WHAT IS A PLOT? Therein lies the theme
of this month’s column.
What is a plot? A plot is one of the components
that drives a book, story or even a play. It
can be as simple as: Boy meets girl. Ah, but
it must have “conflict”! You know, who wants
something, and who is going to keep him or her
from getting it. In fact, if a plot requires
more than a few dozen words to describe, it’s
probably too circuitous.
How many basic story plots are there? But,
first let’s understand that a plot is not a
story. A plot usually contains a series of events
that provide a “conflict” within a
story. Think of a plot as a “timeline”.
This enables the story to be paced. Pacing is
important because most stories speed-up in action
as they unfold.
To describe the basic elements of a “plot”
author William Harmon in his book, A Handbook
to Literature (Macmillan Publishing Company,
1992), describes a plot as revolving around
a problem dealt within a certain set of sequences:
Exposition, Rising Action,
Climax, Falling Action and
As to the question of the number of “plots”
it varies. It’s believed by most writers that
there are only a certain number of “plots”
or “themes” in all of literature. Let’s
look into the number of plots by several different
Author William Foster Harris contents that
most, if not all, plots stem from one “Conflict”,
which agrees with Harmon’s theory that conflicts
are brought about by the main character’s personal
emotional feelings or deeds. In his book The
Basic Patterns of Plot (University of Oklahoma
Press, 1952), he claims that there are three
basic patterns of plot: “Happy Endings” —
all ends well, “Unhappy Endings” — it
all falls apart and “ The Literary Plot” —
a comparison with the Greek notion of tragedy.
Jessamyn West, a librarian at The Internet
Public Library, argues that there are seven
basic plots wherein a woman or a man has a conflict
with: nature, another man or woman, the environment,
machines/technology, the supernatural, one’s
self and a religion or a God. She is not alone
in her belief.
Another strong advocate of “seven plots”
is Christopher Booker the noted English journalist
and author. His book, The Seven Basic
Plots, sub-title Why We Tell Stories
(Continuum. 2005), is largely based on the teachings
of Carl Gustav Jung, which relate that certain
kinds of myths are repeated over and over again
in all eras and societies.
General consensuses, tends to believe that
the “Seven Plot” theory is the most
Author Ronald B. Tobias believes that there
are twenty basic plots that can create good
stories. In his book 20 Master Plots
(Writer‘s Digest Books, 1993), he names them
as follows: Adventure, Ascension, Descension,
Discovery, Escape, Forbidden Love, Love, Maturation,
Metamorphosis, Pursuit, Quest, Rescue, Revenge,
Rivalry, Sacrifice, Temptation, The Riddle,
Transformation, Underdog and Wretched Excess.
Surely, there will be a great deal of “overlapping”
in his theory.
Example: In the movie written by Sylvester
Stallones his character “Rocky” Balboa is an
underdog who goes through a transformation
and falls in love while on a Quest.
Tobias in his film directing believes that
there are only two major plots: “plots of
the body”, which pertain to action and
“plots of the mind”, which cover searching
for some kind of meaning.
Carlo Gozzi (1720-1806) was an Italian dramatist
who reworked a number of old Italian, Greek
and Spanish fairy tales for the theater. His
work wedded comedy and satire. He began creating
a series of themes pulling examples from real
life dilemmas which enabled him to forge a list
of 36 stage plots.
Georges Polti (1868-????) a French writer from
the mid-19th Century (circa 1916) enhanced Gozzi's
comprehensive list by reconstructing it and
adding dramatic situations of his own. Throughout
time this list has been used by writers, dramatists
and storytellers. In many cases more than one
situation or theme in the plot of a story takes
place, if the story is long enough.
The list consists of: Abduction, Adultery,
All sacrificed for passion, Ambition, An enemy
loved, Conflict with a God, Crime of love, Crime
pursued by vengeance, Daring enterprise, Deliverance,
Disaster, Discovery of the dishonor of a loved
one, Enmity of a kinsmen, Erroneous judgment,
Falling prey to cruelty of misfortune, Fatal
imprudence, Involuntary crimes of love, Loss
of a loved one, Madness, Mistaken jealousy,
Murderous adultery, Necessity of sacrificing
loved ones, Obstacles, Obtaining, Pursuit, Recovery
of a lost one, Remorse, Revolt, Rivalry of kinsmen,
Rivalry of supreme and inferior, Self-sacrificing
for an ideal, Self-sacrificing for a kindred,
Slaying of a kinsmen unrecognized, Supplication,
The Enigma and Vengeance taken for kindred upon
Then there are some who argue if you open the
discussion of “How many plots are there
in literature” to all writers, their answers
could include, if sex, violence and death are
removed from stories about ninety percent of
literature is loss———That
surely is a thought to ponder.
Modern day writers tend to believed that most
stories belong in one of two plot categories:
event-driven or character-driven.
One author can introduce a memorable character(s),
while another author focuses on events.
Writers today generally start their stories
quickly and end even faster. The middle of the
story is usually two-thirds or more of the work,
which can give ample time and opportunity to
explore sub-plots and twists.
An event-driven story mostly relies
on natural disasters and wars for its foundations,
whereas character-driven stories rely on the
decisions and emotions of characters to advance
the plot, which produce “chain reactions” and
Villains are free to drive the plot in any
direction, where heroes generally follow the
rules set by their character’s part, such as:
a policeman, private investigator or a sleuth.
Naturally, it’s always best to create a “plot
and story” chart before beginning to write
a manuscript. Here are a few helpful hints:
- Prologue/back-story—Set the time
and location of the story.
- Catalyst—create a problem or a challenge
for the main character.
- Conflict—enter other characters
to create a plot.
- Protagonist—set his or her place
in the story.
- Crisis—fear, doubt and other troubles
begin to strengthen the story.
- Twist—lead the reader in another
- Climax—set in a little more drama.
- Loose Ends—tie them together leading
to the conclusion.
- Happy End—the kiss.
And maybe, the end of the story shouldn’t be
the end of the story. A question could be left
unanswered or a new protagonist might enter
the story in the last chapter or paragraph.
Get creative. Think about wanting to have the
reader(s) desire to snap-up a copy of your next
book. But, remember whatever you do, it has
to be done without undoing the existing book’s