How Many Plots Are There?
How many plots are there? Well, at its simplest level there is only one plot: your protagonist wants something that s/he doesn’t have, and has to try to get it.
The wanting on the one hand, and the not having on the other creates the conflict which is so essential to every story. It also gives us the main dramatic question (also known as the story question).
All plots follow essentially the same route: the protagonist is in his/her ordinary life when something happens to change that. Either there has been something lacking in his/her life, and the pain gets bad enough that he/she seeks to solve the problem, or the opportunity to solve the problem presents itself.
Or, the protagonist has a good life, but something happens to challenge that, and he/she seeks to get back to where they were (e.g. getting well after an illness, finding a missing child/spouse, escaping the hurricane).
That’s it. Every plot is a variation on that basic premise.
But how many variations are there?
Joseph Campbell in his book “The Hero With A Thousand Faces”, argues that there’s only one, the monomyth. He researched myth and story from all over the world and discovered that no matter the culture, the stories had the same shape. He argues that this shape of story resonates deeply with humans. This shape is often referred to as the Hero’s Journey. Christopher Vogler’s book The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, is a more accessible take on this topic, and is a must-have for writers.
Cristopher Booker in his book: “The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories,” says there are these seven:
- Overcoming the monster
- Rags to riches
- The quest
- Voyage and return
Ronald B Tobias, in his book, “20 Master Plots And How To Build Them” lists (obviously!) twenty – although he freely admits that this number is arbitrary. They are:
- The Quest
- The riddle
- Underdog (the ‘One Against’ in the list below)
- Forbidden love
- Wretched excess
- and 20. (The author puts them together.) Ascension and Descension
James Scott Bell in his book “Plot & Structure” has nine:
- The Quest
- The Chase
- One Against – the ‘Underdog’ in the list above.
- One Apart
So you’ll see that there are differing opinions on how many plots in fiction there are. In one way there is an infinity of plots, but in another way for sure they can be categorised into overall concepts as these writers have done.