How Stories Claim Lives

If Archplot is the structural backbone of the External Content Genres and Miniplot serves the Internal Content Genres (see Genre’s Five Leaf Clover), what’s the deal with the third structural genre, Antiplot?

This is the kind of question a Story nerd like myself loves to noodle. It’s like asking a Pittsburgh Steeler fan to compare and contrast the importance of linebackers Jack Ham versus Jack Lambert to the 1970s Steel Curtain defense. I’ll be happy to get into that too (one was the ice, the other the fire) if anyone cares…

Here are my two cents about the rise and indispensability of Antiplot as a structural choice for Story.

The Antiplot came of age in the bloody twentieth century.

Faced with the realities of mass impersonal slaughter from two global wars and the very real prospect of complete annihilation of the human race, a coterie of artists stared down the prospect of the end of civilization. They dug deep into the foundations of Story form to respond. Was there as much potential darkness as light in Storytelling? In fact, was Storytelling itself complicit in the systematized murder—not just of soldiers—but also of innocent civilians whose only “crime” was the content of their as yet quantified let alone unqualified genetic material?

There is no question that masterful propagandists can use Story form to ultimately horrific effect. In 388 BC, Plato urged Athenian leaders to exile poets and storytellers. He understood how powerful a well-turned Story is. Plato would not have been shocked that convincing entire populations of their hegemony while arguing the necessity of eradicating defective human specimens who would degrade their omnipotent blood lines would prove chillingly manageable with the use of a finely spun Archplot.

The rise of mass media (the printing press, film, radio and eventually television and now the Internet) to trumpet Stories visually and wirelessly moved the form from a linear to an exponential phenomenon as quickly as the technological adoption allowed. And how hard really is it to get people to adopt “entertainment” technology? Modern/Civilized man no longer heard stories from just a small group of fellow tribe members. He heard them from third-party authority figures and beautiful new Gods called “stars” from the screen and radio. Just as it did way back in Greece, the well-turned message from a charismatic presence proved irresistible.

They still do. Ask any child today who “Elsa” is or their Adult parent what’s going on with Angelina Jolie…

The Post WWI and WWII artists understood that Archplot—the dominant Story form and the communication device of Tyranny as well as Public Relations/Advertising/Salesmanship—requires causality. Which means that one event causes another. I sneeze without covering my mouth. The germs reach the air. They travel to your nose and you get a cold. My sneeze causes your infection. They understood too that Miniplot also (predominantly) requires causality, albeit at an internal level. For example, in stories of the time one’s inability to control a sexual desire caused an effect…that wonderful go-to event used by nineteenth and early twentieth century storytellers, hysterical fainting.

What baffled artists in the post-war years was that to attribute a single “cause” for mass-murder is ridiculous. That is, if the artist did not believe the rationale of the eugenists, the national socialists, the communists, the capitalists, the Vatican, or any other figure of authority or social movement, they’d find themselves at a loss when trying to conceive of a work of art to express their point of view.

The two story structures available to them, (Archplot and Miniplot) proved practically impossible to convey the absurdity.

To abide the Archplot conventions, artists wishing to examine and/or comment on the state of the world, were confronted with coming up with some sort of “explanation” for inexplicable human behavior. Unless one was writing pure propaganda [and a lot of people do write pure propaganda, yes even today] the notion of blaming the victims for their own extermination (they did x, therefore they got y) proved maddening.

As a response, Miniplot first came to the forefront of Story, especially in intellectual circles.

But soon even the Miniplots fail safe Big Idea themes proved insufficient to describe just what sort of world we lived in. Character as Destiny drama relied on unseen higher powers to imbue humanity individual by individual with a certain outcome. Some were just flat-out “Evil” and born that way. While the Indifferent Universe story required multi-player casts and the specificity of bourgeois angst and navel gazing to realize. And nothing deadens a story faster than authorial pontificating. Try and read Clifford Odets today.

The big idea Miniplots proved banal. Storytellers could choose from only two columns of Miniplot’s thematic Chinese Menu. There were Supernatural forces at play or there weren’t. So if Stories intent on supporting the notion of a higher power or no higher power at play in the travails of human existence proved insufficient, perhaps Story structure itself required a new approach?

