I read The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker (yes, it was so heavy that I had to cut into two books just to be able to carry it around) and I just can't believe that the number of plots we have available to us has been set in stone and never the more shall be added to.

Please - is there some hope for us? What new plots have been dreamed up in recent times?

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    Nah, there are two: A stranger comes to town and The hero takes a journey. – MissMonicaE May 16 at 18:46
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    What's wrong with the standard plots? They've served us well since the beginning of the species, and are broad enough to have produced every oral and written story. – RonJohn May 16 at 19:02
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    Based on some of this "hip hop" music I've been listening to recently, there is one underrepresented plot that goes something like "Life's a bitch and then you die." – JacobIRR May 16 at 22:27
up vote 35 down vote accepted

The only reason we say there are a small number of plots one can list is because they're defined in an extremely vague way. There's still plenty of room for originality; I'll let you decide whether it constitutes "hope". Here's the best analogy I've heard:

The basic plot is like a mannequin. You're pretty limited in the number of shapes you can come up with -- curvy or straight, thin or fat. The rest of the movie -- the subplots, the personalities, the atmosphere, the pace, the number of explosions you add -- that's like the costume you put on the mannequin. Someone pointing out that a plot is "basically the same" is pointing out that two designers are using the same fat mannequin. One could be wearing a bloodied Viking costume and one could be wearing a flowery muumuu, but they're both size 40, so they're "basically the same."

So what are the details of this costume? TV Tropes lists tens of thousands of tropes, as well as many ways to use them. When you crunch the numbers, stories can be as unique as human genomes.

The real danger isn't unoriginality; it's trying to be original with the most obvious deviation possible from the mainstream, because every budding writer is trying that. That's as liable to make your work like others' as any follow-the-leader mentality.

  • I like the way you think, JG. If what you say is true (and I fully intend to live the reality of it) then there really are no obstacles to my plotting other than those that huge technical volumes on writing (try to) impose on me. Fly and be free, Robert. :) – robertcday May 16 at 14:09
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    @robertcday How NOT to Write a Novel puts rules into perspective: "We do not propose any rules; we offer observations. 'No right on red' is a rule. 'Driving at high speed toward a brick wall usually ends badly' is an observation." – J.G. May 16 at 14:14
  • How Not to Write a Novel by David Armstrong? – robertcday May 16 at 14:23
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    @robertcday There are also only 7 basic titles for books about writing novels. – J.G. May 16 at 15:32
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    @robertcday It sounds like you've been reading a lot on the theory of writing. How much time have you spent studying the practice of writing, both studying the published works of authors and practicing yourself? While I'm not a story teller, I do know from experience with technical writing and writing code that the more experience and mastery you develop in such subjective fields, the less the theory influences your decisions directly. You instead begin to develop an intuition for what works well and what doesn't. Thus, while theory is useful, the practice is vastly more important. – jpmc26 May 17 at 22:54

There's really only one plot: Somebody has a problem, and must deal with it.

If that isn't true, there isn't really a story, just some descriptions of things.

You might subdivide that into [happy, mixed, sad] endings. You might subdivide by the problem, [political, romantic, business, science, ...]. You might subdivide by the protagonist, or antagonist: Heck the antagonist can be "space" as in "Gravity", or a hurricane or flood or meteor or forest fire. e.g. "The Perfect Storm" has a nature-antagonist. The antagonist can be oneself, i.e. emotional, a man fighting addiction for example: Nobody is striving to prevent him, they don't care, only he cares and he can't effing BREAK IT.

All the "X plots" you see are categorizing stories by types of problems you see, and their similarities in how successful books/films/plays focused on that kind of problem structured the story. Those structures can be surprisingly common: In a love story, a simple progression from meeting to happy marriage just doesn't sell. It is boring if the MC solves their problem too easily.

More generally you can have a story about somebody dealing with a problem, but if it lacks conflict, it doesn't sell, because it is boring. There must be resistance to be a story people want to read.

Ignore all the plots, just pick your problem, and try to put conflict on every page, be it small or large, with another person or with the environment or within the character. Don't make it easy. Keep it plausible. Keep an ending in mind at all times (even if in the course of writing you decide to change it). Chances are if you write a good story, it will (from 10,000 feet, as they say) bear some similarity to other stories. Don't worry about it, your problem is unique because (unless you plagiarize) your characters are new and the specifics of what happens to them are new, because you have an imagination that can write about something other than what you have already read/seen.

Just write a story, let other people categorize it.

