plots: 7, 20, 36

You may have run across this idea before. The theory is that any story you come across in whatever medium (book, film, oral storytelling, comic books, etc) will fit (more or less) into one of x-number of basic plots.

The Tennessee Screenwriting people will tell you there are twenty basic plots, which they have summarized here. Georges Polti goes bigger with Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations. this is quite an old book and not a particularly helpful one, so don’t rush out and buy it, okay? I’m just using it as an example.

Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots is a much more interesting book, and his discussion of each of his seven is actually a lot of fun. If you’re going to look at this book, I’d stop after the first half. When he gets into a very odd mixture of pseudo-Jungean psychology and conservative politics he lost me. On the other hand, you could just read the really wonderful summary of the main points of this book put together by Chris Bateman last year as a blog entry.

I’m not sure exactly why this x-number of plots business has been going around in my head lately. Maybe just because it’s a way to think about the structure of a story, and it also has me thinking more about theme — which is a subject I avoid, usually. Maybe because (like Rachel, when it comes to POV) I had a bad experience with it in school. A teacher who would poke an unsuspecting student with the theme question at every opportunity. What’s the THEME of this story? And she’d stand there tapping her toe.

I especially remember this because she did it to me when we read Knowles’ A Separate Peace. Is that still standard assigned reading, by the way? In any case, I remember going completely blank while she tapped her foot. Theme? Theme? Theme? echoing in my head. I finally said, in a rather fourteen year old way, why does everything have to have a theme, anyway? Can’t it just be a story?

Which earned me the thanks of my fellow classmates but otherwise did not do me any good at all.

To this day, I can’t talk about theme. A wall goes up when I read the word. But today I went over to Wikipedia and found this handy little description in a larger topic (theme in literature):

A theme is not the same as the subject of a work. For example, the subject of Green Eggs and Ham is “green eggs and ham are well worth eating, no matter the location”. The theme might be “have an open mind”.

And also this distinction:

Themes differ from motifs in that themes are ideas conveyed by a text, while motifs are repeated symbols that represent those ideas. Simply having repeated symbolism related to chess, for example, would be termed a motif. On the other hand, a chess motif could easily symbolize a literary theme; for example: “The struggle between good and evil,” or “The necessity to sacrifice to achieve goals.”

Which kind of supports my original dislike of the idea of theme. Themes are reductive by nature, no? Here’s the theme for Othello: open communication can save a life. Or, envy is destructive. So what is the theme of A Separate Peace? Oh yeah. Envy is destructive.

So I haven’t worked through my aversion to the discussion of theme. I guess I can carry on anyway. What I can discuss is this x-number of plots business.

The first of Booker’s seven plots is Overcoming the Monster. He draws a connection between Dr. No and Gilgamesh because in both cases you’ve got a hero on his own who has to travel a long way to slay a monster (of sorts). Now I’m trying to make a list of ten books that fit this description without looking at Booker’s discussion.

3 Replies to “plots: 7, 20, 36”

  1. What I can’t figure out is why the page for the TSA has a page title of “TSA Writing Tips – Twenty Basic Plots” but a browser window title of “TSA Writing Tips-No Nos”. Odd.

    I’ve found theme most useful when it comes to writing a query; not that I’ve said outright “this book’s theme is…” but that it can often be a good frame for the hero’s conflict: “the character must realize the value of family”. Knowing the theme also helps (or maybe I’m warping theme to some degree) to frame the ultimate conflict, which is most satisfying when it reflects the story’s theme.

    Even in action/adventure, or urban fantasy, this seems to hold true. At least, the books where the story/plot doesn’t fall apart in the last third — those, I’ve found, rarely have theme reflected in the Final Decision the hero must make in the Final Showdown.

    I had never really figured that out until I put two things together: one, I read an essay by a screenwriter about the use of violence in movies. He said (and I wish I could find the link) that the Big Showdown must involve a choice, even if it’s as simple as the hero saying: I will survive this! and finding that last bit of strength. Or it may be the hero decides on one of two suspected positions, it’s the right one, bad guy goes down.

    I mentioned this to a friend who’s a linguist & poet, and she commented that this was why she felt dissatisfied by the showdown I’d written in my draft. It wasn’t lack of skill or even plot, but just that the hero never has to make a choice, and isn’t pushed to the point where it’s all-or-nothing — and the implied all-or-nothing had little to do with the book’s theme, which wasn’t the hero’s job, but his love for his little sister.

    Imagine big honkin light bulbs going off over my head. Zowee.

    Since then, I’ve read Final Showdown points in various books with this in mind, and it seems to be pretty consistent. I’m not sure writers always register it on a conscious level, granted, but it’s in there.

  2. yes, a separate peace is still required, at least at my high school…i actually liked it though…
    the one thing i always dreaded on english tests were questions about theme. unless we’d explicitly stated some in class i would never be able to figure them out.
    i wish i had thought of what you said to your teacher, i love it!

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