Chris Croft's Personal Blog

May 21, 2010

The 20 basic plots, or maybe just 7

Filed under: Books and Culture, Lists — chriscroft @ 1:06 pm

I’m fascinated by the idea that there may be only a certain number of plots to books, films or stories.  For example, did you notice that Avatar, wile looking brilliant, was basically the same as Dances with Wolves and also Pocahontas?  “Evil natives turn out to be nice, man changes sides and saves them”

My friend Paul, who is much cleverer than me, found this list – it’s fascinating!  (Though I think it’s more about story components than complete plots)

The 20 Basic Plots are collected by the Tennessee Screenwriting Association. After you come up with your own system for generating ideas, the next step is to put them in some recognizable story form (the basic plot idea), build your central conflict (the story premise sheet), then build your character and underlying themes (the thematic premise sheet).

1. QUEST – the plot involves the Protagonist’s search for a person, place or thing, tangible or intangible (but must be quantifiable, so think of this as a noun; i.e., immortality).

2. ADVENTURE – this plot involves the Protagonist going in search of their fortune, and since fortune is never found at home, the Protagonist goes to search for it somewhere over the rainbow.

3. PURSUIT – this plot literally involves hide-and-seek, one person chasing another.

4. RESCUE – this plot involves the Protagonist searching for someone or something, usually consisting of three main characters – the Protagonist, the Victim & the Antagonist.

5. ESCAPE – plot involves a Protagonist confined against their will who wants to escape (does not include some one trying to escape their personal demons).

6. REVENGE – retaliation by Protagonist or Antagonist against the other for real or imagined injury.

7. THE RIDDLE – plot involves the Protagonist’s search for clues to find the hidden meaning of something in question that is deliberately enigmatic or ambiguous.

8. RIVALRY – plot involves Protagonist competing for same object or goal as another person (their rival).

9. UNDERDOG – plot involves a Protagonist competing for an object or goal that is at a great disadvantage and is faced with overwhelming odds.

10. TEMPTATION – plot involves a Protagonist that for one reason or another is induced or persuaded to do something that is unwise, wrong or immoral.

11. METAMORPHOSIS – this plot involves the physical characteristics of the Protagonist actually changing from one form to another (reflecting their inner psychological identity).

12. TRANSFORMATION – plot involves the process of change in the Protagonist as they journey through a stage of life that moves them from one significant character state to another.

13. MATURATION – plot involves the Protagonist facing a problem that is part of growing up, and from dealing with it, emerging into a state of adulthood (going from innocence to experience).

14. LOVE – plot involves the Protagonist overcoming the obstacles to love that keeps them from consummating (engaging in) true love.

15. FORBIDDEN LOVE – plot involves Protagonist(s) overcoming obstacles created by social mores and taboos to consummate their relationship (and sometimes finding it at too high a price to live with).

16. SACRIFICE – plot involves the Protagonist taking action(s) that is motivated by a higher purpose (concept) such as love, honor, charity or for the sake of humanity.

17. DISCOVERY – plot that is the most character-centered of all, involves the Protagonist having to overcome an upheavel(s) in their life, and thereby discovering something important (and buried) within them a better understanding of life (i.e., better appreciation of their life, a clearer purpose in their life, etc.)

18. WRETCHED EXCESS – plot involves a Protagonist who, either by choice or by accident, pushes the limits of acceptable behavior to the extreme and is forced to deal with the consequences (generally deals with the psychological decline of the character).

19. ASCENSION – rags-to-riches plot deals with the rise (success) of Protagonist due to a dominating character trait that helps them to succeed.

20. DECISION – riches-to-rags plot deals with the fall (destruction) of Protagonist due to dominating character trait that eventually destroys their success.

The article at describes just seven archetypes:

RAGS TO RICHES Story of an ordinary person who finds a second, more exceptional, self within.

Examples include CinderellaDavid CopperfieldGreat ExpectationsJane Eyre and Hollywood films such as The Gold Rush and My Fair Lady

THE QUEST A long, hazardous journey to reach a priceless goal far away.

