films · scriptwriting · writing

The seven basic plots and your favourite films

Have you ever heard the theory that there are only seven basic plots when it comes to telling stories?  Apparently if you analyse any book or film, the underlying story is almost certain to follow one of seven possible tropes.

seven basic plots, helena fairfaxLast weekend I went to a workshop on writing for the screen.  Although I write romance novels, I love to study all forms of writing.  There’s always something new to learn, and last weekend I found out a lot – including an outline of the seven plots, and how they relate to my own favourite films.

We played a game that was quite fun to play.  A little further down the page I’m going to outline the seven basic plots (but don’t look yet!)  First of all, you have to get a piece of paper and a pen, and write down your top ten favourite films of all time.  Whilst you’re doing that, I’ll tell you what mine are.

So here we go with my favourite films, in no particular order:

High Society; Blade Runner; The Shawshank Redemption; The Sound of Music; The Bourne Identity; Shaun of the Dead; A Night at the Opera; Au Revoir les Enfants; In the Heat of the Night; The Lives of Others

Yes, my favourite films are a pretty mixed-up and eclectic mix!  Or so I thought, until I studied the seven basic plots, and found a pattern emerging.

So here are the plots, according to Christopher Booker’s book The Seven Basic Plots:

1.  OVERCOMING THE MONSTER

Characteristics:  A community fallen under a terrible shadow or mysterious evil, ending with liberation from seemingly eternal darknessseven basic plots, helena fairfax

Examples:  Dr No, The Epic of Gilgamesh, Sherlock Holmes, Jurassic Park, David and Goliath, Goldilocks, Little Red Riding Hood, The Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven, High Noon, Frankenstein

2.  RAGS TO RICHES

Characteristics:  A seemingly insignificant individual, dismissed by everyone, steps into the limelight and is revealed to be someone quite exceptional

ExamplesTrading Places, Jane Eyre, The Karate Kid, Cinderella, King Arthur, Superman, Popeye, Dick Whittington, My Fair Lady, Pretty Woman, Harry Potter, Gold Rush

3. THE QUEST

Characteristics: Clear goal/target to get to, featuring the initial ‘call’ to action, companions, helpers on a long journey

Examples: Lord of the RIngs, Raiders of the Lost Arc, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, The Golden Fleece

4.  VOYAGE AND RETURN

Characteristics: Sudden removal/jolt into another world.  The end return to the normal world, with everything the same but somehow changed forever in the protagonist(s)

Examples: Back to the Future, Robinson Crusoe, Night at the Museum, Little Miss Sunshine, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Before Sunrise, Toy Story, The Wizard of Oz

seven basic plots5. COMEDY

Characteristics: Complicated series of interweaving plots, resolution and happy ending

Examples: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Lock, Sotck and Two Smoking Barrels, Mama Mia, BurnAfter Reading, Clerks, Four Weddings and a Funeral

6. TRAGEDY

Characteristics: Down ending, death of the hero through events that go “tragically” wrong.  Overcoming the monster, from the monster’s point of view!

Examples: Reservoir Dogs, Macbeth, In Bruges, Romeo and Juliet, Thelma and Louise, West Side Story, The Godfather

7. REBIRTH

Characteristics: Physical or spiritual imprisonment, ending in miraculous redemption or rebirth

Examples: Pulp Fiction, A Christmas Carol, Groundhog Day, Sleeping Beauty, The Winter’s Tale, The Shawshank Redemption

Now, here’s my list of favourites again, with the relevant plot number against each one:

High Society (5); Blade Runner (1); The Shawshank Redemption (7); The Sound of Music (1); The Bourne Identity (1); Shaun of the Dead (1); A Night at the Opera (5); Au Revoir les Enfants (6); In the Heat of the Night (1); The Lives of Others (1)

I was surprised to find that more than half my favourite films fit one category: Overcoming the Monster.  There are two comedies, and only one tragedy in the entire list.  Seems I prefer films with a type of struggle or conflict, leading to an uplifiting ending – and that’s exactly what romance novels are all about.  Which probably explains why I love to read and write them!

How about you?  What are your favourite films?  And how do they fit in with the seven basic plots?  Let me know what you think.  I’d love to hear from you!

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25 thoughts on “The seven basic plots and your favourite films

  1. Hi Helena – I liked some of your favourites, but those in my top ten are as follows: Blade Runner; Alien; Chocolat; Lord of the Rings; Stardust; Narnia; Interview with a Vampire; Star Trek; Bridget Jones; Golden Compass. Guess that I am big on the themes of Quest and Overcoming the Monster, especially in an otherwordly setting!

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    1. Oh, you’ve reminded me of some other films I love, Tina! Stardust is brilliant, and the theme tune is my favourite Take That song (among many!) You’re right, there’s a lot of world-building in your film choices. Interesting!

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      1. I love the scene in Stardust where the Robert de Niro character, the ship’s captain, does his ‘star turn’ in women’s clothes. It is really funny and shows just how versatile an actor he is. My husband is now writing down his favourite films so that we can compare the themes. It was certainly a very interesting course that you went on Helena!

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      2. Hi Helena. My husband’s favourites are: The Maltese Falcon; The Third Man; Touch of Evil; The Ladykillers (1950s version); Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday; Dr Strangelove; Terminator 2; 2001 A Space Odyssey; Sunset Boulevard; Singing in the Rain. His clustered around Comedy and Quest. It would be interesting to carry out the same exercise for books too!

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      3. Great film choices! And you both appear to favour the quest film, even though your choices aren’t the same! I agree it would be good to try this with books. Like I said to Marsha, I’m not sure how easy it would be to fit the theory to novels, but it would be interesting to try. I find it a lot harder to choose a top ten of novels, though!

