Plots can be categorized and described in a thousand ways; at the same time, in other ways, no two plots are exactly alike and thus cannot be too closely associated. While accepting the incredible subjectivity and ultimate pointlessness of separating plots into different categories, I do find it helpful when trying to determine which kinds of plots I like, thus what kinds of stories I should try to write, and some ideas for how to write them.
Today’s plot categories are “epic” and “procedural.” These categories apply almost exclusively to more plot-driven stories, the typical “bad guy”-fighting story. Character-driven stories and dramas can have an epic feel, but rarely fall into the procedural category. The exception that I can think of is when a traditional plot-driven story is told in a style of a character-driven story, such as a sitcom about cops that might follow their cases but focus on the comedy of their characters (thus making it, plot-wise at least, procedural).
Once again, I’m using entirely my own opinion to categorize examples, and so nuances and outright logical fallacies abound. Similarly, I’m sure there are other types of plots that don’t fit too neatly into these two categories; I would not go as far as to say that these two categories are all-encompassing.
But when you look at many commercial plots (especially of the fantasy type, my preferred genre), you tend to see two types of plots—epic and procedural.
Procedural plots are most common in series, especially those that are ongoing and seemingly unending. They usually follow a single character or group as they face numerous conflicts, often because of their occupation. They are marked by a sense of formula, by the fact that most entries in the series are separate narratives, by a more localized conflict, and by a convenient protagonist.
What I mean by this last point is that the protagonist is often a bit random, though they will usually rise to the occasion of each conflict. But they are not necessarily unique within the world or directly related to the specific conflict (although occasionally a single conflict within the series will be more personal and specific to this character). They may be a seemingly random detective, or secret agent, or pirate, or what have you; or, alternatively, they may consistently be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Sometimes, though, the protagonist may be more unique or special, but the repetition of non-personal conflicts build to a sense of the procedural. Doctor Who would be an example of this, as the Doctor is clearly unique, but the conflicts he and his companions face fall into a sense of formula and are rarely too personal. Even the “epic” conflicts that the Doctor faces can begin to feel procedural if they fall into repetitive formulas.
Examples of procedural stories include: Doctor Who, Charmed, Mercy Thompson series, James Bond films, Law & Order: SVU, Stephanie Plum series.
Epic plots can be standalones or series, though if a series, they are usually defined by a set number of volumes. They can follow a single character or a multitude as they face a single conflict (though it may manifest through numerous sub-conflicts). Epic plots are marked by a more personal (or specific) story, a single narrative, a larger sense of scale, and a special protagonist.
In an epic plot, the protagonist is usually the only one who could be the protagonist, as opposed to procedural plots where other characters could step into the protagonist role if given the right opportunity. Usually, the protagonist is determined by their ability to defeat the main villain, or some other type of connection to the villain or the larger plot.
The sense of scale is the simplest way to tell if a plot is epic—epic plots often threaten the entire world, or at least some large portion of it. A depth of theme often accompanies an epic, but I wouldn’t want to suggest that procedural stories can’t have deep themes, nor do I want to make the claim that every epic plot has much thematic weight.
Epic plots can lean towards procedural if they are repeated. I mentioned Doctor Who above, but I would also add that lots of superhero films are certainly “epic” but the heroes aren’t always personally connected to the story. The fact that they treat it almost as a job might tip it towards procedural, but it’s not an absolute binary by any means. Likewise, the new Star Trek films have an epic scale, but since the characters are performing their jobs, it might be a bit procedural.
Examples of epic stories include: Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Game of Thrones, The Matrix, The Hunger Games, Divergent.
But, as I’ve hinted at throughout, there are counter-arguments to be made, as well as a host of stories that may not fit too neatly within the categories. For example, I listed The Hunger Games in the epic category, but Katniss doesn’t have a personal connection to the conflict—however, it’s a large-scale and “once-in-a-lifetime” sort of conflict, which feels epic.
If I had to add a third leg to this category, I would try something like “personal” or “character-driven,” since plots sometimes fall into this side area. The characters face conflicts that are not procedural (not repetitive, not occupational, not formulaic—they are clearly personal and somewhat unique), but they are not large-scaled enough to be considered epic. For example, in the show Firefly, the characters face numerous somewhat random conflicts; if the conflicts came from their jobs, I would call it procedural, but they often surface from the trials of living in space and being who they are, which is trickier to classify.
So what’s the point of making this distinction at all, if it can be so easily challenged? Well, when I think of a story from the vague outsider point of view, it often feels either procedural or epic to me. Is this just an episode in this character’s life or job? Or is it the entirety of their story? And figuring that out just helps me to plot, to plan, and to figure out what an idea could become.
Once again, neither is inherently better than the other. Epic stories have the grand scale and heightened drama, but procedurals can invest more time in characters and can be a lot easier to plot. Procedurals also don’t require as much long-term planning for a series, as each entry can more or less stand alone.
Maybe thinking in categories helps you as it (sometimes) does for me. Or maybe not. But analyzing other works to figure out what they’re doing and how they’re doing it is always a helpful exercise for a wannabe writer, so here we are. 🙂