There are two simple plot formats that have always been popular – the “epiphany plot” and “the worm turns.” Personally, I’m a big fan of the epiphany plot. This is where the main character has an epiphany as a result of the conflict in the story. Often the epiphany occurs right before the climax and affects the outcome of the story but it also extends beyond the context of the story. The revelation changes everything from that point forward in the life of the character and often those around him. With the epiphany plot the main character learns something profound about himself and, sometimes, the reader learns something about himself as well.
With the worm turns plot format the main character is someone who doesn’t like conflict, indeed does everything he can to avoid conflict. But at some point he can’t run away any longer and must turn and face it head-on. This plot structure was very popular in the past but is not quite so prevalent these days. However, it still works, partly because of its simplicity and due to the emotional connection it often establishes between the reader and the character.
Back in the early to mid ‘70s there was a TV show, Kung Fu, about an orphaned American raised by Shaolin monks who returned to the American “Old West” in search of his half-brother. The entire series was based on the worm turns plot structure. In every episode Kwai Chang Caine (played by David Carradine) was bullied and mistreated until he could no longer tolerate it. Then he kicked the snot out of the bad guys and left town to avoid any further conflict. Often the abuse of another meek, peace-loving person was the catalyst for Caine to spring into action and “Kung Fu” somebody. But every episode was written around this simple format.
As you might guess, stories based on the worm turns format often incorporate an epiphany for the characters, as well. Combining the two concepts makes for an even more powerful plot. Without the epiphany you tend to have a story that simply emphasizes gratuitous violence or sadistic behavior. Good examples are the Death Wish movies starring Charles Bronson. In the original movie there is a ton of internal conflict and the main character has a very significant epiphany which makes it a powerful movie. However, in the sequels he is simply portrayed as a vigilante who hunts down thugs and sociopaths. Without the internal conflict and the epiphany the sequels lose their entertainment value and even their focus.
In my next article I’ll go into more detail about the types of conflict – internal and external – and describe how they work together to provide depth and intensity. But in the mean time, think about the novels and movies you really like. I think you’ll be surprised to see how many of them incorporate these two simple plot formats.