And it is with such failures of traditional Story form that gave rise to Antiplot, the rebellion against Story itself.

Antiplot breaks all of the rules.

  1. There is no requirement that there be a consistent realty.
  2. There is no requirement of causality.
  3. There is no requirement to adhere to any time constraints.
  4. The protagonist/s at the end of the Story are the same as they were at the beginning.
  5. The Characters neither defeat nor surrender to external or internal antagonistic forces. They just remain as they ever were, like plants with voices.

Antiplot gave birth to the Theater of the Absurd, Existentialism, The Beats, Meta-Fiction, and countless masterpieces on canvass. It changed the way the world saw itself. Man was no longer the rational progressively improving being he thought he was. All of his fundamental beliefs were called into question and scrutinized.

And the verdict was not so comforting. Masterwork Antiplot Stories like Waiting for Godot and No Exit cut humanity to the quick.

Antiplot sounds like fun, right?

You can break all of Story’s rules and in the process become an avant-garde Artist with a capital “A” by doing whatever you wish. Just call yourself a serious writer and you don’t have to deal with any of that “Genre” nonsense. Why learn Classic Story form when you’re just going to throw away all of its rules?

The reason why is that you will never be able to achieve anything close to universality using the Antiplot form if you do not know what it is rebelling against. Writing Antiplot with no knowledge of Archplot or Miniplot is the equivalent of trying to build a car with no understanding of the drivetrain.

As fair warning, The Story Grid derives from the principles of Story form for Archplot and Miniplot.  It will be of limited use to the Antiplot story beyond as an exercise to check that particular story’s consistency breaking the rules and/or achieving some sort of inspired Randomness. That is, as a way to make sure that you do not accidentally build a cause/effect relationship into a particular moment in the work or change any of the lives of the characters.

But once you have a comprehensive knowledge of the Archplot and Miniplot forms, writing the next The Trial will be far easier. You’ll know what “not” to do. If you never learn the “rules” of those forms though, you’ll never be able to break them.

For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of The Story Grid posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-out.


14 comments on “How Stories Claim Lives

  1. Like Miles’s and Trane’s jazz, this is the point where I stop enjoying even though I understand (to a degree.)

    Miniplot, difficult as it is, I can still enjoy on rare occasions. But I’m a solid archplot kind of guy; give me a story with a beginning, middle, and end, where as someone said some people get what they want and others get what they deserve.

    I’m (not so) secretly glad Story Grid doesn’t burn a lot of cycles on Antiplot.

    But your explanation here is a good thing to have.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Joel,
      Yeah, I’m with you.
      Antiplot is all in the cerebral cortex. Written by the genius, it’s at best (at least for me) thought provoking. Written by the amateur, it’s excruciating.

      I like my stories in the gut. As O.W. Shadduck says in the classic Pro Football Book NORTH DALLAS FORTY, “I WANT SOME FEELING!”

      Here’s the clip from the amazing movie with the incomparable John Matuszak playing Shadduck…
      All the best,

      1. Jessica says:

        Great movie clip. I’ve wondered why boys/men play football. Asked once in a parent/coach high school football meeting. “What makes these boys show up? They loose every single game, and they have for three straight years now. Why do they keep coming back?”
        No one could answer.
        By the way… it looks like I’m the “amateur” writing a screenplay with an archplot. Heavy sigh. Looks like I’m going to subject some to an excruciating experience. It’s all part of the process. Right?

        1. Shawn Coyne says:

          Hi Jessica,
          I played football in high school and college because to not play football where I grew up would be the equivalent of refusing to eat cheese in Wisconsin.

          I think football (like life in a tribe) is all about honor and shame and/or letting down the guy next to you if you quit. There is something very important about learning how to withstand physical pain while trying to accomplish a larger goal and football does teach this invaluable lesson. I just wish it didn’t require brain damage to earn it.

