How many plot types are there, and does it really matter? And if you write nonfiction, rather than fiction, why should you read this post? (I guess you’ll have to read the post to find out.)
Throughout the years, writers have posited various opinions about how many distinct types of stories exist. Several of the more prominent theories follow:
William Foster Harris, in The Basic Patterns of Plot, suggests that the three plot types are the happy ending, the unhappy ending, and tragedy. What’s the difference between the second and third types? A tragedy is distinguished from an unhappy ending partly by the magnitude of the outcome but mostly in that the lead character attempts to do something marked by excessive pride, overweening ambition, or another character flaw and that the outcome seems preordained by fate.
Christopher Booker, in The Seven Basic Plot Points: Why We Tell Stories, lists the plot types as Overcoming the Monster, the Quest, the Voyage and Return, Rags to Riches, and the Rebirth, as well as Comedy and Tragedy. At first glance, the last two terms seem more like genres than plots, but a comedy, though it might also fit into one of the other five types, is often marked by a standard array of miscues and misadventures, and, as intimated in the previous paragraph, a tragedy has a narrow focus: The protagonist tempts fate, and fate responds.
Another septet, one that may seem slightly off topic, is a list of plot conflicts, but the items encapsulate basic storylines as well. In (somewhat arbitrary) order of increasing complexity, the duels are person versus fate (or God), person versus self, person versus person, person versus society, person versus nature, person versus the supernatural, and person versus technology.
Ronald Tobias, in 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them, shares a score of story types. I won’t list them all (you can easily find them through an online search), but they range from the basic (the Quest) to the moderately complex (Revenge) to the more sophisticated (Metamorphosis) and beyond.
Georges Polti, in The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations, eschews the basics in favor of specific concepts including Daring Enterprise, Fatal Imprudence, and Erroneous Judgment, as well as several varieties of tales of love and sacrifice. (Again, the full roster is available by searching online.)
Pigeonholing Plot Types
Is it necessary for writers to consider these distinctions? Does one need to know the plot type of one’s story? Can’t you just write your story?
You’re welcome to ignore categorization, but consider the benefits: By matching your story to one or more plot types, you can mine the traditions of that type (or those types). If you write a quest tale or a similar type — whether set in a fantasy realm or in the real world — without exploiting the rule of three, for example, it will lack the resonance of its forebears. You can, of course, defy expectations by avoiding clichés, but if you give a name to the type of story you are telling, you are more likely to recognize opportunities to do so.
But what does plot have to do with nonfiction? All stories — even factual ones — have a plot, and especially when you write narrative nonfiction, you should recognize the parameters you are following or exceeding. Is your profile of a person or a company or organization, or your account of an event or an incident, a tale of redemption, or one of hubris, or one of revolt against complacency or a predetermined path, or something else? Consider your story’s metaphorical and allegorical potential, and capitalize on its resemblance to other tales as you build it.