The "Basic" Plots in Literature

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  1. 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):

    "’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.
    "’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.
    "’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:

    [wo]man vs. nature
    [wo]man vs. [wo]man
    [wo]man vs. the environment
    [wo]man vs. machines/technology
    [wo]man vs. the supernatural
    [wo]man vs. self
    [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:

    The Riddle
    Forbidden Love
    Wretched Excess
    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.):

    Supplication (in which the Supplicant must beg something from Power in authority)
    Crime Pursued by Vengeance
    Vengeance taken for kindred upon kindred
    Falling Prey to Cruelty of Misfortune
    Daring Enterprise
    The Enigma (temptation or a riddle)
    Enmity of Kinsmen
    Rivalry of Kinsmen
    Murderous Adultery
    Fatal Imprudence
    Involuntary Crimes of Love (example: discovery that one has married one’s mother, sister, etc.)
    Slaying of a Kinsman Unrecognized
    Self-Sacrificing for an Ideal
    Self-Sacrifice for Kindred
    All Sacrificed for Passion
    Necessity of Sacrificing Loved Ones
    Rivalry of Superior and Inferior
    Crimes of Love
    Discovery of the Dishonor of a Loved One
    Obstacles to Love
    An Enemy Loved
    Conflict with a God
    Mistaken Jealousy
    Erroneous Judgement
    Recovery of a Lost One
    Loss of Loved Ones.
  2. Exploring the Different Types of Fiction

    Fiction is a general term used to describe an imaginative work of prose, either a novel, short story, or novella. Recently, this definition has been modified to include both nonfiction works that contain imaginative elements, like Midnight in the Garden Of Good and Evil by John Berendt (Random House, 1994) and Dutch by Edmund Morris (Random House, 1999), and novels consisting largely of factual reporting with a patina of fictionalization, such as Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden (Knopf, 1997). However, in the truest sense, a work of fiction is a creation of the writer’s imagination.

    The two main types of fiction are literary and commercial.

    Commercial fiction attracts a broad audience and may also fall into any subgenre, like mystery, romance, legal thriller, western, science fiction, and so on. For example, The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller (Warner, 1992) was a hugely successful commercial novel because the book described the fulfillment of a romantic fantasy that is dear to the heart of millions of readers. Written in a short, easy-to-read style, the book was as mesmerizing to 15-year-olds as it was to 100-year-olds. Other blockbuster commercial fiction authors include John Grisham, Sidney Sheldon, Danielle Steele, and Jackie Collins.
    Literary fiction tends to appeal to a smaller, more intellectually adventurous audience. A work of literary fiction can fall into any of the subgenres described in the following sections. What sets literary fiction apart, however, is the notable qualities it contains — excellent writing, originality of thought, and style — that raise it above the level of ordinary written works. A recent work of literary fiction that enjoyed wide popularity was Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997). Other popular authors of literary fiction include Toni Morrision, Barbara Kingsolver, John LeCarre, and Saul Bellow.
    Mainstream fiction is a general term publishers and booksellers use to describe both commercial and literary works that depict a daily reality familiar to most people. These books, usually set in the 20th or present-day 21st century, have at their core a universal theme that attracts a broad audience. Mainstream books deal with such myriad topics as family issues, coming of age initiations, courtroom dramas, career matters, physical and mental disabilities, social pressures, political intrigue, and more. Regardless of original genre or category, most of the novels that appear on the bestseller list are considered mainstream, whether the author is Sue Grafton, Arundhati Roy, Michael Crichton, or David Guterson.

    In addition to mainstream fiction, more narrowly defined categories of popular fiction appeal to specific audiences. These different fiction categories, which are described briefly in the sections that follow, are classed as a group as genre fiction. Each type of genre fiction has its own set of rules and conventions. So, if you want to try your hand at writing fiction, start with what you like to read. A solid grounding in the conventions of your chosen genre helps a great deal, so the more familiar you are with the books in it, the better.

    If, for example, you’re a voracious reader of mysteries, look closely at the conventions in the work of Agatha Christie, P.D. James, or whoever your favorite mystery writer is. If you can’t get enough of Jennifer Wilde’s historical romances, that may be where you start. Likewise, if the thrillers of Le Carre or the westerns of Louis Lamour are on your bedside table, make those your model as you embark on writing your novel.

    Mystery is a popular genre, boasting a huge established audience. All mysteries focus on a crime, usually murder. The action tends to center on the attempts of a wily detective-type to solve the crime. And the climax usually occurs near the end, in a leisurely setting where all the elements of the mystery are neatly assembled for the reader’s convenience. The solution, complete with surprises, is then delivered to the characters and the reader alike.

    Mystery subgenres include spy, detective, and crime stories. You can find a vast network of mystery writers associations, conventions, and conferences, as well as publications to help mystery writers pursue their craft. For information, contact Mystery Writers of America.

    Great practitioners in this genre include Arthur Conan Doyle, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Earle Stanley Gardner, creator of Perry Mason. Present day giants include Carl Hiaason, James Ellroy, Robert Parker, James Lee Burke, and Elmore Leonard.

