There are only seven ‘storylines’ in the world… although there are a multitude of tales and endless variety in the telling, all narratives are really variations of the basic seven… whether they represent the deep psychological structures of human experience or whether they are merely constructs of tradition, no matter what the story, you’ll find one or more of these basic plotlines.
Christopher Booker – British Journalist and Author
Seven Basic Plot Lines
A good author, above all things, must be an excellent storyteller. If message and theme are paths to the destination the writer has prepared for the reader, then plot is the vehicle to get them there. According to Mr. Booker, the seven basic plots are:
1) Overcoming the Monster – A terrifying, all-powerful, life-threatening monster whom the hero must confront in a fight to the death. He lists, as examples of this plot: Beowulf, Jack and the Beanstalk and Dracula. In modern times, think of Nightmare on Elm Street, Alien and Dawn of the Dead.
2) Rags to Riches – A protagonist who has seemed to the world quite commonplace is shown to have been hiding a second, more exceptional self within. For example: The Ugly Duckling, Cinderella, Coming to America, Neo from The Matrix and Superman’s Clark Kent.
3) The Quest – From the moment the hero learns of the priceless goal, he, she or they set out on a hazardous journey to reach it. Examples would include: The Odyssey, The Aeneid, the Harry Potter books, Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Da Vinci Code. An example of “the quest” from the anti-hero’s perspective would be Moby Dick.
4) Voyage and Return – The hero or heroine and a few companions travel out of the familiar surroundings into another world, completely cut off from the first. While it is at first an interesting, if different adventure, there is a sense of increasing peril. After a dramatic escape, they return to the same familiar world where they began the story with a new perspective. The plots from Alice in Wonderland, The Time Machine, The Wizard of Oz and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe also exemplify this basic plotline.
5) Comedy – Following a general chaos of misunderstanding, the characters tie themselves and each other into a knot that seems almost unbearable or inextricable. However, to universal relief, everyone and everything gets sorted out, bringing about a pleasant and settled conclusion. In this sense, “comedy” does not mean humorous or funny, as the term refers to the happy ending. Reflecting, one might think of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Crimson Tide, The Hangover and several of Shakespeare’s lighter plays, including Twelfth Night.
6) Tragedy – In contrast to the comedy, a character through some flaw or lack of self-understanding is increasingly drawn into a fatal course of action which leads inexorably to disaster. The biblical story of Haman, King Lear, Scarface, Wall Street and Training Day – all tragedies!
7) Rebirth – There is a mounting sense of threat as a dark force approaches the hero until it emerges completely, holding the hero in its deadly grip. Only after a time, when it seems that the dark force has triumphed, does the reversal take place. The hero is redeemed, usually through the life-giving power of love or sacrifice. The book of Job, Star Wars, E.T., Unforgiven, The Matrix and many of the fairy tales, such as Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, all have plots containing the element of rebirth.
Of course, not all stories fit neatly into one of these categories, because narratives often contain more than one plot line, or a storyline is an amalgamation of more two or more basic plots. For example, Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a classic tragedy, yet from the very beginning, the Danish prince is forced to confront the “monster” who is his uncle, whereas The Lion King is the exact same story in its comedic form.
So, after you’ve decided to write your story, after you have targeted your audience, after you have developed your characters, after you have gained experience with dialogue, you must invest the time to plot out your story. Simply put, the plot is the story. If you have an idea in mind, it is well worth your effort to sketch it on a page. It can be three sentences or it could take four paragraphs, but try to keep it under a page.
This brief plot outline should sum up how and where the story begins (introduction), the location and time frame from start to finish (setting), what the story is about (character or characters versus conflict or conflicts), the denouement (resolution), and the reiteration of the central theme or themes (message).
Once you have finished this exercise, compare your plot to the seven basic storylines. Does it fit one or two? What kind of story is it? A good plot does not just evolve onto the page. Rather, it is carefully planned and crafted. Talented writers make it look easy, but it requires taking the extra steps to define the story you are telling. Compare your sketch to the seven classic plotlines and identify your plot in writing, even if you are the only one who will ever see it.
Does your storyline fit “none of the above exactly, but has elements of all of them?” If that is the case, maybe you have a muddled plot and need to start over or clarify. The story must be about something specific rather than about everything and all over the place.
A rags to riches hero, who fights a monster while on a quest for a water bottle from the fountain of youth, that takes him to an “inhabited Mars” in another time dimension, where he is forced at pain of death to marry the Mars-King’s gluttonous, flesh-eating ex-wife creature, who dies from overeating the members of his crew at the wedding reception, after which she is resurrected and reunited with him as the woman he lost to death long ago on Earth, who was his soul companion and the mother of his troubled son just may be a good premise for a book, but it would be confusing for most readers and it would take forever to tell.
