Jul 26 2011
By themselves, these ideas are not terribly inspired. They’re “stock” plots because they’re generic enough to work in a variety of series. If you use a stock plot, please spin it so that it feels distinct to your series rather than just a forgettable filler issue.
1. The most basic superhero story structure is that a supervillain needs to steal a few related MacGuffins to enact his evil plot. This gives the superheroes several chances to try to stop the villain, building up the stakes for a climactic struggle with everything on the line.
1.1 Alternately, perhaps the supervillain is trying to kill several people with a common connection, like the heroes, cops/prosecutors, judges, jurors, witnesses and/or scorned caddies that put him away last time or somebody else he has a grudge against.
2. The villain has some sort of fitting thematic connection to the hero. For example, if your hero’s main flaw is his trust issues, maybe the villain is an Iago that plays on his mistrust/paranoia.
3. A character receives a mysterious and potentially dangerous gift, like an artifact or an encoded message or a key or a free ticket to Detroit.
4. Something or someone from the heroes’ past comes back to haunt them. For example, Batman: The Animated Series had an episode based around Alfred’s commando experience long, long ago. Alternately, perhaps it’s something from the villain’s past.
5. Someone the heroes really look up to and/or respect is in trouble. For some reason, superhero TV shows often cast this person as Adam West, the lead actor in the horrible 1960s Batman show. (Who the hell looks up to Adam West?) More soberly, Dark Knight endangered Harvey Dent.
6. A major villain is introduced. A villain’s origin usually lays out his motivation for becoming a villain and establishes an initial conflict with the heroes. It may also explain where his superpowers and/or supernatural abilities came from, if applicable.
7. Someone that’s not quite a villain just developed superpowers, and it’s up to the heroes to keep these new and difficult-to-control powers from ravaging the town. There may also be a personality shift involved: “Have you tried not being a rampaging monster, Dr. Jekyll?”
8. Normally good friends and/or partners have a rough spot and decide to go their own ways. Unfortunately, this usually snaps back to the status quo–they learn how much they need each other and then the reason that caused them to part never comes up again. Alternately, you could have the characters split more permanently. Either way, hopefully the characters are lively and interesting–otherwise, this is probably a Plot That Needs to Die. It also helps if the audience is emotionally invested in the partnership.
9. Someone has been mind-controlled or impersonated by a shapeshifter. The victim is usually a protagonist, but it could be a MacGuffin character like a mayor. Alternately, are there any villains in your series that somebody might want to mind-control?
10. Bruce Wayne is held hostage. (Well, not the Bruce Wayne, unless you’re writing for DC or don’t plan to sell your writing. Otherwise, it’d be copyright infringement 😉 ).
11. Somebody’s been framed of a crime. Who’s been framed? Which crime? What did the framers have to gain from this? Did the victim do anything to get in the way, or was he just chosen at random? As with most of these plots, the target here could be an antagonist rather than a protagonist or side-character. (For example, perhaps a villain frames another villain to distract the heroes. After all, another villain is certainly a more believable suspect than a hero, right?).
12. An adversary starts making trouble for the protagonist based on a grave misunderstanding. For example, perhaps the villain fed a false lead to a private investigator or mercenary or a journalist or police officer saw the hero do something vaguely suspicious and misconstrued it as a crime. For example, if a cop follows Bruce Wayne and observes him secretly meeting with a major criminal, it might look like Bruce is involved in a criminal conspiracy, even though the criminal is actually trying to blackmail the richest guy in town (big mistake). What starts out as a misunderstanding might evolve into something more. For example, after the cop finds out that the criminal was trying to blackmail Wayne, he might wonder why Wayne didn’t go to the police.
13. An antivillain is pursuing a vaguely sympathetic revenge plot against a shady operator. The hero’s goal here might be to keep innocent people from getting caught in the crossfire and perhaps attaining justice against the shady operator through more legitimate means. Please see Heart of Ice and/or season 5 of Dexter.
14. The superhero loses his powers and/or has them stolen or is otherwise incapacitated. This is usually short-term but doesn’t have to be. For example, Barbara Gordon gets paralyzed by a bullet and some superheroes struggle with fading superpowers. (See Batman Beyond, for example).
15. A victim comes to the hero directly for help, usually because the regular authorities are helpless and/or unavailable. This is helpful if you want to use the victim as a character rather than just a MacGuffin. Maybe the victim lies about some relevant details (perhaps to hide his own criminal activities or because he doesn’t trust the hero completely). Maybe the hero suspects the victim is lying and/or trying to use him.
16. For whatever reason, the hero is forced to work with somebody he/she detests. It’s apparently standard operating procedure for police departments to stick every by-the-books cop with a loose cannon.
17. A hero gets absolutely screwed by a boss or teammate. Perhaps he’s the fall guy when something goes wrong. Perhaps he wasn’t given enough resources/time/backup/whatever to succeed at something. Sometimes the hero actually deserves the fallout coming his way because the mistake is largely his. For a humorous subversion, please see Hot Fuzz, which relegated a star SWAT officer to the middle of nowhere because he was making the other SWAT officers look bad. (I highly recommend it–if you can suspend your disbelief that Simon Pegg is a star SWAT officer, it’s remarkably competent).