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    Indeed... And sometimes, "Somebody has a problem" is actually "a bunch of people have one or more problems each" – Pedro A May 16 at 23:56
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    @Clearer even in those simple stories, there is usually a 'problem' of sorts, in the form of a challenge or an experience, even if it's just the basic trials and tribulations of daily life. – Cronax May 17 at 11:38
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    @Clearer I guess it depends on your view. Jack fell down and broke his crown, and Jill came tumbling after. That is conflict (with the hill) and drama. But true, books for very small children have no conflict, and are no longer a story, just a description to aid the imagination. "Interesting things happening" make us wonder what will happen: That uncertainty is conflict. Events that evoke non-neutral emotion (i.e. not pacification) either begin or end conflicts in the story. – Amadeus May 17 at 11:40
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    @Clearer The conflict is in the reader: a young child struggling to understand him- or herself and the world and people around them and to develop into someone who can survive without constant care from others. The book challenges their understanding of that world by introducing them to new ideas they've never encountered or by reinforcing ideas they have. Perhaps young children simply have not conquered enough of their own problems yet and don't need to experience someone else's fictional or historical conflict from a book. =) – jpmc26 May 17 at 23:04
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    @Tacroy Again, I don't consider that a "story". It is a description of things happening. A party, or friends getting together, or "slice of life", or fun facts, can be "writing" or entertaining, but is not IMO a story. To me a story requires a plot, which demands conflict that is met and resolved. Anything else is just descriptive writing. – Amadeus May 18 at 16:04

There haven't been any "new" plots in centuries. That's because people have always had the same problems, and a plot is a problem, more or less.

Science fiction has explored the plots we already know, centuries into the future, and found that if your story is going to be readable by people now, it can't include too much that doesn't exist yet -- especially in terms of the way people feel, what they need, and what problems they have. It's possible that in a century or two there may be new plots, but there certainly aren't any new ones since that book was written.

  • You know, that's really interesting, Zeiss because what you're basically saying is that problems are finite - and that's a good thing. If we need to have new problems to have new plots then long may it remain as it is. We have quite enough to contend with already, right? :) – robertcday May 16 at 13:50
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    What we have now are quite enough, no argument. Enough to make life hard and unpleasant, even with humanity in general better off than it's ever been. – Zeiss Ikon May 16 at 14:07
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    Humans are finite. – Beanluc May 16 at 18:18
  • @Beanluc That is a serious and fundamental misconception. If I were religious I'd say you ignore the divine spark in man. Since I'm not I'd say that the number of possible states of the atoms in my body is ridiculously high enough to be infinite for all practical purposes, including being immortal to the end of times. – Peter A. Schneider May 17 at 14:30

You've heard it said that there are only 7 basic types of plot. I say to you there are only 4 types of plots. I mean there are actually only 3 types of plots. I mean there are 9 because Booker missed 2. Did I say there was only 9? Wait, I want to go back to my first answer, there are 4 types, but with different names than in the first link.

As you can see, there are many people who have claimed to found the "x types of stories/plots". Instead of thinking of these as formulas that must be followed, take the advice of Mary Robinette Kowal. She implores us to think of all these different list types as diagnostic tools. If you're trying to be creative without being constricted, just write your story. Then, if you run into problems with keeping the reader engaged, grab one of these lists and try to map your story to one of the listed categories. See what you might be missing.

If you're trying to be truly new and creative, try to understand why the missing element is needed for your story. Then, once you know why that element is needed, try to substitute that element with something different.

The problem I see in this and many similar questions on this and other similar sites is the attempt to approach writing from the perspective of literary scholarship.

Literary theory tries to understand the basic principles of literature. And science is obsessed with simplification, because grasping the true complexity of reality is beyond our limited minds. That does not mean that there are only five dimensions of personality or only seven plots. It just means that scholars have found this self-limitation useful for their goals.

But writers aren't scholars. It is not our aim to write a clever treatise on how few plots we can reduce the huge variety of literature to. Our aim is to write literature. And in writing, each book is unique and there are as many plots as there are stories.

Do not believe the idiocy of how-to-write books.

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    I would be inclined to agree with you, @Paul Hummel except for this small matter: the scholar and the writer in me have become lovers. They are entwined in (whisper it) lustful abandon. Their sensitive fingers linger sensuously on each other's skin. Their tongues explore each other as we might a ripe mango. They are tightly moored into all the good places. If I were to try to separate them, then there would be blood! – robertcday May 17 at 7:51

I believe it's less about finding a new plot and more about finding a new, or at least interesting, take on an old one. We've been writing for so long, that every plot has been written. That doesn't matter though because there's an infinite different ways to write each plot, which means there's always room for more stories to tell.

  • I believe that you're right to believe what you believe, @Jonathan Kuhl but I also believe that someday someone (maybe even me) will turn over a rock and find a new, shiny plot just waiting to be used. I might be wrongheaded, but if I don't keep believing then I'll not even look and will have no chance of finding. ;) – robertcday May 17 at 7:42
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    Well, the old Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl always seems to work well. Or the Game of Thrones variation: King screws wife, wife's brother screws wife, kings right-hand man is killed, all hell breaks lose ... – CrossRoads May 17 at 18:01

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