1,462 Basic Plot Types

background image

For centuries, writers and critics have tried to put stories into basic categories. I’ve written about the scientific quest for universal plot types using the Hedonometer and the theories of Kurt Vonnegut. My colleague Mark Nichol has written about several lists of types of plots: three types, seven types, another seven types, twenty types, and thirty six types. Before I reread Mark’s article, I thought I could combine them all and write my own article called The 69 Types of Plots. Then I heard about the 1928 book Plotto, where dime store novelist William Wallace Cook comes up with 1,462 basic plots. So it never ends.

Is it really true that all stories fit into rigid plot types? Maybe not. Even Plotto‘s categories don’t always seem rigid to me. But human nature does dictate certain rules. There’s a reason why the Computational Story Laboratory’s Hedonometer has a story type “rise then fall then rise” but not one called “rise rise rise rise.” Our emotions need a contrasting break. If you write an experimental story without either conflict or plot or character development, the result will probably not be innovative so much as it will be boring. If you decide to be clever by not tying up any loose ends, you will succeed in frustrating your reader instead of delighting him. No, certain plots are universally attractive, even if we don’t understand why. Even business proposals are easier to adopt if they have a plot.

The theories of psychoanalyst Carl Jung has deeply influenced several list-makers, such as Joseph Campbell (The Hero with a Thousand Faces) and Christopher Booker (The Seven Basic Plots). Jung’s mythology has lost the lion’s share of the popularity it once held. But the fact that stories all over the world have common elements: that’s more than a theory. Joseph Campbell describes 17 stages from Departure, Initiation, and Return. Christopher Booker’s meta-plot has five elements:

  1. Anticipation
  2. Dream
  3. Frustration
  4. Nightmare
  5. Resolution

Another theory which you might have learned in school says there are four types of plots. Here is my take on them:

  • Dramatic – the traditional chronological story, with a climax and a resolution.
  • Episodic – chronological but less linear and more loose, often made up of separate character-based episodes instead of a single story.
  • Parallel – two chronological stories are woven together. The focus may shift back and forth from the events of one character to the other.
  • Flashback – not chronological: events from the past are sometimes presented after events of the present. This can be interesting but confusing.

When I looked at the lists in Mark’s article, I realized that some items are not mutually exclusive. Some lists have a different focus and basic types appear on more than one list. Also, your story can have more than one basic plot or conflict. The longer your story is, the longer you need to hold your reader’s interest, and the more plot elements or conflicts you will need to include. In Plotto, William Wallace Cook makes it to 1,462 by combining and recombining plot elements.

One common list of plot types (man against x, man against y, man against z, etc.) is actually a list of conflict types, several of which can appear in a single story.

In a classic amnesia tale, a man regains consciousness with no memory of who he is. He realizes he has driven his car off the road into a snowbank (or into a hole, making him a “man in a hole.”) He is able to start the car (person vs. technology) without freezing to death (person vs. nature). He goes to the home address on his driver’s license and convinces the hostile woman who answers the door – presumably his wife – to let him in (person vs. person) while hiding the fact that he doesn’t remember who she is. His personal calendar tells him he has an appointment in two hours, where he pretends to remember the woman he’s meeting with, learning that they are leaders in a criminal conspiracy (person vs. society). That night, he dreams about his family and associates, He is tempted to deny the evil that he sees (person vs. self) and the fact, as it turns out, that he has dreamed actual events (person vs. supernatural). Aware now of what kind of life he has led, he must decide whether to change his life or continue on the same destructive path (person vs. higher power).

