Meta-Plot, Anime, and YOU

The topic of meta-plot keeps coming up over and over in this blog. It’s based on the idea that there are supposedly seven basic plots, and they can be used to develop plot arcs or the overarching plot of an entire series, and since writing is one of the main focuses of the blog, the idea of plot plays a big role.

That’s kind of important, right? Unless a series is open-ended, it should be going somewhere. And even an open-ended series, unless it’s a slice-of-life, should at least give the viewer a sense that it does more than exist. The best example of that is Pokemon. Ash is trying to catch ‘em all; when he does, the series ends. Of course, that’s not going to happen until every possible penny has been sucked out of its fan base, but that’s what drives the plot: Ash has to catch ‘em all.

But I’ve never really talked about the various meta-plots, just tossed their names out as though the names should mean something. (They do, actually. The meta-plots have excellent names from a descriptive point of view.)


Konata Izumi: “All this makes my head hurt.”

Without further ado, they are:

Rags to Riches.

In the Rags to Riches plot the main character(s) start(s) with nothing and make(s) progress until they have achieved a level of what they are looking for that is sufficient for them to say they are satisfied. The Rags to Riches plot was a favorite of Horatio Alger.

Rags to Riches animes:
Pokemon (Ash starts with Pikachu and is supposed to have them all at the end)
Sword Art Online and other Isekai (Characters start at low levels and increase in strength)
Gurren Lagann is Rags to Riches to Rags to Riches
Overcoming the Monster

This is one of the easiest plots ever from a narrative standpoint, because conflict is inherently built into it: you have the protagonist and you have the “monster.”

Now, the monster isn’t necessarily literally a monster: Remember that the sources of conflict are “man versus man,” “man versus nature,” and “man versus self.” Any of those versuses can be the monster for Overcoming the Monster.

Overcoming the Monster animes:
El Cazador de la Bruja
FLCL: Alternative (Kana has to overcome her sense of being a bad friend; man versus self)
Attack on Titan
Samurai 7
Terror in Resonance
Cells at Work
The Quest

In The Quest the protagonist is searching for something specific. When it is found, the goal is achieved and the story is over. The Quest can be served with a side order of Overcoming the Monster.

The object being quested after can sometimes be a “McGuffin,” that is, something that exists only to be sought after. The two most famous McGuffins in film history are the Maltese Falcon (the statue, not the movie) and the briefcase in Pulp Fiction. We don’t ever find out what’s in the briefcase!

The Quest animes:
Girls Last Tour
Samurai Champloo (the samurai who smells of sunflowers)
Kino’s Journey (except we never find out what Kino is looking for)
Outlaw Star is a good example of The Quest (for the galactic Leylines) with a side order of Overcoming the Monster (the MacDougalls)
Afro Samurai
Voyage and Return

In Voyage and Return someone has to go somewhere, face and overcome challenges, and return changed or improved somehow. Bizarrely, both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are Voyage and Returns; Bilbo returns rich and Frodo returns irrevocably damaged.

The cool thing about Voyage and Return is that it can last as long as it takes; it can have a VERY long middle because in the course of the Voyage the protagonist(s) can meet any number of challenges.

Voyage and Return animes:
Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi
Ergo Proxy
I think Spirited Away works as Voyage and Return; how about you?

We know what comedy is as jokes and gags, but as a meta-plot it’s described as “Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl.” Of course, they don’t have to literally be boys and girls; they can be whatevers. The idea is that when they meet they are attracted, when they are separated they feel loss that drives the dramatic tension, and there is a happy ending when they are reunited.

Comedy animes:
FLCL Progressive
Spice and Wolf tries to do this, but is unconvincing

“Boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl.” Same as above: the “Boy” and the “Girl” can be anyone or anything. The idea is that the protagonist gets something that makes them happy/satisfied, and it is sad/tragic when they lose it.

Tragedy animes:
FLCL (the original)
Cowboy Bebop

In the Rebirth plot something happens across the course of the story to cause the main character to become essentially a new person or have a new life. Be careful not to confuse this with character development; all main characters are supposed to be better developed – older, wiser, smarter, stronger, whatever – at the end of the story. In the Rebirth the change is the fundamental story; the character is something different at the end. The narrative tension arises because of the transition from one state to the other, of course. Comedies, especially coming of age comedies, often have a side dish of Rebirth (Buster Keaton deliberately built Rebirths into the texts of his greatest movies).

Rebirth animes:
Black Lagoon
Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine
Kids on the Slope
Neon Genesis Evangelion (Maybe, sorta, kinda)


All meta discussion requires oversight from Meteora, the most meta character evah!

Not all anime have meta-plots. The very essence of “slice-of-life” is that it doesn’t go anywhere; you’re supposed to like the characters and their antics. There can be plots and plot arcs, but there is no overarching meta-plot that drives the series forward toward any goal state; the characters are existing in their daily lives, which we as viewers are supposed to find inherently interesting (and we often do).
The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya
Lucky Star
Space Dandy
Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid
Interviews with Monster Girls (although recent manga issues are driving it toward comedy)

So now you know.

I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.

7 thoughts on “Meta-Plot, Anime, and YOU

    1. I hang my head in shame: I’ve never seen One Piece. I don’t want to get into series with hundreds of episodes.

      That said, Wikipedia says, “Luffy explores the Grand Line in search of the world’s ultimate treasure known as “One Piece” in order to become the next Pirate King.”

      If that’s accurate, it’s The Quest: the One Piece is a defined goal that ends the story if Luffy reaches it. I have to imagine there’s not a side order but a huge helping of Overcoming the Monster in there, too 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  1. “All meta discussion requires oversight from Meteora, the most meta character evah!”

    That makes sense — in a meta sort of way.

    I actually had to be careful not to think about that too closely for fear I’d fall into an infinity loop…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. To all readers:
    I can’t believe I wrote,”The two most famous McGuffins in film history are the Maltese Falcon (the statue, not the movie) and the briefcase in Pulp Fiction.” It should read:
    “The three most famous McGuffins in film history are the Maltese Falcon (the statue, not the movie), the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, AND FREAKIN’ ROSEBUD!!!” How the hell did I forget Rosebud???


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