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.
Last 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
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
Examples: Trading 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
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
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
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!