Great stories are created using effective storytelling techniques. These techniques include things like character creation, convincing narrative, and developing a cohesive plotline. One tool for forming an engaging plotline is by using masterplot.
The term masterplot was made well known by the collection Masterplots, published by Salem Press. In this book collection, significant recognizable works of literature were analyzed and a series of common plotlines within narratives in the same genre were highlighted.
So, what is masterplot, why does it work, and how can it be used in the communication field?
A masterplot is a technique for creating a story that is recreated through plot and retold differently over time because of its cultural significance. In literary studies, the theory behind masterplots is that there are some basic plots that are repeated over time depending on the type of story being told. There are a lot of different masterplots. Some are easy to grasp, like the hero's journey, star-crossed lovers, and rags to riches.
Something important to understand about masterplot is that it is a storytelling technique and not the story itself. It’s a technique for taking the individual details of a story and developing the plot in a certain way. This means that it can apply to any kind of narrative; from classic literature, to comic books, to the stories put together for the evening news, or even brand and product stories, masterplot is used everywhere.
All of the stories within a masterplot have similar plot development.
Let’s look at the hero's journey, also known as the quest masterplot as an example.
The quest masterplot goes something like this:
The protagonist is introduced and quickly encounters a motivating incident that spurs a quest for some grand thing. Along their journey, they meet a variety of characters, usually at least one is helpful, and stays on for the journey. As the adventure develops so does the main character, and by the end of the quest (which is either successfully concluded or deemed pointless), the character is quite different than they were at the beginning.
They discover that the true value of the quest was the lessons they obtained along the way, not necessarily the thing they originally sought.
A quick blurb such as this could be written up for most of the classic masterplots.
But if they are so predictable then why do they work? Why are we as humans so attracted to these masterplot stories?
Masterplots can be told over and over again because readers identify with them. The audience know the plot, they can usually guess how it’s going to end, but audiences love them anyways.
Masterplots represent a connection to a cultural value. They demonstrate "universal" hopes and fears within a culture. Because of this we can see a part of ourselves within at least one of the main characters.
Masterplot is so engrained in our culture that our self-identification is actually rooted in them. We grow up hearing reproductions of these narratives in children's books, movies, everyday life, and therefore our identities are shaped by them as we develop. We have the tendency to find narratives that are formed around master plots to be more credible.
Because of people’s susceptibility to connect with masterplot stories and consider them a compelling story, they can be an amazing tool for communication professionals, especially those in the marketing field. If you could make your brand or product more credible just by how you frame the story surrounding it, why wouldn't you?
So, does this mean that every story that follows a masterplot will be a good story that is accepted by an audience? No. Of course not.
Masterplot is just one storytelling technique out of many that work together to form an engaging story. In order for a masterplot to work, the story topic needs to be engaging and unique, the characters are well developed, and use effective narrative techniques. If you use a masterplot with a poorly developed narrative, you risk coming off as cliché.
How Can You Implement Masterplot?
Masterplot is a great way to form an instant connection with your audience. I mean who doesn’t love a good underdog story? Or a great adventure tale? Here’s how you can implement masterplot in your own story.
Figure out the aspects of your own story first. If you use masterplot it should be a natural fit. Think about the characters and the goal of telling your story. What message are you trying to convey?
Remember, masterplot is just a vehicle for telling your story, not for making up story details. Know all the facts and aspects of your story so that you can mold them together to form a compelling plot line later.
Familiarize yourself with the different masterplots and the plot synopses for each one. While there is some dispute over what the masterplots are, most people accept these 20 main ones.
Adventure, Discovery, Escape, Forbidden Love, Love, Maturation, Metamorphosis, Pursuit, Quest, Rescue, Revenge, Riddle or Mystery, Rise and Fall, Rivalry, Sacrifice, Temptation or Greed, Transformation, Underdog, and Wretched Excess.
I’m sure just by reading the titles you can think of some examples for each of these, I mean if you've watched one romantic movie haven't you seen them all? While some of these are easy to think of, the plot line for some are less easy to grasp by title alone. However, in all of masterplots, the breakdown of the plot summaries in detail might reveal some common aspect you didn't think of, so read up on the plot synopses online.
For sake of time, in this article I am going to focus on the masterplots that are most useful in the communication field, which brings us to step 3.
Once you are familiar with the different masterplots and how each develop, you can understand what core plot a good vehicle would be. For professional communicators and those in the PR or marketing fields, the best masterplots to utilize for brand storytelling are 1) quest 2) adventure 3) rivalry and 4) underdog, so those are the ones I will be going into more detail over.
For professional communicators, quest plot works well to tell a brand story or a product release. Quest in branding is often used for organizational histories. What was the purpose of your company or product? What were you searching for? From technological advances to helping people find the perfect vacation spot, there’s an engaging story waiting to be told surrounding history. Don't just tell your audience how something came to be, take them on a quest for discovery.
Adventure plot focuses on a group or individuals’ journey, as opposed to focusing on the end result as in quest. Adventure is about connecting with an individual because of their exciting journey. Has the CEO of your company had a crazy life? Telling stories like these about individuals in your brand help an audience connect to your brand as they would connect to a person, which can be a really powerful tool.
Another way to talk about a brand or product history is through rivalry. The basis of rivalry is to discuss the motivations behind each of the actors in the rivalry. If you had to fight to come out on top of a product or industry against evenly matched competitors, then it might make sense to turn it into a story. Focus on the morals behind your choices and what drove you to stay in the game. If you were motivated by just reasons people can connect to this is a great way to show your brands values.
Like I said, everyone loves a good story about an underdog succeeding in the end. This plot can help connect an audience either to an individual in your company or the brand itself. Did your company have to fight against big corporations for their spot in an industry? Were the odds stacked against your CEO making it to the top of a corporate ladder? Underdog stories engage your audience and make you root for the protagonist.
Another way to utilize masterplot is to use the expectation of the reader for the story to go one way in order to add a surprising plot twist and go in the opposite direction. However, if you are a professional communicator talking about your brand be careful doing this. While it makes for an interesting twist, since people identify so closely with master plots we have the tendency to find stories that go against the masterplots we hold dearly as less credible.