Understanding Literary Plots Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Understanding Literary Plots

1 Conversation

A pen and paper.

There is plenty of help available to the aspiring writer, in classes, on the Internet, on television, and in books. Much of it leaves the finer points of description, dialogue and details to the creative mind and focuses, instead, on helping the writer to construct a viable plot.

It has often been claimed that there are only seven basic plots from which all literary works are derived. It has also been claimed that there are 30, 20, 10, 36, or one plot from which all others flow.

Defining our Term

A Sampling of Definitions for 'Plot'

  • Verb: To plan secretly, usually something illegal

  • Noun: A secret scheme to do something

  • Literary: The story that is told in a novel or performance

  • Gardening: A small area of ground covered by specific vegetation

  • Technical: A diagram, schematic or technical drawing that shows interactions among components, or how something is constructed

  • Mathematic: A chart or map showing the movements, progress, or results of an object or process

As you will probably have noticed, all of these versions have related meanings in that each refers to the description of something that is not known until the 'plot' has been completed. In this way we can see that there is really only one definition of 'plot'1.

You may recognise the previous paragraph to be a bit of sophistry, perhaps even sophomoric. Well, it was intentionally provided to make this discussion more understandable and less controversial. The fact is that people like to group things, distill things, and present things in ways that make them easier to digest, remember, discuss, or merely argue over. This distillation, however, does not always clarify meanings.

Remember that anything said after this point is in regard to easing the use of the information, not to dogmatically hold to a theory defending it against all others.

What a Plot is Not

Here are some bad descriptions of the 'plot' concept that you might run across if surfing the Internet, to start you off:

Plot is the essence, the actual storyline of what is happening in a written or performed work. It generally refers to a very brief overview of the story, but it really can be as detailed as you make it. It can leave out particular details that are plot twists in order that these aren't revealed until the person watching/reading the story gets to them.

This is not a 'plot' at all. What this 'definition' actually describes is a synopsis.

Plot is the skeletal system of a story. It contains the web of events that make up the entire story, as well as literary patterns and devices, which are incorporated to create the story's essence. It is divided into six basic components, namely: exposition, initial incident, rising action, climax, falling action, and ending. This kind of categorisation, however, may vary according to a writer's point of view.

We must be thankful for the caveat; for this is also not so much a definition of 'plot', but of a story's dynamic flow (similar to biorhythms). Useful to understand, but misidentified.

From Encyclopædia Britannica:

In fiction, the structure of interrelated actions, consciously selected and arranged by the author. Plot involves a considerably higher level of narrative organisation than normally occurs in a story or fable. According to EM Forster in Aspects of the Novel (1927), a story is a 'narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence', whereas a plot organises the events according to a 'sense of causality.'

This definition is much better, except that we know of many 'stories' that are a 'narrative of events', but wherein those events are not arranged any normal form of time sequence. And, what could the encyclopaedia mean by organising events by a 'sense of causality'?

Let's Try Separating the Story from the Plot

The 'story' is represented in the finished work, whether we're talking about a short story, a novel, a movie, or a theatrical performance. It can be summarised or synopsised, but then it becomes a summary or synopsis.

The 'plot' is the structure and relationship of characters and events, designed to produce a particular effect, emotion, or message. It is a higher level of the story than the summary or synopsis (a 50,000-foot view as opposed to a 10,000-foot view).

The story does not have to flow in chronological order. It may not neatly link all of the main characters. It may not explore anything other than a linear path of events. A plot does not have this luxury.

If the story doesn't have a plot it may wind up being a 10,000 word journal about somebody's life, that just describes what had happened until the 10,000th word was reached (imagine Mary Shelley's Frankenstein without any reference to sewing bits of dead people together and the results).

Categorising Plots

Georges Polti's 36 Dramatic Situations

Georges Polti created his 'Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations' to categorise every dramatic situation that might occur in a story or performance, by analysing classical Greek texts, French works, and others (continuing the work of Carlo Gozzi and his 36 'Situations').

Supplication; Deliverance; Crime pursued by vengeance; Vengeance taken for kin upon kin; Pursuit; Disaster; Falling prey to cruelty/misfortune; Revolt; Daring enterprise ; Abduction; The enigma; Obtaining ; Enmity of kin; Rivalry of kin; Murderous adultery; Madness; Fatal imprudence; Involuntary crimes of love; Slaying of kin unrecognised; Self-sacrifice for an ideal; Self-sacrifice for kin; All sacrificed for passion; Necessity of sacrificing loved ones; Rivalry of superior vs inferior; Adultery; Crimes of love; Discovery of the dishonour of a loved one; Obstacles to love; An enemy loved; Conflict with a god or gods; Mistaken jealousy; Erroneous judgement; Remorse; Recovery of a lost one; Loss of loved ones.

