Masterplots Theater: I is for Institutionalized

I Masterplots Theater-6Welcome back to Masterplots Theater!  So far we’ve covered:
A is for Adventure
B is for Buddy Love
C is for Chosen One
D is for Dystopia
E is for Escape
F is for Fool Triumphant
G is for Gothic
H is for Happily-Ever-After

Today we take on the Institutionalized Masterplot. Do you love to write about a cast of characters? Do you take delight in shoving them into tight spots where conflict and shenanigans are bound to happen? Or maybe you worked a job and thought, “Someone needs to write a book about this place!” If so, you might want to take note of this next masterplot.

Institutionalized Plot Notes:

The Institutionalized masterplot is the way it sounds: a place with a code of conduct (either social customs or hard and fast rules) that everyone is expected to honor. Even if those rules suck.

This story is about a group of characters and how they react to those rules and to each other. It’s their story regardless of the setting. Don’t be fooled by the huge events unfolding around the characters. The Institutionalized masterplot is always character driven.

The characters are in a closed setting for most of their day. Keeping this group stuck together is critical for this plot. Think small rural high school, apartment neighbors from hell, or a tour bus vacation.

The plot often includes a strong us vs. them theme. This might be staff vs. boss, jocks vs. nerds, any combination works. Much of the tension is created by these two (or more) sides rubbing up against each other the wrong way.

In a comedy version of the Institutionalized masterplot, these arguments are often a form of entertainment for the group, and taunting the other side is a common practice.

However, this masterplot can be used for deadly serious dramas making it perfect for high stakes and strong social commentary.

Because of its comedy to drama versatility, this masterplot works in many genres.

Many of the best examples are grounded in super-accurately researched nonfiction settings, such as a war zone.

The protagonist of this masterplot is often the newcomer, while the antagonist is usually the leader of the institution. The protagonist spends a bit of time figuring out the system, but at some point rebels against the norm. They may encourage others to ask questions. Or work to subvert the leadership without being noticed. Eventually this will lead to a battle for control, or the protagonist will try to assimilate. Both paths have a cost. When this plot is used for drama it often ends poorly for the protagonist. Fighting the leader is not without risks.

Example to Study:Devil Wears Prada cover

My pick for this masterplot is THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA.

SETTING: You can’t get more closed than the world of the fashion industry. Not only do outsiders find few open paths into this glittering world, but those doors swing shut at the smallest misstep. 

CHARACTER DRIVEN:  The relationship between the protagonist (newcomer Andrea Sachs) and everyone else at Runway magazine crackles with tension. Her boss Miranda Priestly is not used to being disappointed; even her most outlandish requests are met and with a smile. Andrea must assimilate to keep her job.

SOCIAL COMMENTARY: Sorry for the spoilers. The book is darker than the movie version. Andrea really loses track of her moral compass. In both versions Miranda wants a clone, someone who puts career first regardless of the personal costs.  Andrea decides the price of  keeping her job is too high, regardless of the financial and social benefits.

BONUS: This fictional fashion world feels realistic. It seems clearly rooted in quality research and experience. Extra posts for the use of an iconic setting.

Future Research:

ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST is considered one of the best examples of this masterplot. However, there are others, such as M.A.S.H. a war novel later developed into a successful TV show. This masterplot is very popular in films and TV. Standout examples include: ANIMAL HOUSE, STRIPES and FULL METAL JACKET.

Thank you for joining us today. We hope you enjoyed I is for Institutionalized and we invite you back tomorrow for our next installment of Masterplots Theater, J is for Journal.

Please share your own thoughts on this masterplot below.

Author: Robin Rivera

Robin trained as a professional historian and worked as a museum curator, educator, and historical consultant. She writes mystery fiction, with diverse characters and a touch of snark. She's currently working on two new manuscripts that started off as NaNoWriMo projects. You can follow her on Facebook( However, Pinterest ( is where her inner magpie is happiest of all.

12 thoughts on “Masterplots Theater: I is for Institutionalized”

  1. I’ve never heard the term Institutionalized before, but I’ve just completed a book about a memory care residence. It fits all the other factors you’ve listed. Thanks for the info, very helpful.

    1. Thanks, Sharon. That’s the thing about masterplots, once you know them, you spot them! It makes it so much easier to see the patterns in books and movies when you understand some of these frameworks. What was your book called? It’s not easy to find great examples of the Institutionalized plot.

      1. I should have been a bit more clear. I finished writing a book about a memory care residence, called Where Did Mama Go?
        Starting the query process, always a stab into pudding for me.

        1. That’s exciting news! A memory care residence sounds like a very unique place to set a book. Good luck with the query process! I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you. : )

    1. Hi Melissa, A war is a perfect example. Several of my suggestions used a war as the institutional framework and I can think of many others. War creates some strange group dynamics.

    1. A book about fraternities fits right in. I can think of several film adaptations besides Animal House, Sorority Wars, Sidney White, Neighbors, Revenge of the Nerds to name a few. This masterplot is perfect for projects set in schools.

  2. One of my characters in a new book was just paroled after 27 years. She’s not just “changed” but transformed—like Linda Hamilton in The Terminator—who used her time locked up in a top security prison for the insane to transform herself into a cunning killing machine—her character went from a clueless, helpless ditzy blond to a superwoman on a mission.

    I’m exploring different types of dreams and their meanings.
    I is for interpretation of Dreams Stephen Tremp’s Breakthrough Blogs

    1. I think anything set in a jail could work perfectly for this masterplot. Good luck with your new book, it sounds interesting.

    1. This masterplot is often combined with a second masterplot in books. It makes finding good examples a bit harder. But is very versatile. And it gives the writer a chance to play with lots of characters. When this plot has great character chemistry it’s magic to read.

We love comments and questions.

%d bloggers like this: