Are there really only seven basic plot themes in Western literature?
There are only a handful of basic plot themes in the entire canon of Western literature. Author Christopher Booker argues, in his book “The Seven Basic Plots”, that there are in fact only seven plot lines:
(1) Overcoming the Monster — Stories like Beowulf, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, Jaws, and many of the James Bond films, where a hero must defeat a monster and restore order to a world that has been threatened by the monster’s presence.
(2) Rags to Riches — These stories feature modest, generally virtuous but downtrodden characters, who achieve a happy ending when their special talents or true beauty is revealed to the world at large. Includes any number of classics such as ‘Cinderella’, David Copperfield, and the Horatio Alger novels.
(3) The Quest — A hero, often accompanied by sidekicks, travels in search of a priceless treasure and fights against evil and overpowering odds, and ends when he gets both the treasure and the girl. The Odyssey is a classic example of this kind of story.
(4) Voyage and Return — Alice in Wonderland, Robinson Crusoe on his desert island, other stories of normal protagonists who are suddenly thrust into strange and alien worlds and must make their way back to normal life once more.
(5) Comedy — Not always synonymous with humour. Instead, the plot of a comedy involves some kind of confusion that must be resolved before the hero and heroine can be united in love. Think of Shakespeare’s comedies, The Marriage of Figaro, the plays of Oscar Wilde and Gilbert and Sullivan, and even War and Peace.
(6) Tragedy — As a rule, the terrible consequences of human overreaching and egotism. The Picture of Dorian Gray, Julius Caesar, Anna Karenina…this category is usually self-evident.
(7) Rebirth — The stories of Ebeneezer Scrooge and Mary Lennox would fall into this basic plot type, which focuses on a threatening shadow that seems nearly victorious until a sequence of fortuitous (or even miraculous) events lead to redemption and rebirth, and the restoration of a happier world.
Within these basic plots can be smaller ‘metaplots’ that outline the general structure of these stories. Christopher Booker further identifies ‘dark’ versions of these basic plots, ones in which the happy ending is never achieved even though the characters go through all of the stages in the underlying metaplot. There are also a handful of other, smaller plots that are often incorporated into these larger overarching plots, such as the ‘Rebellion’ plot or the ‘Mystery’ plot.
Interesting parlour game
In his book, Christopher Booker looks at both plots and characters, identifying heroes and heroines and the figures who both help them (e.g., the Wise Old Man, the Good Mother, the Companion) and hinder them (e.g., the Dark Rival or Alter-Ego, the Temptress, the Tyrant). If many of these character figures sound like basic story archetypes, that’s because they are. Booker dedicated an entire book to determining and explaining how these combinations of plots and characters come together to create some of most well-known stories in the literary canon.
Not all commentators agree with Booker’s basic methodology, it must be acknowledged. But it makes for an interesting parlour game to try to identify stories that do not fit into one of Booker’s seven basic plot themes.