I’m sure you’ve all heard people say that there are only so many possible plots in the world. Some say there’s only three. Some say there’s only seven. For my own amusement and edification, I’ve collected them. Now I share them with you:
Only One Plot:
This rests on the basic plot structure described in the following, canonical sequence of events: Exposition – Rising Action – Climax – Falling Action - Denouement
The novelist John Gardner used to say “There are only two stories: A man goes on a journey, and a stranger comes to town.”
In The Basic Patterns of Plot, William Foster-Harris, a professor at the University of Oklahoma contends that there are three basic patterns of plot:
- Type A: happy ending
- Type B: unhappy ending
- Type C: ambiguous or inconclusive ending
In his book, The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker outlined a theory that there are seven key plots, which may be used in combination with others. This book is one of my own personal favourites, and I recommend it highly. In short, they are:
1) Overcoming the Monster – tale of conflict typically recounts the hero’s ordeals, an escape from death, and ends with a community or the world itself saved from evil.
2) Rags to Riches – Cinderella, The Ugly Duckling, David Copperfield, and other stories that tell of humble, downtrodden characters who manage to overcome all obstacles to rise in the world.
3) The Quest – a hero travels on a quest to save his world and secure some kind of priceless treasure.
4) Voyage and Return – The protagonist leaves normal experience to enter an alien world, returning after what often amounts to a thrilling escape. The Odyssey, Robinson Crusoe, and Alice in Wonderland are examples of this plot.
5) Comedy – confusion reigns until at last the hero and heroine are united in love.
6) Tragedy - the anti-hero spirals down deeper into darkness and despair, with all ending grimly
7) Rebirth - any story that pivots on the symbolic or actual death and rebirth of a character. Examples include Snow White, and Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov.
The following come from 20 Master Plots by Ronald B Tobias:
- The Riddle
- Forbidden Love
- Wretched Excess
Finally, we have Georges Polti who wrote a book called The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations (translated by Lucille Ray). Although I find the following of interest, I think it’s a little too complicated and hard to remember.
Supplication – Persecutor, Suppliant, a Power in Authority
Deliverance – Unfortunates, Threatener, Rescuer
Revenge – Avenger, Criminal
Vengeance by Family upon Family – Avenging Kinsman, Guilty Kinsman, Relative
Pursuit – Fugitive from Punishment, Pursuer
Victim of Cruelty or Misfortune – Unfortunates, Master or Unlucky Person
Disaster – Vanquished Power, Victorious Power or Messenger
Revolt – Tyrant, Conspirator(s)
Daring Enterprise – Bold Leader, Goal, Adversary
Abduction – Abductor, Abducted, Guardian
Enigma – Interrogator, Seeker, Problem
Obtaining – Two or more Opposing Parties, Object, maybe an Arbitrator
Familial Hatred – Two Family Members who hate each other
Familial Rivalry – Preferred Kinsman, Rejected Kinsman, Object
Murderous Adultery – Two Adulterers, the Betrayed
Madness – Madman, Victim
Fatal Imprudence – Imprudent person, Victim or lost object
Involuntary Crimes of Love – Lover, Beloved, Revealer
Kinsman Kills Unrecognised Kinsman – Killer, Unrecognised Victim, Revealer
Self Sacrifice for an Ideal – Hero, Ideal, Person or Thing Sacrificed
Self Sacrifice for Kindred – Hero, Kinsman, Person or Thing Sacrificed
All Sacrificed for Passion – Lover, Object of Passion, Person or Thing Sacrificed
Sacrifice of Loved Ones – Hero, Beloved Victim, Need for Sacrifice
Rivalry Between Superior and Inferior – Superior, Inferior, Object
Adultery – Deceived Spouse, Two Adulterers
Crimes of Love – Lover, Beloved, theme of Dissolution
Discovery of Dishonour of a Loved One – Discoverer, Guilty One
Obstacles to Love – Two Lovers, Obstacle
An Enemy Loved – Beloved Enemy, Lover, Hater
Ambition – An Ambitious Person, Coveted Thing, Adversary
Conflict with a God – Mortal, Immortal
Mistaken Jealousy – Jealous One, Object of Jealousy, Supposed Accomplice, Author of Mistake
Faulty Judgement – Mistaken One, Victim of Mistake, Author of Mistake, Guilty Person
Remorse – Culprit, Victim, Interrogator
Recovery of a Lost One – Seeker, One Found