There 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:
- man against man
- man against nature
- man against himself
- man against God
- man against society
- man caught in the middle
- 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.