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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About the Author

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.
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Joel D Canfield says:

As the kid who taught himself to read at 4, top of all my classes, skipped a grade blah blah blah, these are the books I’ve always thought I was supposed to be drawn to.

Instead, I find myself thinking “I am WAY to busy dranging my own sturm to deal with these nuts.” And I go read Asimov or Chandler or some Nero Wolfe.

But then, I’m also the guy who makes a float with black beer and vanilla ice cream, so perhaps my tastes are skewed.

Fascinating explanation of arch vs. mini. Impatient to read the next installment.

Mary Doyle says:

My own reading preferences have included both Archplots and Miniplots, but my own writing is in the Mini. I appreciate your clarification of this form and look forward to future posts. Thanks also for the link back to the Autodidact’s Dilemma – I hadn’t signed up here yet and missed that one.

Becca Borawski Jenkins says:

Oh, I’m totally writing a miniplot, as I’ve now learned! How fun! At least glad to know I’m not just writing what I thought might be a “bad” plot according to some structure books I’ve read. LOL Now I am understanding the distinctions between plots better and also my own writing. Very enlightening! Thank you!

Marvin Waschke says:

Very interesting. Thank you for this whole series. It has actionable content, something rare among writing blogs.
Are there any rules for combining Arch and Miniplots? For example, a mystery in which the detective has inner demons to conquer as well as a murder to solve? Thanks!

Shawn Coyne says:

Hi Marvin,
Hang in there. I’ve just scratched the surface. But yu won’t find a better combo plate of external and internal than The Silence of the Lambs. Remember Starling is haunted by the sound of sheep be slaughtered from her youth and Hannibal Lecter has every intention of pressing on that nerve until she confronts here innermost fears…
All the best,

Marvin Waschke says:

Haven’t read Silence of the Lambs in years. It’s a good time to reread it. Thanks and best, Marv

Saleh Stevens says:

First of all I would like to say superb blog! I had a quick question in which
I’d like to ask if you don’t mind. I was interested to find out how you center
yourself and clear your head prior to writing. I have
had a hard time clearing my mind in getting my ideas out.
I do take pleasure in writing but it just seems like the first 10 to 15
minutes tend to be wasted just trying to figure out how to
begin. Any recommendations or hints? Thank you!

Shawn Coyne says:

Hi Saleh,
Unfortunately there is no trick. The only way to do it is accept that you’ll need that warm up time, sit down and plunge ahead. Writing does not require motivation. It just requires work.
All the best,

sarah carroll says:

Does the following describe Archplot, or External Archplot with internal Miniplot (Schrodingers Cat. )

External Archplot – Im inside a box with others. I like it here. But Monster is going to rip it open. The others leave, one by one. I don’t want to. I use bolts, then nails and even bad smells to keep Monster out, but he eventually manages to destroy the box.

Internal miniplot – I am real, others see me. They all leave. Im alone. But when Monster rips apart the box, he can’t see me. Without the box, do I even exist?

Rebecca says:

First off, I want you to know that your blog is currently a sanity saver! So thank you for having actionable examples.

I’d like to ask you a question about combining Miniplots and Archplots. At first, I thought the story I am working on was an obvious Archplot, then when I read the beginning of this entry, I thought “no, no, definitely Miniplot”, until I kept reading and just became confused.

I have two MCs. Each is trying to overcome an internal battle (misplaced guilt and general anxiety). They go on a road trip. MC1 to find and confront his brother (in turn understanding his guilt is misplaced and letting go of it to a certain extent) and MC2 to try and clear her head (while helping MC1 locate his brother).

Now, the road trip to locate the brother seems like Archplot stuff to me. However, the main ‘issue’ both MCs are dealing with are an ‘inner battle’. They are not seeking a tangible object of their desires, just peace of mind essentially.

What do you think?


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