Do not try to do or tell too much in one story. Narrow the story down to one or two plotlines, or three in rare instances, and that is what you will craft into your unique work of art.
Chat et Souris – The Art of Being Unpredictable
Ah, but the challenge for the clever writer is taking one of the seven plotlines and making it something novel, something fresh and new. It is quite a challenge, as readers have seen these seven story models over and over again, so often that they usually can ascertain the ending long before reaching the mid-point of the book. Writers throughout time have been writing these plotlines for thousands of years, conditioning readers to identify the stories being told and predict the endings.
The challenge for the clever, creative writer is vary the script in order to stay one mental step in front of the reader. When I write, I fashion I can hear the fits and stops of the reader breathing on the other side. I hear the gasps and the groans and even occasional spontaneous comments on that other side.
In the “Kill the Monster” plotline, audiences realize early on who the hero/protagonist is, and they recognize the monster, be it bestial or symbolic, long before writers have the chance to define and explain the relative combatants. It is an easy call: in the end the hero lives and the monster dies. In this storyline, how can a writer possibly be unpredictable?
The story will be uniquely memorable if the hero is a living, breathing person that readers feel and understand. That being the case, the hook might not be so much about whether the protagonist lives or dies, but instead about what he or she is willing to sacrifice in order to win the battle, and further, how that sacrifice twists the story.
In the “Rags to Riches” scenario, you as a writer must realize that it has all been done before. Your challenge is to find an original, refreshing way to tell an age-old story.
Perhaps the frog who the princess kissed does not want to be a prince, because the true princess (of his heart) is an old sassy bass in the pond, who is actually the smooching princess’s wicked stepsister, transformed by a curse.
When he foolishly re-transforms and returns, the greedy bass sister eats him, only to be caught and eaten by a servant of the affectionate princess, who rescues the prince and nags him about his foolish choice for the rest of their lives. In their semi-happy ending, the Prince in a Wheelchair’s crushed legs are a constant reminder that bass were meant to be eaten, and never loved. Burp… Rivet!
I could go on, but I won’t. That will be your job as a writer. Experiment with the seven storylines. Merge two or three of them. Twist them. Stand them on their heads, on their sides or whatever. Over time, you will realize that this exercise is a wonderful device for generating innovative story ideas, whether you want to write a short story, a play or a novel. The world will judge how much you have benefited from this exercise.
For writers who suffer from writer’s block or creative constipation, this application is especially useful. If you are working in a writing schedule and you hit a roadblock, or you feel you just need to take a little time away from the story you are writing, try this exercise: create a folder called “Seven Storylines.”
Within this folder, create sub-folders labeled “Kill the Monster,” “Rags to Riches,” “The Quest,” “Voyage and Return,” “Comedy,” “Tragedy” and “Rebirth.”
Within these sub-folders, create a new file for each plotline experiment you attempt. When you need time away, go to these sub-folders and work at developing future stories or at improving stories you are already writing. Examine your previous works and the successful works of other writers to see how they fit the seven basic plotlines. You will return to your current work with a new perspective and direction.
An unpredictable plot that enthralls involves unexpected twists and turns, it requires trickery and deception. This is no easy task, as experienced readers are not gullible. So how does a writer deceive such a jaded lot? – By using the tendency of readers to jump to conclusions against them. In order to do this, a writer must be willing to kill people, to create a miracle, or to keep a secret over 90,000 words of manuscript, only to reveal it in the final few lines.
Through the first few chapters, a writer must work to train the mind of the reader, to condition that mind to anticipate conclusions that lead the reader away from the final twist. It is the most important part of any story – the ending.
If an ending is predictable, the story will be ordinary and forgettable, but if you take the time and effort to win the Got’cha game with readers, if you surprise readers in the end, you have done something extraordinary and you will earn loyal fans. More about this in a future blog!
For Aspiring Writers: If you are writing a story, take the time examine the seven storylines in order to determine where your own story fits. Does it fit neatly into one category or is it a combination of two or more? Is your plot muddled, or is it easy to explain in a sentence or two? Is your ending predictable?
For Established Writers: How carefully do you consider plot as you develop a story? Do you navigate by instinct and just let your stories develop themselves, or is your hand steady at the helm? Do you make a conscious effort to challenge your readers? How do you write endings that surprise and stun your audiences?
As always, I encourage you to share your ideas with the Pegasus tribe of writers. You are all welcome to join us!
Thank you again for taking the time to consider my blog. If you have any comments and suggestions, I am anxious to hear them.