The Seven Plots of All Literature (Plus Two)

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 MonsterTo 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 RichesRags 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!


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15 Responses to The Seven Plots of All Literature (Plus Two)

  1. Warren Ediger says:

    Great post and descriptions … perfect for my ESL literature students! I’ll hand it out this morning!

  2. Peter says:

    Dear Lucy,

    Thanks for the posting. I enjoyed it word by word. And also ,my gratitude for book suggestion. I am on it. In fact, I squeezed it on the top of my today’s to do list. Hope the pricing is within my budget. Don’t take it the wrong way. I am not a skinflint or cheapskate. Defenetly, I am not a miser either. The reason why the pricing is uppermost in my mind is due to economy slow down. You know what, I am a bit off the kilter financially.

  3. Peter says:

    I guess making spelling mistakes has become my second nature.What can I do? It is me

  4. Peter says:

    The economy slow done

  5. Peter says:

    The book suggestion, sorry a million, hast makes waste ,and it is the story of my life

  6. elcomandant says:

    I can be agree with this seven (plus two) kinds of plots. However, to know if I was agree with it, I thought for a while if was posible would find some plot that wasn’t in the list of nine plots. Then I wasn’t able to find any more. That’s why I can say that I can be agree with it, but as Jeff, I’m not sure. It is easy that I’m wrong.


  7. emiliano says:

    Sorry Jeff but I am in absolute disagreement with that theory that it seems to me like a nonsense. Life is much more complex as to put it among seven or nine topics.
    No, full disagreement, and as a reader for long I can remember several, hundred in fact, of books that have nothing to do with those nine plots.
    There are lot of plots as much as human life or human imagination that have no limits.

    By the way, where is poetry?

  8. emiliano says:

    I would like that some of the friends in the blog clasify these few books among one of the basic plots, or even with three or four of them:

    One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
    The diary of Anne Frank (Anne Frank)
    The House of the Spirits (Isabel Allende)
    In Cold Blood (Truman Capote)
    The Dead Zone (Stephen King)
    Conversation in the Cathedral (Mario Vargas Llosa)

    Thank you.

  9. gregorex says:

    There shuld be one more plot, 10th:
    ESLpodcaston- it is when protagonist tries to learn people how to speak fluent english 😉

  10. Peter says:

    Dear Jeff

    Sorry I put down the name of your pen friend instead of your name.the thing is I skimmed through ,and your pen signature went unnoticed.I know you are not livid. Thanks for the blog that every time I am on it, I take something new away.

  11. Peter says:

    Dear Jeff ,

    This time around. I got a chance to scan the above materials ,and I could not be more agree with what you indicated in there. The seven-basic plots totally apply. I couldn’t think of any other categories.By the way, thanks for the word protagonist,it is the winner.

    My friend, your superior English skills are awe-inspiring.What is the secret prof ? How did you get that far?

  12. tania says:

    Hi ! I think the psychlogical novels are in vogue and the psycho movies , too .
    Some of the plots can be named SF – science fiction literature . And the historical stories ?
    Anyway , thank you dr. Jeff for your great idea to present us these plots . And thank you especially for the explanation of the word “quest ” .
    And do you know why ?
    There is a slogan on the CNN Channel with the “quest ” near the great reporter Quest ‘ s photo .
    I thought first of all I must know the reporter Quest .
    Indeed , he visited our country last year . He planted a tree .

    I agree with Emiliano . I read The Diary of Anne Frank when I was a little girl . I adore Stephen King (Shinning ) .
    Gregorex is funny , too .
    Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is very well known .

    All the best for you all ,


  13. Molly says:

    I hate to be the devil’s advocate here, but I’m going to have to disagree with this posting. I think that a lot of literature is too complicated to define this broadly. I’m not going to sit here and list every book I know that doesn’t neatly fit into one of the categories, but I’m sure if you sit and think about it for awhile, you’ll be able to come up with your own list. A very neat analysis, nonetheless.

  14. emiliano says:

    Molly may be I am the devil´s advocate too, as I agree with your comment and I think the same “literature is too complicated to define it with these
    topics” and to me there lots of books that can´t be included in.
    Thak you for your post, we are two devils now.

  15. JoeC says:

    There are actually 36 different plots thought of by Georges Polti.

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