Templates are underlying structures of kinds of invented story, whatever genre or media they may be created in.
Templates are not formulas, so wipe “formula fiction” right out of your frontal lobes. Fiction formulas are laid down by editors, often rather arbitrarily, and may apply only to one publisher, not even the whole industry.
Templates are universal and human. They arise from the audience, and date back before writing, though we can only see them as far back as they are written down, whether the myths of Ishtar harrowing Hell or Isis seeking a dead mate’s resurrection, or the heroic quest of Gilgamesh for eternal life, or the wanderings of Odysseus, or the wars of the Rg Veda.
On the other hand, at least one template was founded as recently as the 1950s. Collecting and sorting them has been a hobby of mine for some years, based in a chance remark of a workshopper and my broad basis in myth, epic, folk tale, and fairy tales.
Not every story you write will fit a template, but most will because you are as human as anyone else, and as much imbedded in the culture of fiction. If your story is close to a template, it will be stronger if you move either onto the template, fulfilling its satisfactions, or move well away so you don’t look like you just missed the boat.
However, you may find that outside of litfi you can’t avoid templates. Many genres are built on, not just a single template, but a single sub-template, like mysteries are basically the Mystery Template.
Templates of Fiction
These are the Templates.
These are the Themes or Motifs. These are the Categories.
These are Mechanisms. These are Settings.
I. Things Unknown
A. Mystery: a puzzle or conundrum is presented, and the purpose of the story and plot is to investigate it. The DE (Disturbing Event) is when the puzzle is presented to the protagonist, who for various reasons must solve it; the climax is when the solution — the deduced or discovered truth — is revealed to the protagonist (and the reader — it is an old and annoying affectation to delay the reader when the protagonist has it worked out). Everything after that is extended denouement to resolve the effects on the world of the discovery. Variations include cozies, police procedurals, &c, where the mood or tone of the writing or setting, or actions to solve it determine the subgenre.
B. Revelation: used for some mystery stories, but more often in science fiction, horror, thrillers, occasionally in fantasy. The DE is when the protagonist realizes there is a mystery, a thing unknown that leaves them wanting to know what is happening. The climax is when they feel they know the answer, whether being told, finding out, or reaching what they consider an accurate theory. Examples: “The Call of Cthulhu” by H. P. Lovecraft; “Eye of the Octopus” by Larry Niven.
II. People Change
A. Romance templates: this is a whole industry. “Romance” does not mean “anything with a love story in it.” Those may be Redemption, Sacrifice, or other templates. There may be a difficulty in that they layer templates. However, one of the rules for recognizing which is the controlling template is which problem is solved last. In theory, this should be the climax, and therefore its template is controlling. For example, it can be hard to tell the romantic suspense novel from the suspense/mystery romance. But is the real resolution solving the mystery/danger, or the h/h making their commitment? If the last, it’s a romance. No commitment, but rather a happy or sad parting of the ways, means that it may be a love story, but it is not a Romance Template. There appear to be two variants, but one is not really romance as modernly defined by the romance industry.
1. Star-crossed template: the lovers are committed to each other, but external forces — families, nations, physical distance — keep them apart. This is occasionally called the false romance template, because the romance is never in question, despite machinations to make one or the other feel betrayed or attach to someone else. This was the basis of ancient Greek novels. The climax is when they are back together apparently permanently. When this ends tragically, when they are driven to death by their resistance, especially when it’s by double suicide, it’s the Romeo & Juliet template (though it actually dates back to Pyramus and Thisbe). The modern romance industry hates a story where the h/h are apart for weeks at a time, let alone most of the story.
2. Modern Romance template: the h/h must overcome barriers within themselves — fear, false information, prejudice, tradition, other commitments — to come together and make a commitment to a permanent relationship. However, while they can be separated for events, most of the scenes in the book should keep them in contact.
B. Redemption template: the events of the story raise the person out of selfishness, coldness, despondency, isolation — any bad emotional space — to a higher ground by making them want to change and be better. A Christmas Carol is the classic, where a night’s dreaming redeems and changes Scrooge. In The Bridges of Madison County or The Horse Whisperer, an extra-marital affair brings the protagonist into a full awareness of life after coldness or narrowing.
C. Reinvention templates: This includes the Pygmalion version, where one person decides to remake another and talks them into the effort (A Modern Pygmalion which became My Fair Lady); or the Georgy Girl version (named after the movie) where a person decides, based on their dissatisfaction or ambition, to reinvent themselves to be more attractive or acceptable to some segment of society. However, this is a cosmetic difference, as in the Pygmalion version the person remade must come to want the change and embrace it. There is also the Failed Pygmalion, where the make-over object rebels and happily goes back to their old ways.
