There Are Only Seven Stories in the World

Len WilsonCreativity, Story, Writing32 Comments

A Jumble of letters

T  here are only seven stories in the world. I used to think there were a lot more than that, based on visits to Blockbuster and my school reading list, but my high school Creative Writing teacher, Mrs. Post, which is an awesome name for an English teacher, corrected my ignorance. She said that all plots are a variation of one of seven basic themes. She used a list made by Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch. Here they are:

  1. man against man
  2. man against nature
  3. man against himself
  4. man against God
  5. man against society
  6. man caught in the middle
  7. man and woman

(You ‘ll have to forgive his misogynistic, pre-PC, British empire sensibilities.)

Some of these never made much sense to me, but fortunately someone else made a more recent list, which I like better. So here are the new and improved seven basic plots:

Overcoming the Monster: The hero learns of a great evil and goes on a journey to destroy it. Star Wars qualifies. Braveheart. Jaws. Any movie with Nazis in it. Some of the Rocky movies. (Is it obvious I am a guy?)

Rags to Riches: A sad-sack beginning that leads to a happily ever after.  A lot of Dickens’ stuff fits here. Disney princess movies. Harry Potter. Most every rom-com.

The Quest: Everybody loves a quest where the hero goes on a journey to find something, which can be a Lost Ark (literal of figurative), a body (Stand By Me), or even something unknown and unseen, which is known in Hollywood as a MacGuffin. Sometimes the hero brings his entourage, too. A lot of epics are Quest stories. Like The Goonies. Some of my favorite biblical stories are quests, like Abram and The Wise Men.

Voyage and Return: Like The Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy goes to a weird place with weird rules but ultimately returns home better off. I suppose I like Oz alright, but I’d rather give props to Back to the Future, because I’m of that ilk.

Comedies get their own category, too. For some reason, two people can’t be together, which creates all sorts of antics. They eventually figure it out, though. Again, most every rom-com ever, like When Harry Met Sally, or The Money Pit. (Note: you can make anything into a comedy. For example, Monty Python is a funny Quest movie, but the category here refers to a specific kind of plot, not just anything with humor.)

Tragedies are like riches to rags, where the villian gets it in the end. MacBeth and King Lear are classic examples. Or most slasher pictures if you go for that sort of thing.

Rebirth is like a tragedy but where the hero realizes his error before it’s too late, like in It’s a Wonderful Life. Which makes me wonder, are there any slasher movies where the bad guy cleans up and catches a ray of sun at the end?

You can also mix and match types, for example a lot of Quest movies throw in a monster to overcome. The original Rocky is a rags to riches quest movie. Star Wars is a rags to riches quest where the hero overcomes the monster on a voyage and return while the Villain experiences rebirth at the end. Oh, and throw in some Jar Jar for the comedy.

Update: For tips on incorporating these ideas into storytelling in your organization or church, click here.

 

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Len Wilson

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Writer. Story lover. Believer. Branding philosopher. Breakfast chef. Tickle monster. Dr. Pepper enthusiast. Creative Director. Occasional public speaker.

Len WilsonThere Are Only Seven Stories in the World
  • Lori Fast

    Where are the man/woman stories in the new list?

  • Len

    It’s a completely different rubric. I think the protagonist is assumed in each of the newer categories. For example, the 90s popcorn movie Twister (loved Helen Hunt in that movie) would be man vs. nature in the first rubric, and Overcoming the Monster in the second.

    A fun game would be to name a bunch of cool movies and see how they fit into the list, or if they don’t.

  • Lori Fast

    I guess I was thinking that I don’t see much about relationships in the second list – the first list is all relationship, human’s relationships with the things around them or each other or God. I’m not sure I get the second list… it would be cool to do that with movies though. What about the Bourne movies? Quest or Overcoming the Monster or Voyage and Return? Or all 3?!

  • Len

    Right! Bourne movies rock. Both lists seem plot driven to me, although the first one is more about the character’s arc while the second is focused strictly on plot, or action. Both are interesting typologies.

