06 October 2012

The Seven Original Plots


by Elizabeth Zelvin

Somerset Maugham said, “There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” Similarly, there are supposed to be only seven original plots, but authorities differ on what those seven plots are.

I first learned about the seven original plots in L.M. Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon (1923), my favorite book as a child. Here’s the memorable passage, adverbial attributions, Irish accent, and all:

“I’m in a scrape and I’ve been in it all summer. You see”—Emily was very sober—“I am a poetess.”

“Holy Mike! That is serious. I don’t know if I can do much for you. How long have you been that way?”

“Are you making fun of me?” asked Emily gravely.

Father Cassidy swallowed something besides plum cake.

“The saints forbid!...Have another slice av cake and tell me all about it.”

“It’s like this—I’m writing an epic….My epic,” said Emily, diligently devouring plum cake, “is about a very beautiful high-born girl who was stolen away from her real parents when she was a baby and brought up in a woodcutter’s hut.”

“One av the seven original plots in the world,” murmured Father Cassidy.

“What?”

“Nothing. Just a bad habit av thinking aloud. Go on.”

“She had a lover of high degree but his family did not want him to marry her because she was only a woodcutter’s daughter—”

“Another av the seven plots—excuse me.”

“—so they sent him away to the Holy Land on a crusade and word came back that he was killed and then Editha—her name was Editha—went into a convent—”

Emily paused for a bite of plum cake and Father Cassidy took up the strain.

“And now her lover comes back very much alive, though covered with Paynim scars, and the secret av her birth is discovered through the dying confession av the old nurse and the birthmark on her arm.”

“How did you know?” gasped Emily in amazement.

“Oh, I guessed it—I’m a good guesser.”

My list of seven, based on Emily’s epic and my own bias as a mystery writer, would be:
  • Boy meets girl
  • The lost heir
  • The disguised hero
  • The hero’s quest
  • Coming of age
  • Boy murders girl
  • Sleuth solves crime

William Foster Harris has a different and perhaps equally valid list in The Basic Patterns of Plot, University of Oklahoma Press, 1959), much cited on the Internet.
  • man vs nature
  • man vs man
  • man vs. the environment
  • man vs. machines/technology
  • man vs the supernatural
  • man vs. self
  • man vs God/religion

We’ll excuse Mr. Harris for not knowing, in 1959, that woman vs nature, woman vs woman, woman vs the supernatural etc are all just as workable.

Yet another seven were proposed by Christopher Booker in The Seven Basic Plots(London/NY: Continuum, 2005).
  • Overcoming the monster
  • Rags to riches
  • The quest
  • Voyage and return
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Rebirth

Whichever list you prefer, the point is that no fiction writer breaks entirely new ground. Our plots can’t possibly be original. And that explains what’s wrong with all those benighted friends and strangers who tell us they have a marvelous idea for a book and they bet we’d love to write it and give them 50 percent of the profit. The knack of telling a good story is not the plot itself. It’s in how we tell the story: how we paint the scene and how we populate it, what our characters get up to and what they say in the course of meeting and murdering each other, pursuing the quest, solving the crime, and so on.

I’ll never forget a young man came up to me after a panel to express concern that his manuscript sounded too much like my first mystery: his protagonist is a drug addict who goes into treatment, somebody is murdered, etc. (Now where does “Boy gets clean and sober” fit in? The hero’s quest? Man vs self? Coming of age—belatedly?) I wasn’t worried. Not being me, he hasn’t a chance of coming up with my characters, my dialogue, or my voice.

8 comments:

Leigh Lundin said...

No wonder you liked Emily of New Moon, that's very sophisticated for child or adult.

Elizabeth, you own list is thoroughly demented… and hilarious!

Fran Rizer said...

Liz, on your own list, you leave out an important one: "Girl murders boy" or we could combine that with "Boy murders girl" to get "Bad person murders good person."

You're right that no one else will produce the same book as someone else even given the same plot. The flip side of coin, however, is that no matter how well something is written, the reader won't care if the writer says nothing of value. Guess it boils down to what we all know -- it takes a combination of plot, characterization, description, and good writing to produce a winner.

Robert Lopresti said...

Remknds me of one of my favorite books, Joseph Campbell's Hero With A Thousand Faces. he reduced all stories to two: Creation, and The Quest.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Uh, Romeo & Juliet? King Lear? Pride & Prejudice & Zombies? Reducing everything to only two may be more effort than it's worth, Rob. ;)

Eve Fisher said...

"There is nothing new under the sun." Excellently presented in the story, "A Rose for Ecclesiastes" (60's sci-fi story by Roger Zelazny, I highly recommend it). After 10,000 years of recorded history, I doubt that any plot is new, and it doesn't bother me a bit. I retold a VERY old plot "Sophistication": someone who's successfully disguised as the opposite sex is accused of something they anatomically cannot have done... (Pope Joan, anyone?) It's all in how we tell it.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Good one, Eve. :)

David Edgerley Gates said...

I think it was Robert Warshow who once remarked there were only six basic plots to the Western, or he might have meant six basic characters, but the point is much the same.

I agree, Liz, that there's nothing really new. It's all in how we handle it.

Velma said...

Keith Snyder has his own, very funny list of 4 plots.