          Anyway, don’t fret about your Antiplot screenplay (if you’re writing Archplot, don’t fret either). Charlie Kaufman has written some wonderful Anitplot screenplays… It can be done!
          All the best,

  2. Brian says:

    Great use of archplot and mini plot to tell antiplot’s origin story 🙂 loving this blog and devouring every post

  3. Marvin Waschke says:

    You have given me a name to apply to books like Jack Kerouac’s On the Road or Desolation Angels. I certainly admire those books and enjoy reading them. I don’t think I could write pure antiplot well, there is so much artistry involved, but I appreciate understanding it better.

    I think my own fiction writing mixes in an element of antiplot because I find myself delving into aspects of character that don’t change or react to events, but give the story texture and make the characters more identifiable. It seems as if I tend to blend all three, arch and mini plot making the antiplot more palatable, antiplot adding depth to arch and mini. I just hope I have not mangled the forms into oblivion!

  4. Mary Doyle says:

    You threw the ball into some tall weeds for me with this one. I can appreciate that there are writers out there who will break the rules in innovative ways and turn out provocative art. Thanks for as concise an explanation as I’ll ever read about Antiplot though. Looking forward to the next post.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Mary,
      My advice is to completely forget about Antiplot. It’s a headache you don’t need.
      All the best,

  5. julia says:

    What a great explanation of the origins of Antiplot! I happen to be one of those cerebral readers that loves a really well-done (*really well-done*) antiplot (Waiting for Godot and The Trial are two of my favorites), yet I have never been able to explain its appeal to others clearly so far. Now I get it.
    I also couldn’t agree more that one needs to know all the rules inside-out before one can successfully break them. Antiplot stories, I think, are either great or awful. There’s no real middle range with this one.
    Great post as always, Sir.

  6. Tim Forbes says:

    Since you are far too humble to flog your own prior work, somebody’s got to do it. Not only did you “noodle” on the topic of the Pittsburgh Steelers in “The Ones Who Hit The Hardest,” you did so while painting a compelling portrait of the soul of the city itself. One of my favorite “sports” books.

    But I digress…

    What I really wanted to know is whether you consider Antiplot (and to a lesser extent, Miniplot) to be the core of social satire when done well. As I read this post, especially the part about using Story to convey absurdity, I was reminded of “Bonfire of the Vanities” and some of Tom Wolfe’s other work. Which in turn reminded me that, while reading your post on Steven Pressfield Online about category killers, I was surprised that a satire category killer was not included in your list. Is there one that comes to mind as the state of the art?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Tim,
      Wow thanks for the shout-out re: TOWHTH. It was a gamble project as we tried (Chad Millman and I) to pull off a pretty difficult thing…the external rise of the Steelers to lure in sports fans all the while weaving in the internal last gasp of the American Steel industry. I love the book as it was also my tribute to my family and its inescapable connection to the ‘Burgh.

      Anyhoo, category killer for satire…it comes down to one word and one number…CATCH-22.
      All the best,

      1. Tim Forbes says:

        Ah, yes. Hard to argue that one. Thanks.

      2. Doug Walsh says:

        Not expecting any answers since this was posted a few months ago, but I’ll ask anyway. Looking over my own recent reads, I can’t think of any that would definitely be considered Antiplot. The only one that I think fits that description would be Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises.” My wife read it for the first time recently so we were discussing how, IIRC, it seems that nothing really happens. There’s not much change from beginning to end.

        Wondering if anyone here would agree that it would fit the Antiplot category. I can see how Godot does, but just looking for another example. Thanks.

        1. Shawn Coyne says:

          Hi Doug,
          I’d categorize THE SUN ALSO RISES as Miniplot, not Antiplot. Haven’t read it in a while, but my gut says it’s an education plot with a love story thrown in. The education is in Jake Barne’s coming to terms with his impotence. And of course Barnes is a stand in for us all in our impotence coping with extraordinary cruelty and the horrors of the modern world (the efficiency of war etc.) Antiplot is really an anomaly, rarely done and very much in that sort of Jean Luc Goddard tradition of complete incomprehensibility.
          Hope that helps.

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