This is a reblog of a popular post of 2016 from my writing blog, Hunters Writings or Word Hunter which is now defunct. As I’m currently plotting out a third book in my fiction series, reminding myself and updating this plot post is beneficial. The post has been updated here for you.
7 Master Plots (or More)
My initial post in 2016 was as the result of some confusion in a discussion between a commenter and myself. That commenter was questioning about “what are the 7 basic plots” and didn’t supply an answer when I asked did she mean master plots or plot points?
The challenge in putting a group of writers together in a room is that many of those writers will be using different labels or terminology for the same theories or elements of story. We are language lovers, afterall, so it makes sense that we have developed multiple ways of discussing similar ideas.
For clarity, this post is talking about Master fiction plots or Plot Archetypes – the overarching story structure which works for the main character(s) through a full story or novel. It is not discussing plot points which sit inside of that story, or how the story is told, but many master fiction plots can drive those plot points.
How Many Master Plots are there?
This post will identify more than seven master plots, but the number of seven is used repeatedly through writing history and specifically is a popular notion nowadays, so that’s the basis we are moving from.
Of course, there are some who suggest there are only 2, 3, 6 or 10, 15 or 36 universal plots in the world. But Christopher Booker suggests only seven (see below).
Here are the resources I previously shared on WordHunter, now updated years later.
A Deviation to Three or Six – The Six Emotional Arcs
Firstly let me sidetrack to what memes around in 2016 were saying – that strictly speaking, there are only three master or universal story plots on earth. Being a total geek for all this stuff, I collected it. Actually, it’s six, but three of these are mirrors/reversals. These latest fall right in line with the seven qualified by Christopher Booker also, so if you want more detail, read Booker’s book (haha) or the resources linked to below.
The Computational Story Lab at the University of Vermont, released in July 2016 the above graphic. The researchers used computers to analyse over 1700 books for sentiment and map out these as emotional arcs. These story arcs or patterns are reminiscent of the famous story shape diagrams of Kurt Vonnegut, which were presented back in 1995 in a now famous video where he hand draws the story patterns. More on Kurt’s diagrams below.
Read the media coverage of these findings here: MIT Technology Review, The Sun UK (credit for the images below) and a more detailed report from the Guardian.
The computational story lab findings mapped out six universal story patterns using a tool called a hedonometer and found-
Note the patterns – rise-fall-rise, steady fall, fall-rise-fall. The names for each pattern may differ depending on what expert or group has named them, but the shapes remain the same.
Note also that very similar graphs and six master plots came out in February 2015 by Professor Matthew Jockers from the University of Nebraska, who analysed 40,000 books (reported here by the Daily Mail, or with more detail and links here at Motherboard). Incidentally, Jocker’s sentiment-analysis tools were released on GitHub for anyone to use, and I would guess formed the hedonmeter that the latest analysis from the Computational Story Lab has visualised for us. Jocker broke his own findings out as –
- There are just two categories broken down into three sub-groups
- ‘Man on a hill‘ – 54 per cent of books – is a positive story with mid-way peak
- But ‘man in a hole‘ sees characters plunge into trouble and crawl out
So basically three different ways to fall-rise or rise-fall.
Kurt Vonnegut’s Shapes of Stories
Back to Kurt Vonnegut, then. His initial theories of story shapes were rejected back in his earlier years, but now appear to be mathematically proven.
Below are the story shapes of Vonnegut, re-imagined by graphic designer Maya Eilam. Note: Vonnegut’s videos (look them up on youtube) only show some diagrams. In written format, Vonnegut added two more story shapes. Brainpickings has published these from his memoir.
