Ciao, 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:
- Romeo and Juliet
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.