Friday, September 28, 2012

The Seven Basic Plots

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I never went through a formal literature program in high school.

My family questioned if I really needed it.


"My epic," said Emily, diligently devouring plum cake, "is about a very beautiful high-born girl who was stolen away from her parents when she was a baby and brought up in a wood-cutter'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 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 of an old nurse and a birthmark on her arm."
"How did you know?" gasped Emily in amazement.
"Oh, I guessed it--I'm a good guesser."

(Emily of New Moon, by L.M. Montgomery)

I can relate to Father Cassidy. ;) I had Bleak House pretty much down and docketed when I met each character--granted, not everything, but with Dickens you can always expect a few surprises. Not only Dickens, but Haggard, Trollope, and many others.  And each new movie I watch, I can generally guess the character's hidden secret within about twenty seconds (or less) of meeting them.

It doesn't spoil the fun. After all, when you've read pretty much every day of your life for years and years,  you can start guessing after a while.

In fact, you know that a book's really good when it surprises you completely.

But one of Father Cassidy's comments has intrigued me ever since I read it--and that was three years ago. I never bothered to look up the answer until last month. What are the seven original plots? Maybe I'm the only one who doesn't know, but I thought it would be good fun to look at them today. :) In fact, let's take it up a notch and include the seven basic conflicts as well. The titles I include below are ones I have read and enjoyed.

The Seven Basic Conflicts
According to Noah Webster's 1828 dictionary, conflict is "Struggling with difficulties; a striving to oppose, or overcome."  Every story needs conflict to resolve a situation. In some instances it is to right a wrong; in others, it is to prevent wrong from being done in the first place, in others it is to better something that may not have been bad, but simply lacking.

1. Man v Woman
Generally, when there are gender differences coupled with mankind's depravity, it's easy to hit some tense situations. Husband and wife, brother and sister, father and daughter, mother and son. This conflict is used all to often in egalitarian propagandist literature to prove that women can do anything a man can, but it can be used biblically and with great effect to show that men and woman are complementary--both equal, different roles. It may not be the main conflict, or the only conflict, but it is there all the same.

Example of Man v. Woman: North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell

2. Man v Nature
The book in which a person is cast on a desert island with nothing but money, and has to find a way to survive.

Example of Man v. Nature: The Mysterious Island, by Jules Verne

3. Man v Environment
This is generally where you'll find war stories. For instance, a man is about to marry when he is drafted to fight in World War II. Or it could be a boy growing up in a non-Christian home. Or someone fighting a tyrannical political system. It's conflict with atmosphere that affects, and sometimes limits, the choices the character can make, later on moving to the character overcoming the atmosphere. 

Example of Man v. Environment: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery, by Eric Metaxas

4. Man v Machine
Jules Verne is a classic example of Man v. Machine. While some weird stuff has been written with robots and whatnot, a better conflict is found in men trying to develop new scientific discoveries,  or a new kind of gun threatening to wipe out an entire village.

Example of Man v. Nature: The Begum's Millions, by Jules Verne (It's been a while since I read this one. I remember it as being good, but proceed with discretion.)

5. Man v The Supernatural
This is a tricky one, but it can be done well.  Basically, this plot needs to take the character out of his normal sphere and place him at warfare with demonic influences. This needs to be handled very carefully to conform to the standards of God's Word, but written with tact and care it can be done. To be done correctly, I think authors need to be very careful not to make up their own supernatural powers, but portray the ones that already exist--namely, angels and demons.

Example of Man v. The Supernatural: The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis

6. Man v Self
This is where the character has a physical or mental weakness that must be overcome. A missing limb, a difficult childhood, a struggle with alcohol, or a past sin that keeps coming and tripping him up.

Example of Man v. Self: Freckles, by Gene Stratton-Porter

7. Man v God
The man pits himself against God to try to overcome him, or the man has a hard time accepting something that God has decreed to take place in his life. Examples of this include trying to be master of the fate of others, or of one's own life events.

Example of Man v. God: The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas

The Seven Original Plots
There is some amount of literary debate as to the number of plots that actually exist. Theories postulate one basic plot all the way up to thirty-six. But that would be a long blog post, so we're going to stick with seven.

1. The Quest
This plot is where a person must achieve an almost impossible goal to overcome evil. A quest to better himself or his people.

Example of The Quest: The Brethren, by H. Rider Haggard

2.Voyage and Return
The character is transported to another world, often having to resolve conflict there, which in turn resolves a conflict in himself or his own world. This is similar to the quest in that it is a journey.

Example of Voyage and Return: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis

3. Rebirth
The protagonist is limited or harmed by something withing himself or others around him. Someone else must reach in to help him overcome his limitations, and he is "reborn" to a new and better character. The born-again Christian is the ultimate example of rebirth.

Example of Rebirth: St. Elmo, by Augusta Jane Evans

Comedy is not humor, according to it's original definition. According to this source, "In the classic definition of Comedy plots the characters are thrown into a state of confusion, darkness and bewilderment where resolution can only come when these constricting factors have been played out to their extremes.

Example of Comedy: Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen

The character makes a decision that brings about his own downfall.

Example of Tragedy: The Pearl, by John Steinbeck

6. Overcoming the Monster
The character must overcome an evil person or a dark power that is controlling his world and preventing goodness.

Examples of Overcoming the Monster: The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien (My reviews: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four)

7. Rags to Riches
The character is suddenly taken from poverty to riches, and in some cases (but not all) loses his riches again along the way, ending by valuing his original humble position.

Example of Rags to Riches: Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens

So there you have the seven basic conflicts and the seven basic plots. Do you have any examples to add? I would love to see them. :)

Lady Bibliophile

1 comment:

  1. Dear Lady B,
    Not to many books stump you.It's fun when they do..:D Think I can stump you in my stories? :D
    This is really cool to know the seven basic plots. I've been wanting to know them.
    Great post!!!
    Love, Sister


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