100 Timeless Plot Archetypes
Proven storytelling structures you can use to take the reader on a similar, but different, journey
Hey — Nathan here. You know I’m obsessed with Brandon Sanderson’s free YouTube class on creative writing.
But the problem for most people is the class is 17+ hours and you really need to watch each lecture twice to digest it.
So when Nicolas Cole wrote a breakdown of Sanderson’s second lecture, plus 100 plot archetypes you can tap into today, I reached out about a guest post.
Today’s post comes from Cole’s great Art & Biz newsletter, which I highly recommend.
You’re skeptical of AI. Three months ago I was right there with you — refusing to use it, not wanting to spoil the art of writing.
Luckily, a friend sent me what people said about the typewriter when it came out…
So, I dove into AI and spent hundreds of hours figuring out how to use it really, really well. Turns out, it’s an incredible assistant when you know how to prompt.
On August 17th, I’m running a live workshop with the Ship30 team on AI + Storytelling. You’ll see how we use AI to outline, sharpen ideas, build characters, and design worlds.
If that sounds interesting to you, tap the button below to verify your interest!
I have spent the past 2 weeks going down the Brandon Sanderson rabbit hole.
If you don’t know who he is, don’t worry—I didn’t either.
Brandon Sanderson is one of the most successful Fantasy writers on the planet. His books have sold tens of millions of copies, and over the years he has built quite the cult following. In 2022, he also set the record for the most money raised on Kickstarter EVER, raising a whopping $41 million for the release of 4 secret novels he had been working on during the pandemic. Unreal.
Now, if I’m being honest, Fantasy isn’t really my favorite genre. And if I’m being really honest, Brandon Sanderson is far from my favorite writer. But a writer-friend of mine put me on to Sanderson’s college-level Fantasy Writing Class—which is completely free on YouTube (what a time to be alive!)—and I’ve been binging it ever since.
So, I wanted to put it on your radar too. (The first video is above, and if you open it in a new tab on YouTube the entire playlist of videos from the class are easily accessible.)
Jumping ahead here:
In his second lecture, Sanderson talks about the importance of using Plot Archetypes in your stories.
What is a “Plot Archetype?”
A Plot Archetype is a type of story that has been told over and over again throughout history—the most famous one being The Hero’s Journey. Star Wars is The Hero’s Journey. But so is Hunger Games. And so is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. And so is The Princess Bride.
These are all “different” stories, but they’re built on the same foundation.
That foundation is the Plot Archetype.
“Same, But Different.”
The reason Plot Archetypes are so helpful is because readers (and consumers of anything, in any industry) are always looking for things that are “similar” to what they already like—but “different” enough that they seem fresh and new.
By the way, if you want to go down the rabbit hole on this topic and you haven’t read the book Hit Makers by Derek Thompson (Senior Editor at The Atlantic), I highly recommend it. The book is all about how some of the most “new” and captivating works of art have found subtle ways to play on familiarity—which is what causes them to be so sticky and resonant.
When you’re thinking about what sort of story to write, it’s worth beginning with the question, “What Plot Archetype do I want to use?”
And of course, the bottleneck to using Plot Archetypes in your process is knowing what kinds of Plot Archetypes exist in the world!
So, I went ahead and compiled a list for you (as many good ones as I could think of).
100 Timeless Plot Archetypes
Hero's Journey: A protagonist embarks on an adventurous quest, facing challenges, mentors, and ultimately transforming to achieve a goal.
Coming of Age: Focuses on the growth and maturation of a young character as they transition from adolescence to adulthood.
Love Triangle: Involves three characters entangled in a complex romantic relationship.
Revenge: A character seeks retribution against those who have wronged them or their loved ones.
Forbidden Love: Characters from opposing backgrounds or social classes fall in love, facing societal or familial opposition.
Rags to Riches: A character rises from poverty or obscurity to wealth, success, or recognition.
Underdog: A disadvantaged protagonist faces formidable challenges and overcomes them against all odds.
Quest: Characters embark on a journey to retrieve a valuable object, attain knowledge, or fulfill a significant purpose.
Sacrifice: A character makes a selfless act for the greater good, often leading to personal growth or redemption.
Mystery: Involves solving a puzzling and often crime-related enigma.
