Knowing the key plot archetypes can help you get going, so we’re looking at the prospective seven basic plots that underpin all fiction. Whilst your story mightn’t conform consciously to a plot structure, such structures do exist, and knowing them could help keep you inspired and on track.
Pick a plot from The Seven Basic Plots
According to Christopher Booker, there are seven main plotlines, as written in The Seven Basic Plots. If you’re still planning things, why not choose one to place your ideas in so far?
(If you’re at a very early stage in planning, read up on how to have story ideas. Remember, you can mess around a little, too. No story will ever fit only one plotline, there may just be one obvious one. Take subplots, plots within plots, to layer your story and give it complexity and meaning.)
Here are the seven basic plots and how to make each one work for you.
Overcoming the monster
Your protagonist must battle a monster (or a monstrous force) that threatens, probably, more than just your protagonist’s survival in scope and scale.
Christopher Booker offers the classic examples of The Epic of Gilgamesh or Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Stephen King’s It falls under this plotline, too, but of course monsters needn’t always be literal. They can be human. They can be ideological.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis is (foremost) about the Pevensie children needing to overthrow the White Witch and bring peace to Narnia with Aslan’s help. The Help by Kathryn Stockett is about Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny battling racial prejudice (embodied in housewife Hilly Holbrook) in Mississippi during the 1960s.
To make your ‘monster’ work, you’ll need this threat to chill us. You need a genuinely existential battle of survival to make things work. You’ll also want the monster to represent something beyond just claws and fangs. It needs to be vengeance, or racial intolerance, or something else that really matters.
Voyage and return
Born with Odysseus and The Odyssey (battling monstrosities like Circe, Scylla and Charybdis to journey safe home to wife Penelope) in Greek myth, your protagonist here must journey from home, returning with new strength and experience from challenges faced.
Think of Bilbo Baggins’ journey out of the Shire in The Hobbit. First come trolls, and after (not before) comes the dragon. The key is in your rising action, the threats getting worse as Bilbo carries on, growing in courage.
Your voyage should be getting more dangerous all the time, before your protagonist can safely make a ‘turnabout’ and return (not without transfiguration, since Bilbo comes home braver, stronger). The fact that Bilbo never turns back before the essential point and challenge of the quest is faced is also important. Giving your protagonist chances to turn back reflects growth and heroism when they soldier on, anyway.
To make this plot work, your protagonist is going to be leaving one world, encountering another, ending up transfigured – so raise the stakes. Give plenty of options to turn back (which they won’t take, because something other than themselves is at risk, too).
Rags to riches
The word ‘Cinderella’ sums up this plotline, but the ‘riches’ in this phrasing is relative, and needn’t be literal. The point is that your protagonist should grow in character, strength and understanding, helping them achieve their desire, or better, and be empowered.
Your protagonist should ascend, with newfound strength, from a low point to new heights, sometimes involving romance, and sometimes not.
A good example of ‘not’ would be Chinese Cinderella by Adeline Yen Mah, where a happy ending simply means being able to attend college.
Other examples include Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, or Aladdin and His Enchanted Lamp from The Thousand and One Nights.
You’ll make this plot work by empowering your protagonist in various ways. Cinderella, in her fairy tale, makes it out of rags to riches but we can assume she won’t still be scrubbing floors at the palace. She’s valued for herself in her new home and free to live on her own terms, so she’s become empowered (inside and out).
This is your key to unlocking plot material.
In this narrative, your protagonist sets out to find someone, or to find an object, a proverbial ‘buried treasure’.
Famous examples include the His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, or (broadly) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling.
Philip Pullman’s protagonist Lyra in Northern Lights (or, in the US, The Golden Compass) for instance, faces bears, witches and kidnappers to reach her father, before she carries on into another world. Lyra faces worse as the challenges mount up, so she matures and changes with learning and strength.
Ultimately, Lyra makes her costliest sacrifice at the close of her (multiple) quests in His Dark Materials, and so she becomes heroic. We are given final proof of her courage and selflessness as her adventuring concludes in The Amber Spyglass.
You’ll also need to raise stakes, making things harder and harder, before a final ‘good’ deed from your protagonist grants them victory.
In comic narrative, the gist is to create a whirl of misunderstandings for your protagonist that becomes more fraught with time. All will ‘miraculously transformed’ near the end, as your action moves happily from dark to light.
Classic examples include any of Jane Austen’s novels, The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse, Bridget Jones’ Diary by Helen Fielding, or Chocolat by Joanne Harris.
Make your comic plot work by continuing to muddle events, feelings and perceptions as we go, right up to the finish line. Bridget Jones remains confused about Mark Darcy in most of the novel (firstly misjudging Mark, then Daniel, then misjudging how both feel about her) before all is happily resolved.
