What Is a Plot?

Plots Explained in Less Than 4 Minutes

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Fiction writing typically covers five plots, or the "meta-plot," but the story doesn't stop there. Seven basic storyline plots influence the telling of a tale as well.

Author Christopher Booker spent 34 years researching and writing his book, "The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories." His 2004 classic is a Jungian-influenced analysis of stories and their psychological meaning. He lays out the seven storylines that comprise nearly all works of fiction, from the Greek classics to modern-day pulp fiction. 

What Is a Meta-Plot?

Exploring the seven basic plots begins with an understanding of Booker's meta-plot. It includes five basic stages that comprise works of fiction.

  • The meta-plot begins with the anticipation stage, in which the protagonist is drawn to the adventure that lies ahead.
  • This is followed by the dream stage, in which the adventure begins and the protagonist experiences some success. They have an illusion of invincibility during this stage.
  • This is quickly followed by the frustration stage. The protagonist has their first confrontation with the enemy. The illusion of invincibility is lost at this point.
  • This stage worsens and descends into the nightmare stage. This is the climax of the plot and where it begins to look as if all hope is lost.
  • The protagonist overcomes their trials and tribulations in the final, resolution stage and is victorious against all odds.        

How a Meta-Plot Works

The real concern in all stories is with just one character—the protagonist—no matter how many other characters appear in the story. The reader will always identify with the protagonist's fate as they gradually develop toward the state of self-realization that marks the ends of the story.

Ultimately, it's in relation to this central figure that all other characters in a story take on significance. 

What each of the other characters represents in the novel is really only some aspect of the inner state of the protagonist.

Types of Basic Storyline Plots

The seven basic plots are the basics of all plot-writing.

Overcoming the Monster

The protagonist sets out to defeat an antagonistic force, most often an evil person or entity that threatens the protagonist and/or the protagonist's homeland.

Examples include Perseus, Theseus, Beowulf, Dracula, The War of the Worlds, Nicholas Nickleby, The Guns of Navarone, Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven, the James Bond franchise, Star Wars, Halloween, Attack on Titan, The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, and Shrek.

Rags to Riches

The poor protagonist acquires things such as power, wealth, and a mate, then proceeds to lose it all. Ultimately, they gain it all back upon evolving as a person.

Examples include Cinderella, Aladdin, Jane Eyre, A Little Princess, Great Expectations, David Copperfield, The Prince and the Pauper, and Brewster's Millions.

The Quest

The protagonist and some of their companions set out to acquire an important object or to get to a destination. They face numerous obstacles and temptations along the way.

Examples include Iliad, The Pilgrim's Progress, King Solomon's Mines, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, The Land Before Time, the Indiana Jones franchise, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle.

Voyage and Return

The protagonist goes to a strange land then returns home having gained valuable experience after overcoming the threats posed.

Examples include Odyssey, Alice in Wonderland, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Orpheus, Peter Rabbit, The Hobbit, Brideshead Revisited, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Gone with the Wind, The Third Man, Apollo 13, Gulliver's Travels, Finding Nemo, Spirited Away, and The Wizard of Oz.

Comedy

Comedy plots are filled with light and humorous characters, and they have a happy or cheerful ending. In this case, comedy is about more than just humor because the central motif is the triumph over adversity, resulting in a happy conclusion. 

Examples include A Midsummer Night's Dream,  Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, Bridget Jones's Diary, Music and Lyrics, Sliding Doors, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and Mr. Bean.

Tragedy

The protagonist in these stories has one major character flaw, or makes a grave mistake which ultimately is their undoing. Their unfortunate end evokes pity at their folly and the fall of a fundamentally "good" character.

Examples include Macbeth, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Bonnie and Clyde, Jules et Jim, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Romeo and Juliet, Death Note, Breaking Bad, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, and Hamlet.

Rebirth

An important event forces the main character to amend their ways during the course of these stories, and this results in them becoming a better person.

Examples include The Frog Prince, Beauty and the Beast, The Snow Queen, A Christmas Carol, The Secret Garden, Life Is a Dream, Despicable Me, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Key Takeaways

  • Christopher Booker published "The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories” in 2004, detailing five meta-plots or stages that the majority of fiction works follow: anticipation, dream, frustration, nightmare, and resolution.
  • Fiction writing typically covers seven basic storylines as well.
  • Nearly all works of fiction follow at least one of these patterns.