People often say that there are only a certain number of basic plots in all of literature, and that any story is really just a variation on these plots. Depending on how detailed they want to make a "basic" plot, different writers have offered a variety of solutions.

1 Plot: Attempts to find the number of basic plots in literature cannot be resolved any more tightly than to describe a single basic plot. Foster-Harris claims that all plots stem from conflict. He describes this in terms of what the main character feels: "I have an inner conflict of emotions, feelings.... What, in any case, can I do to resolve the inner problems?" (p. 30-31) A Handbook to Literature. 6th ed. NY: Macmillan Pub Co, 1992.)


3 Plots: Foster-Harris. The Basic Patterns of Plot. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1959. Foster-Harris contends that there are three basic patterns of plot (p. 66):


1. "Type A, happy ending"; Foster-Harris argues that the "Type A" pattern results when the central character (which he calls the "I-nitial" character) makes a sacrifice (a decision that seems logically "wrong") for the sake of another.

2. "Type B, unhappy ending"; when the "I-nitial" character does what seems logically "right" and fails to make the needed sacrifice.

3. "Type C,’ the literary plot, in which, no matter whether we start from the happy or the unhappy fork, proceeding backwards we arrive inevitably at the question, where we stop to wail." This pattern requires more explanation (Foster-Harris devotes a chapter to the literary plot.) In short, the "literary plot" hinges on fate; in it, the critical event takes place at the beginning of the story rather than the end. What follows from that event is inevitable, often tragedy. (This in fact coincides with the classical Greek notion of tragedy.)

7 Plots

7 basic plots as remembered from second grade by IPL volunteer librarian Jessamyn West:

1.                    [wo]man vs. nature
2.                    [wo]man vs. [wo]man
3.                    [wo]man vs. the environment
4.                    [wo]man vs. machines/technology
5.                    [wo]man vs. the supernatural
6.                    [wo]man vs. self
7.                    [wo]man vs. god/religion


20 Plots:

Tobias, Ronald B. 20 Master Plots. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1993. (ISBN 0-89879-595-8)

This book proposes twenty basic plots:

1.                    Quest
2.                    Adventure
3.                    Pursuit
4.                    Rescue
5.                    Escape
6.                    Revenge
7.                    The Riddle
8.                    Rivalry
9.                    Underdog
10.                 Temptation
11.                 Metamorphosis
12.                 Transformation
13.                 Maturation
14.                 Love
15.                 Forbidden Love
16.                 Sacrifice
17.                 Discovery
18.                 Wretched Excess
19.                 Ascension
20.                 Descension.

Polti, Georges. The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations. trans. L. Ray

1.                    Supplication (beg something from Power in authority)
2.                    Deliverance
3.                    Crime Pursued by Vengeance
4.                    Vengeance taken for kindred upon kindred
5.                    Pursuit
6.                    Disaster
7.                    Falling Prey to Cruelty of Misfortune
8.                    Revolt
9.                    Daring Enterprise
10.                 Abduction
11.                 The Enigma (temptation or a riddle)
12.                 Obtaining
13.                 Enmity of Kinsmen
14.                 Rivalry of Kinsmen
15.                 Murderous Adultery
16.                 Madness
17.                 Fatal Imprudence
18.                 Involuntary Crimes of Love (eg: wed unknown sib)
19.                 Slaying of a Kinsman Unrecognized
20.                 Self-Sacrificing for an Ideal
21.                 Self-Sacrifice for Kindred
22.                 All Sacrificed for Passion
23.                 Necessity of Sacrificing Loved Ones
24.                 Rivalry of Superior and Inferior
25.                 Adultery
26.                 Crimes of Love
27.                 Discovery of the Dishonor of a Loved One
28.                 Obstacles to Love
29.                 An Enemy Loved
30.                 Ambition
31.                 Conflict with a God
32.                 Mistaken Jealousy
33.                 Erroneous Judgment
34.                 Remorse
35.                 Recovery of a Lost One
36.                 Loss of Loved One