This is the inverse of ‘Comedy’, moving from light to dark. Your protagonist here has an irredeemable flaw or makes an irredeemable mistake, causing their undoing and ‘fall’.
Your protagonist could be reprehensible, like Humbert Humbert from Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, or like the example Christopher Booker gives us, Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Shakespearean tragedies give a rich choice of protagonists whose flaws lead them to doom, such as Othello and his jealousy, or Lear and his arrogance.
Other tragic protagonists may be more questionable, as in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
An example of an innocent protagonist falling to tragedy would be Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Anna’s ‘mistake’ being to fall in love and leave her husband for a man who’ll betray her.
You’ll make a tragic plot work by thinking deeply about all the ‘if onlys’ of your protagonist’s situation. Think how we mull over our own mistakes, wishing we’d seen things coming. If only Othello had trusted Desdemona, or if only Gatsby hadn’t fallen for Daisy. How could all have been avoided? How differently could things have worked out?
Give your poor protagonist routes out (which they’ll not take, e.g. Jay Gatsby fails to accept Nick’s warning that the past can’t be repeated, since Gatsby can’t let Daisy go), then seal off exit options to amplify emotion in your tragic plot.
‘Rebirth’ is poised to be like ‘Tragedy’ but with a hopeful outcome. Your protagonist needs a redemptive arc to their journey.
This is sometimes combined with a hero romantically redeemed by a heroine, or vice versa. Classics examples of this trope are fairy tales like Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont’s Beauty and the Beast or Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, and retellings based on these tales, such as Beauty by Robin McKinley or Uprooted by Naomi Novik.
Other examples are The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Emma by Jane Austen (also a ‘Comedy’ tale), or The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.
Make a plot like this work by making a happy outcome dependent on nothing but the ‘Rebirth’ component alone. Identify what this is, because your protagonist’s success and happy ending will hinge on it.
In a tale like Beauty and the Beast, for instance, love can’t be mutual until Bête lets Belle go free. Emma Woodhouse needs to reflect and change before she can marry someone as good as Mr Knightley. Amir risks his life returning to Kabul, but can’t be free of his past guilt in The Kite Runner until he tries to help his best friend’s son.
The question, after all this, is which general plotline feels authentic for where you’d most like to take your story?
Choose more than one plot and add subplots
Sometimes, more than one plot outline will fit your story material.
In A Game of Thrones, there is a tragic narrative for one protagonist, Eddard or Ned Stark, and the ‘fault’ that kills Ned is his integrity in a dark world. However, A Game of Thrones uses various plot archetypes to tell multiple protagonists’ stories over a sprawling scale. It isn’t only a tragic plot.
J.K. Rowling’s stories don’t fit neatly into a single plot idea, either, since Harry Potter’s overarching tale checks several of these boxes.
Harry’s story could be defined as a ‘Rags to riches’ tale, because he goes from an abusive boyhood living under his aunt’s staircase to freedom, to a successful career and happiness with his wife and children at the series’ close.
There’s also a ‘Voyage and return’ element to each book, as Harry attends Hogwarts every year, only to return to his aunt and uncle every summer (though in the seventh, Harry leaves Privet Drive for the last time).
It’s also an ‘Overcoming the monster’ story, because the spectre of Voldemort haunts Harry throughout the series, as do other monstrous beings like the Basilisk or Dementors, or monstrous characters like Voldemort’s supporters (led by Bellatrix Lestrange), Professor Umbridge, and others.
It’s also a ‘Quest’ because Harry’s ‘hunts’ through the series culminate, in the seventh book, with his seeking Horcruxes and Hallows. The existential question of which is right to seek becomes a determinant of Harry’s success, and overall character development.
There are strong comic elements, strong tragic elements, and there are strong elements of ‘Rebirth’, too.
In sum, stories often can’t be boxed and they shouldn’t be. These plotlines are threadbare for a reason, since they’re foremost guides, and exist to help you build upon them.
3 next steps to penning your plot
Too little plot can be as tedious as no structure at all, so plan with care and remember plotting can be your aide. Plot should serve as a creative constraint, existing to help you produce your best work.
A few steps on what you can do from here with the seven basic plots:
Gather your story material. Review characters, the things you want to happen, and pick a plot for your novel.
Map your key plot events. Adapt them to whichever plot you chose. If it’s a quest, map out testing moments where your protagonist can or should turn back – or, if it’s tragic, map out moments your tragic protagonist could have avoided what they’re heading for, and so on.
Link these moments together and create your resolution to the action.
All this will create a core meaning in your narrative (before you add subplots for complexity).
After this, you’ll be needing a plot mountain, too, for adding the fun bits. Story structures are always there to help, not hinder you.