One of my favourite lessons when studying Creative Writing at university was on the several different basic plots of a story, originally identified in Christopher Booker’s ‘The Seven Basic Plots’ (2004).
1 Overcoming the Monster
In this plot, the protagonist (hero/main character) faces – and defeats – a strong, overwhelming enemy. The antagonist, or antagonistic force, threatens the safety and security of the main character and/or their home, forcing the main character to rise up and fight.
Examples: Harry Potter, Dracula, Beowulf
2 Rags to Riches
In the ‘rags to riches’ plot, the protagonist begins the story with little to their name. They start with nothing, and grow in wealth over the story – money, power, possessions, etc. – before a sudden change in fortune means that they lose, or risk losing, all that they have gained. As they are confronted with the changes they have experienced, and the situation they are currently in, they grow as a person (knowledge, empathy, kindness, etc.) and gain back everything that they had previously acquired.
Examples: Brewster’s Millions, Aladdin, David Copperfield
3 The Quest
The main character (and their companions) embarks on an ambitious quest to reach a destination, acquire a particular item, or otherwise complete a specific task. They meet/encounter many obstacles, challenges and temptations on their journey, before ultimately – after a vicious struggle – reaching their goal.
Examples: Indiana Jones, The Iliad, The Lord of the Rings
4 Voyage and Return
This plot sees the protagonist travelling to a strange and unknown place, where they encounter strange and unknown scenarios and characters. They triumph over the dangers or misfortunes they face, and ultimately return home wizened by experience.
Examples: Alice in Wonderland, The Hobbit, Gulliver’s Travels
A protagonist is presented with a series of difficulties and obstacles to navigate, sometimes confusing and conflicting with each other, before ultimately reaching a happy ending and triumphing over adversity.
Examples: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Meet the Parents, Four Weddings and a Funeral
A tragedy centres around one main character – an essentially ‘good’ protagonist who exhibits signs of a major weakness, character flaw, or past mistake that, ultimately, leads to their downfall (through death, loss, etc.). It is this failure to achieve a positive outcome in their own story, to successfully reach a desirable or much-wanted conclusion, that evokes such sadness at the character’s inability or demise.
Note: In terms of plot structure, comedies and tragedies are very similar. They both begin with a central character who is confronted with hardship and a series of misfortunes. Whereas, in a comedy, the character ultimately triumphs over the difficulties and emerges stronger, happier, wiser, and with a happy ending, the character in a tragedy fails to overcome their struggles which ultimately results in a painful, sorrowful conclusion to their story.
Examples: Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Orpheus
In the rebirth plot, the protagonist is faced with an important event that challenges – and changes – their standard views and/or behaviours. Thus, they are forced to confront their own actions and shortcomings, in the process developing and learning to be a wiser, more considerate, better person. Effectively, they are ‘reborn’.
Examples: Beauty and the Beast, The Snow Queen, A Christmas Carol