Examples of this include The OdysseyJason and the Golden FleeceKing Solomon’s MinesAround The World in Eighty Daysand Raiders of the Lost Ark

VOYAGE AND RETURN Story in which some event — a fall, crash, shipwreck — propels the hero or heroine out of their familiar surroundings into a disconcerting and abnormal world. Examples include Alice in WonderlandRobinson CrusoeThe Ancient MarinerThe Time Machine

COMEDY Not just a general term, but an identifiable form of plot which follows its own rules.

Examples include Tom Jones, the novels of Jane Austen, The Importance of Being EarnestFawlty TowersSome Like It Hot

TRAGEDY Is an archetypal plot, with a five-stage structure culminating in destruction and death. The main character is overcome by a desire for power/passion, which destroys them or they become monstrous. Examples include MacbethDoctor FaustusLolita, and King Lear

REBIRTH Someone falls under a dark power or a spell that traps him or her in a state of living death. An miraculous act of redemption takes place and the victim is released and brought into the light. Examples include Sleeping BeautyA Christmas Carol,The Sound of Music

OVERCOMING THE MONSTER A hero or heroine confronts a monster, defeats it against all odds and wins treasure or a loved one’s hand. Examples include David and GoliathNicholas NicklebyJack and the BeanstalkDraculaJames Bond stories,Jaws

…  but then, I don’t think Avatar is any of the above really…?



  1. Complete bollocks. Those are not 20 plots they are 20 vague categories (“plot involves…”). I pick from the top of my head one movie: “Lost In Translation”. Which plot?

    Comment by Martin Herrington — May 21, 2010 @ 11:02 pm

    • I’m going to continue. The list of seven is even less convincing. I had heard that there were “only seven plots” and been intrigued. But honestly, how can anyone say that all of comedy is one plot?

      This is along the lines of “The Great Wall of China is visible from space”. No it isn’t.

      A friend of mine says there are only four kinds of plant: “Trees”, “Grass”, “Flowers” and “Plants”.

      Comment by Martin Herrington — May 21, 2010 @ 11:25 pm

  2. Laughed out loud at the plants thing! But we do have mammals, reptiles, insects etc, and they work pretty well as categories. And even the echidna and platypus, who don’t really fit, still don’t mean we should dump all efforts at categorisation.
    I agree with the annoyingly stupid myth that the Great Wall is visible from China – clearly it’s long enough but not wide enough.
    but on the plots, I think you’re right in that these two efforts don’t crack the problem, but I do think the problem can be cracked.
    Comedy probably divides into the same categories as drama – misunderstandings, underdog, etc. And Lost In Translation is probably Misunderstanding / Unrequited love, though I don’t know because I haven’t seen it – I thought it looked too boring to go to the cinema for. Though BM is a great actor so it’s on my list to see if and when it comes onto TV.
    Still, you’ve got to admit that the “X number of basic plots” is kind of intriguing…?

    Comment by CC — May 22, 2010 @ 10:32 am

    • Do see “Lost in Translation”. It captures brilliantly Japan and some of the weirder aspects of business travel, and it has Scarlett Johansson, and I like Bill Murray.

      (Brother-in-law says you can categorise everyone into two groups: those who prefer Bill Murray and those who prefer Chevy Chase. The categorisers are a very strong category.)

      Comment by Martin Herrington — May 23, 2010 @ 8:37 pm

      • I’ve been thinking about this some more, and it occurred to me that if one could weed out all the formulaic films (like all those sports films where the underdogs manage to win, often because the great player decides at the last minute that they WILL turn up for the final against the baddies) then you’d be left with just the interesting films which don’t fit any of the categories. So these archetypes might still have value even if they don’t cover every film, just all the bad ones….

        yes, I certainly will see LIT, it sounds good

        Comment by CC — May 24, 2010 @ 9:34 am

      • I always prefer Bill Murray to Chevy Chase! Except on Paul Simon videos…

        Comment by CC — May 24, 2010 @ 9:35 am

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