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.

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Let’s be honest. You need professional help.

 

Truth be told, unless you have someone to share your rough draft with, your work will never be as good as it could be.  Kind of like most Woody Allen movies.  Yeah, they are okay.  Lot’s of people like them and he has a huge body of work. But I always feel like they could have been better.  Maybe it’s just me.

I have a group of actors that I typically call on once I am done with a first draft.  If you didn’t already know, NO ONE WANTS TO READ YOUR STUFF!  So just walking around with a copy, handing it to your friends will eventually turn your social life into a game of TAG and you’re it.  It sucks to be “it”. People run at the sight of you.  So how do you get people to read it?  I usually offer the reader lunch at a really great sushi restaurant or at a steak house.  I give them about a week to read it, we pick a day, and we just talk.  You’d be surprised at how much you can get by offering someone a great lunch/dinner date.  So that’s secret number one: make friends with some actors and feed them when you want something done.

Finally, here is the second secret that I want to share:  I am constantly taking writing classes.  I am constantly going to workshops.  I am constantly connecting with other writers who have done amazing things.  My favorite places to take a writing class are in L.A. and NYC.  Oh, you can’t get there for a weekly class?  Don’t worry about it.  You can take the same courses online.  My favorite writers community is the website at http://www.writingpad.com.  It’s based in L.A and you can register for writing classes that are taught by professional writers that work for major network TV shows.  For example I am currently taking a class lead by one of the writers from MADD MEN and GAME OF THRONES.  Yeah, that GAME OF THRONES.  Most of the teaching artist have MFA’s from Yale, Columbia, USC, and other amazing schools.  So basically, you can get an Ivy League education for less than $500 a course.  I have also heard great stuff about the courses and workshops offered by UPRIGHT CITIZENS BRIGADE out of NYC.  I haven’t taken one yet but I intend to.   I hope this helps.  Now go write something.

Why the World will Always Need Writers

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I’ve been watching Improv shows all weekend trying to find a secret to writing great punchlines into a script.  I have to say that, for the most part, Improv sucks. It’s boring. And it can put even the most optomistic fan to sleep most nights.  This is what the world without writers looks like. A big mess.  Also, it’s sooooo freaking white that I felt like I needed to be from Montana to understand why anyone would ever want to see this sort of theater. I am convinced that the world would be a horrible place without us writers. If all I could watch was improv for entertainment, I would jump off the Brooklyn Bridge.  However, they do know a lot about comedy and for that reason alone, they are worth studying.  After watching about five hours worth of improv, I have found that there are three surefire punchlines that can almost always get a laugh out of an audience.

Here they are: (1) Sex jokes  (2) Observations about religion and (3) Jokes about drugs.

So, think of a great one line set up and bring in the laughs every time with a great observation about sex, drugs, or religion.  It doesn’t even have to be an observation. Sometimes just a reference is all it takes.  I would like to also add that jokes about race, rare diseases,  or mental handicaps tend to get laughs but you run the risk of getting into a lot of trouble.  A whole lot of trouble.  Like never-having-another-friend-in-the-world type of trouble.  I would stay away from these kinds of jokes unless you really know what you’re doing.

Now, go back to something that you wrote recently and see if you can add three laughs per page using either sex, drugs, or religion.  That means in 30 pages, you should have at least 60 to 90 laughs.  If you can do that, then you need to start your own show/comedy crew. Good luck!

You are what you do

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As a writer, we often find it easy to create when the spirit hits us but if we aren’t careful, we will ONLY write during those moments. Sure, you have heard people say, “I write everyday” and you wished you were that disciplined. If this is something that you want to do for a living, you have to act like it. If you haven’t written anything today then quit facebooking, posting tweets, or watching tv, and write something.

This past year, I tried everything to establish a routine writing schedule. I tried getting up before 5am. I tried writing when I got off work. I tried writing during my lunch break. I even tried writing in my car. After all those attempts, I found the most important thing I needed to get me writing was a plan.Nothing too drawn out. Just a plan that said, “Tomorrow I am going to write three scenes, each scene can only have eight lines, and each one has to reveal something important about the characters.” And that’s how I end my day. So all day, I am listening to the characters in my head speak, act out, get angry, cry, laugh, etc. Once I sit down to write, I have a plan. And that plan tells me when I am done. So I don’t have to think, “Oh God, I am going to be here for hours!” I could be done in 10 minutes if I want. And then I make a plan for the next day. The plan may be, “write an eight line scene that has at least two laugh lines.” Having a plan helps you know when you are done. Otherwise, you may subconsciously avoid sitting down to write that amazing story that world can’t wait to read. Have fun writing today!

Using emotions to create characters

 

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So I was watching one of my favorite movies of all time last night, ROCKY III.  If you are too young to have ever seen this movie, let me first say that you have been deprived and you should get a Netflix account while it’s still available.  But I digress.   While watching the movie, I connected with Rocky’s major story arc about half way into the film. His story arc dealt with overcoming FEAR.

