Structuring your Story part five; The Seven Basic Plots


The Seven Plots

There is a well-known saying, expanded on in a recent guide by Christopher Booker, that when it comes to story-telling, ‘there are only seven plots in the world’. That applies not just to novels but all forms of storytelling from ancient myths to the intricate worlds of online gaming. Humans are story-telling creatures and, it is believed, these basic frameworks are embedded so deep in our collective unconscious we often even unknowingly attempt to shape events to fit them. Whatever the truth of that, we can certainly see them playing out in our written work. The seven plots are generally described as

  • Confrontation – where the protagonist must overcome the adversary or disembodied threat to their way of life. Think Beowulf, or ‘Star Wars’ or Harry’s struggle against Voldemort.

  • Rags to Riches – where the protagonist loses something only to gain it back in a better form, which also helps them grow as a person. Many romances that start with a break-up follow this format. Also of course Cinderella, and even Bridget Jones.

  • Quest – where the protagonist goes off on a journey, symbolic or otherwise, ultimately achieving or finding something that both saves and changes them. There are a wealth of stories, both classic and contemporary, that use this framework, from ‘Watership Down’ to the ‘Da Vinci Code’.

  • Voyage and Return – similar to the quest, except it plays out in a more circular manner, and the protagonist returns back to where they started. Think ‘Alice in Wonderland’ or ‘The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.’

  • Comedy – where the protagonist is prevented from achieving their goal by often humorous obstacles, but it all comes right in the end. Modern romantic comedies are the perfect example of the modern use of this plot form. A classic would of course be Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsuumer Night’s Dream’ or ‘As You Like It’.

  • Tragedy – where the protagonist suffers some downfall, resulting in his or her demise. Almost a reversal of the ‘rags to riches’ tale. ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Dorian Gray’ are typical examples. This plot form tends to be less popular than it once was apart from in horror novels, although Irvine Welsh’s ‘Filth’ is a quirky and powerful example.

  • Redemption – where the protagonist starts off being rather unlikable or even downright evil but events transpire that causes them to redeem themselves over the course of the story. The Lestat character in Anne Rice’s Vampire saga achieves this to dramatic effect over the course of the series.

Mini-exercise – You will find that nearly any story you read, watch or hear will follow one of these basic plots. Try grabbing a few of your favourites, along with some new tales in an unfamiliar genre, and see if you can identify which of the seven plot forms they are based on.

Not all writing and literature experts agree with the delineation of the classic seven plots however. Harry Bingham, author of ‘How to Write’ argues that all of the above can be distilled down into two – the Classic Plot or the Mystery Plot, and adds another – the Literary Plot, which is any novel that follows its own rules and attempts to break out of the traditional plot definitions. Scarlett Thomas, the bestselling author of ‘The End of Mr Y’ adds another plot in her work on literature ‘Monkeys with Typewriters’ as well as redefining and modernising others. Her classic eight plots are

  • Tragedy

  • Comedy

  • Rags to riches

  • Quest

  • Coming of Age

  • Stranger comes to town

  • Mystery

  • Modern realism

Mini-exercise – If you’re interested in plot definitions I would recommend any of these author’s works for further exploration. The point I want to stress here is that, regardless of which ‘plot’ your own current work or idea falls into, it will be how you structure it that determines its impact. Take any example of any of the plots outlined above, particularly a work you have already looked at as part of the exercises in this chapter, and a close examination will reveal you can most likely break it down into the three acts and eight points. Have a closer look and see if you can identify the structural elements that help the plot unfold.

Extract from ‘Building your Story’


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