Thursday, September 6, 2007

Only So Many Stories: The Seven Original Plots

Elizabeth Zelvin

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
.The quest
.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.



Sandra Parshall said...

Occasionally I do read a published book that's so similar to something already in print that I wonder why a publisher brought out the second book. (This usually happens, it seems, when authors draw inspiration from the same real event.) But editors don't read (or even know about) every book that's published, and neither do readers. You can't copyright an idea, as we know, only the expression of it. Still, I get nervous when I hear about a book that's even remotely like what I'm writing, and I think we should all avoid jumping on a bandwagon and deliberately copying what's popular at the moment (chick lit, ancient document that will change the course of history, etc.). By the time our copy is even seen by editors, the bandwagon may have stalled out.

Sofie Kelly said...

Liz, your post took me off in a totally different direction from plotting. That's because of your choice of excerpt. Whether or not L.M. Montgomery's works are in the public domain or not has been debated in Canada for quite a while. Her heirs and the PEI government created an Anne of Green Gables licensing authority many years ago in what many people felt was in violation of the spirit of copyright laws.

How do you feel about copyright protection for your writing? Do you think it's something your heirs should be able to renew and in theory control for ever? Or do you think at some point your work should be free to everyone?

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Darlene, I have been copyrighting material since I started writing songs in the 1970s, and I'm happy with the current US copyright law that gives me, if I remember correctly, my lifetime plus 50 years. I'd be very surprised indeed if any interest in my work remained after that point. It used to be 26 years with 26 years renewal, and I was very surprised when I realized I did have to renew the copyright on some of my songs. On the other hand, in all this time, nobody's ever published them or performed them publicly except me. The site I took them from is Australian and states that they use material that is not protected under Australian copyright law. I confess I was glad to lay my hands on Emily when I wanted her. I may yet buy a copy of the book: who will profit from that if I do? LM Montgomery's heirs? The Canadian government?

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

To respond more fully to Sandy's point: I feel even more strongly after thinking it over that, for better or worse, anyone else writing a mystery about addictions and recovery has about the same chance as those monkeys who write Shakespeare (or don't) of coming up with my voice, my dialogue, or my characters.

Sofie Kelly said...

Liz, as far as I know Lucy Maud's heirs and the Prince Edward Island government benefit if you buy one of the books.

Anonymous said...

Quite enjoyable. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

It is so nice to find someone that had read the "Emily books" as I called them. In fact, I enjoy Emily much more so than Anne. It seems like few people know about these wonderful books.

I have often wondered where L.M. Montgomery came up with the idea that there were only 7 original plots in the world. When I have looked it up on the internet, all I can find are references from authors of the last decade or two, and obviously that was way before her time. The idea has always fascinated me since I was a pre-teen.

Anonymous said...

Ha! I just read the trilogy AGAIN this pat weekend. They are my mother's and grandmothers books (and no I am not young...I turn 50 this month)!. How nice to find them (and in particular Father Cassicy...although it is a pity you couldn't also include the description of his mother).

My favourite book is Jane of Lantern Hill...followed closely by the Blue Castle, My favourite series are the 2 Pat books.

Take good care.

Andrew Wells Douglass said...

This is a dusty old post by Internet standards but I will like to throw in a couple of comments knowing they may never be read.... (The worst fate for any writer aside from diaries.)

On copyright, no country can give you the right to violate the law of another that has jurisdiction over you. The country of Copyrightisevilstan can't singlehandedly invalidate international copyright law. That said, if one believes in copyright at all (some don't), setting the term is tricky, especially after the author dies. In the US, after CTEA in 1998 I *believe* the term is life plus 70 for individuals and 95-120 years for corporate creations. A key goal of that "Sonny Bono" act literally seems to have been protecting Disney's copyright of Mickey Mouse.

I respectfully think these century-long terms are crazy. Frankly I want as many people as possible to read my work without money being an impediment and be fairly compensated. Surely both should be possible. Resources such as Bartleby are terrific, but limited in scope for modern works. I am quite certain that copyright gets in my way constantly when I just want to read a brief excerpt of something or other "fair use" - most recently the Martin Luther King "I Have a Dream" speech which the family has fought zealously to keep out of the public domain. It's fair enough for writing to be about making money - it is certainly honest work! - but where it becomes about amassing wealth (Mickey) or enriching heirs the author never even knew (MLK) or at the expense of the message (MLK) or squelching derivative works (this article), something extremely valuable is lost in the crass name of property law.

On the 7 plots, I've wondered about this for a while. I think it's partly true there are no new plots, because analogies to familiar materials can usually be made. Cliches are a serious peril, but can be avoided with fresh treatments and good writing. There are in a sense an endless number of good stories, and a thousand times that number of bad ones. But I also think the categorization a bit of a trick. If I have a leaky ceiling (and I do), I can catch every drop in a whatever number of buckets (7? 12? 102?) if I just make those buckets the right size. Vague categories of plot have the same effect. I could say all stories are about animals, vegetables, or minerals and reduce the number of buckets to three. I bet someone else can reduce that number to one. :)

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