  • Sandra Harper

    I did my master’s thesis on The Archetype of the Great Mother. The second list was the one I ran across a lot during that research. Very Jungian.

  • http://twitter.com/revpeacegirl Kerry

    Actually, in tragedies, it’s not the villain who gets it in the end (that would be a happy ending, and more like most slasher movies). In tragedy it’s the hero who gets it in the end, usually because of some personal flaw that is the flip side of their virtues or strengths. Tragedies go from a state of affairs that seems to be relatively good and getting better, to a turning point where things start going downhill and don’t stop until (in Shakespeare, at least) almost everyone is dead or traumatized.

  • http://maggiekaypresents.blogspot.com/ Maggie Kay

    Well, relationship movies would be considered man vs. man or even man against himself. Of course in the first list the word “man” does represent people, not male. I thought it would be nice to note the difference.

    Also, I thought your comment on listing you favorite movies and seeing how they fit or don’t fit. In theory, all movies should fit somewhere in this list. I think it’s very fascinating.

    • http://lenwilson.us Len Wilson

      Maggie,

      Thanks for the note. You are correct to note that while those empire British folks had many good ideas, gender inclusiveness was not one of them.

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  • john mott

    clockwork orange to answer rebirth question

  • Mike

    well… where does this go then:
    “A man/woman wishes to commit suicide and the story goes through what his family, friends and himself/herself experience”:
    1.Comedy: definitely not
    2.no monster (bad guy) to overcome
    3.rags to riches/tragedy: no real unhappy or happy ending as the man/woman got what he/she wanted
    4.no real voyage or quest
    5.Rebirth: not really as the man/woman doesn’t change their mind near the end
    I dunno this may just be me being an idiot but it may be a HUGE SUCCESS (if it is then I copyright this idea <__>) if you disagree then please be constructive with your criticism…

    • http://lenwilson.us/ Len Wilson

      Hey Mike, I sent you an email just now with some ideas.

    • bibbity

      man vs society. just from the standpoint of society, of which the man is part of.

    • Doug Thomas

      Good to see a thinker….but this “may” fall into the male / female category….each has multiple layers & each has many variables…like all of the above. I love the idea though.

      • Jaginder Singh

        Been done. 1. Comedy? Possible. it all depends on how you build up the characters and plot. Some may it call black comedy, it all depends on your sense of humor and tolerance. 2. Monster? Depends on your definition of monster. We all have monsters within do we overcome these monsters or give in? 3. Happy ending? Why not? if you let them wake up after death in heaven…lol 4. Voyage/Quest? sure! what if they wanted to die in a special way of at an ridiculous place? 5. Rebirth? If you don’t call waking up in heaven a rebirth then I don’t know what is more symbolic! lol! Sometimes when we take a step back, the whole world would look different :)

  • turkeydance

    ‘stories’ as in Fiction?
    can stories be NonFiction?
    nonfiction has lots of plots.
    no men no women no nature.
    2 + 2 = 4 and forevermore.

    • http://lenwilson.us/ Len Wilson

      turkeydance, sure, stories can be non-fiction. In fact some say that there’s no such thing as fiction.

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  • Nate

    What you describe as seven themes are not themes at all but seven natures of conflict. The seven plots you describe are also separate from both theme and conflict in that plot is the events of the story through which the main conflict manifests itself.

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  • mark conte

    Actually, Hollywood has taken over the rebirth for just about every picture. The main character is a complete jerk throughout the picture, but in the last five minutes of the movie, he does something right and becomes the hero and a good guy. Scent of a Woman is one. Independence Day had two jerks, The ex-husband who punched his wife’s boss because he thought she was having an affair and is working as a cable guy instead of his chosen profession and the drunken, delusional father who let’s his children raise themselves. However they help defeat the /aliens at the end, they are god guys. No they are still jerks. Sometimes it is subtle. James Garner in Support Yor Local Gunfighter or Bill Murray in Groundhog Day and Scrooged. There must be s lot of jerks in Hollywood. Also, you left out one plot the most overused plot in history. Boy meets girl, Boy gets girl. Boy loses girl. I used that twice but added Boy gets girl back for one story.

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