While story structure provides a general framework for novels and films, getting familiar with the most common plot archetypes in storytelling can help you deliver your brand’s messaging in creative, engaging ways. Much in the same way popular story structures can be used as a blueprint, plot archetypes can help content writers build outlines or diagnose issues after a first draft is complete.
Read on to learn more about plot archetypes and how to use them.
In his book, The 7 Basic Plots, author Christopher Booker distills storytelling down to seven basic plot archetypes that hold true for stories going back millennia. Let’s dive in.
Picture this: it’s a quiet Wednesday night, and you’ve just settled into bed with a nice cup of tea. You hear a noise downstairs, but no one else is home. Is it a serial killer, or a crafty raccoon? Perhaps you’ve fallen victim to some mysterious paranormal activity. You dial 911, only to find the phone line’s been cut (it would need to be a very crafty raccoon). What’s worse, the thing that is now making its way up the stairs to your bedroom is blocking your only safe way out. Congratulations! You’ve just become the star of a “monster in the house” plot archetype. Your new, most imminent goal is to overcome the monster, and you’ll take any help you can get.
From lighthearted stories like Home Alone to slasher films like Scream, the monster in the house plot archetype has been used in countless creative ways. The film Alien took the concept to space, where, instead of dealing with a monster in the house, heroine Ripley — and the ship’s resident space cat — had a very rude alien in their midst.
This plot archetype is popular in advertising, where the monster is presented as an obstacle to overcome. Just think of all the times you’ve seen pesky problems like germs, plaque or grime personified in adverts. Brands often position themselves as the loyal side-kick or the ultimate weapon that the hero (read: customer) can count on to defeat the loathsome beast. In real world scenarios, the “monster” concept can be applied to a wide range of issues, from insurmountable debt and harmful bacteria to tupperware that just won’t stack right. Your customer has a problem to overcome, and you’re going to help them do it.
Tales as old as time, including Pygmalion, Cinderella, The Ugly Duckling, and yes, Beauty and the Beast, have all relied on the rags to riches plot archetype. We often start out with a poor, humble, yet deserving protagonist who achieves a happy, successful ending.
In advertising, brands that help their customers achieve the very best versions of themselves often take on a “fairy godmother” role. Think life coaches, web hosting services — even gum commercials. The idea is that your customer already has what it takes, you’re just there to give them that extra boost they need in order to get recognized for their talents.
Quest stories involve a hero setting out to achieve a goal, whether it’s slaying a dragon, destroying the One Ring or finding the missing groom in time for his wedding.
In advertising, your service or product might be just what the hero needs to complete their quest. Car companies, online dating services and sports-centric commercials are masters of this one. If you’re in the business of helping your customers achieve a goal, the quest archetype might suit your brand very well indeed.
Voyage and return plot archetypes are all about the journey. The hero typically sets out as a naïve commoner, perhaps to escape from a situation they’re not ready to face in their own lives. After undergoing a transformative journey, meeting new friends along the way and overcoming immense obstacles, the hero often returns bolder and wiser, finally able to turn down that marriage proposal or... file those taxes they just couldn’t deal with before.
Finding Nemo is a great example here, and it incorporates some elements of the quest archetype as well. In this flick, papa fish is terrified of venturing out into the ocean, and he’s more than a little protective of his son. When his worst nightmare comes to pass, he must set out to find Nemo in the underwater expanse he’s been trying to avoid. Hijinks ensue, and by the end of the film, good ole’ Marlin is finally able to let go and trust little Nemo to be his own fish.
In advertising, this archetype is often used for products that allow customers to “escape” and transform in some way. Think vacation resorts, amusement parks and spas.
A good laugh will go a long way, but comedy is notoriously difficult to pull off. Great comedies are iconic, memorable and just plain fun. By pushing ridiculous situations to their extremes, comedies make people cringe, relate and talk. That’s good for brands, who often rely on the art of the pun to infuse a little humor into their messaging.
Tragedies typically involve great suffering, whether it’s due to a star-crossed fate or a devastating path of self-destruction. For obvious reasons, this one’s a little trickier to work into a marketing campaign. Tragedies don’t have happy endings, after all.
This type of narrative is most commonly seen in PSA campaigns, where real events or people are depicted with the hope of spreading awareness. Safe driving campaigns, anti-smoking PSAs and animal or child welfare fundraising commercials turn to tragic stories with the goal of inspiring action from audiences.
Rebirth stories tend to center around a downtrodden protagonist. Whether by circumstance or a malicious curse, the poor soul is a shell of the person they once were. Beast, from Beauty and the Beast is a classic example here. With a little bit of help, the awful curse is broken, and the hero is finally able to cast off whatever was holding them back from revealing their true selves.
In advertising, brands might ask how their product or service can help someone reconnect to — or find — their true self? Pharmaceutical companies offering treatment for conditions like arthritis sometimes turn to this archetype in their marketing efforts, promising to restore patients to their former lives and activities.
How does your product or service help people? If you are able to answer this question, you can likely determine which archetype category your brand falls into. More often than not, several different archetypes will apply. This affords your brand the creative freedom to approach marketing efforts in a multi-faceted way, keeping content fresh and relatable.
If you’d like to utilize plot archetypes in your marketing efforts, the storytelling experts at Hire a Writer can help. Contact us today to get started.
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