The IPL List

An IPL (Internet Public Library) list includes just these seven fairly expansive plot concepts:

man/woman vs nature
man/woman vs man/woman
man/woman vs the environment
man/woman vs machines/technology
man/woman vs the supernatural
man/woman vs self
man/woman vs God/religion

A Gross Simplification of Booker's list

Christopher Booker's book, Seven Basic Plots - Why We Tell Stories (which took him 35 years to write), looks quite different. For example, the previous list's man vs X plots above would all seem to fall under 'overcoming the monster'.

  • Overcoming the monster: Defeating a force which threatens safety, existence, success

  • The Quest: A group in search of something (who may find it or something 'better')

  • Journey and Return: The hero journeys away from home and comes back (having experienced something and maybe having changed for the better)

  • Comedy: Not necessarily 'haha' funny. a misunderstanding or ignorance is created that keeps parties apart, which is resolved, by the end, bringing them back together

  • Tragedy: Someone, tempted (vanity, greed, etc), becomes increasingly desperate, or trapped by their actions, until the climax where they usually die

  • Rebirth: Hero is captured or oppressed (a living death existence) until they are miraculously freed

  • Rags to Riches: Overcoming a state of poverty, want, and/or need.

This is not to say that stories don't jump in at places other than their chronological starting point; or leave early, leaving us feeling unsatisfied. His theory, that there only seven basic plots, is connected strongly to the psychology of Jung, the Ego and the Self. But then, at the end of his book, Booker adds two more plots: Rebellion and Mystery, which both sound like versions of 'overcoming the monster'.

Ronald B Tobias's '20 Master Plots'

Quest; Adventure; Pursuit; Rescue; Escape; Revenge; The Riddle; Rivalry; Underdog; Temptation; Metamorphosis; Transformation; Maturation; Love; Forbidden Love; Sacrifice; Discovery; Wretched Excess; Ascension; Descension.

Foster-Harris's 'Basic Patterns of Plot'

Foster-Harris contended that there are three basic patterns of plot:

  • Type A, happy ending: Central character makes a sacrifice (a decision that seems logically 'wrong') for the sake of another

  • Type B, unhappy ending: Central character does what seems logically 'right' and thus fails to make the needed sacrifice

  • Type C, literary plot: In which the outcome does not hinge upon decision, but fate; the critical event may take place at the beginning of the story rather than the end. What follows is inevitable and, often, tragic

Shakespeare's Two Cents

Of course one could always break plots down to simply comedy- and tragedy-based, as Shakespeare did. In tragedies, everybody dies; and, in comedies, at least the protagonist lives.

Additional Categorisation

In addition to Seven Literary Plots, there is also the concept of the Seven Basic Needs for a story line.

  • Hero/Protagonist – the person whose actions and decisions we follow, set against a larger background

  • Hero's Character Flaw – A physical, emotional, or psychological (even spiritual) weakness or defense mechanism that prevents the hero from being complete; because the growth/maturity of characters is so critical to stories

  • Enabling circumstances – The surroundings the hero is in at the beginning of the story, which allow the hero to maintain his/her character flaw

  • Opponent/Villain/Antagonist – Someone who opposes the hero in getting or doing what he/she wants. Not always a true villain, say in a romantic comedy. The opponent is the person who instigates a life-changing event

  • Ally/Friend/Helper/Mate – The person who spends a lot of time with the hero and helps the hero overcome his/her character flaw

  • Life-changing event – The challenge, threat or opportunity that results from the opponent, which forces the hero to respond in some way that's related to the hero overcoming the flaw.

  • Jeopardy – The risks that the hero must take to overcome the flaw, dramatic events that lend excitement and challenge to the quest

Thankfully, many writers - like most creative types - learn how to throw away all the basic tenets and come up with new and fresh combinations and exclusions, like 'machines/technology v the supernatural', to keep things interesting.

1Especially the garden plot, for no one can know what will sprout until the planting is done and the seedlings begin to break the surface.

Bookmark on your Personal Space

Conversations About This Entry

Latest Post

Edited Entry


Infinite Improbability Drive

Infinite Improbability Drive

Read a random Edited Entry

Categorised In:

Written by

Write an Entry

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. It has been compiled and recompiled many times and under many different editorships. It contains contributions from countless numbers of travellers and researchers."

Write an entry
Read more