Writers keep trying to be original, but let’s face it: in fiction, nothing is really original anymore. There’s proof!
The Seven Basic Plots is a book by psychologist Christopher Booker about, well, the seven basic plots most often used by writers and most enjoyed by readers. Even though the title says seven, there are actually nine mentioned in the book. According to Booker, the additional two plots are rare but are recently making a comeback in fiction.
Critics have initially dismissed Booker’s theory on the basic plots, but it is of good use to beginning writers. These basic frameworks can help give direction to your story. Read on to find out where these plots can take your story.
According to Booker, this is the most general plot. It can even be subdivided into more categories: Western (a place is threatened by outlaws, and a local hero steps up to defend his hometown), Melodrama (a hero faces threats from a villain), Thriller (a madman is unleashed upon the world), War Story (a story set in World War I or World War II or similar events), Science Fiction (extraterrestrial life or man-made disaster threatens the world), and Sympathetic Monster (a monster once thought to be evil is misunderstood). In Overcoming the Monster, the protagonist’s main goal is to defeat the antagonist threatening their life and/or their home. This antagonist may be a person, a group, a creature, or a force. However, a protagonist fighting against a ruling force is another kind of plotline. Classic examples of this plotline are The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells, Dracula by Bram Stoker, and the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling.
This plot can be found mostly in fairy tales, but it can also be found in other more mature stories. As the name suggests, the Rags to Riches plot focuses on the journey of the protagonist from the bottom to the top. While most stories focus on the protagonist’s increase in material wealth, any story in which a protagonist’s life improves may be considered a Rags to Riches story. Popular examples include the fairy tales Cinderella and Aladdin and the novels Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
In the Quest, a protagonist goes on a journey to accomplish a goal, reach a location, or acquire an object. Oftentimes, the protagonist is taken out of their comfort zone and ends up learning something important about themselves. The protagonist may or may not have some companions, which they’ll be reluctant to have on the journey. Booker classifies at least four types of companions: a close friend, an opposite of the hero, a group of non-important people who sacrifice themselves for the protagonist, or a group of people with specialized skills the protagonist lacks but needs for the journey. Examples of books with the Quest plotline are Iliad by Homer, The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, and Cirque du Freak by Darren Shan.
As the name suggests, Voyage and Return focuses on the voyage of a protagonist up to their return home. The difference of Voyage and Return from the Quest is that the former focuses on the journey rather than the end goal. In Voyage and Return, it is also made clear from the beginning that the protagonist feels out of place in their current location. This is what triggers the start of the voyage. Upon returning, the protagonist has gained experience in a certain area. Some examples of this plot are Odyssey by Homer, The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum.
Contrary to popular belief, comedy is more than just humor. Any story that has a cheerful tone and a happy ending may be considered a comedy. Romance and Drama are genres that are under Comedy. Comedies also often highlight a conflict that becomes more difficult to deal with as time passes. However, in the end, the conflict is resolved and the characters live happily ever after. Comedy stories include Much Ado about Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream—both by William Shakespeare—and Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding.
Tragedy is the exact opposite of the Comedy. In Tragedy, the problem is never resolved. Any story in which the protagonist fails to reach their goal may be considered a Tragedy. The Tragedy story emphasizes more on character introspection and search of truth, despite the lack of positive results. Examples of Tragedy include Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, and Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.
In Rebirth, a protagonist is shown to have undesirable qualities. The story focuses on how the protagonist changes their ways. Like Rags to Riches, Rebirth is also popular among fairy tales. This plot is a spin-off of Tragedy because there is a lot of character introspection and search for truth. Before the story ends, the protagonist manages to pull themselves out of the downward spiral and resolves the conflict. Classic examples are The Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen, and The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett.
The first of the revived plots, Rebellion against “The One” is a popular plot in the dystopian genre. The social situation is laid out for the reader to empathize with the protagonist. Often, the society is ruled over by a single person, an entity, or a force, who/which is harming the people. The protagonist later on sees the problem and starts, joins, or leads a rebellion against the ruling power. Examples of this story line include Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.
The second revival plot is the Mystery. In this story, a tragedy occurs, such as a murder or a large accident. The protagonist investigates this event through clues, evidence, and interviews with other characters. In the end, the protagonist solves the mystery and finds the culprit. The goal of the story is to encourage the reader to solve the mystery along with the protagonist. This plot type is also one of the hardest to write. Examples are Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie, A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Nancy Drew books by Carolyn Keene.
Even though you know that there are nine basic plotlines, you don’t have to choose just one for your story. Successful stories are a combination of these plotlines. However, combining way too many may make your story too complicated. So the next time you write, choose wisely.
Got any more questions? Shoot us a message! Keep your eye out for more tips and tricks for this month’s fiction-writing series.
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