Columns > Published on May 20th, 2014

Like a Broken Record: Are There Really Only Seven Plots?

The human mind has its limits. We seek patterns, and find solace in the safe and familiar. It’s only natural, since that which is new may also be dangerous. But does it also prevent us from creating anything entirely original?  
Everyone has heard the old saying about art imitating life. People have been pondering over the nature of art and originality for thousands of years, which technically makes this post a part of an ancient Escher-like loop of unoriginal commentary about unoriginal commentary. Moving on...
Plato and Aristotle had differing ideas about imitation, otherwise called mimesis. Both agreed that human art is an imitation of truth, but split on whether this imitative process is positive or negative. Plato looked down on writing and viewed it as inferior to philosophy, which deals directly with ideas instead of the interpretation of them (he might have been a bit biased). Aristotle, on the other hand, considered imitation natural, and saw little purpose in the creation of flawless reproductions. The writer, he argued, imparts his or her individual truth through art. The finished product may not represent a new reality, but it is still a new perception of reality.  
It has been commented that all the stories ever told can be boiled down to two scenarios: a hero goes on a quest, and a stranger comes to town.  It’s a rather stifling thought, isn’t it? Later, William Foster-Harris would postulate that there are really three plots: those with a happy ending, a sad ending, or an ambiguous, “literary” ending.
As time passed, theories on plot structure became more complicated. A recent and comprehensive list by Christopher Booker debuted in 2004, building on the ideas of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, the first scholar to suggest that seven was the most accurate number of plots in the world. The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories was the culmination of over 30 years of research on Booker’s part. The following are what he believed comprise the backbone of every existent plot:

1. Overcoming the Monster: The hero must destroy an evil that threatens his home.

2. Rags to Riches: Exactly what it sounds like; the hero overcomes overwhelming obstacles to obtain wealth, love, and happiness.

3. The Quest: The hero seeks an object which he must claim, often accompanied by companions.

4. Voyage and Return: A protagonist leaves his/her home and faces trials and dangers to come back changed and experienced. 

5. Comedy: Comedy is used here in the traditional sense, meaning that the story ends with a marriage or union. 

6. Tragedy: My personal favorite, tragedies tell the story of the antihero. The main character is also the villain, and the plot concludes with his/her downfall. 

7. Rebirth: Rather than completing the arch of the antihero, the protagonist is able to avoid disaster by mending his/her ways. 

Several critics, including the New York Times, were rather skeptical of Booker, claiming that while some of the strictly informational portions of his book held merit, his theories were eclipsed by the idealism present in the later half.  Booker takes the rather odd angle that modern stories have "become detached from their underlying archetypal purpose" and are therefore less worthy than earlier mythos and literature.

Does It Matter?

Plot is important, of course, but it isn’t the whole story. If Booker’s theory is correct, then perhaps plot matters less than one might think. What if the reason we have so few plots is not that we are incapable of inventing new ones, but that to do so is unnecessary. After all, plot is not the entirety of a story, but merely one appendage of a larger, functioning whole. Even with a dynamic plot, stories are nothing without the characters that navigate them. Readers are not typically drawn into a story by the originality of its formula, but out of concern or empathy for its characters. Plot then serves as a yardstick by which character growth can be measured.
Fantasy author Patricia Wrede keeps an informative blog on the writing process. She comments on the topic of plot formulas:
The basic skeleton and the act structure are, certainly, one set of plot fundamentals…but they’re only one set, and fundamentals are supposed to be something that you learn in order to build on, not something that you learn and then stop because that’s all you need to know.
One might even go so far as to state that all stories are simply a question and a corresponding answer, but as humans, we have an endless array of questions. Whether the number of possible plots is quantifiable or not, Aristotle’s argument in defense of art holds water even to the present day; every individual writer has a unique voice, even if they don’t necessarily have a unique plot. 

Photo licensed under Creative Commons by Moehre 1992

About the author

Leah Dearborn is a Boston-based writer with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in international relations from UMass Boston. She started writing for LitReactor in 2013 while paying her way through journalism school and hopping between bookstore jobs (R.I.P. Borders). In the years since, she’s written articles about everything from colonial poisoning plots to city council plans for using owls as pest control. If it’s a little strange, she’s probably interested.

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