Many academics, most notably author Christopher Booker, believe that there are only seven basic plot structures in all of storytelling – frameworks that are recycled again and again in fiction but populated by different settings, characters, and conflicts.
Those seven plots are:
- Overcoming the Monster
- Rags to Riches
- The Quest
- Voyage and Return
This list comes from Booker’s seminal book, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. It took him 34 years of research and reading to complete the 700-page psychoanalytic tome.
But where did the idea of a limited number of stories come from? Is it true? If so, how does that affect writers – all of whom strive to create their own unique stories?
Let’s dig a little deeper into this idea.
Although The Seven Basic Plots is the most frequently cited text today, Booker was not the first person to propose that there are a limited number of stories.
A list made by Foster-Harris in 1959 claimed there are only three stories:
- Happy ending
- Unhappy ending
While you can place every story you can think of into one of these three groups, it’s overly simplistic, offering little in the way of observation of actual story structure.
More recently (and perhaps intriguingly) the University of Vermont took a leaf from one of author Kurt Vonnegut’s theories and used powerful computer programmes to analyze 1,737 fiction stories. The purpose was to track the emotional content by looking for words such as ‘tears,’ ‘laughed,’ ‘enemy,’ ‘poison’ and so on. They describe building happy emotions as rise, and sadder emotions as fall.
Their results concluded that there were six basic master plots:
- “Rags to riches” (rise).
- “Tragedy,” or “Riches to rags” (fall).
- “Man in a hole” (fall–rise).
- “Icarus” (rise–fall).
- “Cinderella” (rise–fall–rise).
- “Oedipus” (fall–rise–fall).
The entire research paper is available to read online, but it’s heavy going. Rather wonderful, however, are the emotion graphs produced to track the patterns of happiness during the story arc.
Here, for example, we see the analyzed emotional arc of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling:
Dubbed the Hedonometer, the results of this analysis for a wide variety of novels is also free to view online, and makes for a fascinating resource for writers who like to analyze books in detail. Of course, not every book in the world has been analyzed, but most of the classics and popular books are there for you to peruse.
(It’s also worth bearing in mind that this most recent analysis only looked at fiction available on Guttenberg – mostly older classics and all in English. Deeper exploration of other cultures and recent ideas might uncover wholly new stories.)
Ultimately, what does all this science mean? If every story has already been written, is striving for originality a pointless task?
The answer is no; it absolutely is not. While it may indeed be compelling – and likely true – that storytelling conventions are built on only six or seven broader foundations, the purpose of categorizing stories into broad types is as a way to understand fiction, not to limit our creativity.
These frameworks describe the emotional journey at the core of each story, but they can never define the limitless, majestic scope of the sights, sounds, people, and places readers can encounter during that journey.
While films such as Apollo 13 and Mad Max: Fury Road, and books The Hobbit and Alice in Wonderland are all in the “Voyage and Return” category, they’re still worlds apart in their content – uniquely positioned for very different audiences.
Stories stand on their own because of the people that write them, and the characters they create.
So remember: even if there are only seven stories – or three or six, or whatever researchers suggest next – it doesn’t mean you don’t have a worthwhile story to tell. From a framework perspective, it may all have been done before – but only the most cynical could use that as a reason not to write.
But with all of that said, how can we gather some useful information from these studies? Well, you could do worse than checking out some of the Hedonometer graphs for books that have inspired your work. If something in your early drafts seems to be missing – like the story just isn’t pulling you in like you’d hoped it would – try comparing it with the emotional journey laid out in those graphs. How are you engaging the reader on an emotional level with your language in comparison to these other works?
A few tweaks here and there to bring your story more closely in line with the framework readers expect may just make the psychological link you’re looking for.
On the other hand, you might choose to follow your own inspiration and strive for more peculiar greatness. It’s all up to you.
Adding an eighth storytelling wonder to the world doesn’t sound like too bad a prospect, does it?
What do you think? Do you agree with the theories surrounding possible story arcs? Which do you find to be the most appealing as both a reader and a writer? Share your thoughts in the comments below.