D. Mirror template: The events of the story reveal to the protagonist their true nature, often at odds with what they have been trying to present. This may change or destroy them. Unlike the Redemption template, what is revealed may be that they are in a bad emotional space and cannot escape it, though often the target is mere hypocrisy. The Circus of Dr. Lao did this in a number of its segments. Classic versions are Emma and The Picture of Dorian Grey.
E. Coming of Age stories: This is a theme or motif, not actually a template. The template used for the CoA may be a Romance, a Mystery, etc. As we know these in English, they tend to be heavily tied to Western cultural ideals, and generally work to confirm them. A CoA that doesn’t confirm those ideals commonly will draw cries of dismay from workshop critters at the character’s supposed failure, when the critters cannot accept alternative growth patterns or non-Western cultural ideals.
However, there are three age-related pseudo-templates:
1. Apprentice stories, about the youngster who has to take on adult responsibilities and ways of thinking. The youngster may learn to break the mold of the wrong things they were taught (adolescence as rebellion, a Western social motif). Far more universal is the apprentice who flirts with wrong behavior and/or ideas but finds that parents and society are right, after all.
2. Maturity stories, about the protagonist who must quit “playing around” and take up their permanent proper (societally-determined important) place as a worker in government, business, science, or as a responsible husband and father, also a responsible son to aging parents; for female characters, this usually translated as becoming a proper stable wife and mother rather than a society butterfly or playgirl or Amazon, or just being so resolutely single. When a protagonist finds she ought to be partying more, it’s more often on the Redemption template for workaholics.
3. Empty Nest stories, about the parent who must learn to stop trying to control the now more-or-less adult child, where they must take up a relationship as friends or partners rather than master and learner. The inverse of the apprentice story. Does not work in societies where children are subservient to their elders until they are the elders: that is, after the death of the older generation.
III. Confrontation templates — The hero is supposed to face up to something and conquer it. This doesn’t always mean killing dragons: it may be figuring a way up the glass mountain. As you can tell, these are deeply rooted in myth, legend, and folklore. They may conclude with an heroic death, or happily ever after, or sadder but wiser ever after, though the latter is rare until modern times. It should be obvious that not every story with a lone protagonist will be Lone Hero template. The now infamous “Hero’s Journey” template is a formula subset of the Lone Hero, but ignores all the variants where the redshirt isn’t killed, the hero does not return home or does so without a gift from the Realm of Mystery, and so on.
A. Lone Hero template: Starts with the later adventure of Gilgamesh, the earliest known fiction, c.2500 BCE. That’s a 4500-year-old template. Includes great standalone heroes like Beowulf, Sigfried, Cuchulainn.
B. Hero & Sidekick template: Requires the second person be inferior in heroic ability, but have their own usefulness, not just to hang on to the horses and comment wittily on matters. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are the classic example. The sidekick has a lesser part to play in the climax.
C. Two Heroes template: The middle section of Gilgamesh where he is paired with his friend Enkiddu. This may be a redoubled Lone Hero, merely allowing “him” to be in two places at one time, or may be used as a contrast of styles or abilities, as in Fritz Leiber’s stories of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. The climax requires both of them. The category of romantic thriller usually uses this template, where the hero and heroine are the two heroes. So is the story where the father is raising his son to be a hero, as in the wolf section of the Volsunga Saga.
IV. Group categories.
A. Motley Crew template: An assortment of heroes with different abilities join up to defeat a problem. All must be used and useful to solve different parts of the problem, and the problem could not be solved if you left one out (any left standing around twiddling their thumbs should be eliminated from the crafted story as deadweight). Examples include Kilwych and Olwen in the Mabinogion, and far too many fairy tales where the questing prince is kind to the bees, the ants, the fish, etc. and so gains his helpers that see him through. Other examples would be any Mission: Impossible TV episode (the movies have been Lone Hero), Topkapi, and lots of other caper/heist films. Often everyone gets out alive, but it’s not guaranteed.
B. Ten Little Indians template: A group of characters sets out together, or is in a place together, and something dangerous eliminates them one by one, usually by killing them. The climax is when the last few survivors confront and confound the menace. (All the Dead Teenager films, right?) Each death needs to contribute a step toward the success of the final confrontation, as by pointing out the murderer or giving clues to weaknesses.
C. Seven Samurai template: This is a very modern template, as you can tell from its basic purpose — exploring the meaning of violent heroism, which earlier was never questioned — and its format, which seems to be entirely movies. For a project, I had to work out just what the limits and requirements of the template were so I could hew closely to them. Specifically, I wanted it to be my Seven Samurai story. Many stories dither over the line between this and the Motley Crew template. Strictly speaking, a Seven Samurai story is about the nature of heroism shown through several characters. These normally include the Wise Leader, the Merry Friend, the Perfect Master of Combat, the Loose Cannon, and the Apprentice, but they can be combined in different characters, and some others left out and others swapped in. Certainly, they can die in different orders, and die most of them must (though this is not 10LI, because they know what they are facing).