Betrayal: A character experiences betrayal from someone they trust, leading to emotional turmoil and conflict.
Chosen One: The protagonist is destined to fulfill a particular role or destiny, often with extraordinary abilities.
Fish Out of Water: A character finds themselves in an unfamiliar environment, leading to humorous or challenging situations.
Redemption: A character seeks to atone for past mistakes or bad actions.
The Mentor: An experienced figure guides and trains a less experienced protagonist.
Parallel Worlds: Characters interact with alternate realities or dimensions.
Dystopia: A dark and oppressive society serves as the backdrop for the story.
Overcoming the Monster: The protagonist confronts and defeats a powerful and threatening antagonist.
Escape: Characters strive to break free from confinement or oppressive circumstances.
Survival: The main focus is on characters' efforts to stay alive in challenging situations.
War: The story revolves around the conflicts, struggles, and consequences of war.
Discovery: Characters uncover hidden truths, lost civilizations, or valuable artifacts.
Identity Crisis: A character grapples with their true identity or faces amnesia.
The Double: Involves doppelgangers, clones, or twins and explores themes of identity and duality.
Voyage and Return: Characters journey to a strange land, face trials, and then return transformed.
Family Drama: Focuses on familial relationships, conflicts, and dynamics.
Rebellion: Characters challenge authority or oppressive systems.
Time Travel: Characters move backward or forward in time, impacting the past or future.
Apocalypse: The story centers around a catastrophic event that threatens the survival of humanity.
Power and Corruption: Characters deal with the abuse of power, political intrigue, and corruption.
Redemption Quest: The protagonist seeks redemption for past sins or mistakes through a series of trials.
Unrequited Love: Focuses on a character's one-sided romantic feelings for another, often leading to emotional conflict.
Tragedy: A story in which the protagonist faces downfall or failure, often due to their own flaws or circumstances.
Reincarnation: Characters are reborn in different eras or bodies, often with the goal of finding each other again.
Survival of the Fittest: Characters must compete or fight against each other to survive or achieve a specific goal.
Framing Device: The main story is presented within the context of another story, serving as a narrative framework.
Stranger in a Strange Land: A character from a different culture or background experiences life in an unfamiliar setting.
Escape from Death: The protagonist is faced with imminent death or doom and must find a way to survive.
Forbidden Knowledge: Characters pursue knowledge or power that is dangerous or forbidden.
Society vs. Individual: Focuses on the conflict between societal norms and the individual's desires or beliefs.
Supernatural Encounter: Characters encounter supernatural beings, creatures, or events.
Body Swap: Characters switch bodies, leading to humorous or insightful situations.
The Prophecy: The story revolves around a prophecy or prediction that shapes the characters' actions and fate.
Seeking Home: The protagonist embarks on a journey to find a place where they belong.
Framed for a Crime: The protagonist is wrongly accused of a crime they didn't commit, leading to a quest for justice.
Wandering Hero: A heroic character roams from place to place, helping others and righting wrongs.
The Masquerade: Characters conceal their true identities or intentions behind masks or deception.
Time Loop: Characters are trapped in a repeating time cycle, reliving events until a resolution is reached.
Love at First Sight: Characters fall deeply in love immediately upon meeting each other.
Human vs. Nature: The story focuses on characters' struggles against natural disasters, animals, or environmental challenges.
Heir to the Throne: A character must step up and take on a significant responsibility or leadership role.
Corrupting Influence: Characters are influenced or manipulated by a malevolent force or individual.
The Big Game: The story centers around a high-stakes competition or tournament.
Cursed Object: A cursed item or artifact brings misfortune or danger to those who possess it.
Journey to the Center: Characters venture into the heart of a location or object to uncover its secrets.
Mistaken Identity: Characters are mistaken for someone else, leading to humorous or dramatic situations.
Apocalypse Survival: Characters navigate and survive in a post-apocalyptic world.
Immortality Quest: Characters seek immortality or eternal life, facing challenges and consequences.
Sworn Enemies: Characters who are bitter enemies must join forces to face a common threat.
Impossible Love: Characters from different species or existences fall in love, defying the odds and challenges.
Revenge of the Underdog: The underdog protagonist seeks revenge against those who have oppressed or wronged them.
Prophecy Fulfillment: The protagonist must fulfill a prophecy, often with significant consequences for their world or destiny.