7 Basic Themes or Conflicts as Masterplots
Seven is a popular number – sometimes the 7 Basic Plots are confused with themes or conflicts. Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch nominated these seven master conflicts (or themes) found in story (but they are often called 7 Basic Plots) –
- man against man
- man against nature
- man against himself (the internal conflict)
- man against God
- man against society
- man caught in the middle
- man and woman (romance)
These conflicts can be listed with some different permutations –
- [wo]man vs. other
- [wo]man vs. [wo]man
- [wo]man vs. the environment
- [wo]man vs. machines/technology
- [wo]man vs. the supernatural
- [wo]man vs. self
- [wo]man vs. god/religion or fate
Example – Of course, these major conflicts must work in unison and with external and internal conflicts: Most man vs nature stories (in a huge storm, for instance) I’ve watched also include conflict between man vs man in trying to survive, and often man vs. [one] other, in that there is often a figure of authority the main character clashes with; and also man vs. self – the only internal conflict – all without even getting into the whole main through-line of there’s-a-world-ending-storm-coming-our-way.
The major conflicts are something taught through our school systems, but also often cut down from the seven to either six or even four major conflict types (shown in the diagrams above), discarding the supernatural, technology, God/fate and other permutations, which can logically be represented in these four.
- Described at Daily Writing Tips
- Now Novel only describes six.
- This post at Bookosaurus describes five conflicts with examples from literature.
If you have a basic idea of your conflict – or the theme you want to explore – you have a ready-made set of protagonist, the antagonistic force (the obstacle creating conflict) and some story events required to put the two together.
Booker’s Seven (or 9) Basic MasterPlots
Okay, got all that? Now we finally get to what is known as the Seven Basic or Master-plots. I think of them as Universal – early examples of each of these stories can be found in almost every culture or nation’s ancient tales. Note that Booker, and Joseph Campbell (Hero’s Journey) were heavily influenced by Carl Jung, and while much of Jung’s mythology theories are no longer as popular, the fact that these masterplots are recognised in our history and eons-old fables and mythic stories across the world is what makes them universally acceptable.
In 2004, Christopher Booker published The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. He’d worked on the theory for 34 years. He suggested there were seven types of tales:
- rags to riches (success and crisis)
- overcoming the monster (hero and the bad guy)
- the quest (seeking and finding something, the hero’s mythical journey)
- voyage and return (boldly exploring, another form of the hero’s journey)
- comedy (from confusion to enlightenment)
- tragedy (the price of fatal flaws)
- rebirth (finding a personal light)
In the book, despite the name, Booker actually lists out nine different plots, saying that the final two are more recent in our history. These final two are –
- rebellion against the “one” – a rebellion against a powerful authority (equates roughly to man against authority/society in the above conflicts)
- mystery – in which an outsider to an event attempts to discover the truth
Note that even more recently (in my opinion) rebellion has become a genre almost of itself when you consider the many coming of age / bildungsroman stories in hot demand. The “One” doesn’t necessarily have to be an evil dictator, although many of our dystopian young adults like to have someone like that to rebel against.
Booker also suggests that most of his basic plots meet a Metaplot structure which consists of five stages (where we start getting into plot structure and plot points rather than a full masterplot):-
- Anticipation: the initial setting is established and the hero/heroine is introduced. The hero is somehow unfulfilled or has an issue.
- Dream: the hero embarks on the road toward a possible resolution and experiences some initial success.
- Frustration: the hero’s limitations and the strength of the forces against him become more obvious, make attaining the resolution seem increasingly difficult.
- Nightmare: a final ordeal takes place that determines the resolution.
- Miraculous Escape/Redemption/Achievement of the Prize or (in the case of Tragedy) the Hero’s Destruction. Booker uses various terms for this stage, depending on the basic plot. But in all cases, this stage is some sort of Resolution.
Most of the Seven Basic Plots are covered in the 3 (reversed makes 6) story shapes above. If you buy the book, you’ll find a lot more detail on each (it’s a big book, and I found it quite dry reading), but there are also resources available on the web describing Booker’s 7 Basic Plots –
- Wikipedia – Seven Basic Plots
- TV Tropes – the Seven Basic Plots
- How to Write a Book Now looks more in depth to the Booker plots here, and compares with other structures.
- Story Bistro aligns the plots to other well-known story structures here. The concept – like many of our story telling tools, is linked now into storytelling as a marketing device, but I like the watercolour graphic which I’ve used as a header for this post.
- Presentation Guru has some cool sketches of each of the seven with example story lines.
