Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Seven Basic Plots

When considering what kind of story you want to write, does the idea of the Seven Basic Plots every come to mind? If so, do you know what they are?

Here's the basic breakdown of the Seven Basic Plots put into context, using some of today's best loved movies --

The Quest -- Think The Lord of the Rings. The protagonist, Frodo Baggins, goes on a journey with a seemingly difficult or impossible goal . . . collect a few magic rings. He must overcome obstacles and opposition before emerging victorious.

This plot can also be called The Search because the protagonist is looking for something. Consider the movie Taken. Liam Neeson's character goes in search of his kidnapped daughter.

Let's not forget the classic Somewhere in Time. Here we see Christopher Reeve's character, Richard Collier, *going back in time* to find the woman he loves. Tell me there aren't difficult and impossible obstacles Collier has to go through to reach Elise McKenna!!

Voyage and Return/aka Coming Home -- Think The Wizard of Oz. Similar to the Quest, the protagonist must endure a journey, but must also find their way home and return to their previous life, as Dorothy did with her journey through Oz and her eventual return home . . . even if it was only in her mind!

Similarly, in a way, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is the tale of a man living backwards. That is to say, a man who was born old and as he aged he grew younger, very nearly to the point of returning to the womb. The ultimate coming home tale.

Comedy -- Think Castle (the tv series). Castle and Beckett must work together so solve crimes, but these stories are told with humor . . . even some of the most serious moments are broken by one-line gags and monotony is cut with character pranks.

Must be easy writing comedy, since we laugh so readily with each gag. But ask any comedian or screenwriter and he/she will tell you comedy is serious business. Some will say it's even harder than writing sex!

Tragedy -- Classic example here is Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. This plot evokes sympathy and pity on the reader's part while watching the protagonists continually fail in their search for happiness. The failure in this case isn't down to Romeo or Juliet, but their feuding families bent on keeping them apart. Even as these young lovers plot leaving their families so they can be together, Fate's hand is firmly around their futures.

On the same line, let's look at The Bridge of Madison County. This is an amazing love story, but in the Romeo and Juliet style, the lovers are fated to be apart. Perhaps this is the ultimate classic romance . . . a deep and heartfelt romance that is destined to end poorly.

Overcoming the Monster -- This is the ultimate battle of good and evil. The protagonist battles demons, real or imaginary, which seem impossible to overcome. Think of Batman and the Joker, Superman and Lex Luthor, and in a twist, Shrek and Lord Farquaad . . . who was the real monster in that story?!

Like I said, monsters aren't always ones we see. They can also be emotional ones, such as in A Beautiful Mind. This movie tells the story of real-life mathematician, John Nash, who eventually succumbs to Schizophrenia. Part of Nash's downfall is the secret job he's taken in his imaginary world and how it effects his real life. This story is his battle with the disease and how he overcomes, or rather learns to live with, his condition.

How about a twist on the monster theme? Highlander. John Nash's monster is that he cannot die. He is immortal Connor MacLeod. . . unless someone takes his head. In an ironic twist, while he desires a normal life span . . . he protects his life by becoming a master swordsman to protect his neck. He could die in a split second, yet continually protects his life until he can find a way to reverse his curse and end his days to die naturally . . . from old age.

Rebirth -- Think of Cinderella. The protagonist is often imprisoned, either physically, emotionally, spiritually, or even a mental break. The story is about confronting what's holding the character back and gaining freedom. Cinderella is at the mercy of her evil step-mother and bullied by her equally evil step-sisters. With the help of her Fairy Godmother, Cinderella gets to attend the ball where she meets a man who frees her from her 'prison.'

Let's also look at Clint Eastwood's character, Walt Kowalski, in Gran Torino. Walt is a man who battles his own monster . . . prejudice.This tale is about how a man with ingrained feelings for non-whites learns the ultimate lesson in life . . . unconditional love . . . and is reborn in a very personal way. OK, technically, the movie ends in tragedy, but it's also the ultimate love story if you consider what Walt gives up for those he's come to love.

Rags to Riches -- Think The Pursuit of Happyness. Will Smith's character is down on his luck and trying to support his young son. Through hard work and some good luck, he pulls himself up off the streets and becomes a successful businessman, and maintains the respect of his son.

And let's not forget the classic, Pretty Woman, the story of an escort who falls in love with a rich man. Or was this a tale of a rich man falling for an escort?! Either way, she makes our really well in the end.

Yes, yes, yes, many stories include one or more of each of these elements. Mixing elements is what makes an even greater story . . . the classics we'll watch over and over again. Similarly, the books we'll read over and over . . . and over and over and over . .  .

Other versions of the Seven Basic Plots exist. One of the most famous is from Arthur Quiller-Couch who listed them as:

Man vs. Man -- Taken
Man vs. Nature -- A Beautiful Mind
Man against God -- The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Man vs. Society -- The Pursuit of Happyness
Man in the Middle -- The Bridge of Madison County
Man and/vs. Woman -- Pretty Woman
Man vs. Himself -- Gran Torino

So, now you know. And now that you do, what movies, or indeed books, can you add to this list?