Basic Plot Types (69 of them)

Finally, here’s a list of all the plot types referred to in Mark Nichol’s article:

  1. Overcoming the Monster
  2. Rags to Riches
  3. Voyage and Return
  4. Comedy
  5. Tragedy
  6. Rebirth
  7. Person versus higher power/fate

  8. Person versus self
  9. Person versus person
  10. Person versus society
  11. Person versus nature
  12. Person versus the supernatural
  13. Person versus technology
  14. Quest

  15. Adventure
  16. Pursuit
  17. Rescue
  18. Escape
  19. Revenge
  20. The Riddle
  21. Rivalry
  22. Underdog
  23. Temptation
  24. Metamorphosis
  25. Transformation
  26. Maturation
  27. Love
  28. Forbidden Love
  29. Sacrifice
  30. Discovery
  31. Wretched Excess
  32. Ascension
  33. Descension
  34. Supplication

  35. Deliverance
  36. Crime Pursued by Vengeance
  37. Vengeance taken for kindred upon kindred
  38. Pursuit
  39. Disaster
  40. Falling Prey to Cruelty of Misfortune
  41. Revolt
  42. Daring Enterprise
  43. Abduction
  44. The Enigma
  45. Obtaining
  46. Enmity of Kinsmen
  47. Rivalry of Kinsmen
  48. Murderous Adultery
  49. Madness
  50. Fatal Imprudence
  51. Involuntary Crimes of Love
  52. Slaying of a Kinsman Unrecognized
  53. Self-Sacrificing for an Ideal
  54. Self-Sacrifice for Kindred
  55. All Sacrificed for Passion
  56. Necessity of Sacrificing Loved Ones
  57. Rivalry of Superior and Inferior
  58. Adultery
  59. Crimes of Love
  60. Discovery of the Dishonor of a Loved One
  61. Obstacles to Love
  62. An Enemy Loved
  63. Ambition
  64. Conflict with a God
  65. Mistaken Jealousy
  66. Erroneous Judgement
  67. Remorse
  68. Recovery of a Lost One
  69. Loss of Loved Ones

If that’s not enough, you can always try Plotto. The system is a little complicated, though.
Plots 785-787 from Plotto

Stop making those embarrassing mistakes! Subscribe to Daily Writing Tips today!

You will improve your English in only 5 minutes per day, guaranteed!

Each newsletter contains a writing tip, word of the day, and exercise!

You'll also get three bonus ebooks completely free!

2 thoughts on “1,462 Basic Plot Types”

  1. I found that list interesting…then I began to see how many were just categories of a plot. Most interesting to me, there were no subcategories of a very common plot…Comedy. Off the top of my head I came up with six that were missing.

    1. Comedy
    2. Tragedy
    1. Self-Sacrificing for an Ideal
    2. Self-Sacrifice for Kindred
    3. All Sacrificed for Passion
    4. Necessity of Sacrificing Loved Ones
    5. Rivalry of Superior and Inferior
    6. Conflict with a God
    7. Mistaken Jealousy
    8. Erroneous Judgement
    9. Remorse
    10. Loss of Loved Ones
    11. Sacrifice
    12. Wretched Excess
    13. Disaster
    14. Madness
    15. Fatal Imprudence
    16. Slaying of a Kinsman Unrecognized
    3. Battle
    1. Abduction
    2. Underdog
    3. Falling Prey to Cruelty of Misfortune
    4. Temptation
    5. Revolt
    6. Person versus higher power/fate
    7. Person versus self
    8. Person versus person
    9. Person versus society
    10. Person versus nature
    11. Person versus the supernatural
    12. Person versus technology
    4. Quest
    1. Overcoming the Monster
    2. Revenge
    3. The Riddle
    4. Discovery
    5. Pursuit
    6. Daring Enterprise
    7. The Enigma
    8. Obtaining
    9. Recovery of a Lost One
    10. Ambition
    5. Adventure (Quest)
    1. Rags to Riches
    2. Voyage and Return
    3. Pursuit
    4. Rescue
    5. Escape
    6. Rivalry
    1. Crime Pursued by Vengeance
    2. Vengeance taken for kindred upon kindred
    3. Enmity of Kinsmen
    4. Rivalry of Kinsmen
    7. Metamorphosis
    1. Rebirth
    2. Transformation
    3. Maturation
    4. Ascension
    5. Descension
    6. Supplication
    7. Deliverance
    8. Love
    1. Adultery
    2. Crimes of Love
    3. Discovery of the Dishonor of a Loved One
    4. Obstacles to Love
    5. An Enemy Loved
    6. Murderous Adultery
    7. Forbidden Love
    8. Involuntary Crimes of Love

Leave a Comment