The "Basic" Plots in Literature

Example Questions That Can Be Answered Using This FAQ

  • I’ve heard there are only 7 (or 5, 20, 36…) basic plots (or themes) in all of literature. What are they?

People often say that there are only a certain number of basic plots in all of literature, and that any story is really just a variation on these plots. Depending on how detailed they want to make a "basic" plot, different writers have offered a variety of solutions. Here are some of the ones we’ve found:

1 Plot | 3 Plots | 7 Plots | 20 Plots | 36 Plots

1 Plot:

Attempts to find the number of basic plots in literature cannot be resolved any more tightly than to describe a single basic plot. Foster-Harris claims that all plots stem from conflict. He describes this in terms of what the main character feels: "I have an inner conflict of emotions, feelings.... What, in any case, can I do to resolve the inner problems?" (p. 30-31) This is in accord with the canonical view that the basic elements of plot revolve around a problem dealt with in sequence: "Exposition - Rising Action - Climax - Falling Action - Denouement". (Such description of plot can be found in many places, including: Holman, C. Hugh and William Harmon. A Handbook to Literature. 6th ed. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co, 1992.) Foster-Harris’ main argument is for 3 Plots (which are contained within this one), described below.

3 Plots:

Foster-Harris. The Basic Patterns of Plot. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1959. Foster-Harris contends that there are three basic patterns of plot (p. 66):

  1. "’Type A, happy ending’"; Foster-Harris argues that the "Type A" pattern results when the central character (which he calls the "I-nitial" character) makes a sacrifice (a decision that seems logically "wrong") for the sake of another.
  2. "’Type B, unhappy ending’"; this pattern follows when the "I-nitial" character does what seems logically "right" and thus fails to make the needed sacrifice.
  3. "’Type C,’ the literary plot, in which, no matter whether we start from the happy or the unhappy fork, proceeding backwards we arrive inevitably at the question, where we stop to wail." This pattern requires more explanation (Foster-Harris devotes a chapter to the literary plot.) In short, the "literary plot" is one that does not hinge upon decision, but fate; in it, the critical event takes place at the beginning of the story rather than the end. What follows from that event is inevitable, often tragedy. (This in fact coincides with the classical Greek notion of tragedy, which is that such events are fated and inexorable.)

7 Plots

7 basic plots as remembered from second grade by IPL volunteer librarian Jessamyn West:

  1. [wo]man vs. nature
  2. [wo]man vs. [wo]man
  3. [wo]man vs. the environment
  4. [wo]man vs. machines/technology
  5. [wo]man vs. the supernatural
  6. [wo]man vs. self
  7. [wo]man vs. god/religion

20 Plots:

Tobias, Ronald B. 20 Master Plots. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1993. (ISBN 0-89879-595-8)
This book proposes twenty basic plots:

  1. Quest
  2. Adventure
  3. Pursuit
  4. Rescue
  5. Escape
  6. Revenge
  7. The Riddle
  8. Rivalry
  9. Underdog
  10. Temptation
  11. Metamorphosis
  12. Transformation
  13. Maturation
  14. Love
  15. Forbidden Love
  16. Sacrifice
  17. Discovery
  18. Wretched Excess
  19. Ascension
  20. Descension.

36 Plots

Polti, Georges. The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations. trans. Lucille Ray.

Polti claims to be trying to reconstruct the 36 plots that Goethe alleges someone named [Carlo] Gozzi came up with. (In the following list, the words in parentheses are our annotations to try to explain some of the less helpful titles.):

  1. Supplication (in which the Supplicant must beg something from Power in authority)
  2. Deliverance
  3. Crime Pursued by Vengeance
  4. Vengeance taken for kindred upon kindred
  5. Pursuit
  6. Disaster
  7. Falling Prey to Cruelty of Misfortune
  8. Revolt
  9. Daring Enterprise
  10. Abduction
  11. The Enigma (temptation or a riddle)
  12. Obtaining
  13. Enmity of Kinsmen
  14. Rivalry of Kinsmen
  15. Murderous Adultery
  16. Madness
  17. Fatal Imprudence
  18. Involuntary Crimes of Love (example: discovery that one has married one’s mother, sister, etc.)
  19. Slaying of a Kinsman Unrecognized
  20. Self-Sacrificing for an Ideal
  21. Self-Sacrifice for Kindred
  22. All Sacrificed for Passion
  23. Necessity of Sacrificing Loved Ones
  24. Rivalry of Superior and Inferior
  25. Adultery
  26. Crimes of Love
  27. Discovery of the Dishonor of a Loved One
  28. Obstacles to Love
  29. An Enemy Loved
  30. Ambition
  31. Conflict with a God
  32. Mistaken Jealousy
  33. Erroneous Judgement
  34. Remorse
  35. Recovery of a Lost One
  36. Loss of Loved Ones.