The Seven Basic Plot Points
Stories tend to work for a reason. The structures of beloved stories breed a certain familiarity we’ve come to know and love. Whether it’s a romance, a mystery, or a pulse-pounding action adventure, there are specific archetypes that simply ring true for readers and feel just like that comfortable sweater you love snuggling into.
Penned by Christopher Book in 2004, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories is a Jung-influenced analysis that offers a psychological assessment of stories and why they work. The seven basic plot points offer perhaps what is the most open-ended of the structure archetypes you’ll encounter. They are broad, high-level descriptions that you’ve seen in stories across many mediums many times already.
What are the seven basic story plots?
The basic tenet behind the seven plots is simple: Book (as in Christopher Book—what a fitting last name) posited that all stories conform to one of these seven types in some way. He also maintained each of the plot types could then be further broken down into five stages known as anticipation, dream, frustration, nightmare and triumph.
Below, we’ll discuss what the seven types of plots are, outline the five stages of each one, and give examples of stories that use each kind.
Overcoming The Monster
In this plot type, your hero is tasked with overcoming some type of (usually) evil entity that may or may not be a physical monster that threatens your hero’s home. You know how it goes. The shark is eating the locals. The blight is destroying the land. Only your hero can fix this. We can look at the overcoming the monster plot divided into these five stages:
- Anticipation—The hero learns about the existence of the monster and its powers to destroy their home. The hero accepts (after some hemming and hawing, of course) the call to defeat the monster.
- Dream—The hero thinks about and prepares to fight the monster. Cue Rocky training montage. While the threat is still a speck in the distance, that is about to change.
- Frustration—The monster has arrived and oop… it’s a doozy. How is that thing so huge, anyway? And where does it keep all those teeth? This hero is in way over their head.
- Nightmare—It doesn’t get much worse than this. Battered, bloody, and broken, your hero is basically toast. (But we all know that’s not really true.) It’s the moment when everything is about to turn around.
- Triumph—That monster is ding dong dead and your hero emerges victorious. Somehow, they’re much smarter and better looking, too, and of course, the person they had their eye on notices. (Okay, that last part isn’t a requirement, so go where the spirit moves you.)
Examples of stories that use the overcoming the monster plot type are: Star Wars, Beowulf, Dracula, The War of the Worlds, James Bond, Avatar, King King, and Jaws.
Rags To Riches
In this archetype, your wayward hero gains something they didn’t have before, be it money, power, fame, or something else (wink, wink). But lo-and-behold, then they lose it (this might be their fault, it might not) and must get it back again.
We can divide this plot style into the following stages:
- Anticipation—Your main character’s life sucks. They’re poor, they’re weak, they’re not that smart, or they live at the bottom of a well or equally wretched place. Basically no one wants to be them. Especially not them.
- Dream—Of course, just when they think they can’t get any lower, that’s when the call comes and they’re forced (or maybe they make the reluctant choice) to go out into the world. While things are looking up, this is going to be short-lived.
- Frustration—Very short-lived, because this is when something arrives to get in the way. Maybe it’s an evil entity or their own personal demons. Maybe they just have no luck when it comes to rolling the dice.
- Nightmare—That’s it, it’s all on your hero now. There is no one coming to help them. Fairy Godmothers aren’t real (or are currently indisposed) and only they can overcome the final hurdle to achieve their desire.
- Triumph—Success! They kiss. They gain fame and fortune and live happily ever after in far better conditions than when they started. (Hopefully they remember their roots and go back to visit that well from time to time, though.)
Examples of stories that use the rag-to-riches plot type are: Cinderella, Aladdin, Jane Eyre, Ready Player One, Red Queen, and Throne of Glass.
The quest plot style includes a hero who must obtain something, reach a location, or fulfill some other task while meeting with plenty of obstacles along the way. There’s a good chance they’ll have some friends along for the ride, as well.
This plot style is divided into the following stages:
- Anticipation—This is the call. The moment. The heralding of something big to come. Basically, this is your kickoff point or inciting incident.
- Dream—The journey has begun, and it’s not all smooth sailing because that would make for a very dull story, indeed. As the protagonists move towards their goals, things get in their way. Killer bees. Poisonous flowers. Wicked Witches. Whatever you’ve got, throw it at your hero (and their friends if they have friends along—the friends are not exempt from torture).
- Frustration—They’re so close they can taste it. Their quest is almost over. Except it isn’t. Something is going to get in the way and make it just that much harder. (They didn’t think it would be that easy, did they?)
- Nightmare—This is the ultimate test. They’re facing the horde. Dangling over the lava pit. About to slay the dragon. And the good news is they do. Obviously, or this would be a tragedy (more on that later).
- Triumph—Way to go, everyone. Quest achieved!
Examples of stories where you’ll find the quest plot type include: Lord of the Rings, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Finding Nemo, Watership Down, The DaVinci Code, Underground Railroad, and A Wrinkle in Time.
Voyage & Return
In this plot type, your hero ventures away from home and into a strange land. Here, they encounter many obstacles and eventually find their way back, having returned with new insights and information. They will be changed in irrevocable ways.
We can look at the voyage and return plot with these stages:
- Anticipation—Your main character is going about their humdrum life. It’s not bad, it’s not good, it just is. Don’t worry—all that is about to change because life has other plans. They step though the back of a wardrobe, fall down a rabbit hole, or their house gets picked up and dropped somewhere else during a tornado (stop me if you’ve heard of these before).
- Dream—Wow, this place is cool. There are golden brick roads and animals that talk. There are donuts raining from the sky and you’re suddenly way bigger than everything else. But… something doesn’t feel quite right about this place.
- Frustration—That weird feeling you had? It’s starting to get worse. Something strange is happening and darkness is creeping in. You are definitely not in Kansas anymore.