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  2. Hello Helena. What an interesting post. I didn’t know about the seven basic plots but once I started thinking about it, it does make sense. I do love ‘Au Revoir les Enfants’ and I grew up listening to the album of High Society, which was one of my mother’s all time favourite films! Have you watched ‘Les Choristes’? That’s a great film too!

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    1. Hi Marie, Au Revoir les Enfants is painfully sad, but it’s a brilliant film. And I’ve seen Les Choristes and loved it! My daughter introduced me to it – she studied French at uni. What a great film. Another one I’d forgotten! Thanks for your comment!

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  3. Hey, Helena. I’ve heard this theory before, but I really have a hard time wrapping my head around the idea. Oh, not that I doubt it. I just can’t figure out what’s what? Not even with my own books, much less movies, which I can never remember the names of. LOL Of course, I get the comedy/tragedy categories from theatre studies long ago. Generally, I’d say I fall into the Rags to Riches category for favorites. Always give me a Happily Ever After or I’m not pleased. LOL Guess that’s why I write romances. Thanks for sharing this.

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    1. Hi Marsha, apparently there are some people who would argue that this theory doesn’t work when you really go into depth, but I think it’s worth analysing and is an interesting idea. I’ve enjoyed applying it to films, but personally I think there’s more depth in novels than films. But I suppose that could be a whole new blog post! Thanks for your interesting comment!

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  4. Thanks Helena, I enjoyed playing along. This does help to hone our creative focus. My movie favourites proved to be a balance between Voyage and Return, Rebirth, and Comedy. I shouldn’t be surprised by this because my novel is a combination of Voyage and Return and Rebirth.
    Since Tragedy could be the reverse side of Overcoming the Monster, you got me thinking. Some of the others could have a reverse side. e.g. Riches to Rags, such as the Mexican Comedy, We are the Nobles. Voyage and Return could be reversed where we begin in the normal and end with sudden removal e.g Encounters of the Third Kind.
    .

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    1. Hi Wendy, thanks for your comment. That’s an interesting point about the plot reversal,.and one I hadn’t thought of. Another thing I learned at the workshop is if a film ends in a way the audience doesn’t expect – ie they are not mentally prepared for the ending – they won’t like it. This isn’t a problem for me as a romance writer, because of course when a reader picks up a romance she is always prepared for a happy ending. When I watched Au Revoir les Enfants I wasn’t prepared for the tragic ending. I think the film is brilliant, but I don’t “like” it if that makes sense. I wish it could end happily, but of course that’s the whole point of the film, that it doesn’t. Thanks for coming by and adding such an interesting point to the discussion

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  5. Yes the ending. That’s another good point. Recently, I found the same with the movie RIPD. Brilliantly written, conflict building tension – I’d say this movie is the perfect template for adding suspense to most novels – action packed, entertaining, sometimes funny, good characters,, so far 10/10 from me, then came the ending. Clever, necessary, inevitable, but I didn’t like it. Apparently not too many people did. It rates 5.4/10 on imbd.
    Speaking of reversals, I reverse a quest element in my book. Rather than have the hero accept items to assist him, I let him gradually give his away, shedding layers of self. I can’t think of a movie example of this but there’d have to be some. Gone with the Wind, maybe? That’s another Riches to Rags.

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    1. I haven’t seen RIPD, Wendy. I’ll check it out – and I’ll be prepared!
      I hadn’t thought of the Riches to Rags theme, but now I’ve “thought on”, as we say in Yorkshire, and it’s actually the theme to the book I’m reading at the minute: 25 year old girl has everything, the good-looking boyfriend, a career as a model, and she wakes up in the future to find she’s a plump 50 year old and has married the school geek! Of course it turns out in the end she’s lost her “riches”, but discovered herself.
      And talking of endings – everyone knows the ending of Gone With the Wind now, but I remember watching it for the first time aged 14 and thinking what?? I was so disappointed then that it wasn’t the typical HEA. Now, though, it seems “right”.

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  6. See, I would wonder where “Walking Across Egypt” would fit in. I also had Bladerunner, the 5th Element, Aliens, Lord of the Rings, GalxyQuest, The Longest Day, All Quiet on the Western Front, Sleepless in Seattle, and Saving Private Ryan. That certainly helps one focus on the “Big Picture” of the story, doesn’t it? Thanks!

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    1. It does help focus, Cyrus, you’re right! I like your film choices. There are a lot of quests in there. I can’t help with “Walking Across Egypt”, because that’s yet another film I haven’t seen. It seems I need to improve my film education! Like JQ I’m going to make a note of films I haven’t seen yet. When we’re on holiday at Christmas we pretty much spend most of the time watching DVDs. Now I have a good collection to add to my Christmas wish list!

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  7. Such a lively discussion here. It points out how diverse our tastes are…again. So glad there are 7 plots and not just 2 or 3, eh? LOL…I can’t list my favorites, mostly because I see a movie, then forget the title. It takes 2 or 3 of us to figure it out and there is no one here at the moment to help me wrangle out the titles. I would say I love comedy movies the most, but then I re-think and remember I enjoyed Ghost, the King’s Speech, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Blind Side…but within the stories there is a touch of humor. I’m copying everyone’s favorites and will check Netflix to see if they are available and then have a movie marathon sometime. Thank you everyone!

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    1. Hi JQ, films always bring out a lively discussion, I find, especially as we all have our own particular favourites, and films we hate to watch. Whenever I tell anyone I really don’t like Woody Allen films, it always sparks a long conversation!
      The King’s Speech is one I loved! Thanks for reminding me of it. That one definitely fits the bill of Overcoming the Monster, so obviously appeals to me. Thanks for your coment, and for reminding me of some more great films!

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