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Archplot, Miniplot or Subplot : what is your narrative style ?

Updated: May 19, 2021

First, I have read John Truby's book "The Anatomy of Story : 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller" and then, Robert Mc Kee's book, "Story : Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting" which is another well-renowned scriptwriter in Hollywood.

I would advise reading Truby first, which is the most readily accessible but both works are very interesting and most of the time, complementary.

One element of Robert Mc Kee's book that I enjoyed the most was what he describes as "the spectrum of the narrative structure".

When a character enters your imagination, it brings with it a wealth of possible stories. The difficulty lies in the art of selecting moments in the life of this character while giving the impression of witnessing his entire life.

By starting with meaningful details, you can bring the viewer into the inner life of your character, whether they are awake or daydreaming.

  • Three levels of conflict

Once you finish this first step, comes the determination of the personal conflict between the character and his entourage, family, friends, love relationships. McKee also suggests considering a confrontation of the hero with social institutions, such as his university, his company, the church, or the judicial system.

By broadening the theme further, his entire environment confronts him ; a city with dangerous streets, an exposure to deadly diseases. Someone chases him, his car won't start, and he's running out of time.

If possible, combine these three levels of conflict, knowing that you have a limited amount of time, about two hours for a feature film, and more for a TV series, where despite everything, you have to make choices and bring up everything that is off-screen.

Events build the plot. Authors invent them by taking an interest in the mind of characters, action, fights, atmospheres, dialogues. A selection of events that occurs during the hero's life gives birth to the narrative structure. Events compose strategic sequences which arouse specific emotions and vision of life.

According to McKee, an event means a change. A scene is an action born of dramatic conflict, in a precise space-time continuum. Each scene, therefore, corresponds to a narrative event. If not, the scene is useless.

  • Archplot

The Archplot or major plot corresponds to a classical scheme, a story built around an active protagonist. The character mostly struggles against antagonistic external forces to fulfill his or her desire. It follows a coherent logic of causality until it reaches a closed-end due to an irreversible and absolute change.

The primary plot is the most frequent in world cinema, and these elements define it :

  • Causality

  • Closed ending

  • Linear time

  • External conflict

  • A single character

  • Coherent reality

  • An active protagonist

Examples :

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920)

The Godfather (F.F.Coppola, 1972)

  • Miniplot

In comparison to this predominant scheme, Robert McKee speaks of the miniplot, i.e., a minimalist style. In this case, the author starts with elements of the classical scheme to reduce them and better detach himself from it. He proposes an equally well-written alternative with :

  • An internal conflict

  • Open ending

  • Many characters

  • A passive hero

Examples :

In the Realm of the Senses (Nagisa Oshima, 1976)

Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, 1984)

  • Subplot

McKee defines the subplot or anti-intrigue as the cinematic equivalence of Antinovel*, Nouveau Roman*, and Theatre of the Absurd*.

This series of variations on the anti-structure does not reduce the classical scheme but reverses it. It contradicts the traditional forms to oppose the idea of formal principles in the narrative with revolutionary ambitions.

Examples :

An Andalusian Dog (Luis Bunuel & Salvador Dali, 1929)

Lost Highway (David Lynch, 1997)

The Archplot gave birth to Miniplot and Subplot and the avant-garde aim is to oppose popular and commercial models. Therefore, the writer needs to master the classical form before embarking on more minimalist, even abstract writing. The boundaries between the three are not impervious, and writers play with each other's codes to create original stories. So what is your narrative style ?


*Antinovel : experimental writing of fiction that avoids traditional conventions of the novel, and instead establishes its own agreements.

*Nouveau Roman : a type of 1950s French novel that diverged from classical literary genres. The expression dates from an article in the newspaper Le Monde.

*The Theatre of the Absurd : a post–World War II name for particular plays of absurdist fiction in the late 1950s. This style of theatre focused on the idea of existentialism. What happens when human existence has no meaning or purpose, when all communication breaks down ?

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