- Nightmare—Whatever magic force or oppressive ruler or other tangled situation your hero has landed themselves in has just gotten a whole lot worse. How can they possibly get out of this with their head still attached to their body?
- Triumph—Whew. Your hero has found their way through the darkness and finds their way home, all the wiser and better for it.
Examples of stories with the Voyage and Return plot style include: Lord of the Rings (sometimes stories can feature more than one plot type), Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the Chronicles of Narnia, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
The comedy plot archetype follows a protagonist with an air of light and humor and results in a happy ending. Book (again, we’re talking about the author, Christopher) maintained that this type was about more than just being funny, but rather relies on the idea that things become more and more confusing before a single event finally clears everything up at the end.
We can divide the comedy plot type into the following:
- Anticipation—Here we’re introduced to your happy-go-lucky character. Since a lot of romantic comedy plots fall into this type, we might also meet their potential love interest.
- Dream—Things are going all right. They’ve got some hilarious friends to help keep the mood light. But trouble is coming.
- Frustration—Something gets in the way for your character. Perhaps they’re separated from their potential love interest either physically or mentally. At any rate, this is the stage where confusion, miscommunication, and frustration make themselves known.
- Nightmare—Everything is going wrong. Confusion reigns, building that tension and making everyone more than a little miserable.
- Triumph—Confusion is cleared. Miscommunications are… communicated. They kiss and live happily ever after. The bad guy goes down. You name it. Whatever it is, everything is good.
Examples of stories that rely on the Comedy archetype include: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, Bridget Jones’s Diary, and Four Weddings and Funeral.
On the flip side of comedy is tragedy. In this plot type, your hero possesses a major character flaw that ultimately proves their undoing. This type evokes pity for the hero. Be warned: there are no happy endings here.
Let’s break the tragedy plot into these points:
- Anticipation—Your angst-ridden hero needs or wants something, be it fame, fortune, or good old fashioned lust. This is their ultimate motivation for everything that’s about to go down.
- Dream—Your hero has finally found a way towards their goal. Things seem to be looking up as they reach a point from which they can’t turn back. Deal with the devil anyone? Now they’re in this for better or worse.
- Frustration—My friends, it’s about to get worse. Right now we’ve got a few obstacles getting their way, nothing they can’t handle. But as they feel that dream slipping away, they start to do things to hang on to it. Things their mother might not approve of.
- Nightmare—And then it gets much worse. Your hero is at their lowest, perhaps the very worst version of themselves. They might get a little crazy. After all, the end is coming and they’re about to lose everything.
- Triumph—Okay, in this case, the ending isn’t so triumphant because the result is usually death, often through violence and while that’s not a happy ending, it’s certainly an ending. Sometimes life doesn’t prevail. At least we had fun while it lasted. Didn’t we?
Stories that use the Tragedy archetype are many, but include many of Shakespeare’s works like Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet, and King Lear.
This plot type has its roots in religion, but more generally speaking, it’s simply about a main character who undergoes a transformation to become a better person. Often it centers around a villainous character who is shown the light towards becoming a better version of themselves. We can break the rebirth plot down further like this:
- Anticipation—We meet our protagonist. They aren’t very likeable. In some cases, they’re kind of a boor. They might be cheap or lazy or steal young women and lock them in their castles. You know the type. We all know the type.
- Dream—Your “hero” is humming along being their bad self. No one can challenge their rightful place as a jerk. They are untouchable. Invincible. Wear a cool black cape. Until… oops, they aren’t. Something is coming to challenge them.
- Frustration—That challenge has arrived and is here to throw into question your hero and everything they thought they believed. Your hero is not a fan. They resist. They fight. And are not changing for anyone.
- Nightmare—Okay, so things are looking pretty bleak. Maybe being the bad guy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. They’re left broken and alone and, for the first time in their life, they actually care about that.
- Triumph—Your hero has seen the light. They’ve been saved. They understand that they now want to be a better person. Hurray! Champagne for everyone.
Examples of stories that use the Rebirth archetype include: A Christmas Carol, Beauty and the Beast, The Secret Garden, Groundhog Day, or The Frog Prince.
Using Dabble and the seven basic plot points
Since the seven basic plots are as the name suggests… basic, it’s easy to use Dabble to structure your novel. Once you’ve settled on your plot type, break it down using the five points discussed above.
Unlike some other structure types, the basic plot points don’t prescribe where each point should happen in your story. Because of that, you might want to start by using Notes to outline the five points. You can be as detailed or high level as you want with this.
Once that’s done, you can start writing. As you progress through your chapters, you can assign each of the points to each chapter, depending on where they fall in the story. This way you can ensure you’re meeting them all before you get to the end.
Pros and cons of the seven basic plot points
As with any type of plotting structure, there are going to be pros and cons. And with any style, those pros and cons will largely depend on the writer.
The pros of the seven basic plot points are that it’s fairly broad—though whether this is a pro might depend on who you ask. Pantsers might love this style of plotting, as the five sections within each plot allow for a lot of freedom in how you build your tale. This style is less prescriptive than some other methods you’ll encounter.
Plotters, on the other hand, might find this style doesn’t give them enough structure or guidance. Some people want to be told on which page or at which percentage each beat should happen, and this method doesn’t offer that.
As with any list of this type, it's reductive to suggest there are only seven types of stories in the entire world. While these seven points do represent a broad range of storytelling in the western tradition, that doesn’t mean they are the only plots out there. Different cultures tell stories in different ways, and your story may not actually fit one of these. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
What this method offers is a good starting point, especially for new writers, to think about some of the world’s most well-known stories and what makes them work. If you’re struggling to develop your plot, this framework gives you some good hints about what kinds of obstacles, turning points and tropes can help drive your story forward.
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