Basic Plots

by limebirdster

In 2005 Christopher Booker wrote a book called The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. The premise of the book is that all stories, from Shakespeare to Noddy, involve one of these plots, just written in different ways.

For example, both Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K Rowling and 1984 by George Orwell are about Overcoming a Monster. In the first it’s a literal monster, and in the second the monster is the oppressive government, but both stories deal with an attempt to overcome at any rate. Overcoming the monster is, of course, one of his seven. The other 6 are:

Quest

Voyage and return

Comedy

Tragedy

Rebirth

Rags to riches

I am, I have to admit, slightly confused in writing this because I always though that bildungsroman was in that list, but apparently not!

Anyway, the theory of this book is that every story can be categorised under one of these seven headings, and no one has come up with an original idea in centuries.

But I am struggling to come up with a book that doesn’t fall under one of those seven headings! Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is both a Rags to Riches and a Quest. Of Mice and Men is a Tragedy. The Lord of the Rings is a Quest, Overcoming the Monster and Voyage and Return. Anna Karenina could probably fit all seven depending on how you look at it!

What do you think? Is Booker right or are his basic plots are so broad that they cover everything just by being non-specific?

Also, are we just rehashing the same ideas over and over again, or are there still original stories that haven’t been written yet?

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26 Responses to “Basic Plots”

  1. I’m not quite sure how ‘Comedy’ or ‘Tragedy’ are plots? Maybe I need to read the book though to understand better.

    We spoke recently in another post on here about whether there is really such thing as originality, or just lots of different versions of the same thing – I think we all hope to find something completely original!

    • I have to admit I haven’t read the book in any detail, it was just something that was brought up occasionally at university. I think you can pick apart most books and attribute different elements to older stories. I find it’s the style more than anything that makes a book unique, but then I like to know the endings so no story is ever a surprise, it’s the writing that keeps me reading!

  2. Those plots are very broad (especially the “Comedy” and “Tragedy” ones, as Vanessa points out), but I agree with the basic premise that all plots have already been told in one form or another. What sets your Quest apart from my Quest is how we tell that story, from the characters to the form to the style. Even I’ve noticed within my own stories a common thread of plots, though. But that doesn’t stop me from writing! 😀

    • I agree completely! Style is so much more important than plot, it’s when you can read a book over and over again and still enjoy it even though you know what’s about to happen that makes it stand out.

  3. I wonder where one of my favorite books, The Count of Monte Cristo, would fit in here. I would call it a book about justified revenge, but it could also fit under the categories of “quest” and “voyage and return”. But Booker does make some valid points.

    • His categories are quote broad and some books seem to fit more than one, but I think it’s still an interesting concept regardless!

  4. Don’t mind me, just thinking aloud:
    Given that they aren’t mutually exclusive, as you demonstrated above, I see little value in this type of categorisation besides trivial curiosity.
    Given a suitably sized shoehorn you could argue that almost any story can fit into at least several of those seven plot types.
    Like Vanessa, I think Comedy and (perhaps more so than) Tragedy are not true plot types but simply attributes or properties of a firmer plot-type.
    With respect to distinct plot types, how is a quest different from a Voyage and Return apart from the return? Doesn’t cut it for me as thick line to separate them.
    For the seven basic plot types I see seven heavily intersecting circles with very small areas of uniqueness.

    Actually, I’m reminded again of “Worship the journey”. If the plot is the destination (you know roughly how it ends) or perhaps the vehicle, then the story is the journey, the scenery, the places and the people you meet along the way; the interesting bits. And that’s what is there to be enjoyed.

  5. Yeah, much too broad. There’s probably a few more that could be added to the list if you thought long and hard enough. But, even without that, how you arrange the bits of a story can make it interesting, even if it isn’t the most unique story in the world.

    The same story from a different angle is a new story.

  6. Maybe the challenge is not to change the plot, but to draw the reader in with your style.
    Blessings – Maxi

  7. When his seven includes ‘tragedy’ and ‘comedy’, that’s claiming for his idea a whole lot of original real estate, a universe-sized measure. Small wonder so much would fit. It’s like categorising musical notes, and then claiming no one has come up with a new musical note in centuries.

