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: Quest Adventure Pursuit Rescue Escape Revenge The Riddle Rivalry Underdog Temptation Metamorphosis Transformation Maturation Love Forbidden Love Sacrifice Discovery Wretched Excess Ascension 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.): Supplication (in which the Supplicant must beg something from Power in authority) Deliverance Crime Pursued by Vengeance Vengeance taken for kindred upon kindred Pursuit Disaster Falling Prey to Cruelty of Misfortune Revolt Daring Enterprise Abduction The Enigma (temptation or a riddle) Obtaining Enmity of Kinsmen Rivalry of Kinsmen Murderous Adultery Madness 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 Adultery Crimes of Love Discovery of the Dishonor of a Loved One Obstacles to Love An Enemy Loved Ambition Conflict with a God Mistaken Jealousy Erroneous Judgement Remorse Recovery of a Lost One Loss of Loved Ones.