What had happened was, I woke up too early on a Saturday morning, which is depressingly normal behavior for me.
I don’t work weekends these days and never set my alarm the way I do during the week. Monday through Friday, I will sleep until my cell phone alarm wakes me at 6 AM. On the weekends, irrespective of whatever late hour I went to bed the night before, I’m usually up by 4 AM at the latest. On this particular Saturday morning, I was up a little after 3.
Part of it is what I think of as Christmas Morning Syndrome. I have two whole days that I don’t have to punch a clock, and a part of me wants to maximize the number of hours of freedom I have until Monday morning. The adrenaline kicks in and also kicks me out of bed.
I had two television episodes to watch on my slate. We’re old friends, you and I, so you know that I watch two episodes of the various television and streaming series I’m currently watching each and every day. During the week, I watch one in the morning prior to leaving for work, and one during my lunch hour while at work. Since I am no longer an advocate for binge-watching shows, that means I’m watching as many as fourteen series at a time. That sounds like a lot. Especially for a dude who watched almost no television for several decades. But I had a lot of catching up to do.
I occasionally write reviews of what I’m watching, though I admit that my main motivation—aside from entertainment, which is a noble pursuit in and of itself—is to immerse myself in story to both improve my own fiction writing and battle my pernicious writer’s block.
On this particular morning, I had two episodes remaining on my weekly watchlist (yes, I keep an actual schedule for this leisure activity). One was an episode from the fifth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (that’s the season with the exiled hell deity Glory as the Big Bad). The other was from the second season of the animated Star Wars: Rebels. I watched both of these, and it was still early. My wife was still asleep, and I needed to be reasonably quiet.
Even though I’m an admitted introvert, I’m not really what you’d consider a quiet man. Since my video game setup is in the master bedroom, I couldn’t pass time playing Far Cry 6. Nor could I play my electric piano at my preferred volume or pretend that I know how to play either of my guitars. I don’t own a drum kit yet, but I couldn’t have gotten my Neil Peart on either.
What I could do was watch more television at a reasonable volume. I didn’t want to begin poaching from next week’s watchlist yet, so I landed on a 2021 Netflix documentary, Attack of the Hollywood Clichés!, hosted by Rob Lowe.
If you like movies, you’d probably like this documentary as well. It skewers most of the movie clichés, from the meet-cute to the Wilhelm scream. I thought it was humorous, insightful, and entertaining. Definitely a B+ if I were giving it a Firewater’s Report Card Grade.
I didn’t intend for this to be a backdoor review of the documentary, but there it is.
No, what made the pre-caffeinated gears of my brain begin to turn was a throwaway line in the documentary. Rob Lowe mentioned that there were only seven basic plots for all Hollywood movies.
“According to screenwriting theory there are only seven basic plots,” Rob said. “’Overcoming the Monster’ . . . and the other six.”
This line was delivered within the first couple of minutes of the documentary. It was meant as a joke, of sorts. While I watched the rest of the documentary without breaking mental stride, I realized that I was still thinking about the comment after I was finished.
What were these seven basic plots?
I’m familiar with story plots, of course. I’m not going to rekindle the whole plotters vs. pantsers debate here. Plots exist whether or not you actively plan them out in minute detail beforehand. I have a book somewhere nearby titled 20 Master Plots: and how to build them, by Ronald B. Tobias. I haven’t read it in years, but I recall liking it. I’ve also read other books and articles suggesting that there were six basic plots, or thirty-six, or only two. These are all valid premises, and there is some overlap, but it was the focus on movie plots and the words “screenwriting theory” that piqued my interest.
One quick Google search led me to the blog of Yorkshire author Helena Fairfax, who wrote about these seven basic plots way back in 2013. It seems that the seven basic plots originated in the 2004 book by the late English journalist Christopher Booker, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories.
While Booker’s book is not exactly about screenwriting theory the way Rob Lowe suggested, it definitely offers up movie plots as examples.
According to Booker, and Ms. Fairfax, the seven basic plots are as follows:
Overcoming the Monster
This is the one mentioned by Rob. Its characteristics are “a community fallen under a terrible shadow or mysterious evil, ending with liberation from seemingly eternal darkness.” Movie examples cited include Jurassic Park and High Noon. Because of my particular strain of nerdity, I immediately thought of Star Wars.
Rags to Riches
“A seemingly insignificant individual, dismissed by everyone, steps into the limelight and is revealed to be someone quite exceptional.” Trading Places, Pretty Woman, My Fair Lady, Harry Potter. No doubt you can think of a few other examples.
