When I was in school, back in the last century, I was taught there were three basic plots in which every story ever written could be classified: Man-vs-man, man-vs-nature and man-vs-himself. That was in the days when it wasn’t politically incorrect to use the word man to mean everyone. Today we’d say it differently, use other pronouns, but the meaning is the same.
Three is a bit simplistic, sure. The list has been expanded on by authors, academics and critics ever since. And by robots, too. Last summer, a story in The Atlantic told of university researchers who used software to parse through 2,000 works of literature to determine there six basic plots:
- Rags to Riches (rise)
- Riches to Rags (fall)
- Man in a Hole (fall then rise)
- Icarus (rise then fall)
- Cinderella (rise then fall then rise)
- Oedipus (fall then rise then fall)
Which is one less than Christopher Booker lists in his lengthy 2004 book,The Seven Basic Plots:
- Overcoming the Monster
- Rags to Riches
- The Quest
- Voyage and Return
Around the end of his book, Booker actually lists two more plots which are, historically speaking, not as common (by his assessment, they are late additions to our literary canon, although I think that could be argued against), so he discounts them as less important:
- Rebellion Against ‘The One
Both genres are popular today and should not be overlooked (where would we be without Star Wars or the DaVinci Code?). So it’s really nine plots. Or more? Booker has two variants under the ‘Rags to Riches’ plot: failure and hollow victory. If you include them as separate themes, the seven in the title expands to eleven.
But can one really reduce all writing to such a short list? Do all stories fit so comfortably into these archetypes? Some find it easy to poke holes in such generalizations. Others to broaden the spectrum with more items on their own list.
That Atlantic article resurfaced on social media recently and it got me looking for more and similar pieces that discussed the number of story archetypes. And I found many, albeit few in total agreement with the others. The MIT Technology Review has a good piece on the research that explains some of the science behind the AI and how it measured words and plots, noting:
The idea behind sentiment analysis is that words have a positive or negative emotional impact. So words can be a measure of the emotional valence of the text and how it changes from moment to moment. So measuring the shape of the story arc is simply a question of assessing the emotional polarity of a story at each instant and how it changes.
It’s worth reading the article on iPL2 about plots. It lists examples of one, three, seven, 20 and 36 plot types from various sources (the latter dating back at least to Georges Polti’s list from 1894).
Darcy Pattison lists 29 plot templates, but suggests they can really be boiled down to two main divisions:
- Adventure comes to you. A Stranger comes to town.
- You go to Adventure. You leave town.
But these are nothing compared to William Wallace Cook’s list of 1,462 plots in his book Plotto, written in 1928 (which while not terribly practical, it is a delightful book to explore and play with).
The Fiction Writer’s Mentor comments:
…at its simplest level there is only one plot: your protagonist wants something that s/he doesn’t have, and has to try to get it.
The wanting on the one hand, and the not having on the other creates the conflict which is so essential to every story. It also gives us the main dramatic question (also known as the story question).
All plots follow essentially the same route: the protagonist is in his/her ordinary life when something happens to change that. Either there has been something lacking in his/her life, and the pain gets bad enough that he/she seeks to solve the problem, or the opportunity to solve the problem presents itself.
Which pushes back a bit towards the one-plot theory, albeit with filigree.
The late author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. put a lot of thought into story arcs, and, as The Atlantic article tells us, devised a graphic method to show the arc of a story on a simple graph that laid out the rise and fall of the protagonist. It’s not a classification system as much as a mapping method. Vonnegut didn’t get into a “mine has more items than yours” list game. He was looking at how closely related most story arcs are. And the common elements that can be identified.
To appreciate this question, we need to define what a plot is. Literary Devices notes:
Plot is a literary term used to describe the events that make up a story or the main part of a story. These events relate to each other in a pattern or a sequence. The structure of a novel depends on the organization of events in the plot of the story.
Plot is known as the foundation of a novel or story which the characters and settings are built around. It is meant to organize information and events in a logical manner. When writing the plot of a piece of literature, the author has to be careful that it does not dominate the other parts of the story.
Plot refers to the sequence of events inside a story which affect other events through the principle of cause and effect. The causal events of a plot can be thought of as a series of sentences linked by “and so”. Plots can vary from simple structures such as in a traditional ballad to complex interwoven structures sometimes referred to as an imbroglio. The term plot can serve as a verb and refer to a character planning future actions in the story.
In the narrative sense, the term highlights the important points which have important consequences within the story… The term is similar in meaning to the term storyline.
Wikipedia also tells us the renowned author, E. M. Forester said a plot is the “…cause-and-effect relationship between events in a story.” According to Forster, “The king died, and then the queen died, is a story, while The king died, and then the queen died of grief, is a plot.”
Which makes me wonder: does Plotto offer thousands of stories or plots? Can we define a clear distinction between story and plot or are the two inextricably linked, integrated like brain and consciousness? A plot isn’t quite the same as the story and character arcs, but they are inseparable.
Mythologist Joseph Campbell is famous for defining the 12-stage hero’s journey – he called it the monomyth – as a main theme in world myths:
- Ordinary World – Limited awareness of problem
- Call to Adventure – increased awareness
- Refusal of Call – reluctance to change
- Meeting the Mentor – overcoming reluctance
- Crossing the First Threshold – committing to change
- Tests, Allies, Enemies – experimenting with 1st change
- Approach to the Inmost Cave- preparing for big change
- Supreme Ordeal – attempting big change
- Reward – consequences of the attempt
- The Road Back – rededication to change
- Resurrection – final attempt at big change
- Return with Elixir – final mastery of the problem
Each of these might also be classified as a plot type or at least a subplot.There’sa gestalt in Campbell’s theory that while any story may leave out one or more elements, no story can leave them all out nor can stand with just one of them.
I don’t think reductionist theory is necessarily wrong, because thinking about stories in such categories helps us understand the motives, the action, the progression (as in Vonnegut’s graphs). Aristotle did something similar, more than 2,300 years ago. But it isn’t that simplistic. Any story, any novel,can incorporate more than one theme. Think of Dune. Or better yet, the Dune trilogy (the first three books). They offer some of all of Booker’s seven categories and some of the rebellion theme, too.
Do authors sit down to write, say, a specifically rags to riches story? I don’t believe so. I think it is something someone else uses to classify the novel after it has been written. It’s more an academic label than a utilitarian one for budding writers. It is, I suppose, good for teaching the craft of writing And it’s always entertaining and informative to read the debates.