“The Universal Plot”

Neptune Plotting

Take a trip back to the 80’s and see what was known then as The Universal Plot. Its origins are obscure, but I suspect that it was generated by someone in Southwest Manuscripters back around 1980. My copy shows no copyright and I can’t find it on the Internerd, so I’ll assume it’s public domain. Kudos to whoever first compiled it. Here goes:


(Origin unknown, possibly Southwest Manuscripters, circa 1984)

OVERALL: Make up…

I. A different type of villainy
II. A different thing for the villain to seek
III. A different locale for the story
IV. A menace to hang over the hero like a cloud

OUTLINE: Section 1 [ACT I; REELS 1 & 2]

1. Immediately introduce the hero, then smack him with more trouble than he can handle. Hint at the mystery or menace or problem to be solved—something he has to cope with.
2. Have the hero get right to business coping with trouble.
3. Introduce all characters as soon as possible. Bring them all into the action.
4. The hero’s efforts put him into actual physical conflict.
5. Introduce a surprise element or plot twist which increases the menace.

ASK YOURSELF: Does section 1 contain suspense, menace, speed? Does it all happen logically? The hero should have moved in time and space and should be on the verge of learning some-thing. “Logically,” herein, means in accordance with characters’ Wants and Needs.

OUTLINE: Section 2 [ACT IIA; REELS 3 & 4]

6. Shovel more grief onto the hero.
7. Your hero, being heroic, struggles harder, gets himself in deeper, thus leading to…
8. Another physical conflict.
9. Now add a second surprise or plot twist.

ASK YOURSELF: Does the second part have suspense? Does the menace grow like a black storm cloud? Is the hero in one hell of a lot of trouble? Is the progression fast and logical?

This section can be repeated more than once if necessary to add conflict of suspense, but be carefully not to replicate the same exact situation. See note below re taking stock.

OUTLINE: Section 3 [ACT IIB; REELS 5 & 6]

10. Add to the hero’s grief as he continues to fight back heroically. Everything should be going wrong for him at this point.
11. Hero now begins to make some headway. He corners the villain or someone associated with the villain in a physical conflict.
12. Now add a surprising and major plot development or twist which causes the hero to get it in the neck.

ASK YOURSELF: Does the overall story to this point have suspense? Does the menace get blacker and blacker? Is the hero in deep, deep trouble? Does it all happen logically?

TAKE STOCK HERE. The physical conflicts must not be repetitious. Each fight should be different, each pile of trouble should be different and deeper than the preceding one. Make sure that the plot twists are logical, that they are truly unexpected. Be misleading, but do it carerully. Don’t cheat the reader, but do increase suspense. Suspense develops from menace, so increase it slowly and carefully. 

OUTLINE: Section 4 [ACT III; REELS 7 & 8]

13. Add more difficulties in the hero’s load, fast and threateningly. He should be on the verge of a nervous and physical breakdown.
14. Have him, or another character, become the victim of the villain’s major villainy.
15. The hero now begins to pull himself out using his own skill, brains, and brawn. This is the place for the big climax, but hold the final resolution of the mystery or problem to be cleared in one final twist. Now finish the grand climax.

ASK YOURSELF: Is the suspense there to the end? Has the question been maintained in the reader’s mind as to who will win? Have all dangling details been tied down? Good. You now have a first class story. Next time, see how much you can rework this basic plot.

Note, 2014: Shorter works can be a mini-version of the Universal Plot: these precepts apply to short stories, novels, novelettes, novellas, and screenplays. Not haiku, though. Tension is the key.

Is this any worse than what’s recommended today for plot creation and structure? Please let me know what you think.


This file is in the public domain because it has been released by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art www.lacma.org with its “Public Domain High Resolution Image Available” mark.


This entry was posted in creativity, fiction, history, writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to “The Universal Plot”

  1. Pingback: A More Wretched Hive of Scum and Villainy | jguentherauthor

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.