Jul 26 2011

17 Stock Plots

Published by at 8:21 am under Plotting,Writing Articles

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).


Some of these overlap quite a bit, so please feel free to mix and match.

12 responses so far

12 Responses to “17 Stock Plots”

  1. Castilleon 26 Jul 2011 at 11:28 am

    You don’t like the 1960’s Batman? I thought that the batman television movie was epic.

    Also, I am probably never going to do that ‘framed for a crime’ thing. If any of my protagonists end up in prison, it would be for something that they consciously made the decision to do.

  2. Frequent Passerbyon 26 Jul 2011 at 8:31 pm

    A question about #2: Unless my lack of a high school diploma makes me delirious, wasn’t Othello the victim of his own mistrust, and Iago the villain who took advantage of it?

  3. B. Macon 26 Jul 2011 at 10:31 pm

    Good eye! For some reason I was thinking of Iago but actually wrote Othello. Thanks for letting me know–I just corrected it.

  4. Chihuahua0on 27 Jul 2011 at 4:47 pm

    Number 10, the “Bruce Wayne Held Hostage” (when the superhero is captured in their civilian identity and can’t easily assume their superhero identity) situation, isn’t one I hadn’t seen much, but I want to see and write.

    I’m going to consider ways to play around with these plots once I get to my NaNoWriMo project, since I want an easier plot than my current project, which might need some overhauling to patch up plot holes.

  5. Gurion Omegaon 07 Aug 2011 at 7:46 pm

    What do you think of Fictionpress.com? I have some short fiction completed, and thought about posting some on the site, to get used to reader feedback, and get to know fellow writers, to help me gather an audience when i’m ready to publish. Would it be risky in terms of Copyright infringement possibly?

  6. B. Macon 07 Aug 2011 at 10:03 pm

    I’m not sure I understand all of the situation, G.O. Please feel free to clarify if it looks like I’m missing something.

    “Would it be risky in terms of Copyright infringement possibly?” It probably would count as “publishing” in the sense that most publishers are leery of working with stories that have already been “published.” So…

    –I would not recommend publicly releasing a story online if you want to try to get it professionally published.

    –If the story you’re publishing on Fictionpress is not related to the story you’re trying to get professionally published, it wouldn’t be an issue. (Unless you’re building up hundreds of thousands of readers, I don’t think that it would excite publishers all that much, though. Free readers don’t count for as much).

    –If the story on Fictionpress is in the same universe as (i.e. has a lot of cast overlap with) the story submitted for professional publication, I don’t know. My seat-of-the-pants intuition would be that it could be a problem.

    I hope that helps.

  7. Gurion Omegaon 09 Aug 2011 at 1:11 pm

    Thanks. No, the stories I’m reworking to publish there are not going to be a professional series. Thanks!

  8. Anthimeriaon 14 Apr 2012 at 7:09 pm

    If I might make a suggestion? Especially in longer-form stories (like novels, or comic book series if you have a lot of issues to work with), combining two stock plots might also help them be more interesting. For example, one of the books I’m working on is both #2 and #9.

    Also, I love the “Also this could be done with a villain to spice up an old plot” for several items on this list. I’m going to have to think about that!

  9. Rajendraon 11 Apr 2014 at 9:22 pm

    Wow did you guys get payed for saying that the movie is acultlay good?First Class is by far!!! the worst X-Men movie released to this date, and is acultlay the 2nd worst movie ib4ve ever seen in my life.There are so many mistakes concerning every aspect of a film, that its hard to even write about it.If you want to read an honest opinion on the movie go to [deleted] and search for why x-men first class sucks .To everyone: Do not pay for watching this movie!

  10. B. McKenzieon 12 Apr 2014 at 10:02 pm

    “Wow did you guys get payed for saying that the movie is acultlay good?” First Class is currently rated at 87% on Rotten Tomatoes. Quite a lot of reviewers liked it. What was your issue(s) with First Class?

    If it’s the 2nd worst movie you’ve seen, I’m guessing you haven’t had a chance to see Catwoman and Green Lantern yet?

    Regarding financial conflicts of interest: My publisher (and indirectly my readers) paid to publish my reviews, including the First Class review, but I haven’t been paid by any other companies to write reviews.

  11. Swift Stormon 21 Jul 2016 at 3:13 pm

    Thanks this was so helpful.😊

  12. Katon 03 Jun 2020 at 8:33 pm

    A Thank You from all armature and experienced writer

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