We’ve had a Cinderella who’s tormented by her stepmother and step sisters to do household chores, until her life changes upon marrying the prince. We’ve also had a Cinderella who chooses her dream of being a fashion designer over marrying the prince.
These are rather different, key plotlines to the same story of a damsel in distress.
Stories are essentially archetypes, or building blocks, upon which various plots can be structured.
Pretty much whatever story we come up with, chances are, someone’s already written it.
Does that disappoint you? Don’t fret. It doesn’t mean your story is unoriginal, only that an archetype already exists for the narrative you’re taking your story through. That isn’t surprising when you consider the fact that human beings have been telling stories since the beginning of time.
When you think of a story you’d like to write, there are a few different ways it could go. Using a story type, consciously, is an excellent way to get started and stay true to and anchored in the authenticity of your plot.
In this article, we’ll not only help you understand what story types or plot lines are, but also guide you on how to use them consciously in your writing, and we’ll also look into the pros and cons of using them.
What Are The Main Story Types?
Many writers tout the brilliance of The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker.
The book is an essential guide for beginners looking to start somewhere and is an inspiration board for pros looking to feed their creative intellect.
Even if you have never heard of this book, you will have come across these seven story types- the master plots- simply by reading various stories.
Here are the seven main story/plot types:
Overcoming The Monster
Often, overcoming the monster isn’t literal.
It could be a psychological overcoming of inner demons. It might not even be the main plot, but rather the subplot used to worsen a situation for the character(s).
Whether the monster is literal or psychological, this plot type follows the arc of anticipation, frustration, and escape.
The characters anticipate the arrival of the monster and they dream of defeating it, only to find out, to their utter frustration, that it’s nearly impossible to do. When they try harder, things only get nightmarishly bad, before something they do clicks and they’re able to defeat or escape the monster.
Rags To Riches
Nearly every famous and inspirational person that ever wrote an autobiography or memoir has used their rags-to-riches story as the narrative in their book.
It’s one of the most relatable experiences – to be broke and then to gain success. Self-help gurus and life coaches frequently use this plotline to inspire and pump up the underdog.
In the quest story type, the characters have a mission to complete – find an object/person or pursue an objective. And along the way, they’ll need to navigate obstacles, which is why adventure stories frequently fall under this category.
These challenges may be nearly fatal, and the characters have to overcome them in order to accomplish their objective.
Voyage And Return
In a voyage and return story, the protagonist is literally sent to a foreign place from which they will return wiser and stronger. The unfamiliarity of the foreign place induces challenges for the protagonist to tackle.
The idea here is to help the character grow into a more mature version of themselves, through varied life experiences in the new land. This type is featured in many stories.
This one sounds almost religious, doesn’t it? Though it is, indeed, a prevalent concept in many religions across the world, a rebirth story arc can simply be about a transformation the protagonist undergoes.
This is a narrative that focuses on the radical changes the character will have to make in order to have a good life and be happy. Even with a literal rendition of the rebirth storyline, the aim is still to get the character to change, grow and lead a better life this time around.
Comedic plotlines are great tools for reflecting on the ways of society, no matter which century or decade, or which city or country we’re looking at.
Comedy is usually induced through subversion, exaggeration, absurdity, and confusion.
Tragedy is like the antithesis of the ‘overcoming the monster’ plotline. The protagonists set themselves up for an epic failure. They fail to overcome the monster, so to speak.
The main character decides that they must rise to a challenging situation, only for things to go wrong. The tragic story type is rife with emotional content and follows the arc of anticipation, frustration, and despair. Only, instead of an escape at the end, there’s pain and destruction.
Using Story Types: Pros And Cons
Story types are broad narrative categories that most stories can be pegged on. But they don’t work for everyone.
If you do use them, it’s important to remember that you can veer away from them as much as you like. It’s your story!
Here are some of the pros and cons of using story types in your writing:
- If you’re unsure what to write about, looking at story types for inspiration is a great start. They help you look at the big picture and the themes you could explore.
- If you have your story type picked, then you have a general idea of the shape and the broadest arc of your story, which makes writing easier.
- If you’ve lost momentum, and are eager to get writing again, story types can help you see if there’s a narrative you’ve not tried before.
- If you’ve finished your book and want to pitch it to an agent, you’ll need to know the broader storyline and major themes you’ve written about. So, knowing your story type(s) is essential.
- If you’re a seasoned author, story types might be a little too basic.
- Story types can feel restricting if you plan your plot in detail before you write. Some aspects may feel forced and inauthentic to your protagonist. (Remember, story types are guides, feel free to make adjustments!)
- Stories rarely ever contain just one narrative. Often, it’s a blend of many. Figuring out which one’s the master story type in your book can be confusing.
Examples Of Different Types Of Stories
Now that we’ve discussed what the seven types of stories can do for your writing, let’s explore a few examples.