“Clear goal/target to get to, featuring the initial ‘call’ to action, companions, helpers on a long journey.” All versions of Lord of the Rings, of course. Also, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and The Blues Brothers.
Voyage and Return
“Sudden removal/jolt into another world. The end return to the normal world, with everything the same but somehow changed forever in the protagonist(s).” Back to the Future, The Wizard of Oz, Toy Story.
“Complicated series of interweaving plots, resolution and happy ending.” Clerks, Four Weddings and a Funeral.
“Down ending, death of the hero through events that go ‘tragically’ wrong. Overcoming the monster, from the monster’s point of view.” Reservoir Dogs, Thelma and Louise, The Godfather.
“Physical or spiritual imprisonment, ending in miraculous redemption or rebirth.” Pulp Fiction, Shawshank Redemption, Groundhog Day.
At a glance, I can see how some of the movies used as examples could fit in multiple plot categories. For instance, while Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a quest plot, certainly, it is also a classic comedy, with the complicated series of interweaving plots and the happy (ish) ending required. Likewise, Lord of the Rings is also a voyage-and-return plot.
As an exercise, I’m going to list the movies I’ve watched recently and see what plot category I would slide them into.
Special Correspondents: This Ricky Gervais movie is a comedy, certainly, and there are elements of voyage-and-return, but if I had to pick a single category, I’d say this movie is about Rebirth.
Dazed and Confused: This early Richard Linklater movie has almost no plot (although more plot than found in Slacker). There’s no clear goal or target, no monster, no real voyage or quest. I’d file this under Comedy.
Fargo: Tragedy, without a doubt. For almost every character, in fact.
Vacation: Quest. I know this is one of the funniest comedies ever made (I’m talking about the Chevy Chase/Beverly D’Angelo original here), but it’s all about the quest to get to Wally World.
John Wick: Where do revenge plots fit into this premise? Elements of rebirth, certainly, since it’s about John Wick returning to his contract killer ways while seeking revenge upon the guys who stole his car and killed his dog. But there’s nothing miraculous or redemptive about it. Nope, it’s clearly a Quest plot. This time the quest is for revenge, with a lot of gun fu.
I could go on, but I think I understand the point of this now.
Lani Diane Rich, author of the wonderful How Story Works: An elegant guide to the craft of storytelling, doesn’t even use the word plot when she’s talking about storytelling.
Story, she says, is a recounted event or series of events. My overly detailed prelude to this post, about waking up too early and eventually watching the documentary that inspired the post itself, is a story.
A narrative, again according to Ms. Rich, is the meaning inspired by the story, and storytelling itself is the art of building a story to serve a particular narrative. I’m not sure that my prelude qualifies as a narrative at all. While that particular story was a means to an end, which was to tell you what inspired me to write about the seven basic plots, it doesn’t carry the weight of meaning itself.
I’m thinking that plot is merely the framework upon which story and narrative hang. It’s the skeleton of storytelling. It’s the reason so many different stories can be based upon the same plot.
There may be a limited number of plots. Maybe seven, as Booker suggested. Maybe twenty as Tobias asserted. I’m no expert.
I do think, however, that deciding what sort of plot you want to hang your story upon is a valuable writing tool. Until this morning, I thought that the piece of fiction I’ve been working on for a while now was either a Voyage and Return or a Rebirth plot (although I didn’t have that particular terminology yet). Now I’m convinced that it’s mainly an Overcoming the Monster plot, with subplots in the other categories.
That’s something like progress, right?
3 thoughts on “The Seven Basic Plots (and how I got there with the incidental aid of Rob Lowe)”
Very entertaining and interesting post. Obviously, the more “plot” categories one creates the more you create the chance for overlap, as stories or movies can often apply to more than one via their subplots. It is interesting to me to think about the question of if you have a story or movie that encapsulates a couple of subplots , if it has a better chance of mass appeal simply because you are “covering more territory.” I do agree thinking about the desired plot or plots before starting out is good practice.
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I agree with your “covering more territory” comment. I think that some movies lose their cohesion by trying to appeal to everyone and losing focus about what they are really about. One movie I watched recently, The Man from Toronto, was a little all over the place. I didn’t hate the movie but it’s a difficult one for me to pigeonhole into a specific plot category. In this case, I think its lack of focus marred the final product.
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That makes perfect sense. Have not seen that film yet – was on the fence. So much out there to see!
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