There Are Only Seven Stories in The World

by WiseFool

Ever find yourself watching a film or reading a book and experiencing a sense of deja vu? That may be because there are really only seven different plots.

Okay, I'm just going to write it loud and proud: there is no such thing as originality in storytelling.

Just as there are only eight musical notes from which every symphony, opera and pop song has been created; there are only seven types of story from which every single piece of literature, theater and film you've ever seen has spawned from.

Yes, seven. Just seven types of story. At least, as far as Christopher Brooker (see his book below), is concerned. So, the next time you're reading a novel and wondering why it feels like you've read it before, it's because you probably have - it just took a slightly different form.

So, what are these seven story types?

Story Type #1 Overcoming The Monster

The first of the seven story types is pretty much exactly what you'd assume from its name.

It is the triumph (usually of an underdog), over a monster. The monster can be an actual monster, as in the case of David and Goliath, or the monster may take a more human form, such as 'Buffalo Bill' in The Silence of The Lambs.

In either case, in an 'overcoming the monster' story arc, the hero or heroine will almost always end up in direct combat with the monster and, of course, emerge victorious. Think every Bond movie.

Examples of 'overcoming the monster' stories:
  • Dracula
  • The Witches
  • Jaws
  • Little Red Riding Hood
  • Theseus and The Minotaur
  • The War of The Worlds
  • Jurassic Park
  • Alien
  • Hansel and Gretel
  • The Day of The Triffids
  • Star Wars

Story Type #2 Rags to Riches

'Rags to riches' is another fairly self-explanatory story archetype. The arc of the plot follows a hero or heroine from poverty to wealth. In some case, this transformation is literal, as is the case in Cinderella. However, in other instances the 'wealth' a protagonist achieves may be of a slightly different nature, such as self-discovery or enlightenment, like in Willy Russell's Educating Rita.

In either instance, the protagonist, who is always a put-upon, unfairly treated 'good guy', is plucked from obscurity and given what they deserve, before losing it (temporarily), so they can truly appreciate it.

And, of course, they may have to defeat a villain or two along the way.

Examples of 'rags to riches' stories:
  • Great Expectations
  • The Prince and The Pauper
  • Rocky
  • Pygmalion
  • Slumdog Millionaire
  • Aladdin
  • The Blind Side
  • Harry Potter Series
  • Oliver Twist
  • Charlie and The Chocolate Factory

Story Type #3 The Quest

'The quest' is a very common story type among Hollywood movies, as it gives our hero or heroine something that they must get or achieve.

He or she learns that there is some 'grand prize' (which may be literal treasure or a more figurative use of the term), and will go in search of it. The prize, which Alfred Hitchcock dubbed 'the MacGuffin', is the thing that everybody wants.

As it happens though, what form the treasure or prize takes is not as important as what our protagonists will learn along the way.

Sometimes, like in The Lord of The Rings, our hero is charged with an important duty. And often, the hero or heroine in a 'quest' story must also defeat others searching for the MacGuffin or evil forces that guard it.

Examples of 'the quest' stories:
  • The Pirates of The Caribbean
  • Treasure Island
  • Raiders of The Lost Ark (and all the other Indiana Jones films)
  • The Odyssey
  • The Da Vinci Code
  • The Thomas Crown Affair
  • Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines
  • The Dark Tower
  • Shrek

Story Type #4 Voyage and Return

The 'voyage and return' story type is very similar to 'the quest' stories above. However, the heroes and heroines in 'voyage and return' stories don't usually set off with a goal in mind - they may pick up a quest along the way, though.

In addition, 'voyage and return' stories often take place in a world very different from the one our protagonist comes from, for example Gulliver's Travels.

Examples of 'voyage and return' stories:
  • Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
  • The Time Machine
  • Honey, I Shrunk The Kids
  • The Wizard of Oz
  • Back to The Future (all three installments)
  • Castaway
  • The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe
  • The Never Ending Story
  • Robinson Crusoe

 

Story Type #5 Comedy

This story type is not quite so easy to define thanks to our modern perception of a comedy. 'Comedy' in terms of a story archetype, doesn't necessarily mean a tale that is funny - although, it might be. 

Here, we're talking about Aristotle's definition of comedy, which he deemed to be showing people as worse than they are (the opposite of tragedy, which shows people as better than they are).

In terms of classic 'comedy' plots, the characters are thrust into a state of confusion, this may be because they're somewhere strange and unusual, but, often, it involves disguise and deception, which fuel the bewilderment.

Sometimes, however (and certainly in more modern examples of 'comedy' stories), it's just down to plain old misunderstanding. 

Of course, in the end, everything is straightened out and, usually, it's a happy revelation for our protagonists.

Examples of 'comedy' stories:
  • As You Like It
  • When Harry Met Sally
  • A Midsummer Night's Dream
  • Lysistrata
  • Pride and Prejudice
  • Twelfth Night or What You Will
  • Some Like it Hot
  • Victor/Victoria
  • Emma
  • You've Got Mail
  • The Comedy of Errors
  • The Importance of Being Earnest
  • Much Ado About Nothing
  • Mulan

 

Story Type #6 Tragedy

When 'tragedy' is referred to in terms of story types, we're talking about Greek tragedy. In other words, the fall of a once great man (or woman), who possesses a character flaw that makes his (or her), doom inevitable.

The most common forms of tragedy are found in the works of Shakespeare, but they are also used frequently by modern dramatists, like Arthur Miller. 

A 'tragic' protagonist doesn't necessarily die at the end of the story arc, but it's become common for tragic heroes to be killed, or to commit suicide, when their fall from grace is complete.

