What are the seven basic literary plots?

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Dear Cecil: I once read a quotation along the lines that there are only seven basic story lines, and that all the stories in the world can be seen as permutations of those seven. Do you know: (a) Who said/wrote it? (b) What the exact quotation is (including the descriptions of the basic story lines)? Julian Maynard-Smith, Antibes, France


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Cecil replies:

Seven? Come on. Pick any integer from one to a hundred and you can probably find somebody arguing that that’s how many basic plots there are. A few minutes of browsing produced the following sampling, based in part on a breakdown from the Internet Public Library (http://www.ipl.org/div/farq/plotFARQ.html):

Sixty-nine. Attributed to Rudyard Kipling by Ronald Tobias (see below). Tobias is mum on what the 69 plots were, but on the assumption that half were variations on Taking Up the White Man’s Burden, I’d say this is one we can safely pass by.

Thirty-six. Attributed to Carlo Gozzi and reprised by Georges Polti in The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations (1917). Polti’s somewhat daft exegesis states stating that there are precisely 36 emotions, which in some unclear manner are tied to the 36 situations. Nonetheless, many of his story lines unquestionably are timeless locomotives of plot, for example, Situation III, Crime Pursued by Vengeance — Charles Bronson’s career in a nutshell. Or Situation XV, Murderous Adultery, which pretty much sums up Fatal Attraction. Others have a decidedly musty air, such as Situation XXXI, Conflict With a God, or XX, Self-Sacrificing for an Ideal. Not in this day and age, unless your ideal is Getting Vested in the Pension Plan.

Twenty. From 20 Master Plots (And How to Build Them) by Ronald Tobias (1993). Tobias doesn’t claim these are the only plots, merely 20 serviceable ones. However, on going down the extremely generic list (Adventure, Revenge, Love, Rivalry, Escape, etc.), one thinks: for this I need a book?

Seven. The Internet Public Library quotes a list of seven plots (man versus nature, man versus man, etc.) that someone claims to remember from second grade. Not the most authoritative source, but no flakier than any of these other systems.

Three. From The Basic Patterns of Plot by William Foster-Harris (1959). Not one to be distracted by unnecessary detail, F-H divines three basic plots: (1) happy ending, (2) unhappy ending, and (3) the “literary” plot, “in which the whole plot is done backwards [and] the story winds up in futility and unhappiness.” Examples of literary plots are drawn from Joyce, Pirandello, and other highfalutin types for whom F-H obviously has no use.

Two. Tobias concedes that his 20 plots boil down to 2, “plots of the body” and “plots of the mind.” Plots of the body are your action flicks, full of sound and fury, not necessarily signifying anything. Plots of the mind are more cerebral and often involve “searching for some kind of meaning,” which sounds dangerously like the literary plot disdained by Foster-Harris.

One. One school of thought holds that all stories can be summed up as Exposition/Rising Action/Climax/Falling Action/Denouement or to simplify it even further, Stuff Happens, although even at this level of generality we seem to have left out Proust.

See, this is the problem I have with all these schemata — first, no taxonomy can encompass everything in literature, and second, they don’t tell you anything beyond the obvious. A more useful approach would be to abandon the chimera of universality and focus on what works today. By this light it seems to me that the most useful divide is: Everybody Gets Killed (or at least the hero[ine] does, e.g., Hamlet, Thelma & Louise, Romeo and Juliet, The Wild Bunch, American Beauty, etc.) versus Only the Bad Guys Get Killed (the collected works of Spielberg, Lucas, et al.). The former leaves you thinking life sucks, whereas the latter has everybody walking out of the theater with a smile. Naturally one can come up with numerous subdivisions, such as the one exemplified by Disney animated features, i.e., The Bad Guy Gets Killed but by Accident. In the odd case no one gets killed, but this is mostly in works by sensitive lady writers that seldom earn back the advance and even so usually have someone dying of cancer or in some other tragic manner (e.g., Terms of Endearment, Fried Green Tomatoes — come to think of it, someone did get killed in the latter. See what I’m saying?).

Now throw in the sizable genre of stories that may be characterized as The Protagonists Angle to Get One Another in the Sack and we begin to get a handle on the situation. My point is, never mind the 36, 20, 7, or whatever basic plots — take out sex, violence, and death and you lose 90 percent of literature right there.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.