Understanding Superplots

Understanding Superplots

There are millions of plots. But there are only a few successful plots, which can also be called dramatic basic situations, “successful main plots” or “superplots”.

Before you design a plot, you should think about which topic you want to focus on. This question is extremely important, because every film or novel always deals with several themes, but they all come down to one central theme. Let me give you an example …

“Titanic” is about the sinking of a ship. Titanic also deals with a rescue operation for the ship’s passengers. Then there’s the story of Rose, her fiancé Hockley and Jack. This love triangle is about love. So is the film more about the sinking of the ship or is it a love story? You see, you must know..: there are no two answers, only one. Always remember that the central theme must be a conflict. Is the sinking of the ship a conflict? No. So the love story between Rose, Jack and Hockley is the central theme of the film. Titanic deals with the theme of love.

The central theme is the central idea of a film or novel. All other themes are subordinated to this theme. Or to put it another way: all other elements of a story ultimately always lead back to this one theme. The problem for an author is that he or she has a certain idea, but cannot yet recognize the theme in it.

An example: Let’s assume an author wants to deal with the topic “e-mail” or contact traffic via e-mail. He thinks you could make something interesting out of it. Now an author can tap into certain topics that are suitable for making an interesting story out of the topic “e-mail”. An adventure with e-mail traffic is probably absurd. Also an action duel between two e-mail writers is hardly suitable to make something cinematically interesting out of it.

What about the subject of love? Is it possible to create a love story and a story of getting to know each other from the e-mail idea? E-mails are nothing more than letters. And love stories about getting to know each other through letters already exist. The author wants to consider the exact design of the plot, i.e. the choice of the superplots, even more carefully.

But you see: …you can already use genres to narrow down a story.

There are probably thousands or millions of themes that can become the starting point for a story. What should an author now orientate himself by? How is he supposed to know that a basic idea or a topic really works? Or what a story ultimately boils down to? Let’s first look at a few possible themes …

Topics are…

Approach, separation, hatred, going on holiday, pursuing a hobby, incest, revenge, assassination, learning to fly, watching television, setting a trap for someone, death, illness, having fun, dancing and so on …

You will notice that topics are as diverse as people and their lives. But you have certainly also realized: not every topic in itself holds a conflict or a moment of tension. But some do. Topics such as “revenge”, “incest” or “assassination” already have a potential for tension per se. So there are topics that are particularly suitable for a film or a novel. There are a limited number of certain “over-themes” that almost all dramatic works come down to.

The theatre poet Carlo Gozzi (1720-1806) found 36 such themes or basic dramatic situations. The author Ronald B. Tobias has reduced the possible themes even further to 20 masterplots. Another author has thinned out the possible dramatic basic situations even further to seven basic plots.  It seems as if a competition has broken out as to who finds the fewest basic situations.   

The problem with these “master plots” or “basic plots” is that – in my opinion – they do not help you. Tobias explains his masterplots in a very general way. On the other hand there are much more than just 20 masterplots. An example: Tobias has only two plots that describe the topic “love”: “forbidden love” and “love”. In this series of articles I will present 29 superplots alone with the theme of “love” later on. In my opinion, the masterplots by Tobias or the basic plots deeply confuse prospective writers with their seductive claim to absoluteness.

How do you get from a theme to a superplot?

Some authors already have the experience of which topics work as an exciting story, while others are not so easily able to estimate this. It is therefore very important that you as an author know as many stories as possible. Another possibility is to orient yourself on the superplots. The examples given for each superplot will give you a first aid. You should also follow the description that is mentioned for each superplot and thus get to know the plots. This will teach you how to work with the plots, making it easier for you to assign your own idea to a Superplot. It takes some practice, but you will certainly master it at some point. Once you know your superplot, you should look at or read as many examples as possible. Only then will you try to create your own story. But do it in a completely different way than the authors before you. Then you have the chance to create something unique.

What is the difference between Masterplots and Superplots?

As mentioned, according to Ronald B. Tobias, there are 20 masterplots that describe very general structures, such as Quest, Adventure, Pursuit or Rescue. Tobias makes several mistakes: To commit oneself to an exact number of plots and then to publish them as a premise makes no sense and is not very helpful. What Tobias understands by masterplots is almost identical to the dramatic basic situations of Gozzi (1720-1806). The term “masterplot” sounds shorter and more concise and at the same time pretends to be something new. The master plots are also very general and therefore remain superficial.
Superplots, on the other hand, are several dozen. The “Superplots” system is an open model. Any author who finds a successful main plot (superplot) can add to the model of the superplots. Superplots represent dramatic basic situations and are therefore nothing new. However, they already make a distinction in terms of content in advance by orienting themselves towards the literary and film genres. And that is new. Superplots are also more precise and diverse.

What dramaturgical function do superplots have?

On the one hand, superplots help authors to differentiate one topic from another. On the other hand, superplots help to concretize ideas. This allows the core of a story to be extracted and better understood. Superplots are also narrative models that work particularly well. They appear several times in narrative history and over centuries. If you follow the superplots, you increase the chance that your story will be more exciting, that it will have a greater dramatic potential than other stories.


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