Thursday, May 10, 2012

Seven Original Plots

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.


“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
(Or woman, of course.)

Yet another seven are proposed by Christopher Booker in The Seven Basic Plots (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. 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 doesn’t have a chance of coming up with my characters, my dialogue, or my voice.


Susan Oleksiw said...

I like the different lists of the 7 basic plots. You may be familiar with Georges Polti's book "The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations" (1921), which give all of the types plus numerous examples, unfortunately from books most of us have never heard of. It's always a good idea to boil down an idea to its essential components and build from there. Thanks for a fun (and enlightening) post.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I'm struck by the idea of examples we've never heard of--there used to be a lot more common literary ground among readers than there is now, though there are certainly movies that have entered the collective unconscious. Something to blog about another time. :)