I first learned that there are only seven original plots
by reading Emily of New Moon, my favorite book as a child. I found the text of L.M. Montgomery’s 1923 classic about the other little orphan girl on Prince Edward Island on the Internet at Project Gutenberg of Australia, which states its “eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia.” So I can cite the memorable passage:
“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.
“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.”
Is that priceless or what? I’ve quoted as little as I could bear to. Having been imprinted on Father Cassidy’s list, but not having read it for many years, I’ve always assumed the list of seven ran something like this:
. Boy meets girl
.The lost heir
.The disguised hero or role reversal
.The hero’s quest (with subsets that include David and Goliath, Hero saves world, and Disney’s favorite, The lost mother)
.Coming of age (or is that another subset of The hero’s quest too?)
and let’s round out the list with two plots essential to mystery writers:
.Boy murders girl
.Sleuth solves crime
When I consulted the Internet, I found that not everybody’s list of seven is the same as everybody else’s. On several sites, I found (with and without attribution), this very different list. The reference is Foster Harris, William. The Basic Patterns of Plot. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1959.
.[wo]man vs nature
.[wo]man vs man
.[wo]man vs. the environment
.[wo]man vs. machines/technology
.[wo]man vs the supernatural
.[wo]man vs. self
.[wo]man vs God/religion
Yet another seven are proposed by Christopher Booker in The Seven Basic Plots. London/NY: Continuum, 2005.
.Overcoming the monster
.Rags to riches
.Voyage and return
And I can’t resist quoting a passage from a review of Booker’s book by Adam Mars-Jones in The Observer, Sunday, November 21, 2004. It’s almost as delicious as Emily’s conversation with Father Cassidy.
Christopher Booker’s hefty tome of cultural archaeology is peculiar, repetitive, near-barmy, and occasionally rather good. He takes the commonplace idea that there are only so many stories in the world and follows it very far indeed. Obsession is almost too small a word to describe an enterprise which has consumed 34 years and required a reading list more or less synonymous with the history of literature.
Hmm, I wonder if Mr. Booker blogs.
Even though these ways of conceiving the basic plot are not identical, they are certainly interrelated. On a structural level, the writer is unlikely to break entirely new ground, at least without abandoning plot altogether. 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. 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.
After a recent panel, a young man came up to me and expressed concern because the brief description of Death Will Get You Sober on my promotional bookmark resembled the novel he’s working on: 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?) As I assured him, neither of us need worry. I don’t need to read his work to know he can’t possibly write just like me.