Tobia’s 20 Master Plots
Ronald B Tobias has a book called 20 Master Plots. These are –
- The Riddle
- Forbidden Love
- Wretched Excess
Download a free checklist for these plots from WritersDigest.
Getting over the fact that I think No. 11 and 12 are talking about the same thing, Tobia’s 20 plots are actually aligned with the other master plot labels used above. But what they are good about is introducing universal plots in modern and trope terminology.
Taking it Back to Practicality – Use the Masterplots However you Like and even Together
So, many of the masterplots or major plots or whatever you like to call them, are taught quite forcefully through our school systems. Some schools also muddy our basic plots by teaching things like plot points or structure as a universal plot. Take a look at this –
- Dramatic – the traditional chronological story, with a climax and a resolution.
- Episodic – chronological but less linear and more loose, often made up of separate character-based episodes instead of a single story.
- Parallel – two chronological stories are woven together. The focus may shift back and forth from the events of one character to the other.
- Flashback – not chronological: events from the past are sometimes presented after events of the present. This can be interesting but confusing.
These are ways of structuring a story to present it, not a basic plot. Any of the basic plots, conflicts or themes can be structured or told in the above ways, and there are many other structures too. But some school systems are calling them “plots”.
The point is that the master or basic plots (whether there’s six, seven, eight or nine of them – or more) are not told singularly. They are not mutually exclusive.
You may have a hero who is definably going on a quest (or hero’s journey) but he’s not doing it alone. Luke Skywalker was not the only character on the planet. You may have a romance in there also – add in another hero or heroine – and your story is now running in parallel, with multiple conflicts. Any good quest has a number of thematic conflicts in it – man versus monster, man versus himself, man versus his woman if she wants to be the first to find the treasure, even if they are developing a love interest between them.
Proof of this is found in the William Wallace Cook system called Plotto. Cook combined and recombined plot elements and came up with 1,462 plots in a very complicated system first published in 1928.
You can no longer find the original Plotto (without paying huge money for it) but there are guide books and cheatsheets plus the cut down version available which will offer you inspiration or at least a long random plot generation list should you want.
Even earlier than Plotto – in 1916, the book The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations by Georges Polti introduced thirty-six plot categories, including Obtaining, Rivalry of Superior and Inferior, and Loss of Loved Ones.
If I said to you – “Rescue” or “Kidnap” or “Underdog” or “Temptation” (from Tobia’s 20 Master Plots above) you’d immediately think of multiple movies which fit that one-word blurb descriptor. You can picture the structure, the elements, the characters and their conflict. Try it with these also –
- Maturation / Coming of Age
- Forbidden Love
- Deliverance / Comeuppance
These are a good modern usage of one word definitions of permutations on our universal plots, and also indicate the primary – but not only – form of conflict the main character or characters will be put through. For some you can immediately see the story shape and whether the ending is going to be a dramatic high ending or that of a miserable moralistic tragedy. Others speak to the modern day genre – where you’ll find it on the shelves of your local library. Some give you an understanding of the character driver, others of the setting.
What we can’t deny is that in all of those modern story tropes listed above (with many more missing) sit one or more forms of our universally understood master plots. Whether there’s seven of them, or 15 or whatever is always going to be a good debate, but choosing one or two will leave us in good stead for driving the plot out into a well-developed and enjoyed story.
TV Tropes defines master plots as being ones which can be adapted to any genre. Others think of them as a general formula for setting out on your story. Many others just call them a theme, and often you will find writing teachers using the terms and meanings interchangeably. Others just say a masterplot is ages old but can change through cultural inputs (ie. pop-culture) to meet the modern needs.
It all doesn’t really matter. Try them out and see.
More Reading? Are you Sure?
- Vulture’s Encyclopedia of Every Literary Device Ever (I’m sure there are others, but the notes are good).
- Cortexes’ A Beginners Guide to Masterplot
- Steven R Southard The Map of All Story Plots – in this article Southard shares a table mapping Georges Polti’s 36 plots (1916), Ronald Tobia’s 20 Masterplots (1993) back to Christopher Booker’s 7 Basic Plots (2004).