The 7 Basic Plots of Literature

Several authors have attempted to identify a defined number of basic plots available to any creative writer. The following summarises the essential detail of 7 Basic Plots of Literature and offers an example for each of the 7 types of plot. You may or may not agree with the following summary. The 1927 novel To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, where the plot is secondary to its philosophical introspection, appears to fall outside of this list.

Plot 1: Overcoming The Monster

Basic format

  1. Superhuman “evil” exists that must be eliminated
    1. Form of giant or witch
    2. Form of ravaging animal
    3. Could take the form of both
  2. Threatens the general peace of town village or world
    1. Reward may be great prizes
    2. Reward may be a princess
  3. Hero must confront the Monster
    1. Generally armed with some “magical” weapons
    2. Generally happens near monster’s lair (cave, forest, castle, lake)
    3. Generally happens against great odds against success
  4. Destruction seems inevitable
    1. When the hero narrowly escapes death
    2. Monster is slain
  5. Universal peace restored

Example of ‘Overcoming The Monster’


Story told in three parts

  1. Young Beowulf against (semi-­‐human) Grendel – Monster threatening peace
    1. Travels from over the sea
    2. Deals a mortal wound (in a night-­‐battle)
  2. Young Beowulf against Grendel’s Mother – Monster seeking revenge
    1. Tracks Grendel’s blood to find a bigger battle awaiting
    2. Battle ensues at bottom of lake
    3. Beowulf wins: awarded riches and kingdom for 50 years
  3. Old Beowulf against Dragon
    1. Dragon guards treasure in underground cave (roused from sleep)
    2. Awakens and wreaks havoc on Beowulf’s kingdom
    3. Three battles: Beowulf dies in third battle (poisoned)

Christian Symbolism

  1. Hero dies, but slays his enemy
  2. Aided in victory by a helper, who becomes his successor
  3. The Number 3
  4. His spirit lies over the land: “soul leaves the body to receive the reward of the ‘just’

Plot 2: Rags To Riches

Basic format

  1. Hero/Heroine introduced in childhood
    1. Living in lowly conditions (poor, isolated)
    2. Considered lowly and, as of yet, unformed socially, physically
  2. Live in the shadows of “Dark Figure”
    1. Adult figures acting as parents
    2. Antagonists close in age
    3. Both are scornful, hard-­‐hearted, or blind
  3. “Dark vs. Light”
    1. Light character is always essentially good
    2. Light character is generally static – stays the same throughout the story
    3. Dark figures made uneasy by Light, or they disappear in the story
  4. Transformation
    1. Move from inward beauty to outward beauty
    2. Meet a complimentary figure (male, female)
    3. Inherit some sort of “Kingdom”
  5. Basic Crisis
    1. Low-­‐born follows a Call – “newly discovered power/purpose”
    2. Initial Success:  arrives at outward completion – money, wealth, power, fame
    3. Central Crisis: New (unforeseen crisis) with Dark Figure arises
    4. Hero/Heroine  overcomes  crisis  to  arrive  at  personal,  inner maturity/independence

Example of ‘Rags To Riches’


  1. Daughter of rich man
    1. Father dies, left to live with stepmother
    2. Becomes the house’s scrub lady
  2. Living with Step-­‐Mother and Step-­‐Sisters
    1. Mother oppresses her
    2. Sisters treat her poorly
    3. Cinderella shows love to animals, who return the love
  3. Transformation
    1. The Ball
    2. Fairy God-­‐Mother intervenes
    3. Becomes most beautiful girl at the ball
  4. Clock Strikes Twelve
    1. Garners the prince’s favour
    2. Chariot dissolves into pumpkin
    3. Locked into her castle
    4. Rescued and restored to rightful place of beauty

Plot 3: The Quest

Basic format

  1. Destruction Falls
    1. Hero, who has been seeking peace, is roused
    2. Hero sets out with companions
      1. Indistinguishable (tied to purpose)
      2. One Alter-­‐Ego (Faithful to hero, but opposite)
  2. The Journey
    1. Succession of near-­‐fatal ordeals followed by moments of peace
    2. Stuck in rough terrain (nature, monsters, temptation)
  3. Arrival and Frustration
    1. Arrives with goal in sight
    2. Encounters new, more terrible obstacles
  4. Final Ordeals
    1. Undergoes last set of tests (generally 3)
    2. Culminates in Last Great Battle
  5. The Goal
    1. Nearly misses goal because of terrible danger
    2. Overcomes through Thrilling Escape from Death
    3. Peace restored
    4. Hero gains elevated status
    5. Life renewed

Example of ‘The Quest’


  1. Wallace looking for peaceful family life
    1. Returns home after studying warfare
    2. Befriends Hamish
    3. Marries – wife is killed
  2. Leaves village to confront England
    1. Stuck in countryside/terrain
    2. Struggle against the Nobles
  3. Nobles betray Wallace at Falkirk
    1. Wallace about to die
    2. Saved at last minute by Robert the Bruce
  4. Wallace attacks and kills Nobles
    1. Faces Queen
    2. