Updated: Dec 23, 2019
When it comes to developing stories for Movies and Television professionally, nothing is as important as what I call plot concepts. I will give you some of my favorites ones but don´t forget that a professional writer should always become acquainted with as many Concepts as possible. They are the tools you need to create an interesting and exciting plot concepts and why would´t you know all the tools, available to you?
Knowing as many as possible gives you more options, more freedom and creativity when you're coming up with concepts.
As a script developer, a screenwriter and a screenplay analyst, I have found that the more tools I know, the better I can help Television shows and Feature films. I don't call them 'Tropes', though. I refer to them as 'Plot Concepts'
I could name you at least 50 plot concepts But here are 10, that I have used often on many shows and Features.
1. THE ODD COUPLE CONCEPT
This is a simple, yet effective and always entertaining concept.
You take two characters who are opposites, perhaps even enemies, and give them the same mission - a mission they have to accomplish together.
This is effective for a number of reasons. In a regular plot, you have the suspense of seeing whether a character is able to reach his goal. In the 'Odd Couple' concept, you have twice that much.- Not only are we kept in suspense by seeing whether the protagonist can overcome his outer obstacles, but now, he is also faced with fighting his closes ally.
It's a plot plus version of the regular plot.
We used this device, obviously when we developed the FX Network show; "The Bridge" The concept was simple; Two police officers from different countries and cultures, have to collaborate in solving a murder. Not only do they have communication problems with each other but this concept also allows us to fuel the conflicts with cultural bias, prejudices and class conflicts.
But obviously, you've seen this concept in many movies and Tv shows. Two years ago I worked on a couple of episodes of "The Blacklist", a show that is clearly inspired by this concept.
2. THE FALL GUY CONCEPT
This is a classic concept. The basic idea is that two or more evil Antagonist pick an innocent, unknowing guy to take fall for them. The idea is that the mission he is sent out to do is designed to fail from the very beginning. In other words, they need someone to fail. You see it in comedies such as " Trading Places" or "Spies Like us" or " The Hudsucker Proxy". You see it in dramas such as " Never Cry wolf" in thrillers such as "FX" (1986) and many, many more.
3. LITTLE GUY vs BIG MONSTER CONCEPT
This is one of the most suspenseful concepts we have. The idea is that the hero is alone and pitted against a big monster. In actuality, the Monster need not be an actual monster. It could be a huge organization, the government or simply just: Everyone. The core idea is to build tension from the fact that he is up against an overwhelming enemy and that there is no-one he can turn to. It's a standard concept in thrillers like "Three days of the Condor" - where Robert Redford is up against CIA. And you see it in movies such as "Enemy of the State". "Pelican Brief" "Die Hard" "War of the worlds" and in TV shows like "The Walking Dead"
4. THE LIONS DEN CONCEPT
The idea here is that the protagonist is forced to work behind enemy lines, or so to speak. You take a protagonist and gives him some very powerful and dangerous enemies. Then you make sure that the circumstances of the plot, leaves him with no other option but fighting the enemy on the enemies turf. You see this concept played out in the Frankenheimer's classic thriller "The Train", wherein the protagonist has to steal a train from the Nazis, while Nazis are onboard. And you see it in "FireFox" Where Clint Eastwood has to smuggle himself into the Soviet Union to steal a valuable fighter aircraft, and " Donnie Brasco" Where an undercover cop has to infiltrate the Mob. But we have also seen it in Television shows such as "Prison Break".
5. THE CABIN CONCEPT
The basic idea here is that you isolate the main character and puts her (or him) in the midst of danger. The isolation could be, as the name implies; a cabin in the woods, or it could be anywhere that is remote. In any case, The principle at work here is that the character is forced to be alone and without help, and therefore have to deal with the situation by herself. Lately we have seen this concept played out in quite few Horror movies such as "Hush" or "Gerald's Game" but it's a tried and old concept that we've seen in other genres as well; In virtually all of Agatha Christies plots," Murder on the Orient Express", "Death on the Nile", "Ten Little Indians" .
6. THE PANDORAS BOX CONCEPT
Those who are acquainted with Greek Mythology will know this concept right away. Pandora's box is a box chock full of all sort of unpredictable evils that will wreak havoc upon the world if anyone is stupid enough to open the box and unleash its content.
In practical plot terms, this means we are dealing with a concept in which a hero, (usually a scientist) by conducting experiments, unintentionally unleashes all hell. He might have done with good intentions but the consequences are always worse than a nightmare. This concept is used in so many movies that it makes me overwhelmed to think about but a few mentionable ones areFrankenstein, Jurassic Park, and Westworld, to name a few.
7. THE IMPOSTER CONCEPT
In this concept, the heroes discover that their enemy and nemesis is, in fact, to be found among themselves. The problem is; who is he and how do they detect and reveal his identity?
This trope is a favored one among writers of thrillers, Horror and Spy movies, and for those reasons, we see this concept played out in movies such as "The Thing", "No way Out" "Alien" and "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy"
8. THE MASQUERADE CONCEPT
This is a fun one. The idea is that the Hero has to disguise himself or pretend to be someone else in order to achieve his goal. It works for thrillers as well as comedies. For that reason, we have seen it in comedies like "Tootsie" and "Mrs. Doubtfire". But the "disguise" is not be taken so literally if you are a writer. It is the act of pretending to be someone else or something else, that is important for this concept to work. For instance, in the French comedy "Le Gendarme se Marie" (The Troops gets married) the hero, Cruchot falls in love and wants to court a widower. However, in order to present himself in the best light, he lies about his age. (This is the masquerade concept in its most classical form) but then, his adult daughters appear on the scene. Seeing her age, the widower now becomes suspicious about how old Chruchot really is. And this pushes the plot into a double masquerade situation; Having no other choice, Cruchot now tries to conceal the fact that she is his daughter and tells the widower that she is merely an acquaintance. This, of course, creates further complications when the widower sees him kissing and hugging his daughter.
9. THE SWITCH
What if a poor man switched places with a rich one? What if a boy became an adult by an act of magic?
-The switch concept is about taking opposites and making them switch places. We have seen this concept played out in movies such as "Big" and "The Prince and the Pauper" and many other movies. But the switching that takes place in this concept, need not be a literal switch between two characters.
More often than not, the switch happens when you take a character and puts him in a situation that requires him to act in a way that is opposed to his character. For instance, in the Rodney Dangerfield vehicle "Back to school", Rodney finds himself back in school. In essence, he switches role with a schoolboy, but not a literal schoolboy. - It's the situation, that makes him do it.
10. THE COMBO
Lastly, we have what I call "The Combo" this is the mother of all plot concepts because it involves combining two or more concepts into one.
This is a tool that we use extensively when developing television concepts. We have a toolbox consisting of Story concepts, Genres, the story Arenas and Plotforms. All these elements can then be combined to form new concepts.
For instance; "The Sopranos" is basically a soap opera (Genre) set among gangsters ( Arena)
Star Trek is (according to Gene Roddenberry, himself) a Western (Genre),set in space (Arena)
These, are both, combinations of genre and Arena. But all the other elements are also available to a writer;
Take the classic "Underdog plot" (plotform) and combine with a Dance setting (Arena) and you have "Strictly Ballroom"
Take the same plotform "The Underdog plot" and combine it with another arena, Fighter jets, and you have "Top Gun"
The possibilities are literally endless but it takes a writer to tell the difference between what works and what is just a strange combination of core elements.
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Happy writing !!!