How many stories have you read in your lifetime?
Ask Christopher Booker, and he’ll tell you its seven. That’s it. From those first forays into children’s easy-readers, to Shakespeare and Tolstoy, you’ve only read seven stories.
And it’s not just Christopher Booker that says so. Many others agree. Arthur Quiller-Couch wrote about seven plots in 1916. Further back, Aristotle tried to define different plot types.
It’s natural to think that this is, well, sad. All that brilliant storytelling out there, and people want to try and reduce it down to just a few formulaic plots? I’m pretty sure I gave a little mental sneer when I first heard the idea.
But…I’ve come to think that there is some merit in thinking about the seven plots. I struggle to find a story that doesn’t fit one of them, at least loosely (although some might fit more that one!).
But what are the Seven Basic Plots?
1) Overcoming the Monster
These are the stories in which a terrible evil is defeated in some way, usually for the good of all. It includes many sci-fi stories, war stories and ancient legends. It also includes some stories about actual monsters. Think Jaws, Farenheit 451, Frankenstein…
2) Rags to Riches
This is often about money, but not always. Many a Victorian novel is a classic rags-to-richest story, as are many fairytales. Any story about a change of circumstances for the better is a rags-to-riches story, even if it’s nothing to do with money. Most happy-ending romance stories fit the bill. Think Great Expectations, Cinderella, Aladdin…
3) The Quest
These are stories about a journey with a goal. A character sets off in search of something important. It could be treasure, it could be a person, it could be a new life. Many classic stories, including Greek mythology, fit in here. In different guises, though, this kind of plot has been a favourite with writers across the centuries. Think Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones, The Odyssey…
4) Voyage and Return
These stories are not quests, because they’re not necessarily about achieving something. They are about travelling to another land, and coming back changed in some way. They are often fantasy stories. Think Alice in Wonderland, the Wizard of Oz, The Chronicles of Narnia…
These are stories in which there is some kind of confusion that needs to be resolved. The characters spend time doing exactly that, causing plenty of hilarity along the way. Not all funny stories are comedies (under the Booker classification), but all comedies are funny. This group includes many classic plays and novels. Think Pride and Prejudice, The Importance of Being Ernest, Much Ado About Nothing…
These are stories in which bad things happen. The main character is drawn into a course of action that causes death, destruction and pain. Forget about a happy ending. These are stories that bite. It includes many classics and crime stories. Think Macbeth, Jekyll and Hyde, The Great Gatsby…
Rebirth stories are about change. The main character needs to change, and something happens to make him. This is a favourite of both classic and modern writers. Think A Christmas Carol, Catcher in the Rye, The Grapes of Wrath.
Using the Seven Basic Plots theory in writing
Now, this is all fine, but what’s the point? Does it really matter if the gripping adventure story you’ve just written is a ‘quest’ or a ‘voyage and return’ story? Why would the reader care?
They wouldn’t care, of course. But they would care if they were reading a story with no conflict in its plot. That’s what all of the seven plots are about: conflict. It might be an external conflict, as in ‘overcoming the monster’ stories. It might be internal, as in ‘rebirth stories’.
But one thing is certain – conflict creates stories. Watch the TV news – real stories always involve some kind of conflict. Fictional stories should too. If they don’t, then what are they about?