The Inner War

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While the Archplot is the stuff of tent pole action movies and master detective murder mysteries, Miniplot is most often associated with the literary Story culture. See The Autodidact’s Dilemma for more about the literary and commercial cultures in book publishing.

The content genres most associated with Miniplot are the Internal ones—Status, Worldview, and Morality. And as the Internal Content Genres (See Genre’s Five Leaf Clover) concern the trials of tribulations of the individual, Miniplot concerns the inner wars of internal antagonism.

Here are the qualities of Miniplot:

Lead characters, and often multiple protagonists, face off with their inner demons. As opposed to the Archplot’s action oriented lead character who battles people and the natural world around him on his quest for an external object of desire (and sometimes, as in the case of The Silence of the Lambs, an added internal one), Miniplot characters passively move through the world avoiding external confrontation at all costs. These characters are passive, not active.

Inside, however, these characters are in a fight for their life.

Their inner voices (those of their merciless inner parent, their pragmatic negotiator self, and their rebellious authentic self) are at odds. Oftentimes their inner confrontations are so violent that the character presents a practical catatonia to the physical world. Think of Ann Tyler’s protagonist Macon Leary in her novel, The Accidental Tourist. To take on any external drama is to risk melting down entirely.

That is, until the Story forces them to overcome or succumb to the struggle within.

The Miniplot also differs from the Archplot in that it has an “open” ending. There is no happily ever after or life sentence of misery at the end of a Miniplot. There are lingering questions raised by the Story that remain unanswered. It’s open to interpretation by the reader/audience. And thus Miniplot demands a deeper connection to the protagonist from the audience than just the dopamine rush of an action Archplot story like Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger or J.C. Chandor’s film All is Lost. We don’t really mind the fact that James Bond is a superficial human being or that we have no idea why Robert Redford’s character in the film has no backstory beyond an unnecessary voiceover at the beginning of the movie. (I bet the producer made Chandor stick that in). We’re overjoyed just to find out what happens next.

While the Archplot produces an irreversible external change by story’s end that answers all of the questions raised throughout the story concretely and satisfies all of the curiosities of its audience, the Miniplot (while it does produce irreversible internal change in a character) leaves one or two questions unanswered by the Story’s end. It leaves its audience with a level of uncertainty to debate and contemplate what could happen to the lives of the characters after the “ending.” Something to talk about after the experience beyond the Chris Farley-esque declaration “That was Awesome!”

Time can also be played with in the Miniplot Story.

The Story can move from the ending to the beginning like Harold Pinter’s Betrayal. Playing with time is not a feature of the Archplot, which must be linear in design. But like the Archplot, the Miniplot still must have the traditional beginning, middle and end. That is, the writer can put the end at the beginning, the beginning in the middle, and the middle at the end, but the Miniplot cannot just stop the Story in medias res without satisfying the requirements of global story form. It must abide by the logical (or illogical) rationale of the Reality Genre choice. A good example of Miniplot virtuosity is the realistic, long form, but time playing story Pulp Fiction by Quentin Tarantino.

Adherence to philosophical causality, crucial in Archplot, is not absolutely necessary in Miniplot.

Causality is our innate belief that all Causes produce Effects in the world. Something happens and then something else results. An ill character coughs into his hand and then greets another character with a handshake. The cause of putting germs into one hand and transferring them to another creates the effect of the second character contracting the disease of the first.

One counter cause/effect philosophy often explored in Miniplot stories is the idea that Character is Destiny; that our fates have been sealed at birth. The Greek classics like Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex take that concept to unforgettable extremes.

Another notion is that the universe is indifferent to the actions of man…that one person’s moral and/or ethical choices in the world amount to nothing. There is no damnation or salvation. We don’t reap what we sow because in fact there is no farm. Deep stuff.

In order to effectively dramatize this kind of philosophical exploration, though, the Story often needs a wide net of characters to re-enforce this underlying Big controlling idea/theme. Here’s why:

With just a single point of view, the reader intuitively expects Archplot. We just can’t help it. The reader will attach himself to that POV and expect a palpable external object of desire for that protagonist, one closely associated with the external content genres. If no such object of desire reveals itself in like the first scene or two, many readers/viewers get turned off.

Miniplot masters like Raymond Carver, John Cheever, George Sanders, and Alice Munro, who live at the top of the “short story writer” pyramid, are capable of creating entire universes with multiple characters confronting the absurdity and/or sterility of existence. There is a reason why many short story writers never write the single Big Novel that becomes their masterwork. It’s because their entire body of work and the core themes they are exploring require precision and tight spaces. To expand a perfectly executed short story into a novel just won’t work.

So they don’t try to do that.

But if you add up all of the short stories from these masters, you’ll find a consistency of compelling and multifaceted philosophies about life and its contents and discontents within. Take a look at Robert Altman’s movie Short Cuts, an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short stories spliced together as only Altman could do, to see what I mean.

So Archplot is all about Active Single Protagonists facing down External Antagonism and is the domain of the Commercial Book Culture, the Studio system in Hollywood, Narrative Nonfiction in journalism, and the Plot Driven Play.

Miniplot is all about Passive Single (or Multiple) Protagonists contending with Internal Sturm and Drang and is the domain of the Literary Book Culture, the Independent Film world, Long Form Journalism in Nonfiction, and the “Character” Driven play.

Next up? Antiplot.

For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of The Story Grid posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-out.


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Shawn Coyne

SHAWN COYNE created, developed, and expanded the story analysis and problem-solving methodology The Story Grid throughout his quarter-century-plus book publishing career. A seasoned story editor, book publisher and ghostwriter, Coyne has also co-authored The Ones Who Hit the Hardest: The Steelers, The Cowboys, the ’70s and the Fight For America’s Soul with Chad Millman and Cognitive Dominance: A Brain Surgeon’s Quest to Out-Think Fear with Mark McLaughlin, M.D. With his friend and editorial client Steven Pressfield, Coyne runs Black Irish Entertainment LLC, publisher of the cult classic book The War of Art. With his friend and editorial client Tim Grahl, Coyne oversees the Story Grid Universe, LLC, which includes Story Grid University and Story Grid Publishing.