After getting his butt handed to him by Mr. T in the fight of the century, he began to feel afraid.  He lived in this fear throughout the entire movie until he learned to conquer his fears.  He went through every level of being afraid: fear of failure,  fear of pain, fear of losing his health, fear of losing his family and his fortune, and the anxiety of never being good enough.   So today when you write a scene, see if you can use an emotion to tell a deeper story. No matter what race or social status you have, emotions will always connect us all.  Check out this list of recognized emotions from the University of Sonoma psychological department and use it in the scene, story, or chapter that you write today. The link is  http://www.sonoma.edu/users/s/swijtink/teaching/philosophy_101/paper1/listemotions.htm

Have fun. And if you dug this, subscribe!

14 Dramatic Writing Situations

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Okay, I got the idea to do this after reading George Polti’s historic Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations.  The only problem was that some of them don’t have the same dramatic affect as they may have had a hundred years ago when he wrote them.  Even though we tell stories a lot like they did in ancient Greece, we don’t always have an audience that is willing to listen to a script that is designed to take days to perform.  So I decided to add a few additional tension starters to his original thirty-six dramatic situations.

If you are looking for motivation for a story that you’ve been working on, here are 14 Dramatic Situations that can help make a scene, chapter, or story more interesting.  I’ve got hundreds more of them, too.  If you like these, subscribe.  If you want more, tell me.   I hope you find something useful.

But I just thought about it. Maybe some of you don’t know how to use these techniques.  The first dramatic situation in this list is, “A person is caught lying in court”.  How could you use this situation to develop a story?  An outline? A character?

Okay, let say that you are one of those writers that likes to begin his/her stories off with a premise or maybe even a single line of dialog.   Here is how you could use “A person is caught lying in court” to spice up your writing or to develop and entire story.

———-Characters————

HARRY is a old man on the witness stand in an American court room

JANE is the young city prosecutor

———-Scene——————

JANE: Harry, where were you at 9:00 on the night John Reeves was murdered.

HARRY:  At 9:00 I went down to the Magic Johnson Theater to see a movie.

JANE:  Were you there at exactly 9:00?  Or did you get there late?

HARRY: As a matter of fact, I got there early.  I got there at exactly 8:30 pm because I wanted to get a good seat. I stayed there all night.

JANE:  And what movie did you see?

Harry:  I went to see the new Superman film.

JANE: And you never left the theater after 8:30 pm.

HARRY:  Well, I left when the movie was over.  I left around 11:30 pm.

JANE:  So you were not at the local the local Wal-Mart buying garbage bags and cleaning supplies so that you could clean up all the blood that was left in your apartment after blowing John Reeve’s head off?

HARRY:  No. John was my best friend.  I was at the movies all night.

JANE:  What would you say if I told you that we have security footage of you entering the Wal-Mart that’s near your apartment at exactly 9:00 pm on the night in question?

HARRY:  I would say that you didn’t know what you were talking about.  I didn’t go to no damn Wal-Mart!  I was at the movies all night!

JANE:  And suppose I told you that we have a credit card transaction of you making a purchase at that Wal-Mart, for cleaning supplies, garbage bags, and a mop at exactly 9:15 pm.  The same credit card that police found in your wallet.  The same credit card that is on all of your bank records.

HARRY:  You’re lying on me.  I never killed John.  I loved John.

JANE:  DID YOU KILL YOUR BEST FRIEND JOHN REEVES?!

HARRY:  NO, I DIDN’T KILL HIM.  I WANT TO GO HOME.  I DON’T WANT TO TALK ABOUT THIS ANYMORE!

JANE: YOU KILLED HIM!  YOU WASHED AWAY HIS BLOOD! AND YOU THREW YOUR BEST FRIENDS BODY IN THE YELLOW-BIRD RIVER! DIDN’T YOU, HARRY?!

HARRY’S ATTORNEY: I object your honor, the prosecution is badgering the defendant.

HARRY:  Okay. I did it.  I killed John.  I didn’t mean, too.  I loved him like a brother.  He was like family.  I’m sorry. (sobs)

And there you have it.  Drama.  Tension. And it’s memorable.  Something that keeps that audience reading/watching and wanting more till the very end.   Below you will see several other dramatic situations that you can use to develop a story with.  Have fun!

Dramatic Situations

  • A court room

o   Someone is caught lying in court

o   Someone is given an amazingly harsh sentence

o   Someone admits to a crime

o   Someone falls in love (while on the witness stand)

o   Two council members disagree on an action to take

o   A criminal is given a chance to confess for a lesser sentence but instead rejects it with an unbelievably unreasonable request.

o   A leader is disrespected by a criminal and comes moments from breaking all laws to teach him a lesson, but is held back by a friend that reasons with him—but the grudge has been created.

  • A prison break
  • A person pulls out a gun in court
  • A person shooting in a place where there are lots of innocent civilians
  • Someone has to explain to an angry boss that they failed
  • A fugitive escapes only to arrive in hostile territory ( escape from the kettle to the frying pan)
  • A leader has to appoint a criminal to help him/her solve a crime because he is the “only person who can do the job.”

o   Reward is freedom?

o   They make a bargain?

***The photo above is copyrighted by the Alvin Alley Dance Theater Company.