Annie On Writing

August 30, 2011

How many definitive plots are there in Literature?

Filed under: Articles From write anything,Observations,Writing Tips — Annie Evett @ 12:01 am
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A little over two hundred years ago, Dr Samuel Johnson surmised that fiction was limited to a few plots “with very little variation”. A continuous bone of contention within writing circles, is the notion that there are a definitive amount of plots within storytelling, and that all others are permutations of these original plots.

According to the Internet Public Library there are only seven plots. These being:

  1. [wo]man vs. nature
  2. [wo]man vs. man
  3. [wo]man vs. the environment
  4. [wo]man vs. machines/technology
  5. [wo]man vs. the supernatural
  6. [wo]man vs. self
  7. [wo]man vs. god/religion

Its difficult to argue that in almost every age and culture these basic plots seem to shape the popular stories. Although on the surface it may be easy to pigeon hole all stories inside one of these  headings, writers in the last half of the century have challenged this with their own definitions.

Christopher Booker in his “Seven Basic Plots — why we tell stories” suggests that the seven plots are moulded into more palatable categories.

1. Overcoming the ‘monster’. The plot focuses on the main character defeating a force which threatens either them or their existence.  Most successful Hollywood movies follow this thread. ( Star Wars, James Bond Dracula.)

2. The Quest. The story typically follows a group searching for something, ultimately finding it – or a realisation that what they were looking for was not the most important thing, but that the journey was. Some examples might include Watership Down, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Pilgrim’s Progress.

3. Journey and Return. The plot sees the main character journeying away from home or safety to somewhere different. They experience something and return changed, usually for the better or with more insights into a problem.  Examples might include Wizard of Oz Alice in Wonderland, Robinson Crusoe and Gullivers Travels.

4. Comedy – though this does not necessarily mean that its a funny plot. This story includes a misunderstanding or ignorance which keeps characters apart. The resolution generally brings them together. (Bridget Jones Diary, War and Peace most of the novels of Jane Austen, The Importance of Being Earnest.)

5. Tragedy. This plot focuses on the main character or sub characters being  tempted in some way – vanity, greed etc.  The character becomes increasingly desperate or trapped by their actions throughout the text. The ending, unless its a Hollywood movie, sees the character die. (. e.g. Devils’ Advocate, Hamlet, Doctor Faustus,)

6. Rebirth. This plot sees the main character captured either physically, emotionally or mentally and or oppressed. They live in a state of living death until a tipping point occurs and they are freed.  (Snow White. A Christmas Carol)

7. Rags to Riches. The main character lives in a state of physical poverty and an event occurs which catapults them to abundance. Examples include Cinderella Jane Eyre and David Copperfield.

Whilst it seems that there are a limited number of basic themes or plots which are continually recurred in the storytelling, it might also be true that the weaving and shaping of these tales itself make them different.

What do you think?  Is there a definitive amount of plots? Has Booker simplified or generalised too much? Does the Jungian Philosophy of these seven sit comfortably?

This article first appeared on eMergents Write Anything


1 Comment »

  1. I’ve been looking for this list for years, Annie, so thanks on that score.

    Many years ago, I read that someone had come up with an 8th plot, but as usual, I can’t remember what it was, other than it was the hero/heroine overcoming impossible odds, which, it seems to me, is covered by point 1 in Christopher Booker’s list.

    As to your final question, I’m currently turning out whodunits, and if I wanted to categorise them, I think they would come under “the Quest”. The hard boiled kind of detective stories may, at a pinch, bridge The Quest (the search for truth) and Overcoming the monster, if the detective were working against difficult odds, and if he learned something about himself, life, the universe and everything, the tale could even have a touch of the Journey & Return about it.

    Whatever your judgement, when I first came across this list (about 20 Years ago) I found them so generalised that it was easy to categorise all fiction under one heading or another.


    Comment by David Robinson - Freelance Writer & Novelist — August 30, 2011 @ 12:36 am | Reply

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