I was recently reading a fascinating book called The Art Instinct by Denis Dutton. The books tries to show that much of our sense of art and artistic judgment is influenced by our genetics – that is, something that we are born with - and that this instinct has evolved (slowly changed) over many, many years. I’m not sure if I agree entirely with this argument, but it is an interesting idea.
In one section of the book, Dutton talks about research done by another writer, Christopher Booker, on the kinds of plots (story structures) that are found in the spoken and written stories of almost every language around the world. Booker identifies seven “basic plots” that every story uses in one way or another. Again, I’m not sure if this is true, but you may be interested in them. Many stories may combine different kinds of plots as well:
- Overcoming the Monster – To overcome means to defeat, to win over. A monster is a bad creature (person or animal). This is a story about defeating an evil person or thing.
- Rags to Riches – Rags are dirty pieces of clothing; riches refers to lots of money. This is a common expression in English, to go from “rags to riches,” especially to describe someone who works hard and becomes successful after being poor. This is a story about someone going from being very poor to being very rich.
- Quest – A quest is when you search for something for a long time, usually something very important or very valuable. Typically a quest story has a hero with others that help him in his search, and he must overcome some danger or evil in order to get his prize. The hero gets the prize and a beautiful woman, and they often become King and Queen.
- Voyage and Return – A voyage is a long trip. In this kind of story, the protagonist (main character) leaves “normal experience” and goes into an alien or strange world, then returns after escaping some danger in the new world. (The famous English children’s story Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is an example of this.)
- Comedy – A rather broad (large) category, this kind of story often has some confusion until the end of the story, when the hero and his lover are united.
- Tragedy – A tragedy is a very sad event or situation. Tragic stories are usually about how someone overreaches (tries to do too much or more than he or she should) and this leads to terrible consequences (results).
- Rebirth – A rebirth is when someone is reborn – born again. This kind of story has the protagonist going through some dramatic change during the story, so that by the end of it he or she is essentially a new character.
Booker later added two more plot types:
- Rebellion – A rebellion is when people try to overthrow (defeat, bring down) their government. George Orwell’s 1984 would be an example of this kind of story.
- Mystery – A mystery involves some crime or unusual event that the protagonist tries to figure out or solve. The protagonist is usually called a detective, and may be a police officer (but not always).
So there you have all the possible plots in the world – at least, according to Mr. Booker!