How Many Plots Are There?

Back in May a new writer asked how to keep others from copying her plot. My answer was: “There are only so many plots, so everyone is copying. It’s how each individual presents the plot that makes one story different from another.”

The discussion then moved into how many plots are there?

There is no easy answer to that question. Some say there’s only one plot. Others say there are five, six, seven, nine, or twenty plots.

In an article in the Daily Mail, on July 8, 2016 Stacy Liberatore has a slightly different take on plots, She states there are only six, and these six are based on emotional arcs. The story either starts out with the main character in a good place or a bad place. The plot then goes from one emotional state to the next, sometimes ending in a good way, otherwise ending in a bad way. For example Oedipus Rex. Is a Fall,Rise,Fall plot, while Cinderella is A Rise,Fall,Rise plot. There’s also a Rise,Fall plot, which is the plot for The Rome Express. A Fall, Rise plot would fit The Magic of OZ. A Steady Rise plot is demonstrated in Alice’s Adventures Underground, and a Steady Fall plot defines Romeo and Juliet.

For me, this idea is quite broad, but take a look at the article. Ms. Liberatore does a much better job of explaining this structure than I have.

If you don’t want to read the full article, I suggest you watch a youtube video embedded in the article. (Kurt Vonnegut on the “Shapes of Stories.”) His explanation of the various emotional arcs is funny.

In an article titled “The Plot Thins, or Are No Stories New?” published in the April 15, 2005 issue of the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani gives a review of “The Seven Basic Plots’ “Why We Tell Stories” by Christopher Booker.

According to Mr. Booker, there are only seven basic plots in the whole world–plots that are recycled again and again in novels, movies, plays and operas. Those seven plots are: 1.Overcoming the Monster, 2.Rags to Riches, 3.The Quest, 4.Voyage and Return, 5.Rebirth, 6.Comedy, and 7.Tragedy.

Read the article for a full explanation of each of these plots. The-plot-thins-or-are-no-stories-new

Now, Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces, argues that there’s only one plot, the monomyth. He researched myth and story from all over the world and discovered that no matter the culture, the stories had the same shape. He argues that this shape of story resonates deeply with humans. This shape is often referred to as the Hero’s Journey. Christopher Vogler’s book The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, is a more accessible take on this topic, and is a must-have for writers. According to Campbell and Vogler there is is a twelve step journey that all stories follow, in one way or another. (These steps fit nicely into a three-act play/story/movie structure.)

ACT ONE: (1) Ordinary World, (2) Call to Adventure, (3) Refusal, (4) Meeting the Mentor, and (5) Crossing the Threshold. ACT TWO: (6) Tests, Allies, Enemies, (7) Approach to inmost cave, (8) Ordeal, and (9) Reward (seizing the sword) ACT THREE: (10) The Road Back, (11) Resurrection, and (12) Return with Elixir.

I’m not going to try to explain each of these steps, but several blogs and articles have been written about the Hero’s Journey, so if you want more information, check on-line for examples.

Okay, so far we have one plot (monomyth), five, six, and seven plots. Ronald B Tobias, in his book, 20 Master Plots And How To Build Them lists (obviously!) twenty – although he freely admits that this number is arbitrary. They are:

(1) The Quest (2) Adventure (3) Pursuit (4) Rescue (5) Escape (6) Revenge (7) The riddle (8) Rivalry (9) Underdog (the ‘One Against’ in the list below) (10) Temptation (11) Metamorphosis (12) Transformation (13) Maturation (14) Love (15) Forbidden love (16) Sacrifice (17) Discovery (18) Wretched excess (19) Ascension and (20) Descension

James Scott Bell in his book Plot & Structure has nine:
(1) The Quest (2) Revenge (3) Love (4) Adventure (5) The Chase (6) One Against – the ‘Underdog’ in the list above. (7) One Apart (8) Power and (9) Allegory

And, to add to the confusion, back on April 22,2012 John Lescroart blogged about 8 basic plots

He says there could be from 1 to 40 plots, but the list he likes is:
The protagonist’s true potential for happiness and fulfilment is at last realised after many ups and downs.
The fatal flaw of the main character.
The debt that must be repaid when fate finally catches up with you, as Faust did when making a deal with the devil.
The eternal triangle.
The spider and the fly.
Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl again (put these in any order you like).
The gift that is taken away.
The hero takes on all comers.

So you decide. How many plot possibilities are there?

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10 Responses to How Many Plots Are There?

  1. Excellent list of resources, Maris. I would add a book by Georges Polti, originally published in 1921 (and reprinted several times). In “The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations” he gives a brief description of the “situation” and then lists numerous examples.

  2. Great post, Maris. So how would you recommend we use this information? Is it important to know what type of plot you’re writing before you write so that you’re consistent, or is this a way to determine what type of book you’ve written so that you know how to market it?

    • Maris Soule says:

      Good question, Patty. I don’t think we need to know the type of plot we’re using before we write, but I do think it might help in query letters and/or promotion. I like the monomyth described in Vogler’s book and often analyse my stories that way, but I don’t start out with that as an outline.

  3. I think there are as many plots as lives the Creator made. Each has a plan, each a learning experience, each–sadly–an ending.

    • Maris Soule says:

      As fiction writers, we are the creator. The plan is the plot. We give our characters lives which generally include some sort of learning experience. The choice is the structure of the plot.

  4. Melissa Keir says:

    What an interesting post. I know many stories are similar but it’s the characters and the storytelling which make them unique to each author!

  5. Paula says:

    Thanks for providing so many resources to investigate. Funny how you sometimes hit a nerve for me on the appropriate day. I was looking up a quote today in my little ‘notebook of quotes.’ I found this, a quote about writing which I have no idea who said, or where I found it.
    (I wrote down) “2 plots -A man goes on a journey -A man walks into a room”
    Actually, those may be more like writing prompts, but hey…