"" Rob Parnell's Writing Academy Blog: The 7 Story Plots

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The 7 Story Plots

Dear Fellow Writer, 

I hope your writing is going well.

Is there any such thing as an original story?

Probably not. Pretty much anything you can think of has been done before. But that's not a bad thing...

Artists, writers especially, need to understand and appreciate their influences before they may strive to create something unique and meaningful.

Below, check out the seven story plots you'll keep coming back to, whether consciously or not...

Keep Writing!

Rob Parnell
Your Success is My Concern

The 7 Story Plots
7 Basic Plots

Looking at the number of remakes that Hollywood churns out, you'd be forgiven for thinking that original stories are in short supply.

But actually, remakes are not about creating new stories. They're more concerned with reworking old hooks, because, the truth is: the public is far responsive to familiarity than originality.

An even closer look reveals that it's not the premise of an old idea that is appealing so much as the characters that Hollywood is interested in developing in a more modern context. 

The same logic applies to famous books and comic book stories that already have substance (that is, personality) in the mind of the potential viewer. 

The very familiarity of old stories lends them a kind of nebulous mystique that can generate interest in a potential audience long before before anything is known about a plot.

There is also a theory that there are only so many plots anyway. 

Seven plots to be precise (although that wise old dude Aristotle only identified six.) 

Further, in some quarters, it is believed that any story told now is really only are re-telling of the one of the few basic scenarios established perhaps ten thousand years ago...

If you study story writing, you'll come across the 'hero's journey' plot in almost all fiction - that is, just one story we apparently enjoy endlessly.

More, we may not even realize we're being fed the same basic hero's journey story - if it is successfully associated with an 'original' sounding premise, no matter how many times we experience it.

Incidentally, film producers actually get quite sniffy if you don't have the classic hero's journey elements clearly delineated within your plot. From this perspective, the idea that you can be in any way original in a screenplay is almost a contradiction in terms.

Aside from that, what are the alleged seven basic plot lines that underpin all stories?

Here goes:

1. The Quest

You've seen it a thousand times, especially in fantasy-based stories. The hero must overcome obstacles, enlist the help of friends, defeat enemies, all in pursuit of some far off goal - usually the saving of the world - and almost always with the use of some magical or symbolic artifact.

Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Apocalypse Now, Escape to Witch Mountain, the Narnia series, Conan, Star Wars, Star Trek, The Walking Dead...

2. Voyage and Return

Similar to the Quest model, the main difference being that the protagonist is taken from his 'real' world and thrust on a journey of wonder and self-discovery in the pursuit of wisdom or psychological benefit. 

The defeat of a monster (often a metaphor for the hero's failings) is a mainstay of this plot.

Alice in Wonderland, Gulliver's Travels, The Odyssey, Back to the Future, Wizard of Oz - even many horror stories use this same basic premise.

3. Rebirth

Otherwise known as The Hero's Journey, where a protagonist must learn that adherence to his or her past life and values will not help growth or change. 

The usually symbolic 'death' of the hero usually occurs at around the mid to three-quarter point in the story, from which he/she rises again, stronger, wiser, and in control, usually with a mindset that enhances the world around him or her.

Again, the antagonist, monster, or bad circumstance is an analogy for the main character's initial problems.

Every comic book hero has rebirth at the core of the story. 

Other examples include A Christmas Carol, Beauty and the Beast, all Judd Apatow's movies, Transformers, even most TV shows that feature crime-solving (Law and Order, CSI, Monk, Bones etc.) often contain the idea that solving a mystery leads to a mini rebirth at the end of each case.

4. Comedy

Comedy isn't always about what's funny. Originally, the term 'comedie' was used to denote any drama that wasn't tragic. 

(Interestingly too, the term 'romance' originally meant any and all fiction.)

Comedy is often about using the absurd to make observations about people at their worst. The best comedy uses its own internal logic to highlight inappropriate behavior that can lead to the the same kind of resolution as the Rebirth plot. 

Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying, When Harry Met Sally and many other rom coms, most TV sitcoms: The Big Bang Theory, Two and Half Men, The Office etc.

5. Tragedy

Usually centers around a high status character who is forced into a situation where he or she is downtrodden and the important things in life are taken. 

Often this is used as a starting point for a story, leading to revenge, justice, enlightenment, liberation etc.

True tragedy has no resolution - only the realization that self-importance can lead to pity, a sense of futility, and a deserving death. Clearly not the kind of story that sells well these days!

Much of Shakespeare is tragic: Hamlet, Richard III, Romeo and Juliet, but also The Godfather series, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, even House, etc.

6. Overcoming the Monster

In essence, similar to the Voyage and Return plot except that the 'threat' comes from within the protagonist's world, as opposed to outside of it.

The hero must defeat real or imagined 'monsters' to re-establish the status quo - often by absorbing the 'evil' into his or her own worldview.

Examples include Twilight, indeed almost all vampire stories, 50 Shades, Jekyll and Hyde, Jaws, James Bond stories, Hansel and Gretel, The Hannibal series etc.

And finally:

7. Rags to Riches

Often the hero is plucked from seeming obscurity and given great wealth and power only to have it taken away. The story revolves around the protagonist's struggle to re-acquire his or her new status, through the defeat of a newfound set of obstacles.

Aladdin, Cinderella, Great Expectations, Trading Places, even stories like The Matrix and Harry Potter use this plotline as a starting point.


Reading this list, it's clear there's just one thread running through all these seven basic plots.

And that is: the idea that any story is about transformation.

Moreover, I would suggest that unless a character is transformed in some way by the events he or she experiences, then there is actually no story at all.

You may want to mix and match the above story plots into something you can use for your own fiction - and why not? It's what all great writers (and some not so great) have been doing since writing and storytelling began.

In Art, there's no such thing as copying, borrowing, or theft. 

There's really only unique re-interpretation by the individual.

After all, it's not what you do that is important, as much as how you go about it.

Keep writing!

Rob Parnell




Sherlock Holmes 
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