Christopher Booker argues there are seven basic plots:
- Overcoming the monster
- Rags to riches
- The quest
- Voyage and return
Others argue more and others argue fewer but the principle is the same; all stories have been told before. Now, as I said in Making the New From the Old, that doesn’t mean we can’t write original stories, simply that if you try to find the plot that has never been done before it’s an impossible task. This isn’t due to lack of imagination, simply that humans have a big back catalogue.
I’ll confess I haven’t read Booker’s book from cover to cover because The Seven Basic Plots in a comprehensive 709 pages, including the glossary of terms, of little tiny writing. I have to say it looks bigger than the total 728 pages, including the bibliography, index of stories and index. Sat on my desk it looks huge. I’m not making excuses for having not read it, I’m simply observing the vastness of this subject and, I suspect, at 709 pages Booker’s might be the most single comprehensive book.
The point I’m trying to strike here is that when you’re developing your story forget about the studies about plot, don’t read books that tell you how a plot should go, think about how you think it should go. Focusing on the theory of plots, whether literal or metaphorical, risks bringing on a bout of block because it can restrict your imagination. There’s a risk when using a critical book as a guide that you will have a feeling which way the plot is going to go but worry it can’t because it doesn’t follow the book, or it will go the other way and instead of following your gut you’ll want to go somewhere else because it follows the book which is a cliché.
I can say from experience that sometimes when you start thinking critically, particularly on a first draft, you can overthink. It’s fine to study all this stuff, I have and it’s fascinating, but when you write you’ve got to put it aside and think ‘this is what should happen because this is what seems right’ not ‘this is what should or shouldn’t happen because of critical theory’.
There is an instinct within humans for telling stories that has no reliance on theories about plot formation which is why plot formations reappear so often. All these plots come from universal themes of struggle, growing and overcoming evil. The obvious example would be fairy tales which are all moral tales in which once upon a time something happened and they lived happily ever after when it was resolved. It’s a basic but effective plot and in some ways the plot of most standalone stories, in the case of series it’s usually one bad day after another, 24 immediately springs to mind, where each series is a ‘bad’ day told in real time.
So when you’re constructing your story think about your characters, who they are and where they’re going, not whether the plot has been done before or even if happily ever after is the ultimate cliché. Don’t think about any of that. Just think ‘this is my lead character and this is what they would do in this situation’ and there’s your story.
Booker Christopher, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, (London: Continuum, 2004)