    Romance is a huge category aimed at diverting and entertaining women. In romance novels, you have elements of fantasy, love, naïveté, extravagance, adventure, and always the heroic lover overcoming impossible odds to be with his true love. Many romances, especially the gothic romance, have an easy-to-follow formula — a young, inexperienced girl living a somewhat remote existence is courted or threatened by an evil man and then rescued by a valiant one.

    Other subgenres include historical, contemporary, fantasy romance, and romantic suspense. If historical detail and settings interest you, try writing a regency or historical romance. If you enjoy a dash of mystery or intrigue, then romantic suspense novels are for you. However, if you’re interested in more modern stories with sexual candor, then consider writing a contemporary romance.

    Certainly, you have lots of opportunity in the field of romance writing, which is the largest, most diverse, and most popular of the commercial genres. And romance writers’ organizations can provide exact writing guidelines. To receive a set of guidelines, contact Romance Writers of America.

    First-class romance writers include Jude Deveraux, Victoria Holt, Judith McNaught, Daphne Du Maurier, Jennifer Greene, and Nora Roberts.

    Women’s fiction
    It’s common knowledge in the publishing industry that women constitute the biggest book-buying segment. So, it’s certainly no accident that most mainstream as well as genre fiction is popular among women. For that reason, publishers and booksellers have identified a category within the mainstream that they classify as Women’s Fiction. And its no surprise that virtually all the selections of Oprah’s Book Club are in this genre.

    From a writer’s perspective, some key characteristics of these books include a focus on relationships, one or more strong female protagonists, women triumphing over unbearable circumstances, and the experiences of women unified in some way. The field includes such diverse writers as Barbara Taylor Bradford, Anne Rivers Siddons, Alice McDermott, Judith Krantz, Anne Tyler, Rebecca Wells, and Alice Hoffman.

    Science fiction/fantasy
    Science fiction/fantasy novels depict distant worlds and futuristic technologies that whirl readers far away from the here and now and yet provoke contemplation of contemporary issues. Imaginative, thoughtful, and other-worldly, this robust category is made even more popular by the Star Wars and Star Trek series. Leading science fiction and fantasy writers include Ray Bradbury, Arthur Clarke, Isaac Asimov, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien, as well as the current, multi-best-selling, young adult author J.K. Rowling.

    To obtain professional assistance in this genre, contact the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

    Suspense novels and thrillers are tense, exciting, often sensational works with ingenious plotting, swift action, and continuous suspense. In this genre, a writer’s objective is to deliver a story with sustained tension, surprise, and a constant sense of impending doom that propels the reader forward. Unlike mysteries, thrillers are dominated by action in which physical threat is a constant companion, and a hero (James Bond, for example) is pitted against a nefarious villain.

    This genre includes the great espionage writers, including John Le Carre, Len Deighton, Ian Fleming, Clive Cussler, and Frederick Forsythe. It also includes the police procedurals of Patricia Cornwell, Tony Hillerman, and Lawrence Sanders, as well as the courtroom bestsellers of Scott Turow, Richard North Patterson, Steve Martini, and John Grisham, and the military thrillers of Tom Clancy and Stephen Koontz.

    Known simply as westerns, these novels about life on America’s post Civil War western frontier usually involve conflicts between cowboys and outlaws, cowboys and Native Americans, or Easterners and Westerners. While this category still has a mass-market audience and a thriving regional market, it’s not the popular genre it was 25 years ago.

    If you’re interested in writing a western, contact the Western Writers of America

    Zane Grey and Louis Lamour, both deceased, are still among the popular western writers.

    Filled with gut-wrenching fear, this popular genre keeps readers turning the blood-filled pages. From a writer’s perspective, the defining characteristic is the intention to frighten readers by exploiting their fears, both conscious and subconscious: fears of supernatural forces, alien visitations, madness, death, dismemberment, and other terrifying notions.

    Tracing its roots back to the classic tales of Edgar Allan Poe, the horror genre today is dominated by Stephen King, whose vast output of bestsellers under his name as well as his alter-ego Richard Bachman has dominated the bestseller lists for nearly 25 years. Other major horror writers include Mary Shelley, Roald Dahl, Clive Barker, Peter Straub, Dean Koontz, and Anne Rice.

    While horror isn’t science fiction, the SFWA provides a great deal of information and community services aimed at horror writers. To obtain its professional assistance, contact the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

    Young adult
    This genre includes any type of novel with a protagonist in the 12 to 16 age range that speaks to the concerns of teenagers. Currently, J.K. Rowling and her amazing Harry Potter (Scholastic Press) books are dominating the field. Rowling’s accomplishment — a truly universal story, brimming with magic and fantasy as well as likable characters that readers identify with — is an amazing feat. Watch out for all the Harry Potter wannabes in the coming year.

    Success stories in this genre share many of the qualities evident in the Harry Potter books: a memorable voice (J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Little Brown, 1951), believable characters (Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Perigee, 1959), and a willingness to write about the disturbing subjects that preoccupy teens and preteens (Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume, Dell Yearling, 1972, or Holes by Louis Sachar, FSG, 1998).

    I think a lot of the time many people don’t know the different types of fiction genres out there. So above are some definitions and the link to the website is in the source.