The stuff of dreams
Rebecca Mikkelson, Editor-in-Chief Authors 4 Authors Publishing
Welcome to our third post in our plot archetype series! Today we’re going to be talking about a story that’s familiar to everyone across the board, but most especially young women because of media conglomerates producing this en masse: rags to riches. So what exactly is involved in this plot archetype?
So what is the rags to riches plot archetype? It says what it is right in the name—the protagonist in the story starts out down on their luck or in some position that requires them to turn their eyes toward something better and achieve their goal by the end of it. They’ll be so close to their goal, either through good fortune or other coincidence, by the midpoint only to lose it because they hadn’t earned it (bear in mind this has variations). They then spend the rest of the plot truly earning the fortune that they strive for.
“Why do they need to lose what they want before the end?” They don’t necessarily have to lose what they achieved through the aforementioned means—they can lose something they already have that sets them back, like what minor income that they have or their house, for example. Plus, how boring would a story be if the protagonist got whatever they wanted without issue?
This plot also isn’t just sweet princesses finding their prince charming and living happily ever after. This type of plot is also synonymous with the American Dream, where you can rise from nothing and achieve great things through hard work and determination.
So what all goes into writing a plot of rags to riches? There are five stages that you must hit in order to make it successful.
Initial wretchedness and the call to action: We can’t have a rags to riches story without seeing the rags first. To start your book, you must first show your protagonist in whatever their undesirable state of being is, whether it’s being poor, down on their luck after losing a job, or whatever situation you’re putting your protagonist in. Once the writer establishes this, we then have to see the protagonist want to lift themselves out of their situation.
Getting out with initial success: The protagonist now goes out into the world in the direction of their goal and they have some sort of success, but the success will only last for so long.
The central crisis: Here comes the part that keeps your story from having a Mary Sue or Marty Stu protagonist who gets whatever they want without struggle. Now it’s time for things to go wrong—the protagonist stalls on any progress that they’ve made and starts to slip backward.
Independence and ordeal: Now our protagonist must truly do things on their own; in their downward slide they’ve lost their resources, and potentially any allies they’ve made in the process, especially if their previous successes were based in trickery. Whatever goal they’ve made in the beginning of the story is just within reach now and only they can grab it.
Completion and fulfillment: As the title for this stage suggests, the protagonist achieves their goal. They could even exceed what they thought they could while searching for their happily ever after. And now, no one can ever take away their success. (Cue the singing rats and birds that will make your clothing with on-point draping as the end credits roll.)
So, where can you find plots that involve rags to riches? Well, there are several different examples that we can give, so we’ll break them down into their own sections. Unlike the other examples, we’re going to skip TV shows and focus on the book and movie examples.
Pride and Prejudice is one of my favorites—even the newest iteration with Kiera Knightly. (Can we talk about that hand flex by Matthew Macfayden? It’s sublime.) In this, the Bennet family isn’t the absolute bottom of the totem pole, but they need someone in the family to marry rich enough to support them once the estate goes to Mr. Bennet’s cousin, Mr. Collins. Elizabeth Bennet is sort of on board for this—given the times, she’s not really in the position to not be on board, though her father is much more lenient with his daughter’s autonomy than the vast majority of the men of the era—but she wants to find someone she can also love as her parent’s marriage has been...not the most loving. Better the chances if she can also find someone with money. Enter Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy, two incredibly rich gentlemen, and the Bennet family set their sights on marrying one of their daughters to one of them (this is their call to action). The initial reactions are different between each man, but as this story is mainly about Elizabeth, we’ll focus on her.
Mr. Darcy thinks she’s quite plain, while she thinks he’s handsome, and she finds out that he isn’t all that impressed by her. But, each time they see each other after that, Mr. Darcy finds other values in her and realizes his first assessment of her is incorrect. Elizabeth is also finding that she enjoys the company of Mr. Darcy and eventually it comes to the point where Mr. Darcy proposed to her. This is her seeming victory, and then she causes the start of her central crises by refusing his hand. A series of other things go wrong, and eventually, it comes to light that, despite being rejected by Elizabeth, Mr. Darcy lessens the burden on the Bennet family because he still loves her. Now we come to her independence and ordeal in which she must overcome her pride and prejudice and convince her father that she does indeed want to marry Mr. Darcy. After she accomplishes this, she gets her happily ever after. She gets her marriage based on love and respect, a ton of money, and as much autonomy as she can within the bounds of her era.
These two are examples everyone is probably familiar with in one form or another. They’ve certainly been put into plenty of mediums (books, movies, plays, ice shows, sing-alongs, and broadways just to name a few). Aladdin is about a street urchin who is tricked into obtaining a magic lamp and becomes the genie’s master. He sees and falls in love with Princess Jasmine and uses the genie to trick everyone into thinking that he is Prince Ali so that he can marry her. Everything is going great, right? It is until Jafar exposes him for being Aladdin and not Ali. All of his success is taken away from him and after he loses everything, including Genie, he must find a way to save himself and the rest of the kingdom from Jafar on his own. And he does, getting to live happily ever after.
Cinderella is another familiar fairy tale that Disney has beaten us over the head with since our parent’s childhood (and even for some of you, your parent’s parent’s childhood). Cinderella is one of the OG rags to riches that Disney has put in front of our eyes, though it’s had many, many different versions over centuries of storytelling. In our familiar story, Cinderella has become a servant to her stepmother and stepsisters after her father passes and when the opportunity comes to go to a ball for the prince to find a bride, she wants to go. Her stepmother denies Cinderella the chance to attend, but her fairy godmother gets her there by impossible means. She enjoys herself at the ball, but wait—she’s stayed too long and now she’s losing the things that she’s gained and must escape before she’s found out as just a peasant. The prince is already in love with her, so once she leaves behind her shoe he already knows how he can find her. Here is where it comes in that only the protagonist can achieve the goal. The only person who can fit in the shoe is Cinderella herself. She overcomes her stepmother’s deception and puts on the shoe, and she and her prince live happily ever after.
Join us next week for another Misused Advice post where we talk about writing what you know.