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Behind The Fiction, Past
A Fiction Column
By Michael G'Francisco

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 Denouement.

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 authors.


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 popular.


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 kindred.

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 “conflicts”.

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:

  1. Prologue/back-story—Set the time and location of the story.
  2. Catalyst—create a problem or a challenge for the main character.
  3. Conflict—enter other characters to create a plot.
  4. Protagonist—set his or her place in the story.
  5. Crisis—fear, doubt and other troubles begin to strengthen the story.
  6. Twist—lead the reader in another direction.
  7. Climax—set in a little more drama.
  8. Loose Ends—tie them together leading to the conclusion.
  9. 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 story.


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