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Reflections of a working writer and reader

 

 

How Many Plots Are There?

According to Christopher Booker‘s 2004 book, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, there are seven of them:

1. Tragedy. This usually involves a hero with a fatal flaw meeting a tragic end. Macbeth or Madame Bovary are obvious candidates. Others might be The Picture of Dorian Gray, Julius Caesar and Anna Karenina. Tragedy illustrates the consequences of human overreaching and egotism.

2. Comedy. This is not always synonymous with humour but it does come with a happy ending, typically of romantic fulfilment as in Jane Austen. Other examples would include Shakespeare’s comedies, The Marriage of Figaro, the plays of Oscar Wilde and Gilbert and Sullivan, and maybe War and Peace. Confusion reigns until at last the hero and heroine are united in love.

3. Overcoming the Monster. As in Frankenstein, Beowulf and Jaws, The Epic of Gilgamesh and Little Red Riding Hood and the James Bond films such as Dr. No. These tales of conflict usually recount the hero’s ordeals, an escape from death, and end with a community or the world itself saved from evil. The psychological appeal of this plot is obvious and eternal.

4. Voyage and Return. Christopher Booker argues that stories as diverse as Alice in Wonderland and H G Wells’ The Time Machine and Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner follow the same structure of personal development through leaving and returning home. Robinson Crusoe also comes to mind. The protagonist leaves every day experience to enter a strange and alien world, returning after what often amounts to a thrilling escape.

5. Quest. This could be the quest for a holy grail, a whale, or a kidnapped child. The quest plot links much popular fiction, featuring a hero, normally joined by friends, travelling the world and fighting to overcome evil and secure a priceless treasure, sometimes a girl. Obvious examples include Lord of the Rings, Moby Dick, The Odyssey and a thousand others.

6. Rags to Riches. These stories involve modest, generally virtuous but downtrodden characters, who achieve happiness or security when their special talent or true beauty is revealed. Includes any number of classic ‘dime’ novels. The riches in question can be literal or metaphoric. Better known examples include Cinderella, Pygmalion, The Ugly Duckling, and David Copperfield.

7. Rebirth. The central character finds a new reason for living , like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Frank Capra’s film, It’s a Wonderful Life, also has a ‘rebirth’ plot. Crime and Punishment, Snow White and Peer Gynt are further examples. All of these tales focus on a threatening shadow which is almost victorious until a sequence of fortuitous (or even miraculous) events lead to redemption and rebirth.

One Response to “How Many Plots Are There?”

  1. lisa says:

    May I just say how much I love this book? It has helped me out of a scrape with last-minute papers far too often.

    My favorite was comparing Dante’s Inferno to Alice in Wonderland, as by Bookers standards, they are the same plot.

    And I love the examples he uses to illustrate his point. So much so, that I could compare Sherlock Holmes to James Bond in a paper for Victorian Lit.

    Every time I pull it off the shelf, I’m glad one of my lit teachers recommended it a few years ago. It’s the reference book I use most in my Lit classes.

    jb says: Hi Lisa, and thanks for the comments. My own feeling is that it goes on too long. The first two thirds I found stimulating and pertinent. But after that it stretched my credulity too far. I’d always recommend it, though.