    Most works would touch on combinations of those elements. I wonder if ‘voyage and return’ could fall under quest.

  8. I pretty much agree with everybody here. I’ve never written anything that doesn’t fall into most of the categories (except maybe Rags to Riches), but I’ve tried to introduce a perspective that’s different enough to be engaging. Certainly my “Labors of Ki’shto’ba Huge-Head” series, which I’ve just begun to format for publication, incorporates many of those elements, beginning with the Quest, which is its primary focus. It retells Greek myth and other legends. But (I hope!) nobody else has retold those tales from the standpoint of a culture of intelligent giant termites!

  9. In general, he seems to be building on archetypal plots. That goes with the theory that most everything, from characters to settings to plots, plays on the basic archetypes inherent in our nature (or so says Jung). For the bildungsroman, I would venture a guess that it fits into the quest plot just because coming of age and development plots carry some of the same markers as a quest or epic. “Jane Eyre,” for example, is a bildungsroman in the form of Jane’s quest for identity and a relationship on her own terms.

    • You’re probably right about the bildungsroman, I’m just struggling to work out which other category I was missing out!

  10. As so many others have noted elsewhere, stories are a basic human need. In a void, human beings create narrative to explain or entertain. I see it in my son’s asking for a story no matter the time of day. I see it in myself when I create stories to explain and rationalize others’ behavior. Similar to archetypes, the categories listed above are broad enough to cover every type of story imaginable. And although we rehash ideas constantly, the trick is knowing what will make others listen. If you can do that, you’ve got a “real” story.

  11. I agree with the others, and as Nelle points out – some of these categories can fall into each other.

    All skies are blue. Some are light blue, dark blue, very pale blue, etc… I think his being so broad in his categories made it easy for people to say, “Well, yes, you’re right.”

  12. Just because the story is a TYPE of story, doesn’t mean it isn’t original. Sure, the monster stories are similar, but there are vast differences between most of them. For that matter, they might have different morals or messages.

    That doesn’t mean it’s not useful to think about what broad category your story falls into.

  13. This got my attention straight away. It is endlessly interesting to me as a struggling wordsmith since 1964. Language use aside, I read of these 7 items several years back. And if memory still serves me, the list I read was the basic “plots of Shakespear.” And even if so, or not, the truths are there. Look how we are endlessly captured and entertained by the creative variations – indeed multitudes of variations and inventiveness of applying the basic plots. I beleive it goes to, or comes to, format, design of, structure of the story. Then after that, one adds to the “structure” one’s individual characters, new scenes, colors, senses, and problems and solutions. There’s no “law” to break. At the beginning one creates their own structure, And even if one believes that they create the structure at the end of their work, no matter, because what is on the previous pages has it’s own design …. good or bad.

  14. Saying a story is about a Quest, and saying it is a comedy, are two very different things! A funny story can have many different plots, can’t it?? Goodness… what a silly idea!

  15. You mustn’t forget the non-plot, which is the tack that some literary fiction takes. I once read a grad student’s short story in my creative writing class, and he got rave reviews from other “serious” literary types in class.

    I had no idea what the point of the story was. I just remember it involved an intelligent child and her uncouth, redneck family at K-Mart. Her little brother pissed on the Barbie dolls. Now, I ask you, what sort of plot is that?

    I think the list is also missing “boy gets girl.” That–more than anything else–is the driving plot of the romance genre. There’s also coming-of-age, which is typical in YA fiction.

  16. I think in a broad enough spectrum most everything could be shoe-horned into something specific, but what makes one story better or different from another is how it’s told.

  17. Reblogged this on Marisa Becker, Writing Coach.

  18. Knowing that the Harry Potter novels were basically English boarding school stories with magic didn’t spoil my enjoyment. I think that it is what the author does with his / her plot that makes for a good yarn.

  19. I had this debate the other day and if one is going to use such broad and non specific categories then of course its all been done. With headings covering such a wide range its impossible to write something outside them, but once you go detail, that is where individuality lies.
    After all, Twilight and Dracula are both about vampires (the former only in the loosest sense) but they’re certainly not comparable in any other way.

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