The Seven Basic Plots

How I Learned What I LearnedSignature Theatre

Have you ever gone into the kitchen of a restaurant after you’ve eaten there a few times?  You feel different when you eat there the next time, right?  It seems simpler some how. Plates of food that appeared before you like magic are now a little less magical.  You may even think, “I can do better than this at home.”   As you continue to learn how to write, you should feel that way about your favorite novel or movie at some point.

And that brings me to the Seven Basic Plots.  Before I get there, I want to call some of you out.  This post is for all of you that have been trapped into thinking that your writing is all about YOU!

The trap that a lot of writers fall into is the “I’m writing this for me” trap.  That trap is basically the same as the “My stuff isn’t commercial” trap.  And it is akin to the “I don’t write for other people’s approval” trap.  All of these are ideas that most writer have debated in their own heads at some point.  The writers that don’t have this debate are the ones that get published most often.  Not only that, they are extremely popular.  Why?  Because they are writing for a larger demographic than themselves.

If you are writing for yourself, you stand the risk of being “too original”.  If this shocks or offends you, please stay with me.  Yes. It is possible to be “too original”.  For example, I volunteer at a local theater and I help organize theatrical readings for emerging playwrights.  Last month, I listened to a reading of a play by an unknown writer.  The play was an absolute disaster.  It had no plot. No main character. And no climax.  The only thing that it did have was an audience of about thirteen people who were bored out of their minds.  I wanted to asked the writer, “Have you ever even read a play in your entire life?…Have you ever even been to a theatrical performance?”

The poor guy actually wrote several lines that I loved.  There were actually several characters that I could have used and created an entire story around.  But don’t get it twisted, I hated the show.  This writer was definitely in the category of “too original”.  What could have helped him is placing the story into one of the Seven Basic Plots.

Some writers reject these seven basic plots because it forces all of their stories to be placed into a bottle.  It makes them feel that their story is too simple or too much like things that are already out there.  If we have worked on something for eight weeks and put our entire heart and soul into it, it’s kind of offensive to have it summed up into three or four sentences.

However, truth be told, simple is a really positive characteristics to publishers, producers, and agents.  They want it to fit nicely into a bottle.  If it does, they know exactly who they can market it to.   They want it to be simple.  Why?  Because “simple” is easy to sell to someone in a fifteen second radio ad.  They want it to be just like something that is already out there.  Especially if it was a success.   Sometimes this means that it’s a parody such as The WIZ and The WIZARD Of OZ.  However, lots of times, it’s outright stealing the essence of a great story and creating something new.   Here are a few perfect example of this:

  • Disney’s The Princess and the Frog is essentially The Wizard of OZ.
  • WESTSIDE STORY is famous for basically retelling the Romeo and Juliet.
  • Every Marvel Comics movie is essentially the story of David and Goliath.

So, simple is good.  Familiar is good.  Creating something that’s easy to describe is extremely good. Not only that, it’s commercial!  And if you intend to do this for a living, you need all of those characteristics.   So here are the seven basic plots.

Plot Option #1: Overcoming the Monster

In this plot, the hero sets out to defeat a growing evil threat.  This is basically the David and Goliath story.  You have some hero who has to defeat some villain that is bigger, stronger, smarter, and more powerful.  We love this plot.  Every summer block-buster movie uses this as it’s skeleton.  IRON MAN, The INCREDIBLES, or PLANET of the APES all fit into this plot.

Plot Option #2: Rags to Riches

In this plot, the hero overcomes poor childhood and tormentors.  Some thoughts that come to mind are ANNIE, FINDING FORRESTER, and ANTWONE FISHER.  Because this plot is so simple, it usually gets mixed in as a sub-plot (or B-plot) in a lot of stories.

Plot Option #3:  The Quest

This is by far my favorite plot.  In this plot, the hero and his companions search for an item.  Some perfect examples are SHREK, THE PAINTING  (France), WIZARD OF OZ, STAND BY ME, and yes HANGOVER 1, 2, and 3.  I absolutely love this plot.  Usually in this plot, each character finds out things about themselves and changes for the better.

Plot Option #4: Voyage and Return

Some hero visits an exotic land, triumphs, then returns home as a changed man.  Perfect examples are Tom Hanks in CAST AWAY, A CHRISTMAS CAROL, GULLIVER’S TRAVEL, and TRADING PLACES.

Plot Option #5:  Comedy

Like Rags to Riches, this plot often is really simple and is usually paired with one of the other plots.  But in essence, a hero discovers and clears up a misunderstanding to be with his partner.  Historically, it ends with a wedding.  Perfect examples are THINK LIKE A MAN 1 and 2, GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER with Aston Kutcher, and MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING.

Plot Option #6: Tragedy

Someone makes a plan to do something positive with their lives and just when they have the chance to “free themselves” of their awful past, they are killed by a loved one, an old friend, or even by a freak accident.  Perfect examples are CARLITO’S WAY, ROMEO and JULIET, KING HEDLEY II, and LE APARTMENT (France).

Plot Option #7:  Rebirth

The hero reverses his own downward spiral into evil.  A perfect example is ON THE WATER FRONT (you know the movie with the line, “I could’da been somebody!  I could’da been a contender!”)  If you haven’t seen it, it’s one of the movies that every writer must see.

So those are the seven basic plots.  But here is another secret:  If you want someone to publish your work, produce your work, or invest in your projects then use one of these plots.  If your work does not fit into one of these plots, I’m sad to tell you that it will never see the light of day.  I know of several amazing writers whom you may never ever hear about about because they choose to not use these plots.  And when I say amazing, I mean Pulitzer level amazing.  But no one is ever going to touch them.

If you want people talking about your stories with their friends or watching your screenplay on their iPhone, stick to these seven basic plots.  Don’t believe me?  Put yourself into the shoes of a millionaire producer.  Which of these stories would you invest your hard earned money in:

Story A: a story that you need to spend 20 minutes explaining to people

or

Story B: a story about a group of kids that set off to find a pirate’s treasure with only a treasure map and youthful optimism.

Story A won’t get produced but Story B is a great movie called, THE GOONIES.

The final thing that I want to add is this: Being a writer is not much different from being a chef.  Most of what a chef cooks is for other people.  When people sit down to eat meatloaf, they have an idea in their heads of how it is supposed to look and taste.  Now, suppose that the chef gets really creative and uses mustard instead of ketchup in his meatloaf.  Why?  Because this chef really loves mustard.  Sure, a few people may like it but most people will never order that meatloaf again.  It’s the same thing in writing.  There has to be an audience for what you’re writing.  If not, you’re going to be the person walking around with pages and pages of mustard-meatloaf and no one is going to want it but you.

I hope this helps!  After you finish writing today, think of all of your favorite movies and see which of these plots they fit in.  Oh yeah, I bet you thought that movie was super original didn’t you?  Nope.  It isn’t.  This exercise won’t take away from your appreciation for your favorite movie or novel, but whenever you watch a movie or a TV show from now on, I want you to see it differently.  I want you to feel like you just took a tour of the kitchen in your favorite restaurant.  Sure, it may lose a little of it’s magic.  But hopefully you’ll now think to yourself, “This is good but I can make something even better. ”  Have fun!

*The photo above belongs to broadwayworld.com.  The image is from the performance of the play based on the life of August Wilson titled, HOW I LEARNED WHAT I LEARNED.   The play is currently playing through the end of October at Atlanta’s Southwest Arts Center through Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theater.