lot about literary works.
This entire volume suffered from a lack of editing. I don't mean grammar or nit-picky stuff. I mean, it was disjointed. Sometimes he switched gears without titling a new header, there were often no transition sentences between paragraphs to make things read smoothly, and he included things that made the reader wonder where that came from or why it was in that place (particularly in the six chapters preceding those covering master plots).
Not that I mind it since he is a screen writer, but he frames each plot according to the three-act play, and roughly 60% of his examples are from screen. What I did mind is that he showed his screen bias so obviously (more than once). He prefers plot-driven commercial plots rather than character-driven literary plots. He said they don't require as much thinking and that he doesn't like to feel "lectured" by moral characters in literary stories. He also dares to speak for most of America with this particular opinion, citing market trends. I completely disagree with him. Readers are actually trending toward stories with deep individual characters and their individual situations more than generic action plots "on autopilot" that you could plug any ol' character into.
I liked a few points he made though. He likened the writer to being a referee for her characters, demanding a certain level of fairness to all of them. He said showing clear bias [toward your protagonist] without meaningful opposition is propaganda. He's right. A good writer should be able to argue both sides convincingly, even if the winner is already decided in the author's mind. Perhaps Tobias should create opposition to his own plot biases by highlighting the role of character more in each of these plots. It barely got a nod toward the end of each chapter.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on February 13, 2012
This book is on my night stand; I'm 30 years old and it's the same copy I used when I was 13. I've come to this book time and again to get ideas on what plot structure to use and then how to implement it.
The book has a chapter for every plot you could think of. It explains the plot and then breaks down the order of events that normally occur in the plot. The author provides numerous examples of books and films to look into in order to better understand each type of plot.
This is a huge help when working out an outline, whether on paper or in your head.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on January 3, 2014
I think it's safe to say that I am in love with this book.
Ronald B. Tobias's craft book, "20 Master Plots and How to Build Them" takes an approachable and wizened tone to the subject of plot and plot-doctoring. At no point is the craft "preached" or laid out as hard-set rules to follow (indeed, he hastens, on many occasions, to remind us that the book only offers patterns).
The tone makes the text approachable, and the layout of the book is logical, concise, full of literary examples to illustrate points, and not at all gimmicky.
The twenty plots examined by Tobias include Quest, Adventure, Pursuit, Rescue, Escape, Revenge, The Riddle, The Rivalry, The Underdog, Temptation, Metamorphosis, Transformation, Maturation, Love, Forbidden Love, Sacrifice, Discovery, Wretched Excess, Ascension, and Descension. Each come with three or four literary or cinematic examples to help get the point across, and a checklist at the end to help "guide you" back on target. The text can be read cover to cover or piecemeal, however you plan to use it. There are a lot of cinematic examples, but I didn't find these detracting (after all, it's far more likely someone has seen a specific movie than read a specific book).
I personally recommend reading the book with a story already in mind. By the time I got to Chapter Five, I had so many new ideas for writing that I almost put it down... I'm glad I didn't, because in Chapter Thirteen, I was hit by another plot twist that basically fixed a lot of my tension issues in the outline.
This book not only helped me understand some of the fundamentals that are not inherently obvious, but did the most important task of all: got me psyched to start writing!
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on May 10, 2013
Although I may not agree that there are ONLY 20 Master Plots, you'd be surprised as to how many stories use one of, if not a combination of these plots.
The truth is, your story may be applicable to a few plots; that's the genius of it. It allows you to see some really cool ways if telling it. There's always more than one. You may even find a few plots in there that you would have never thought of using but, after reading its dedicated chapter, find yourself curious enough to explore......
Chase your intuition. As a said before, it's a good supplement, certainly worth it's price.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on October 26, 2012
I'm not sure whether it is cultural indoctrination or basic human wiring, but I do recognize that I as a movie viewer tune in to certain patterns in a story that make it fulfilling and believable. The most compelling movies are those that work within the frameworks I know, the story structure and character interactions that I expect on some level. Movies that leave me wondering "what the heck" are those that stray far from these structures.
"20 Master Plots" is a must-read guideline for not only the most compelling plot structures but also for other advice that will help refine the writer's craft. I have ordered several extra copies of this book to give to other aspiring writers. I believe that when you review your favorite movies in light of this book's content, you'll have an "ah ha!" moment.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on February 6, 2012
I have an earlier, hardback edition of this book, copyrighted 1993. I don't know how much updating the author has done, if any. What I really like about the book is that, instead of reducing all possible plots into some ridiculously small number (2! 3! 5!), the author expands the plot possibilities to twenty, giving the reader much food for thought. Categorizing plot conflicts into so many individual possibilities is a strength of this book -- but it's also a weakness, as when a few of the conflicts overlap to the extent that it's difficult to distinguish between them.
This is a good book to skim, to learn about plot possibilities and read examples of them in literature, film, and legend. If you're a published novelist or even an aspiring novelist, this is a very good book to re-read if you're having difficulty with the central conflict(s) in your story. Perhaps you'll learn that what you thought was an Adventure plot is really a Rivalry plot, and you need to make changes accordingly. Or perhaps you thought your plot fell into only one of these categories: Underdog, say. Then, in re-reading this book, you see that you have two kinds of plots going, both Underdog and, say, Quest. For anybody who wants to write or rewrite a novel, this is a very good have-you-considered book that makes you analyze your manuscript in ways that will help improve it.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on December 9, 2013
It does a great job explaining the difference between plot and a simple chronicle of events. Recommended reading for all serious writers.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on January 26, 2013
I'm not sure why there is not a good plot writing book with formulas. Maybe it is too hard. Many authors try but put out something terrible, covering too much with too little details. This one comes closer than nearly all others but still falls short. I'd probably rate this a 3.5 star but since I'm not done analyzing lets go with 4.
With plot number 8, Rivalries, I find his definition falls apart. He should have called it Obstructionists.
His definition is a strict dictionary definition but doesn't exactly fit the great plots which contain rivalries.
"Whenever two people compete for a common goal, you have a rivalry."
"A rival is a person who competes for the same object or goal of another."
These definitions work for love triangles, sports, and wars, but there are so many other types of stories where the rivals have distinct goals.
The focus is not on similar goals but on the person who is obstructing another's goal. I'm trying to think of other ways to describe it. A struggle occurs when one person perceives another person is in the way. It is not the goal but rather the personified blockage to any goal which defines the story. This conflict is often, but not always, amplified when both see the other as an obstruction.
Characters in Amadeus and The Duelist are good examples of "rivals" (obstructionists) with differing goals. Even in his primary example of Ben Hur I think the protagonist and antagonist's goals are different.
Still I give him kudos for helping have a deeper understanding of a particular plot. I just wish that chapter was better thought out and written. Hopefully, he will revise because I think we need more writing books that are par with Swain's.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on December 17, 2014
If you're looking for plot ideas for your next novel, short story, or creative writing piece, experiment with the 20 plot structures in this book. A lot of these plots do overlap, but Tobias brilliantly shows how each stands well on its own. This book is a must read and reference for beginning writers and for use in creative writing courses. It's also helpful to writers who want to pump up the narrative action in a story and/or improve the continuity and connectivity throughout a piece. The clear examples illustrate plot structures that work, and the text provides concise how-to ideas for use. What makes this work so powerful is how Tobias takes the abstract out of the phrase "just describe" by offering concrete ways that show "just exactly" how to do it.