Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Plot Archetypes: Tragedy

The books you cry over

Rebecca Mikkelson, Editor-in-Chief Authors 4 Authors Publishing

Welcome to our fifth post in our plot archetype series! Today we’re going to be talking about a story that’s familiar to everyone who’s ever taken a high school English class: tragedy. So what exactly is involved in this plot archetype?  

What is it?

Unlike a comedy, a tragedy is a series of bad decisions that don’t end up having a funny, happy ending. It ends, well, in tragedy. There are no happy endings for this type of plot, especially for the protagonist. This might sound a little sad, and it is, but our protagonists in tragedy stories usually aren’t truly heroes like we would see in our other plot archetypes. They’re tragic heroes who do not have to be entirely good or evil, but they tend to fall further into the evil side than they do good. We can also see heroes turned into villains based on discontentment of how they’re treated who now do everything that they can to ruin things for their former allies or heroes. (Think Benedict Arnold after being passed over for promotion several times turning his coat to the British.) 

How to write a tragedy plot

Much like the other plot archetypes that we’ve been looking at, there are five stages an author must hit in order to write a successful tragedy plot. So what goes into it? 
Anticipation Stage: This is where our tragic hero discovers something that they want and set their sights on getting it. This could range anywhere from money to power to the girl they want to marry. No matter what they set their sights on, by trying to attain it they start their own downfall.

Dream Stage: This is where the protagonist starts their journey toward their goal, and by ignoring any warning signs that what they’re doing is wrong, they will do something that means they can’t change their mind and turn back to their old life. Things are going to go right for them, at least for now, and they’re going to see this as a sign that they’re doing what’s right. 

Frustration Stage: Some things are going to start going wrong for the protagonist, but they are able to overcome them and continue on toward their goal, and what they do will truly alert the reader that there won’t be redemption for the tragic hero by the end of the book. 

Nightmare Stage: Now nothing is going right and the protagonist’s plans start failing. They keep making bad decision after bad decision that has them living in fear of the eventual failure.

Destruction Stage: This is where everything comes to a head and the protagonist ultimately fails in their goal, or at the very least loses everything that they’ve gained. Sadly, or not so sadly, this is where the protagonist will perish and the other cast of characters will be rid of the evil put forward by the tragic hero.


So, where can you find plots that involve tragedy? Well, there are several different examples that we can give, so we’ll break them down into their own sections, but this time we’re going to focus on books and plays. 


King Lear is just a cluster of bad decisions. First, Lear splits his kingdom into three between his daughters equally and he asks his daughters how much they love him. When the youngest doesn’t give him the kind of answer he wants, he disowns her and she goes to France to the French king. After that, Lear realizes the mistake he’s made but there’s no getting out of it now. He flees to the heather after his remaining (remaining as in still in the same country) daughters undermine him out of what little power he still has. After that is a series of bad decisions on the daughter’s part that result in their deaths and King Lear dies from grief. In this play, not every bad decision is made by our tragic hero, but the decision he made put everything into motion to have the result that it does.  


Madame Bovary is perhaps even more tragic than King Lear. In this, Charles Bovary first loses his wife, and then marries another who is discontented with life as a village wife. She wants the finery that she sees wealthier people have and falls in and out of love with wealthier men, making her husband a cuckold, and also falls into extreme debt with a money lender. Eventually she ends her affairs and when the moneylender repossesses the items that she can’t pay for. Afraid that her husband will find out, she tries to pay back her debts by asking local businessmen and even trying to prostitute herself to one of her ex-lovers. When that doesn’t work, she kills herself by eating arsenic to avoid the shame of her own greed. To make the story even more tragic, her husband was so loyal he never suspected she had been unfaithful until he found her letters to her ex-lovers after her death, and he dies from his own grief. 

Join us next week for an author interview with A4A author and co-founder Renee Frey for her debut novel, One Thousand and One Days, a retelling of One Thousand and One Nights, and in four weeks we’ll see the conclusion of this series when we talk about the rebirth plot archetype. 

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