The Pursuit Of Happyness
While Bram Stoker’s Dracula had the iconic vampire hunter Van Helsing slaying (the monster) Count Dracula, it might not always be so literal. It might not even be the main story type at play; it could be a subplot.
The memoir The Pursuit Of Happyness is actually a single father’s rags-to-riches story, but throughout, the man tries to overcome his psychological ‘monster’ – fear of poverty and failure. His struggle to defeat his inner demons makes the story relatable and compelling.
The 2021 film starring Will Smith, King Richard, does this rags-to-riches story of a classic underdog as humbly as possible.
It’s all too easy for this type of story to get corny, but the movie’s plot avoids this by staying true to the storyline; it focuses on Venus Williams, instead of Serena Williams, and ends at the beginning (rather than the pinnacle) of the tennis player’s stellar career.
Eat, Pray, Love
The iconic memoir Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert has the subtitle ‘one woman’s search for everything’. This effectively captures the ‘quest’ story type the memoir is anchored to.
The protagonist travels around the world to shake things up and catapult herself into a more conscious life. The clarity in her writing is a reflection of how she’s anchored her story to the ‘quest’ narrative, making it a classic example of that story type.
The Midnight Library
Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library is arguably the most soulful rendition of the ‘rebirth’ story type. Metaphysically so.
Forlorn and hopeless, Nora Seed attempts suicide. In her near-death state, her soul goes into a library of all the lives she could ever live and she ultimately chooses the one that’s right for her. This rebirth narrative is candidly human and introspective.
The thriller Dark Matter by Blake Crouch follows the ‘journey and return’ story type. The protagonist is content with his life, albeit wistful about not being ‘successful enough’.
He is catapulted into his worst nightmare when that wistful thinking lands him in a life where he’s a celebrated particle physicist, but his wife is not his wife and his son was never born!
This ‘journey and return’ narrative has you going on a mind-bending tour of the infinite possibilities resulting from longing and the fear of missing out.
Elie Wiesel’s Night is perhaps one of the most gut-wrenching memoirs ever to be written about the Holocaust. That it is based on the ‘tragedy’ story type is a given; after all, it’s a sombre memory of the narrator Eliezer.
Though the protagonist manages to escape the concentration camp in the end, there isn’t any true relief. He emerges traumatised and grief-stricken.
The tragedy really comes through in the memoir’s rhetorical question: how do you deal with the failure of humanity, when you are its victim?
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy
If you haven’t read The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, then you haven’t lived!
The 20th-century author Douglas Adams paired science fiction with the ‘comedy’ story type to explore the idiocy and selfishness of the human condition.
When a character, who is abducted by his inter-galactic travelling friend, realises billions of people on earth have died to make way for a galactic freeway, but faints when he realises that there’s no such thing as McDonald’s anymore, you know this book is going to be entertaining.
How To Use Story Types As Inspiration
Using different types of stories consciously in your writing is a great way to get some momentum. Here’s how you can utilise the seven story types:
- If you are struggling to structure your book at the conceptual stage, then, all you need to do is figure out which one is your overarching story type, which one is your subplot, and what major themes you’ll be exploring under them.
- Eg: In Eat, Pray, Love, ‘quest’ is the overarching story type, ‘journey and return’ is the subplot, and eating-praying-loving are the major themes. The structure of this book is truly off the charts!
- Combine two story types in an unlikely genre.
- Eg: The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy clubs ‘comedy’ and ‘overcoming the monster in the science fiction genre. What an unlikely combination and delight!
- Once you have figured out which story types are best for your book, try using different character’s perspectives for inspiration:
- For ‘overcoming the monster’, play the faithful sidekick
- For ‘rags to riches’, play the fairy godparent
- For ‘the quest’, play the life coach
- For ‘voyage and return’, play the travel assistant
- For ‘comedy’, play the matchmaker
- For ‘tragedy’, play the grief counsellor
- For ‘rebirth’, play the initiating priest
- If at the planning stage, the story types feel restrictive, that’s a good thing. This will keep you from overthinking and make things simpler. You can always add complexity later on!
- If you feel your story has more than one story type, then you’re probably right. All you need to do is figure out which one is the main story type and which one is the subplot.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Are The 7 Types Of Stories?
The 7 types of stories are ‘overcoming the monster’, ‘rags to riches’, ‘the quest’, ‘voyage/journey and return’, ‘rebirth’, ‘tragedy’, and ‘comedy’.
What Are The Elements Of A Story?
In the broadest sense, a story is the bigger picture and the plot its finer details. A story generally consists of an overarching story type, a second story type as its subplot, two or three major themes, a clear voice, and character development.
How Do You Write A Good Story?
A good story is more in the planning than the inspiration. Looking into the seven types of stories is a good way to shape your ideas.
Then you can start writing, honing in on the key elements, and editing your story as you craft a book you can be proud of.
Creative work of any kind can benefit from having a framework. Story types are vital for anchoring your plot.
Whether or not you know the finer details of your plot yet, if you know the story types you’re going to use, you’re sure to have a strong foundation.