Plotting the story – a common stumbling block for even the most seasoned storyteller. The options seem endless. But what if there were just 7 universal plots underpinning all stories? What if finding the right one could bring your message alive and captivate your audience every time?
In The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, Christopher Booker explains how our best-loved stories throughout history fall into only 7 distinct story types. He follows in a long line of theorists who have tried to explain why storytelling is such a universally powerful means of communication.
Here I'll outline those 7 basic plots for you. This isn't a foolproof list by any means – but just try to think of a book, film or play that doesn't fit one of these plot types.
Overcoming the Monster
What do Beowulf and Star Wars: A New Hope have in common? In both those stories the main character sets out to defeat a powerful baddie or evil force that is threatening his or her home.
Often it will seem that the odds are stacked against the hero, but their courage and resourcefulness will help them overcome the threat.
See: David and Goliath, Star Wars, Avatar.
- Talking about succeeding despite the odds being stacked against you
- Discussing the life lessons that an encounter like this teaches you
- Demonstrating how you, your team or company became stronger through adversity
Rags to Riches
A hero from humble beginnings gains the thing that he or she wants – money, power, a partner – before losing it and having to fight to get it back again.
The main character usually bites off more than they can chew and can't cope with their success – before growing personally and regaining what they desire.
See: Cinderella, Great Expectations, The Wolf of Wall Street.
- Talking about the importance of owning up to your mistakes
- Discussing the benefits of taking risks and accepting vulnerabilities
- Demonstrating how your protagonist earned their present-day success
Voyage and Return
The main character travels to an unfamiliar place, meeting new characters and overcoming a series of trials, all the while trying to get home. Their new friendships and newfound wisdom allow them to find their way back again.
This plot is common in children's literature because it often involves the main character discovering a magical land to explore.
See: Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, O Brother Where Art Thou.
- Talking about the benefits of opening up to new experiences
- Showing what your protagonist learned on their travels
- Demonstrating the power of friendship
The hero sets out in search of a specific prize, overcoming a series of challenges and temptations. They may have flaws which have held them back in the past which they will need to overcome to succeed.
He or she is usually accompanied by a group of comrades with complementary skills that support him or her along the way.
See: Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Lord of the Rings, Percy Jackson: The Lightning Thief.
- Talking about the importance of sticking to your convictions
- Showing how your protagonist grows emotionally to be able to succeed
- Demonstrating the power of teamwork
A comedy is a light-hearted story which centers on some confusion (often involving misunderstandings or mistaken identities) leading to conflict before a happy conclusion and celebrations.
Sometimes the comedy will focus on a hero and a heroine who are destined to be together – but outside forces keep driving them apart. In the end the confusion is cleared up and everyone resumes their true identity.
See: Pride and Prejudice, Freaky Friday, The Proposal.
- Talking about the early difficulties of a partnership – romantic, social or business
- Discussing what your protagonist learned from negotiating a difficult situation
- Demonstrating how both parties now accommodate and support each other
The main character is essentially good but flawed and frustrated with their life. They face temptation and are compelled to break the rules of their society, setting in motion a series of events that lead to their downfall or death.
Sometimes the character comes to regret his choices towards the end of the story, but often it is too late and they die or are ruined anyway. The downfall of this character is alternately presented as a positive or negative event.
See: Dorian Gray, Scarface, Sweeney Todd.
- Using the principle character to represent and explain a wider problem in society
- Contrasting your own values and principles with theirs
- Demonstrating how not to do things and what we can learn from their mistakes
The main character is a bad or unpleasant person who is shown the error of their ways and redeems themself over the course of the story.
Usually it takes a redemption figure to help the villain make this transition. Redemption figures usually come in the form of a child or the main character's love interest, and their job is to reveal how warped the villain's worldview is and to show them love.
See: Beauty and the Beast, A Christmas Carol, Despicable Me.
- Talking about an enlightening experience
- Showing the importance of having support from loved ones
- Demonstrating that everyone has the capacity to change for the better
Not gloomy enough?
All of these plot types have a dark counterpart – one in which the happy ending is subverted and the story ends unhappily. The exception to this is the Tragedy plot, which already ends darkly.
Of course, these plot types are not the be-all and end-all of storytelling. If you have an idea that fits outside of these categories, or even combines a couple of them – great! But hopefully this quick guide has helped you choose the plot type that will best amplify your message.
Have fun, and please let us know what you come up with on Twitter.
The Seven Pillars of Storytelling
Audiences are tired of facts and figures. But stories? We’re hardwired to see stories as a gift.
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