Three Plots Make One story

Three Plots Make One storyMastery of plot structure isn’t about a single thread, more like three plots make one story.

So says writer and coach Joe Bunting over at The Write Practice. He maintains most novels, films, and memoirs combine three plot threads:

  • Main External Plot
  • Internal Plot
  • Subplot

Combining these three plot threads produces a recognizable, engaging story.

Bunting references a typical “hero’s journey” fantasy story:

  • External plot: Adventure
  • Internal plot: Coming of age
  • Subplot: Romance

Think about it; that describes 90 per cent of the fantasy stories ever written.

External Plot Types

We’ve talked about external plot before; its the stuff that happens. Events, challenges, obstacle. The limited number of external plot types varies according to who you ask. Bunting settles on seven:

  • Action
  • Adventure
  • Horror
  • Mystery
  • Thriller
  • Love/Romance
  • Performance/Sports

Internal Plot Types

The internal plot powers the protagonist’s transformation; this is (mostly) what makes the story engaging. Internal plot is character-based. It explores a clash of values and the protagonist’s journey toward self-actualisation

Commonly it’s the progress from immaturity to maturity or a shift in morality; right versus wrong. Values manifest in the internal plot types:

  • Coming of Age / World View
  • Temptation / Morality

The Sub Plot Thickens

Successful stories seldom stand up with only one external plot. This is where the best storytellers combine two external plot types, a main plot and a sub plot. Frequently it’s action or adventure or performance with a romance sub plot to broaden the interest and raise the stakes. If the main plot is romance, you might have some element of mystery, action or performance to add some momentum.

Into the Blender

The final element is the internal plot. This is where the character transformation takes place in the crucible of the external plots. Here we see how a character responds to external challenges and comes out the other side.

One external plot can look a little thin in a full length novel, hence the subplot which adds depth.

Sub plots usually begin later in the story than the main plot, perhaps not fully engaged until some time in the second act. The main plot may provide the climax of the story, but the sub-plot is often the resolution in the final scene of the story.

What if?

Can the story’s main plot be an internal plot? The Devil Wears Prada is a temptation/morality plot; will our naive young intern surrender to the corrupting influence of The Editor?

In this case the internal plot moves up supported by two external plot threads.

  • Main Internal Plot Type
  • External Plot Type
  • External Subplot

Doubling the internal plot types, however, is a hard graft. There’s too much introspection and not enough stuff happening to contextualise or trigger the protagonist’s struggle. Without some clever point-of-view and well-crafted narration, here’s more tell than show.


Let’s return to some previous examples. Pride and Prejudice (yes, collect a sticker), is a romance with some mystery elements (the Darcy/Wickham feud) and a coming of age/world view internal plot.

The main plot of Great Expectations is a mystery with a (weak) romance sub-plot, which together power Pip’s coming of age/world view transformation arc.

My fantasy The Ghost and the Vipers follows Bunting’s pattern; adventure with romance and a coming of age internal arc.

The Sixth Messenger is an adventure with mystery sub plot and coming of age/world view internal thread.

This isn’t a definitive description of all things ‘plot.’ But if you’re struggling to identify why a story isn’t working, this might expose a core problem; too many, too few or the wrong combination of plot types.

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