There are only seven. A truth ignored by many.
And how revealing. That every story can fit one (or more) of these seven plots.
Take two well-known novels: Roy’s The God of Small Things, and Filer’s The Shock of the Fall. Both begin with the appearance of a dead body, an event shrouded in mystery, creating enough intrigue to secure the reader’s attention, or provide what we writers know as the ‘hook’. The narratives retrace the cause of death, and in the course of finding clues and piecing up evidence, the author fleshes out the content in a display of his/her ingenuity.
The skeletal constituents that are the plot are similar in both novels. In this case, a specialised form known as the Mystery Plot, particular to detective stories, which may arguably fall under the umbrella plot known as The Quest (see below).
Broadly speaking, there are only seven plots (according to the literary critic Christopher Booker): 1. Overcoming the Monster. 2. Rags to Riches 3. The Quest 4. Voyage and Return 5. Comedy 6. Tragedy 7. Rebirth.
1.Overcoming the Monster
The idea of combating a monster, real or imaginary, has manifested itself in works across time and space.
Remember Jaws, the movie. The plot was simple, taking place on the idyllic Amity Island, erupting in a series of mishaps and gory deaths through shark attacks, ending with the ‘slaying of the monster’. The same pattern can be gleaned in other works such as Beowulf, Jurassic Park, and apocalyptic movies where the ‘monster’ is figurative, taking the form of ‘the end of the world’.
This plot comprises five components: i) Anticipation Stage where we learn about the existence of a threat, and the hero receives a ‘call’ to confront it; ii) Dream Stage: The hero prepares to go to war (the atmosphere is still comfortable at this point); iii) Frustration Stage: The overbearing power of the monster is felt at this point, engulfing the weaker hero; iv) Nightmare stage: The battle begins with the monster being the stronger one, but at the climax there’s a ‘reversal’; v) The Thrilling Escape from Death where the hero barely manages to get away, and where the monster suffers the final blow just when all seems lost.
2.Rags to Riches
A favourite of many, and often associated with Cinderella, The Ugly Duckling and romantic comedies at large. It is the story of the disregarded hero/heroine raised to glory. Modern renditions are Sex and the City; Bach’s Jonathan Livingstone Seagull; and My Fair Lady with Eliza Doolittle’s transformation from crudeness to polish, leaving no trace of her squalid origins.
Typically the plot retraces the path of a character in despair or distress, his perchance meeting with a saviour-figure, and a final liberation.
The hero embarks on a long journey to achieve the promise of a treasure, or a priceless goal, and nothing less than a strong compulsion drives him to take up the challenge. This is a journey of a series of life-threatening constrictions followed by life-giving releases. Examples are Homer’s Odyssey, Coelho’s The Alchemist, and Hesse’s Siddhartha.
In Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, Fogg embarks on a series of adventures, exposing himself to countless dangers (liberating an Indian Princess from the flames of her husband’s funeral pyre, escaping prosecution for a bank robbery in England, missing the last train that would carry him back to London on time) and in the end barely manages to make his way back to win the wager of touring the world in eighty days.
4.Voyage and Return
Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Wells’s The Time Machine are examples. Typically in this plot, the hero is marooned on a deserted island, or visits the land of strange people or civilisations such as in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Voltaire’s Candide. The main difference between this plot and The Quest is that the need to embark on a journey is conscious in the former, while more of a coincidence or a matter of luck in the latter. The protagonist here is more naïve, so that Alice is bored and drowsy when the journey takes place, and Dorothy dreams of ‘somewhere over the rainbow’ in The Wizard of Oz.
The mood shifts after this point, where the protagonist is unhappy with his status quo leading to complete chaos so that there’s a threat of death or destruction, followed by an escape back to a world of normalcy.
The journey exposes the protagonists to change in their view of the normal. Both Alice and Gulliver find their perspectives distorted by experiencing changes in their size. Their experience of the new world is fascinating, although not one where they would be permanently comfortable.
Examples are love stories. The idea is that the partners are kept apart, usually by an unconsenting parent (Molière’s Tartuffe for instance), or by some other hurdle, and made to come together in the end. The uniting of a hero and a heroine symbolises completion, the end of division, and the renewal of life.
The essence of this plot is a movement from darkness to light, so that i) one or more characters go through a change of heart, or are exposed and punished; ii) the identities of one or more characters are revealed with time; iii) lovers are clogged in their relationship by misunderstandings or other obstacles which they eventually overcome; iv) family members are at odds with each other, and then resolving their matters peacefully. An example would be All’s Well that Ends Well, where the confrontation between darkness and light is visible, and separates the lovers central to the play, and in The Marriage of Figaro where dark thoughts preside over the minds and actions of the male figures (Figaro and The count) until this is overcome by the more stable, and wide-eyed women (Susanna and The Countess).
This plot is qualified by death that’s violent, premature, and especially unnatural. It could also take the form of a Rags to Riches plot or The Quest, but with an ending that’s dreary. Examples are of the Greek myth of Icarus, Sophocles’s Oedipus, and the legend of Faust.
In Nabokov’s Lolita, Humbert falls in love with a young girl and in secretly desiring her, marries her mother who dies in a car accident, making Humbert Lolita’s guardian.
Humbert takes Lolita across America to have exclusive access to her, and engage in his sexual passions. Lolita grows up, takes a distance from him, and meets her saviour and love, Quilty, a playwright.
At the end of the novel, Humbert hunts down Quilty to murder him. The story ends with Lolita and Humbert’s deaths, hers during childbirth, and his in prison while awaiting execution.
A particularity about this plot is the moral quandary which the protagonist is faced with, where the ‘Call’ (to action) raises more obvious conflicts in him/her than in the case of the plot of Overcoming the Monster, or that of The Quest.
The five identifiable stages of this plot can be summarised into the i) initial mood of anticipation; (ii) ‘dream stage’ where things go rather well; iii) ‘frustration’ stage where they go wrong; iv) ‘nightmare’ stage where it gets worse; v) ending in death and destruction.
Snow White and Sleeping Beauty are examples, with a discernible movement from darkness to light as the hero is transformed through an event (such as the appearance of a saviour who releases him/her from an evil spell).
This plot can also apply to the tale of Cinderella marked out earlier as Rags to Riches, bearing a reminder that intersections between plots cannot be ignored. A breakdown of the components are: i) a young hero/heroine under the influence of a dark power; ii) everything seems to go rather well despite that; iii) the threat becomes real; iv) the dark power is felt at an optimal level; v) there’s a final redemption where the evil in question is quelled.
This plot is suitable for writers who wish to reveal their protagonist’s inner transformations such as in Peer Gynt whose ‘rebirth’ is marked by the movement from a lesser, egocentric self to a deeper, self-aware and reflective one.
Getting the plot right, its sequence or rhythm, is arguably not the most arduous task of the writer, simply because there isn’t as seen above, much room to maneouvre. The challenge is in fleshing out the story—An exercise that manifests the artist’s intelligence, creativity, his/her grasp of history, philosophy, social issues, and contemporary matters.
Interestingly all seven plots can be included in one story. The ingenuity of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (or Rajamouli’s Baahubali) consists in this—An ambition rarely aimed for since many are content in including one or two plots in their production.
The process of constriction and release of a plot follows a systole-diastole rhythm that accounts for the feeling of satisfaction and pleasure experienced by viewers and readers. A few of these cycles exist in one story, with the ultimate swing or crescendo being necessarily the most marked. If the ending of a novel or a movie does not feel right, or leaves us with a feeling of dissatisfaction, it is because the sequence of the plot, or the cycles of systole-diastole may not have been observed rhythmically.