Changing Gears: the Steampunk Plot

If you’ve done any journalism courses, you know about the five questions you need to answer in any story – news or otherwise – which are :

  • Who?
  • Where?
  • When?
  • Why?
  • How?

In a novel or short story, characterization is the Who; Where and When are described by the setting; and the plot is driven by Why and How. Plot is just as important as characterization and setting in a Steampunk story. The reader might be enchanted by your characters and settings, but they will soon lose interest if there is no plot. All three, plot, characterization and setting, need to be top notch and working together as a cohesive whole. A good Steampunk adventure needs to answer the Why and How.

Any basic plot can be modified to a Steampunk plot. There is a traditional list of seven basic plots:

1/ The Monster, aka Overcoming the Monster. The perfect Victorian examples of this plot are Dracula and Frankenstein. It is a protagonist fighting against fearsome antagonists, or antagonistic forces, that threaten her very existence. The monster can be the protagonist and an anti-hero, and so the protagonist doesn’t always win. I think this plot can be broken down into a couple of subplots, where the monster has no real motivation other than to terrorize/eat the villagers, or where the monster is a misunderstood anti-hero.

2/ Wish fulfilment/Rags-to-Riches. This is the classic Cinderella plot, where the protagonist overcomes many obstacles to achieve her goals. It is often a coming-of-age story. It can be a story where hard work and/or technology achieves the same effect as a magic wand. I think the movie, Back to the Future III is a good example of where technology acts like a magic wand. I know I want a flying time-travelling train. Who wouldn’t?

3/ The Quest.  The classic examples are The Lord of the Rings or The Golden Fleece. Little town girl goes off with a bunch of unique and interesting characters to fulfil a ‘save the world’ goal, and finds her true self along the way. The plot is all about how the protagonist grows as a person.

4/ Voyage and Return. I go, I come back. It might seem very like the Quest plot, but it is more about the exciting places and events of the journey than about the growth of the protagonist or her companions. Examples are H G Well’s The Time Machine and Jules Verne’s Around the World In Eighty Days. It is easy to conflate the Quest and the Voyage and Return plots.

5/ Rebirth. This is kind of the opposite of the Monster plot. The anti-hero/antagonist starts off as wicked or unfeeling, and ends up having a change of heart. At this point, she may sacrifice herself for the greater good, or redeem herself with deeds of kindness. The classic example is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

6 & 7/ Comedy & Tragedy. You’ve all had to study Shakespeare’s plays so you know what these sorts of plots are like. The movie The Prestige is a good example of a Steampunk tragedy, with none of the main characters achieving a truly happy ending.

Personally, I don’t think these are the only plots available, but you get the idea.

The Prestige

The Prestige

As the Steampunk genre is a subgenre of Science Fiction, the effect of industrial technology and innovation on a society should underpin any Steampunk plot. No science…no Steampunk. You can’t take a plot and just ‘paste cogs on it’ to achieve a Steampunk plot. It won’t ring true.

Some writers favour plot over character, while others favour character over plot. I believe that a proper story needs plot, characterization and setting to work together, and not put any of these elements first. A strong plot will not work within a weak setting and peopled with two dimensional characters; it can’t hold things together on its own. The best way of achieving the balance between plot, character and setting is to sit down before you write your story and work on all three. I know there are writers that can sit down and just write, but the Steampunk genre doesn’t lend itself to this kind of writing.

And then you can tell your family you are plotting…

I run a Steampunk themed site on Facebook:


Filed under First Draft, Getting Started, Plot, Steampunk

7 responses to “Changing Gears: the Steampunk Plot

  1. Reading your examples it struck me that the voyage and return is particularly well suited to steampunk, as it brings in social and political concerns from the Victorian era such as colonialism, growing trade and exploration. Plus some of the most striking innovations like steam trains were about transport and travel.

    On plot and character, Robert McKee argues fairly convincingly that they shouldn’t be viewed separately, but that plot should come naturally from characters.

    • I agree that Voyage and Return is probably the most popular of the plots used by Steampunk authors, followed closely by the Quest plot and the Monster-of-the-Week plot. All three plots are closely aligned with contact with the ‘Other’ and with Post-Colonialism. That is what makes it such an interesting genre to write in, as it was a period of great change in just about every aspect of society. With our modern perspective, we can look back and play the ‘What if?’ with the innovative gadgets and scientific discoveries.

      With regards to your comment about Robert McKee, I believe that Plot and Character need that third wheel, Setting, to function properly in the Steampunk genre. Some writers might see that as a restriction to their creativity. Personally, I find it an exciting challenge.

      • I think you’re right, and that setting is probably important to any genre, even if it becomes almost invisible when people are writing in modern settings. To be honest, I have until recently often overlooked setting myself, and so ended up creating a crib sheet to remind me to flesh out the setting before I write.

      • Setting is my weak point. I now make myself stand in every ‘scene’ and make notes of what I should be sensing and seeing. And I try to remember to add the ‘stage directions’ for my characters, so they just aren’t talking head.

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  3. Reblogged this on Cogpunk Steamscribe and commented:

    I’m reblogging this as it works very well together with the current post about plot.

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