The Artifact: Characters quest to find or protect a powerful, magical, or ancient artifact.
Betrayal of Trust: A character experiences betrayal from someone close to them, leading to emotional turmoil and conflict.
Man vs. Machine: The story centers around the conflict between humanity and advanced technology or artificial intelligence.
Amnesia: The protagonist has lost their memory and must piece together their past to uncover the truth.
Forbidden Power: Characters grapple with the responsibility and consequences of possessing a dangerous or forbidden power.
Mentor's Redemption: The mentor figure seeks redemption or reconciliation for past mistakes or failures.
Madness and Sanity: The story explores themes of madness, psychological struggles, and the thin line between sanity and insanity.
Framed for Betrayal: The protagonist is set up or framed for a betrayal they did not commit, leading to a quest for vindication.
Race Against Time: Characters must complete a task or reach a goal before a crucial deadline or impending disaster.
The Last of Their Kind: The protagonist is the sole survivor or last representative of their species or group.
The Secret Society: Characters become involved with a secretive and exclusive organization with hidden agendas.
Forbidden Journey: Characters venture into a forbidden or dangerous place against warnings.
Parental Sacrifice: Parents or parental figures make sacrifices for the sake of their children or loved ones.
The MacGuffin: The story revolves around a mysterious object or goal that drives the plot, even if its true nature is irrelevant.
Crime and Punishment: The story explores the consequences of criminal actions and the pursuit of justice.
Parallel Lives: The narrative follows the interconnected lives of multiple characters.
The Fall from Grace: The protagonist experiences a dramatic downfall from a position of power or prestige.
The False Prophecy: Characters discover that a prophecy they believed in was a deception or misinterpretation.
Hidden Heir: The protagonist discovers their royal or significant lineage, leading to a change in status.
Cursed Bloodline: Characters grapple with a cursed family or bloodline, facing generational consequences.
Generation Gap: The story highlights the conflict and misunderstandings between different generations.
Navigating the Afterlife: Characters journey through the afterlife, facing challenges and exploring the nature of existence.
Framed for Murder: The protagonist is wrongfully accused of a murder they did not commit.
Obsession: A character becomes consumed by an obsession, leading to their downfall or transformation.
The Long Return Home: Characters face a challenging journey back to their home after a long absence.
Twist of Fate: The story takes unexpected turns due to chance or fate, altering the characters' paths.
The Dark Past: A character's dark or mysterious past comes back to haunt them.
The Heirloom: A significant family heirloom holds secrets or powers that affect the protagonist's life.
The Puppet Master: Characters are controlled or manipulated by a powerful, unseen force.
The Final Stand: Characters face a climactic, last-ditch battle against overwhelming odds.
The Ultimate Power: The story revolves around the pursuit of an ultimate power or ability.
The Perfect Crime: A character plans and executes a seemingly flawless crime.
The Sacrificial Hero: The protagonist makes a heroic sacrifice to save others or the world.
The Enchanted Forest: Characters venture into a mystical and mysterious forest with magical properties.
The Lost Civilization: Characters discover and explore an ancient, advanced, or lost civilization.
The Hidden Enemy: Characters must uncover a hidden traitor or enemy within their ranks.
The Cursed Land: The story unfolds in a cursed or haunted location with dark secrets.
The Time Paradox: Characters encounter time loops, alternate timelines, or paradoxes that challenge their understanding of reality.
I hope this helps get your pen moving.
If you like this, check out some of Cole’s other writing — his recent “9 ways to make $1M with words” is fantastic.
5 things I found interesting this week:
JRR Tolkien shares what he thinks most stories are about — death. A compelling, somber clip.
A look at the future of media. Jack Butcher dropped some gems on The Danny Mirando Podcast.
An AI app dedicated to helping you write novels. I’ve played with it, but still prefer regular ‘ol ChatGPT.
How ancient Greek and Roman statues actually looked. A well-researched thread I really enjoyed.
“I need to tell a story. It’s an obsession. Each story is a seed inside of me that starts to grow and grow, like a tumor, and I have to deal with it sooner or later.” — Isabel Allende, Why We Write
Want to go deeper on storytelling?
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2. Grab time with me for a 1:1 session on storytelling, newsletters, attracting an audience, or anything else.
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