What are the seven basic literary plots?
Dear Cecil:I once read a quotation along the lines thatthere are only seven basic story lines, andthat all the stories in the world can be seenas permutations of those seven. Do youknow: (a) Who said/wrote it? (b) What theexact quotation is (including thedescriptions of the basic story lines)? --Julian Maynard-Smith, Antibes, France
Dear Julian:Seven? Come on. Pick any integer from one toa hundred and you can probably findsomebody arguing that that's how many basic plots there are. A few minutes of browsing produced the following sampling, based in part on a breakdown from the Internet PublicLibrary (www.ipl.org/ref/QUE/FARQ/plotFARQ.html):
Attributed to Rudyard Kipling by Ronald Tobias (see below). Tobias is mum onwhat the 69 plots were, but on the assumption that half were variations on Taking Up theWhite Man's Burden, I'd say this is one we can safely pass by.
Attributed to Carlo Gozzi and reprised by Georges Polti in
The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations
(1917). Polti's somewhat daft exegesis states stating that there are precisely 36 emotions, which in some unclear manner are tied to the 36 situations. Nonetheless, many of his story lines unquestionably are timeless locomotives of plot, for example, Situation III, Crime Pursued by Vengeance--Charles Bronson's career in a nutshell.Or Situation XV, Murderous Adultery, which pretty much sums up
. Othershave a decidedly musty air, such as Situation XXXI, Conflict With a God, or XX, Self-Sacrificing for an Ideal. Not in this day and age, unless your ideal is Getting Vested in thePension Plan.
20 Master Plots (And How to Build Them)
by Ronald Tobias (1993). Tobiasdoesn't claim these are the only plots, merely 20 serviceable ones. However, on going downthe extremely generic list (Adventure, Revenge, Love, Rivalry, Escape, etc.), one thinks: for this I need a book?
The Internet Public Library quotes a list of seven plots (man versus nature, man versusman, etc.) that someone claims to remember from second grade. Not the most authoritativesource, but no flakier than any of these other systems.
The Basic Patterns of Plot
by William Foster-Harris (1959). Not one to bedistracted by unnecessary detail, F-H divines three basic plots: (1) happy ending, (2) unhappyending, and (3) the "literary" plot, "in which the whole plot is done backwards [and] the storywinds up in futility and unhappiness." Examples of literary plots are drawn from Joyce,Pirandello, and other highfalutin types for whom F-H obviously has no use.
Tobias concedes that his 20 plots boil down to 2, "plots of the body" and "plots of themind." Plots of the body are your action flicks, full of sound and fury, not necessarilysignifying anything. Plots of the mind are more cerebral and often involve "searching for some kind of meaning," which sounds dangerously like the literary plot disdained by Foster-Harris.