Basic Plots: Tragedy

Comedy Tragedy MasksCiao, SEers. On March 21, I started a series of posts on the seven basic plot types, as defined by Christopher Booker. So far, we’ve covered Rebirth. Today, we’re going to talk about Tragedy.

In its simplest form, tragedy is a bad choice resulting in a bad ending for the protagonist.

Within the course of a story, many characters will make many bad choices, some of which might result in a bad end. That’s tragic, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a tragedy. A “tragedy” is an unfavorable ending for the main character, something they can’t recover from and makes the reader feel bad for the hero. A tragedy is not a bad ending for the antagonist or even a bad ending for the hero who died for a noble cause. It’s got to be a sad, non-redemptive ending for the hero.

Here’s a list of some of the better-known tragedies:

  • Macbeth
  • Romeo and Juliet
  • Hamlet
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray
  • Madame Bovary (which I hated, but it is a tragedy)

Here’s a basic template for writing a tragedy. I’ll use the character of Romeo as my example.

  1. The hero is tempted by something forbidden.
    All stories get interesting when the status quo changes. The tragedy is no different—it begins with the hero seeing something he wants but shouldn’t pursue.
    Romeo sees Juliet and is enamored by her beauty. She belongs to the family that is in a feud with his own. No good can come of consorting with her. But he can’t get her out of his mind.
  2. The hero commits to pursuing his dream, and it seems to be working.
    This is the calm before the storm. The hero ignores warnings and pursues his heart’s desire. And nothing bad happens because of it.
    Romeo convinces Juliet to see him, and they fall in love. In the early stage of their romance, he is head-over-heels happy and convinces the friar to marry them.
  3. The hero experiences a setback.
    The happily-ever-after ending is delayed. The hero is frustrated by the situation and must deal with it, but circumstances devolve.
    Tybalt challenges Romeo to a duel. Romeo refuses to fight, so his friend Mercutio draws his sword. He’s fatally wounded, so Romeo fights Tybalt in his friend’s honor and kills him.
  4. Everything spirals out of control.
    Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. Right? This is where it all hits the fan, and a bad situation is made worse by bad choices.
    Romeo is banished by the Prince for continuing the feud and killing Tybalt. Juliet’s parents want her to marry Paris. The friar helps them scheme to be together.
  5. The bad decisions have terrible consequences.
    The plans set in motion all come to a head, and the result is disastrous.
    The friar’s plan is for Juliet to fake her death, thus freeing her from a loveless—and illegal—marriage. When Romeo returns, he thinks she’s dead and kills himself. She wakes from her faux death, finds him, and kills herself. 

Not every story that ends with a sad event is a tragedy. But if the hero makes a bad choice that could have been avoided and ends with his ruin—a destruction with no redemptive arc for him—then you’ve probably written or read a tragedy.

Your turn. Have you written a tragedy? Read one not mentioned here that really resonated with you? Let’s talk about it.

Staci Troilo

44 thoughts on “Basic Plots: Tragedy

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    • I love them, too. When my husband and I were first dating (way back in high school), he took me to the theater to see Macbeth, played by Christopher Plummer. I’d liked Shakespeare before that, but seeing it performed live made me a true fan. It wasn’t even a fabulous performance, but it still hooked me.

      Glad you found the post useful, Robbie.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I had to read a lot of French literature in college, and I didn’t care for any of it. Loved Russian lit, though, which is pretty tragic. I rather enjoyed the Greek tragedies, although some of the family stuff is a bit disturbing. And there were a lot of UK authors whose work I liked quite a bit.

      And of course I love Shakespeare. One of my most treasured books is his complete works. Wouldn’t surprise me if the book was four inches thick.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This may be a bit pedantic but bear with me. Tragedy comes from the ancient Greek root word trag which means goat. It’s believed that the ancient Greek tragedy plays were often done as part of a competition for which the prize may have been a goat so they were called tragedies. The entire derivation means goat-song. It’s also believed that someone appeared dressed as a goat or satyr in part of the plays. It’s also interesting that we used to refer to the player on a sports team who commits a tragic, game-turning error against his team as the goat – a reference to the Greek word.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I admit I’m not fond of books that end tragically. One of my first reads this year had an ending that was…well, definitely not an HEA. I may be using that novel as one of my book picks when my Friday rolls around. That story made such an impact, it still resonates in my head.

    I’ve read three of the five you mentioned up above. Another tragedy that springs to mind is Helen of Troy. Ugh!

    I like thriller fiction and suspense but find myself steering away from the really dark stuff the older I get. I think I’m turning into a wuss!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s funny, because I used to demand happy endings and now I’m okay with tragic ones (provided they’re done well and not just that way for shock value). I think I’m starting to realize that not every woman is a princess in a tower and not every man will ride in on a white horse. Sometimes the Evil Queen wins.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. The worst tragedy I ever read was Stephen King’s The Dead Zone. I loved the characters and he pulled them apart and kept them there. I promised myself I would never read or write anything like that again.

    As a reader I want to feel good at the end. I do that in movies too. I want something positive to come out of it. Not everyone is like that of course, but I am.

    As a writer I want my readers to be happy and satisfied at the end. When the ride is over I want them to be exhausted and exhilarated.

    Excellent topic. This was fun. Thanks!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I used to describe myself as a hopeless romantic. If a story didn’t have an HEA, I didn’t like it.

      My tastes are starting to skew, though. Or at least broaden to appreciate other things.

      So glad you liked the post, Bryan. 🙂


  7. An excellent post analyzing the plot points of a tragedy, Staci. In looking at this breakdown, I realize that my first book, “Flowers and Stone,” is a tragedy. Wow! I never knew that. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I used to be a rose-colored, HEA kind of girl. Over the last few years, though, my interests have gone darker. My novels and novellas haven’t yet, but my short stories definitely have. I guess we’ll see what happens moving forward.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Honestly, Harmony, I think readers probably prefer the redemption in the end. If life imitates art, we want to know there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, not a cyclone and a homicidal wicked witch.

      But there is something delicious about writing a true tragedy that I’ve enjoyed exploring lately.

      Liked by 1 person

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