Welcome to Masterplots Theater.
Does your main character start out fine? The have a fulfilling job, a loving partner, and a family life any one would be envious of? But writing a character with everything is pretty dull. You throw in a few bad events, and during this new stressful time, your hero falls under the spell of an old vice. Your character turns to drinking, drugs or maybe a sex addiction to ease the strain. Soon it’s all gone, they have no job, no home, or most importantly no family. If your character is in this type of downward spiral, you may be writing the Wretched Excess Masterplot.
Wretched Excess Plot Notes:
This plot centers on those seven deadly sins. The main character has a flaw, and it’s one that leads them to indulge in a vice. Soon they take this vice to a dangerous or even a deadly level. This descent into old behaviors does shocking things to the character, both physiologically and physically.
The character’s fall impacts everyone around them, and it creates sympathy for either the self-destructive character or their disappointed family depending on who the protagonist is. Sometimes both sides deserve sympathy. The story might have no clear villains. The character’s chosen vice just has a pull too strong for them to resist.
This masterplot often requires showing the addicted character in three distinct phases.
1. The before phase: The story opens with either the old addiction being defeated, or a snapshot of a current happy life. Near the beginning of the story we will see that things are going okay. The character is either enjoying the fruits of their labor, or they’re poised to receive something better.
2. The undoing phase: Life throws some unplanned for problems into the character’s life; once this issue is introduced, things change. The stress factor can be anything: ill-health, loss of a loved one, disillusionment with their former happy life, job changes, etc. The character start yielding to their old addictions. As they slip deeper under the old vice’s control, things fall apart fast. Losing the things they cherish most eventually creates a tipping point.
3. The resolution phase: The character either falls victim to their problems and often dies, or they find a way to overcome their addiction and reclaim aspects of their old cherished life.
Example to Study:
I’m picking an odd one for this example, MR. & MRS. SMITH, because this film is one of the most creative uses of the Wretched Excess Masterplot I have ever seen. And here’s why:
· BEFORE SNAPSHOT: Mr. and Mrs. Smith were happy assassins before marriage. They did their jobs, which required never trusting anyone, enjoyed the rush of being paid killers and moved on. But something was missing. Once they marry, they attempt to hide their occupations and create the home life and intimacy they both crave.
· CATALYST: The marriage starts to fall apart, the strain of lying about their issues and trying to be the perfect couple is taking a toll. Then each character receives instructions to kill the other. This reveals the house of lies the marriage is based on and each character is devastated.
· FALLING FOR OLD VICE: The pair revert back to their old assassin’s code. They stop trusting each other and start trying to kill each other. They destroy their home, friendships with co-workers and reputations in the process. The adrenaline rush of being assassins is too strong to fight. For a while it looks like they will kill each other rather than give up their old patterns of behavior.
RESOLUTION: They decide the marriage is more important to them than the thrill of being assassins. They will trust each other and work as a team to dig out from the hole indulging in their old behavior has created.
Some examples are: LOST WEEKEND, CASINO, WALL STREET, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, OTHELLO and DEATH OF A SALESMAN.
Thank you for joining us today. We hope you enjoyed W is for Wretched Excess and we invite you back tomorrow for our next installment of Masterplots Theater, X is for X meets Y – Genre Mashups.
For more episodes of Masterplots Theater, check out the list below:
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
I is for Institutionalized
J is for Journal
K is for Kinsmen
L is for Love Story
M is for Metamorphosis
N is for Nemesis
O is for Out of the Bottle
P is for Pursuit
Q is for Quest
R is for Rite of Passage
S is for Sacrifice
T is for Thriller
U is for Unrequited Love
V is for Vengeance
16 thoughts on “Masterplots Theater: W is for Wretched Excess”
I couldn’t think of any examples yesterday morning when I read this… But last night I thought of the book version of Cersei Lannister from George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice & Fire series. She had always been a sort of “excessive” character, especially when it came to her sexuality. But in the fourth book A Feast For Crows, she develops a drinking problem in addition to starting a new affair. Both of those behaviors end up leading to her downfall at the end of the book (which plays out similarly to her “arrest” by the High Sparrow on the show last season).
I loved your analysis. Having just finished my Camp NaNoWriMo project I wonder to what extent one of my characters was heading down that road. Fortunately he snapped out of it before disaster overtook him! Thanks for a great set of A2Z posts – I’ll be backtracking through them all 🙂
Othello…absolutely! What a mess he gets into. Though he did have help, but in some ways, Iago was but the voice of his vice, urging him on to his destruction.
Hey, Sharon Bonin-Pratt, I played God in that play when I was in college! I agree about WE WERE THE MULANEYS. In fact I’d list several of Oates books in this category.
Meet My Imaginary Friends
Hi Kathleen, Now I’m intrigued! This book has just jumped to the top of my reading list. I’ll have more time now that I’m not reading and rereading books for masterplot examples.
Great post, I love your theme! I’ll be sure to go back and read the rest of your posts from the challenge.
Thanks! I’m glad you liked our theme. I’ll head over now and check out your blog.
Great example! I think that’s one of the hardest things for writers to do. We grow to love our main characters and we want only good things to happen, but we have to throw some obstacles and challenges in there first!
So true! Without problems for the characters to overcome there is no story.
Mr. and Mrs. Smith was a great example.
~Ninja Minion Patricia Lynne aka Patricia Josephine~
Patricia Lynne, Indie Author
Hi Patricia, Thanks! I was worried all last night I’d picked a bad example. I almost swapped it to Lost Weekend. Now I’m glad I went with something a bit outside the box.
I believe this is another soul-searching masterplot, and I like it. Would have never thoguht of Mr and Mrs Smith as belonging to this masterplot, but it makes sense. It’s a testimony of how much versatile this plot is, even it at first glance it might look quite ‘stiff’.
The Old Shelter – Jazz Age Jazz
These masterplots can be deceiving, you think they’re simplistic at first glance, but it’s all about interpretation. This one can grow fantastic plot bunnies from the news headlines. Every rock star or actor that spun out of control on drugs, too much ego, disposable wealth, plastic surgery obsession works for this masterplot.
One of my favorite wretched excess plots (though I wouldn’t have labeled it that till reading this post) is We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates. The family’s downward spiral begins when the beautiful, naive daughter is raped at a party, and no one will prosecute the rapist or come to the defense of the family. The story explored how each family member was affected by the girl’s rape and the family’s social and financial decline. The injustice of the whole situation infuriated me.
Another is the story of Job in the Bible, and the modern play based on it, JB, by Archibald MacLeish.
Family or personal trauma is a common catalyst in this one. PTSD has been used a lot, as has sexual assault and wrongful arrest. However, it can also be new found wreath or fame that triggers the decline. Anything that destabilizes the character and makes them lose perspective can work.