There’s a theory about stories that claims there are only seven plots in existence. Every story ever created either conforms to one of these archetypes, or is a combination of two or more of them.
I don’t hold much for grand sweeping statements about anything, certainly about anything as amorphous and wholly inventive as storytelling, but there’s merit in the idea behind these seven plot types. And even if it just a case of presenting a theory that is general enough for anything to fit it, it’s still applicable, especially to anyone wanting a broad introduction to plot.
More than anything, it can help writers identify perhaps what type their plot might fit into, and then lend a bit of direction or amplification of certain elements, or provide an established trend that a writer can play with and manipulate.
So, firstly, The quest.
This speaks for itself. This and the next type spring directly out of Ancient Greek mythology and the myths that underpin a lot of Western storytelling. Originally with the quest, the plot was all about the call to a particular magical item that could solve problems back at home. And, through a series of obstacles, the hero would heroically retrieve said item, return home with the goods and save the day. Easy. These days, it’s not necessarily a magical item, but the basic philosophy of this story exists in almost everything, given it’s essentially a desire-and-fulfillment structure.
Then we have the next most common, the voyage and return.
Taking its origins as well from Greek mythology – particularly the Odyssey – as the Greeks were obsessed with this idea of returning home a changed person. Some major event would occur, and with that the realisation that you can never go back. Not truly. You might return to your starting point, but it’s all different now, and nothing can ever make it how it used to be.
The best thing about this one is how it reflects the journey into adulthood, and the gradual understanding that time moving ever on is the only certainty in life.
Quite an easy one to understand. Not as easy to write. Essentially, everyone dies. Except the boring character, who has to live on and tell everyone else who doesn’t get a speaking role just how tragic everything is.
The general plot is that the good intentions to fix a huge problem don’t pan out, and it all goes wrong. Often swiftly and suddenly. Starts off happy, goes sad. And everyone dies.
The difficulty in the writing is how do you not upset the reader so much that they think it was all pointless. If the goal is just to make them cry, then tragedies are easy. Rather the reader needs to believe that even when everything is going wrong a happy ending is still possible, and they need to believe this right up to the final moment. Then make them cry. That’s tragedy.
This is closely linked to comedy, though you may not think it.
Originally they were very similar stories, only in comedy, they all live. And get married. Hooray. It wasn’t necessarily funny, that part of comedy came later. But a traditional comedy, which has since merged into romance, is generally that we all live happily ever after, once the bad stuff has been negotiated.
As an example, Romeo and Juliet was performed as a comedy for many years after its original production, as the trend was towards happier stories. It was only in the late 19th century and into the 20th century that the play was restored to its tragic origins, so that everyone could start bawling again. Still, it illustrates the close connection between the two styles of plot.
Now, rags to riches.
A touch out of vogue these days, was quite common with Dickens and the like, but then became less popular as a plot during the 20th century when storytellers tended to favour the thwarted dreams rather than the achieving of immeasurable wealth.
What makes this plot work is the protagonist, who needs to be so gosh darn lovely that we want them to have everything, they deserve everything, and even when they get it, they’re just so lovely and humble about it that we’re happy for their success.
It’s an interesting notion though, that we’re more resistant these days to stories that end with someone getting lots of money.
My favourite: defeating the monster.
Clearly borne out of Greek mythology as well, these days this plot usually is bound up in the middle of others – Harry Potter is clearly a voyage and return with a quest thrown in, but building up to a defeat of the monster – and the more interesting plots of this type these days tend towards the symbolic rather than the literal monster.
My favourite of the recent reworkings of defeating the monster is The Hunger Games, where the monster is at turns the game itself, the establishment, society, and – so good for a YA novel – adults.
This can take many forms, and like the previous plot, is often wrapped up with others. Essentially, the protagonist needs to change entirely. They need to lose who they were, either through misfortune or their own misdeeds, and then start again. From nothing, they must build themselves up to a better version of who they were. So the plot is essentially character-driven, where they chart a bad-to-good journey.
And that’s it, for the seven plots. Big, broad, applicable archetypes. At times they can overlap or intersect, one can transform into another, but to understand them is to hopefully understand your own stories.
This is not to say stories must follow the plot, but to know the plot is to understand the plot, and from there you can make it serve your own purpose, and tell your own story.