Examples of 'tragedy' stories:
  • Hamlet
  • The Death of a Salesman
  • The Kite Runner
  • King Lear
  • Wuthering Heights
  • Oedipus Rex
  • Macbeth
  • Of Mice and Men
  • Tess of The d'Urbervilles
  • Romeo and Juliet
  • The Boy in The Striped Pyjamas
  • Madame Bovary
  • Antigone
  • Anna Karenina
If you'd like to learn more about tragedies, check out...
All tragedies need a tragic hero or heroine, but what makes a character tragic? Who are the most famous tragic heroes and what do they have in common?

Story Type #7 Rebirth

The final of our seven story types is 'rebirth', which doesn't usually mean a literal reincarnation. A 'rebirth' story is one that offers a character redemption.

He or she is, typically, saved by 'good' forces, such as the spirits who open Ebenezer Scrooge's eyes in A Christmas Carol.

This is, understandably, a popular story type, as it provides a feel-good ending: someone, who has been grizzled by life, suddenly has a new perspective and is altered, either figuratively or literally, for the better.

Examples of 'rebirth' stories:
  • The Catcher in The Rye
  • Toy Story
  • To Kill a Mocking Bird
  • The Secret Garden
  • Beauty and The Beast
  • It's a Wonderful Life
  • Bedazzled
  • Freaky Friday
  • Goodnight Mister Tom

 

Is That All There Is?

Essentially, yes. Every movie, novel, play or short story that has ever existed, or will ever exist, will fit into one of the seven basic story plots. In fact, some would say the number of plots is even smaller, a 'quest' and 'voyage and return', for instance, are so similar that perhaps they could be morphed into one.

In any case, the problem is, as with any categorization, no matter how many pigeon holes you have, there are some stories that refuse to fit neatly into just one.

For example, I was considering adding Bedknobs and Broomsticks to the 'overcoming the monster' story type, because Miss. Price, Mr. Brown and the kids successfully ward off the invading Nazi's. However, they also go on a 'quest' to find the Star of Astoroth. And, of course, Eglantine Price undergoes something of a 'rebirth' in as far as her staunch desire to live a solitary life is concerned. 

So, categorizing plots into seven basic archetypes isn't always simple. But then, placing any kind of  fiction in one category has never been easy. Many of Shakespeare's plays, for instance, don't quite belong in their three genres: tragedy, comedy and history.

Nevertheless, all of your favorite stories come from the same seven basic plots. So, at least as far as writing fiction goes, there really is nothing new under the sun.

Updated: on 05/23/2014, WiseFool
 
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What's Your Favorite Book, Play or Film and Which of The Seven Stories Does it Conform to?


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WiseFool on 12/19/2013

Hi, Rose. Yeah, I would agree about Jane Austen's work. You may be able to find other 'story types', too. For instance, does Elizabeth have a 'rebirth' in P&P? But predominantly, they're comedies, for sure.

Rose on 12/18/2013

I suppose all of Jane Austen's novels fall under "comedy" because she was so into satirising society.

cmoneyspinner on 09/27/2013

Whoa! For a minute there I was sitting in my high school English class listening to my teacher, Mrs. Rivera. :)

WiseFool on 03/08/2013

Hello Brenda, thanks very much for your comment. I know what you mean, when I'd finished my degree, I was keen to read anything other than the sorts of things I'd had to read while studying. Classics are always good to get back into, though.

BrendaReeves on 03/08/2013

I've heard varying numbers on this. I got my BA in creative writing. I had intentions of writing novels, but by the time I finished my degree I was tired of reading novels. It's been a long time since I've been able to get into fiction. I can barely get past the first page. My brother says it's because I've read everything. I suppose that's true. I've been thinking about reading the classics over again. In the meantime, I read and write nonfiction. Great article.

WiseFool on 02/25/2013

Hello, Elias. I haven't seen the first two series, but I did catch The Killing III and I couldn't agree more; it was brilliant and made me kick myself that I hadn't watched the others. If that's the one you're referring to, I'd concur with tragedy. Sarah seems to have this inability to accept happiness, and her actions in those final scenes (although entirely understandable) were also self-sabotaging. And, true to the tragic mould, I think we always knew that things weren't going to end in a rosy fashion for her.

EliasZanetti on 02/25/2013

Having watched quite recently The Killing on its original Danish version I would surely say that it fits the 6th category, that of the tragedy that is... Recommended though, its one of the best series I watched lately...

Great post!!

WiseFool on 02/24/2013

: ) It was close enough to know exactly who you meant. That's an extremely good point, if they're too woolly and mailable, then they lose some of their purpose. But, of course, too rigid and we come back to archetypes, which obviously Booker would be all for.

I think, in the same way writers can use (or ignore) the three or five act structures, the seven basic plots can be useful in understanding the shape of stories that we tend to tell and what makes them 'work' or not. Whether authors or playwrights want to follow them or not is another matter entirely.

Mira on 02/24/2013

Ha! How did I write Ionesco as Enesco? Only God knows. I always do that, and it bothers me, but there's not much I can do about it, except edit what I write. I was thinking famous Romanians today. Saw a show about some of them today and was thinking of writing an article about it.
Thank you for your response. I agree, rebirth fits the bill. But then again, if the concept is too elastic, it's not very useful. There is always an element of change regarding the characters in a story. All of that could be considered rebirth, and sometimes that would be a stretch.
Still, those 7 plots are a great idea, I think.

WiseFool on 02/24/2013

WordChazer, thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment. You know what, much to my shame, I've never seen 2001: A Space Odyssey. I'm beginning to think a lot of stories can be classed in several of the categories, especially if you look at them from various characters' POVs.




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