This is a summary of the narrative theory shown by Christopher Booker in his book The Seven Basic Plots. This theory lists the seven types of plots commonly found in fiction. It is useful for figuring out what kind of story it is you are writing, and the best part is that the theory transcends genre and to be honest every single plot on this list can by applied to any genre with enough creativity. So without further ado let’s begin:
1) Overcoming the Monster
The name explains it all. In short the learns of an evil, a “monster” if you will and seeks out to destroy it. This evil may be either a literal monster, like a dragon or other kind of beast, or a more humanoid evil such as a hitman in a thriller. In my interpretation this evil may also take the form of an organisation as well i.e. an army or an evil corporation. T
There are typically three types of monsters. There is the Predator, who goes around looking for victims, the Holdfast, whom guards a treasure or a person and the Avenger, whom is similar to the Holdfast except that when its treasure is stolen it leaps into action and seeks to eliminate those responsible.
These stories have their own structure. First is the call and anticipation stage where the hero becomes aware of the threat and seeks to confront it. Next is the dream stage, is the build up to the confrontation with the monster, which can take the form of the journey to the monster or preparation for the monster’s arrival. The frustration stage is a confrontation against the monster, where we finally see the monster in all its power, with things starting to turn against the hero as the monster seems to large to defeat. This is followed by the nightmare stage, a battle against the monster in which the odds are stacked against the hero. Ultimately the hero comes out on top, and gains a reward in the death of the monster stage, which is usually a treasure of some kind, whether it be literal or metaphorical.
2) Rags to Riches
The Rags to Riches plot is your Cinderella type plot. The protagonist starts off in poor, not too well off state before eventually gaining things such as wealth, power and often love. After a few bumps along the road the protagonist usually gains a happily ever after involving some of these things, if not all of them.
Like with Overcoming the Monster there is a call where the protagonist is pulled out of their miserable life into the world. There they have an initial success, where they overcome a series of ordeals and gain a few rewards for their trouble though they do not gain the emotional wisdom that comes with them. Then there is the central crisis, where things start to go wrong and the protagonist is driven to despair, usually due to the work of a villain or rival. Once again there is a final ordeal, this time the protagonist shows their growth and overcomes one last ordeal which overcomes their growth, possibly via a confrontation with the villain. Then the protagonist receives their rewards in a fultilment stage, where they get both their rewards and the emotional wisdom to use them wisely.
3) The Quest
This is probably a type of plot associate a lot of people with the fantasy and science fiction genres and shown best in works such as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. Basically involves a journey, which is usually motivated by a search for a location, an object or piece of information which the protagonist or their group need.
Like most plots on this list the plot is kicked off by a call to adventure, where the protagonist leaves their home. They then begin a journey, which may involves ordeal such as monsters, temptations and a “journey to the underworld” where the protagonist must venture to a dark and dangerous place before they reach their destination. This is followed by an arrival and frustration stage, where they arrive at their destination but find more obstacles in their way. Then a final ordeal occurs where the protagonist must face one last test, which may be a literal test or a confrontation with an antagonist. Finally they reach the goal, where they win a treasure similar to Overcoming the Monster.
4) Voyage and Return
This plot revolves around the protagonist being forced into an unfamiliar environment, another world if you will. This is usually against their will or by accident. This may be either a real world location or literally another world, but basically this other world is usually alien the protagonist and they must adjust to their new surroundings. Usually the protagonist learns and grows as a result of this journey before returning home.
It begins when the protagonist is transported into the other world in a “fall into the other world” stage. This is followed by an initial wonder stage where the protagonist gradually gets used the the new world and usually becomes entranced by it, though not enough for them to feel at home. Then comes a frustration stage where the darker aspects of this world make themselves known and begins to cause problems for the protagonist. Then there is a nightmare stage where these forces becomes a dire threat and the protagonist’s survival is at stake. Then just as these things become too much the protagonist overcomes the obstacles before leaving back home, having learned valuable lessons from their experience.
Comedy is a tricky plot to define as the word holds so many different meanings amongst the various literary circles. By Booker’s terms, his definition of a comedy plot is a plot revolving around a large cast, a series of miscommunications and a large mesh of relationships. Basically Jane Austen’s books, a lot of romantic comedies and Shakespeare’s comedies fit into this definition. The plot usually starts with the characters gradually becoming broiled in misunderstanding. Gradually this gets worse, possibly being stirred up by an antagonist. Eventually everyone is caught up in a dark tangled mess. Gradually these shadows are dispelled and the villain may either get what’s coming to them or may be redeemed. A rather tricky one to define and probably rather strict in its definition of “comedy” and what constitutes such.
Tragedy, by contrast, is a bit easier to define. It revolves around a protagonist who is usually more morally ambiguous than most. They gradually do more and more morally ambiguous things, or simply pursue a tragic dream that is never meant to be. The story usually ends with the protagonist’s tragic demise. Usually the protagonist’s of tragedies have a mean streak about them, but they may just be flawed good guys in bad situations.
The stages mirror those of Overcoming the Monster. It begins with an anticipation stage where protagonist, who is in some way incomplete, begins pursuing some kind of object of desire whether it be love, money or something else. Following this is the dream stage, where the protagonist becomes committed to the goal, usually via some kind of “deal with the devil”or rather do something which they shouldn’t. Things seem to right for them until the frustration stage, where things start to wrong and the repercussions of the protagonist’s actions start to come back to bite them. This cumulates in a nightmare stage, where things start to to go horribly wrong and the various opposing forces begin to close in on the protagonist. Finally is the destruction stage, where the protagonist is in some way destroyed, either left broken or dead in some way. This is usually as a result of some final act, which causes them to finally reach rock bottom and possibly commit suicide or be killed by their enemies.
Finally is Rebirth. This is essentially a more positive version of the tragedy, where the protagonist is ultimately redeemed and achieves something resembling a happy ending. The protagonists of this plot usually have redeeming qualities to show that they deserve their happy ending. Like the tragedy the protagonist usually gets caught up in darkness and deal with the threat growing in similar stages to the tragedy, seeming almost non-existent at first before becoming so prominent it can no longer be ignored. However rather than let the darkness triumph the protagonist eventually redeems themselves, negating what would otherwise be a tragic ending.
As a whole some of these stages may prove more useful than others. In particular I feel Comedy is lacking somewhat, referring to older definitions of the word rather than it’s modern uses. However it is hard to definite what it means to be a comedy, and some confusion was inevitable regardless of how Booker chose to define it. Regardless I hope that this list was useful, and that you will use this when planning your stories. With a bit of thinking any story can fit into these plots so it is definitely worth using them if you can.