American journalist Barbara Grizzuri Harrison once said, "There are no original ideas. There are only original people." I hate to break the news, but maybe she was right. According to one school of thought, every story we've ever read, those we may be currently working on, and those yet to be written are all reworks of what are known as the seven basic plot types. Having an understanding of what these plot types are and how they work makes it easier to craft our own stories. While each plot type can be analyzed in much greater depth, read on for an overview of these tried and tested story skeletons.
This plot is self-explanatory. Think LORD OF THE RINGS, MISS RUMPHIUS, and THE LIGHTNING THIEF. In this type of story, a character sets off on a journey of some sort. She has a goal in mind and it is often difficult to reach. She must overcome obstacles and face strong opposition before she can emerge victorious.
Voyage and Return:
In this plot type, the protagonist has endured a quest, and must now return to her previous life. Whether she is returning from a distant land or a magical one, the contrast between life during the journey and the home she once knew reveals a deeper understanding she has attained. Examples would be the WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ, THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA, and ALICE IN WONDERLAND.
Christopher Booker said it well in his book THE SEVEN BASIC PLOTS: “What we are looking at when confronted by a fully developed Comedy is not unlike a jigsaw puzzle. By the time a jigsaw is complete, it seems obvious that there is only one way it could have ended up, with each piece in its proper place and fitting perfectly together with all the others. In Comedy, the key to bringing this to light is the process of ‘recognition’…” Comedies seem jovial, light, and almost effortless, but a dark force is keeping the hero and heroine apart, which often results in a cascade of additional romantic entanglements keeping more minor characters from finding their own happiness. As the story progresses, the obstacle for the main lovers is removed (a parent or guardian relents, a misunderstanding created by the dark force is cleared up, etc.) and the chain of complications swings into motion the other direction until all the relationships result in happy endings.
This may sound simple enough, but Booker's description makes it clear that comedies are not so easy to craft, after all. Examples of comedies are MY FRIEND IS SAD, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and AS YOU LIKE IT.
Under this plot scheme, the main character's own poor decisions or actions bring about her downfall. The result is the evoking of sympathy, pity, and even fear within the reader. Of course for this downfall to be effective, the character must start from a place high enough to fall. Stories such as ROMEO AND JULIET, THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, and ANNA KARENINA fit into this category. For children's literature, the titles are scarce for obvious reasons. Still, it's an outline worth considering for inspiration, or partial adaptation.
In this type of story, the main character is often imprisoned or finds herself under a spell. This can be a physical, emotional, spiritual, or mental state. It can originate from the MC or an external force. Like the voyage and return structure, the power of rebirth stories comes from the contrast between the imprisoned state and liberation. Examples include SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, THE SECRET GARDEN, and A CHRISTMAS CAROL.
Overcoming the Monster
Dum dum... dum dum... you can almost hear the music to Jaws. The protagonist will eventually face the almighty creature who seems impossible to beat. That creature may take the form of another living being, or an entity. Classics such as HANSEL AND GRETEL, LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD, and FRANKENSTEIN fit this mold.
Rags to Riches
Finance doesn't have to enter into this popular plot type. All that's required is for the protagonist to go from ordinary to exceptional, and the contrast between these two states is what ultimately provides the drama. This type of story can also see the character rise quickly to riches (in whatever form that may be), lose this status, and struggle to regain it by defeating something. Sound familiar? HARRY POTTER, CINDERELLA, and PYGMALION are all classic examples.
With the seven basic plot types in hand, consider where your work fits in. Use the well-known examples to see how other authors have done it. Have you included all the elements and added your own spin?
Your twist and approach are what will make YOUR story fresh, crisp, and like nothing we've seen before. The structure may be what provides the foundation, but it's the concept and details that will make someone else want to read it.
So where does your WIP fit? Or what book have you read recently that jumped out as example of one of the basic plot types? What twist made it feel unique? Do you agree with Booker that there are only seven basic plot types? Or do you side with others who believe there are eleven? What do you think? Leave us a comment!
The Literacy Adviser
The Seven Basic Plots
Only a Game