Seven basic plots?

I suppose you’ve heard there are only seven basic plots in all of literature. Or three, or twenty, or thirty-six. Possibly only one. It depends on whose taxonomy you read. In the real world of novels, of course, things are never so straightforward. Pick up any novel and sift it for plot, and you’ll find more than one storyline rattling in your sieve after the sand’s fallen through.

Take for instance the novel where I live. I could use any number of labels for the plot, or the plots, plural, of my story: Quest (which can overlap with a Hero story or a Voyage and return story); Face the monster (or at least my inner demons); Coming of age; Enigma; Whodunit; Comedy; Tragedy. All those elements and more are there because my author L believes we are all searching; and she believes we all have demons; and that many of us, whatever the age, are still growing up; that the people we love are impossible to figure out; that we get things wrong from time to time; that life gives us mysteries; and life is sometimes funny and sometimes tragic, and most of us manage to be at least a little heroic once in a while.

Here’s the beginning of an Alice Munro story L likes to think about. It’s called “Differently”: Georgia once took a creative writing course, and what the instructor told her was: Too many things. Too many things going on at the same time; also too many people. Think, he told her. What is the important thing? What do you want us to pay attention to? Think.

L reminded me that Alice Munro isn’t saying these words, the narrator of her story is saying them. It’s worth remembering, L said, that narrators are often saying more than one thing at once, and sometimes not the obvious thing. Tell me about it. I guess L forgot for the moment that I am a narrator.


I wouldn’t be so bold as to draw parallels between the work of my author L and the work of Alice Munro, I’m just pointing out that there’s more than one way to think about how to shape a story, be it long or short. Whether a person succeeds and to what extent, that’s a separate question.

As for Georgia, the character in the Alice Munro story, here’s how the second paragraph begins: Eventually she wrote a story that was about her grandfather killing chickens, and the instructor seemed to be pleased with it. Georgia herself thought it was a fake. She made a long list of all the things that had been left out and handed it in as an appendix to the story.

Oh, for a simple life. Story, I mean. Oh, for a simple story.

Mentioned in this post: Voyage and return; Enigma; Face the monster (or at least my inner demons); Coming of age; Whodunit; Comedy; Tragedy

The story “Differently” appears in Friend of My Youth; here’s a wonderful piece about Alice Munro’s work, written by Jonathan Franzen.

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4 Responses to Seven basic plots?

  1. Gerry says:

    Fun entry. I’ve noticed that English 100 students, but not just them, are slow to take to that business of the voice NOT being that of the author. Maybe it’s like one twin saying he/she’s not the other.

  2. Hi Gerry. Thanks for stopping by. Sometimes I think we characters should carry a sign that says, “Please don’t confuse me with my author.” Or maybe the author should carry one that says, “Please don’t confuse me with the character I created.”

  3. Cassie says:

    I just read a story I really disliked by Munro and it left me disheartened so thank you for reminding me how wonderful she actually is and how much she can teach us about writing.

  4. Hi Cassie. Glad you liked the post. If you want to see more of what Alice Munro’s work can teach us about writing, the Franzen article I linked to is really worth reading.

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