There Are Only Seven Stories in the World

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.


About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).

58 Comments on “There Are Only Seven Stories in the World”

  1. 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.

  2. 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?!

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

    1. 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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  9. 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 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 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…

    1. 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.

      1. 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 🙂

    2. that’s a tragic quest of a man vs himself.

      “suicidal thoughts” is the monster to fight, and the protagonist was not able to overcome the monster, or complete the quest of obtaining happiness, so they failed tragically.

      its a tragedy because the hero got worse, getting depressed and killing himself. if they were always just as suicidal as they were at the end of the story, they would have killed themselves as a young child, so even if the story begins when the protagonist is already depressed, the fact that they are even alive implies that they weren’t always suicidal.

      if the character was always suicidal, and the character’s mood stayed the same throughout the whole story, they are a 1-dimensional character. if a story’s main character is 1 dimensional, then the story has terrible character development.

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

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  16. 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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  23. 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.

    1. “Boy meets girl, Boy gets girl. Boy loses girl.”

      that sounds like a “man vs himself” voyage and return quest with a tragic ending.

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  26. that’s a bad classification system, because they are not sub categories of the same type. its a bad taxonomy, because some items refer to how the story ends, and other items refer to the problem of the story, so they shouldn’t be in the same list. it should be separated into types of story problems, and types of story endings.

    “rags to riches” and “rebirth” are types of comedy.
    “overcoming the monster” and “voyage & return” are types of quest.
    “rebirth” is a specific version of “overcoming the monster”, whenever the obstacle is “man vs himself.”

    types of endings:
    – comedy (rags to riches)
    + returns home
    + finds a new home
    – tragedy
    + returns home
    + finds a new home

    types of problems (quest):
    – monster
    – environment
    – self (rebirth)

    you could sum up all of these with a single generic sentence:

    a character grows better or worse, on a journey to get something or
    change something, and maybe returns home at the end.

  27. Oh this is ridiculous. Let’s go even further. There is only one plot. Man Against ________________

  28. I agree with the first list Mrs.Post told you about…
    but the second list …I think its a list of possible components of a story rather than the basic plot itself. for instance harry potter can rags to riches , over coming the monster and a quest all at the same time. Acually if you consider the whole series it has all the parts of the second list

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  32. Perhaps The Lego Movie might be a good example of Rebirth from both Emmet’s and Lord (President) Business’ perspective. (I know real mature.)

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  43. Nonsense…do any of you really realize that the first three movies are very different in quality, history, and point? This is artificial traditionalism. Stories are all individual and unique, as the individual who creates them is individual and unique. These categories are always created, made very broad in order to fit everything, without really being a story in itself. Tell me the name of the hero in Overcoming the Monster? Where we’re they born? We’re they born? Are they immortal? Is Vader’s capriciousness really that of a shark, or the entirety of years of English oppression and Scottish Civil War? The two Civil Wars are very different in themselves, even for the historically inaccurate Braveheart’s rendition of events.

    This is the same nonsense everyone tries. They try saying there is really only one story in the whole world, everything is hopelessly unoriginal, and things are so very predictable, both as a story and as a quality of story. They use this standard to condemn stories that fail to match this standard, that they don’t like and try to make so they don’t fit the types, are therefore abhorrent for its vague and invisible structure which is nowhere present in the actual fact and reality of the story’s events. You are either a part of the type or will never work in their minds. And everything, however different, defiant, and can be defined very specifically, realistically, and uniquely is all the same to them.

    I advise storytellers, and storylisteners, to sheer away from the idea of the Hero’s Journey. Star Wars was Darth Vader’s journey done twice, with Luke warned away from that path, meant to overcome the so-called monster, and then watching as that monster grow closer to him, before helping seal his fate, before becoming the hero himself in the end. There is also the forbidden romance people compare to romeo and juliet, despite the strong difference, and the rogue and the princess you could just try and typify in there. Then you realize the mixed types, the irrelevance of type, how this is even crossing genre’s wires with fantasy and sci-fi to prove there is neither.

    Look at what the journey really is with Vader and Luke. All of that detail, depth, interconnectivity, and rich layers are done away with when we accept this broad, meaningless reduction of the actual story. I have never even read of protagonist before. Who are they? Or are we talking about people like you and me, with names, fate, and no easy way of sorting as one and the same?

  44. Apples and oranges. Your first list, however flawed is a list of types of conflict. Your second list isn’t even about conflict… Its a bit confused about what you are trying to describe in the second list. If your starting point is a list about types of conflict you should either stick to that or be clear about which of the elements of literature you trying to describe. As far as the original list goes it is fine for what it is, except that three of the items would be covered by the other four.

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