1. The “villagers” seek the heroes out: the heroes do not stumble on the village needing help, they do not go to the villagers on a mission determined outside the village (so The Legend of the Eight Samurai misses the boat, and is Motley Crew template).
2. They are pure volunteers: no one orders them to go do this or coerces them into “volunteering” (so Dirty Dozen can’t be).
3. They are strangers to the villagers: no one is a dear relative, like parent or sibling, so they lack that motive for defending the village. They may have some distant connection, in societies where a complete stranger would never be called in.
4. The reward is only maintenance and glory: someone like Baxter (The Magnificent Seven) may think there’s treasure, but there never is.
5. They will lose nothing if they do not go: the fate of their world or the war does not hang in the balance (so not LotR, no Jackdaws: in fact, all war missions are out, even if volunteer).
6. The fate of the villagers truly is insignificant to everyone but the villagers: this is no test of the heroes by omnipotent powers.
Themes can differ significantly, and we can look at the only pure examples I could find to see this:
1. The Seven Samurai: The farmer endures; the samurai must go on in his own world of warfare for the sake of farmers, not themselves. (The Apprentice leaves with the other warriors.)
2. The Magnificent Seven: The day of the gunfighter is done; the future belongs to the farmer. (The Apprentice turns back and joins the farmers.)
3. Battle Beyond the Stars: The meek will get stomped, so learn to defend yourselves. (The Apprentice becomes a new warrior leader.)
4. The 13th Warrior: Fear profits a man nothing: the brave may live forever. (The Apprentice goes out a changed man.)
V. Survival and Destruction
A. Disaster, Sudden Catastrophe template: Hollywood uses the template for things like Earthquake, The Poseidon Adventure, Airport, Five Came Back. It can focus on one person or on a large cast of characters trying to make it through. When the disaster is an asteroid, comet, a volcano emerging in Hyde Park, a world-wide plague, it is often considered a specfi disaster.
B. Man versus Nature template: or sometimes animal hero versus Nature. The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway.
C. Odyssey template: the focus is on the places travelled, and the adventures met can be perfectly detached in the picaresque tradition, having only the travellers in common. Jules Verne specialized in these, like Five Weeks in a Balloon or The Children of Capt. Grant or Michael Strogoff: Courier for the Czar. This is very popular in science fiction and fantasy, but not limited to it. The earliest is probably the Odyssey, by “Nausicaa.” (It has been recognized for centuries that the Odyssey was written by someone very different than the author of the Iliad, starting with their having antagonistic religious views; however, Classicists were in denial because the same evidence made it obvious that the writer of one of the great ancient epics was a young noblewoman who tagged her story onto Homer’s fame in the common practice of the period.)
VII. Speculative Fiction templates — are their own special set that require speculation. There are over two dozen.
VIII. Mechanisms found
A. Quest: Quests are mechanisms, not templates. They get characters out and around, forcing them to interact, usually with new people. All a quest means, usually, is that the protagonist is looking for something or somewhere, and having to go out of their safety zone to do it. This began anciently with Gilgamesh and Perseus. The current trope is that a Quest will cover hundreds of miles of territory, but you can Quest across town if you’re used to staying to your allotted neighborhoods and that’s the only way you’re going to find what you need. Many of these long-distance Quests are Confrontation templates (LotR Aragorn), but they may be Sacrifice (LotR Frodo), Revelation (At the Mountains of Madness), Romance (Glory Road by Heinlein), &c.
B. Every A is supposed to have a B, but I just didn’t find anything else people were calling a genre or template that was actually a mechanism.
IX. Failures of Art: any story may have sections which are infodumps, lectures, or too much background. But when a story exists primarily to show research or to Get A Point Across without much plot or characterization happening, it can be considered its own template — a bad one you should escape by massive revision.
A. Soapboxing or Story Tract: The story is constantly halted so that the spokesman characters can lecture the reader or other characters on Something Important, whether religion, ecology, or the need for individual participation in local government, let alone Respect, Equality, or the Evils of Racism. In fact, the story obviously exists so the author can lecture the reader this way. It may be hard to find too much of a story if you remove the lectures. Don’t lecture, Show.
B. Herman Melville Gave Too Little Background: The writer is more interested in dumping all seven of their CDRs of research or notebooks of world-building in here, so none goes to waste, whether or not the reader needs it; especially notable when the pacing is killed to linger on digressions in detail.
C. Tourist Literature: This is Voyage Extraordinaire gone bad, to the point that the story or pacing is sacrificed to taking the reader around the place. The third of the Noah Wylie The Librarian movies springs to mind, as the story stops to tour New Orleans.
I am now greatly looking forward to your thoughts and input, no matter how long since I posted this. Ideas have no freshness date.