Plot is a literary term defined as the events that make up a story, particularly as they relate to one another in a pattern, in a sequence, through cause and effect, how the reader views the story, or simply by coincidence.
Some resources claim there are SEVEN basic plot structures with numerous variations on each of them. There are only so many story arcs and all of our stories fit into a certain category. You can still create something that is uniquely your own and original because the writer can tweak all of the elements in their world. But the basic ideas lead us to the point that there is nothing new under the sun. These recognizable forms work and used over and over again.
1. Overcoming the Monster
The protagonist sets out to defeat an antagonistic force which threatens the protagonist and/or protagonist’s homeland. Many of the mythology stories are in this category. James Bond movies follow this theme. Think about it, James Bond is always fighting against a megalomaniac who wants to take over/destroy the world. Our future hinges on James skills in espionage and his mad seduction skills proves that our hero can have fun too!
EXAMPLES: Dracula, Goldfinger, Beowulf, The Magnificent Seven.
2. Rags to Riches
The poor protagonist acquires things such as power, wealth, and a mate, before losing it all and gaining it back upon growing as a person. They have nothing to lose and everything to gain, and often meet with failure before success.
EXAMPLES: Cinderella, David Copperfield, The Prince and the Pauper, Aladdin
The protagonist and some companions set out to acquire an important object or to get to a location, facing many obstacles and temptations along the way. This is often the plot used in fantasy and epic fantasy. Often the quest is combined with having to learn a lesson before the protagonist can obtain the object or destination.
EXAMPLES: The Lord of the Rings, The Wizard of Oz, The Iliad, Watership Down
4. Voyage and Return
The protagonist goes to a strange land and, after overcoming the threats it poses to him/her, returns with nothing but experience. There are too many books to mention that I’ve read that use this plot.
EXAMPLES: Odyssey, Chronicles of Narnia, Gone With the Wind, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, The Hobbit
Light and humorous character with a happy or cheerful ending; a dramatic work in which the central motif is the triumph over adverse circumstance, resulting in a successful or happy conclusion. Fun reads that make you smile – what’s not to like!
EXAMPLES: A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, Mr. Bean, Benny Hill, Much Ado About Nothing, Bridget Jones Diary
The protagonist is a villain who falls from grace and whose death is a happy ending. You can watch just about any good Asian film and it’s a tragedy. Notice I said a good one.
EXAMPLES: Macbeth, Anna Karenina, Romeo and Juliet, Bonnie and Clyde, Titanic, The Notebook, Schindler’s List, Fearless (with Jet Li), Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (Donnie Yen), When the Last Sword is Drawn (I strongly recommend you watch this one – have tissues handy)
The protagonist is a villain or otherwise unlikable character who redeems him/herself over the course of the story. Who doesn’t love a redemption story, right?
EXAMPLES: Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, A Christmas Carol, Despicable Me, The Secret Garden
This is the most basic list. However, the most common list breaks them out as 20 Basic Plots. So here is that list as well.
1. QUEST – the protagonist is searching for something (person, place, thing, or idea) and is on a journey to find it.
2. ADVENTURE – the protagonist searches for their fortune, but has to leave home to do it. (a derivative of the quest)
3. PURSUIT – hide-and-seek plot, one group or person chasing another. (Often used in spy thrillers or crime dramas)
4. RESCUE – the protagonist is searching for someone or something that needs to be saved—this usually involves protagonist, victim, and antagonist.
5. ESCAPE – the protagonist wants to escape some sort of situation, on a quest to get away.
6. REVENGE – retaliation against someone else for wrong-doings.
7. THE RIDDLE – the protagonist’s search to find the hidden meaning of something. (Carolyn Keene used this one in her Nancy Drew mysteries often.)
8. RIVALRY – the protagonist is competing for same object or goal as another person.
9. UNDERDOG – the protagonist has a great disadvantage and faces overwhelming odds while trying to reach his or her goals.
10. TEMPTATION – the protagonist is tempted into doing something that is unwise, wrong or immoral.
11. METAMORPHOSIS – the physical characteristics of the protagonist actually changes from one form to another.
12. TRANSFORMATION – the protagonist journeys through a stage of life that moves them from one significant character state to another.
13. MATURATION – the protagonist faces a problem that causes them to learn from it and mature into adulthood.
14. LOVE – the protagonist overcomes the obstacles that prevent him or her from engaging in true love.
15. FORBIDDEN LOVE – the protagonist overcomes obstacles that prevent him or her from true love, but sometimes find the outcome too high a price to live with.
16. SACRIFICE – the protagonist is motivated by a higher purpose such as love, honor, and charity or for the sake of humanity.
17. DISCOVERY – the protagonist, having to overcome a life-changing event, discovers a deeper meaning of life that changes their outlook.
18. WRETCHED EXCESS – the protagonist pushes the limits of acceptable behavior to the extreme and is forced to deal with the consequences.
19. ASCENSION – this rags-to-riches plot deals with the rise of the protagonist due to a dominating character trait that helps them to succeed.
20. DECISION – this riches-to-rags plot deals with the fall of the protagonist due to dominating character trait that eventually destroys their success.
Some stories can fit into a few of these categories and you can build your story up around several of these basic plots combining plot and subplots. Generally, a story will fit into one category more than another. Using the basic plot of ‘Forbidden Love’, the writer could pen a murder mystery, a psychological horror, a western, a romance, noir fiction, Utopian, science fiction or fantasy.
Which one inspires you to develop a story?
Write on my friends, write on!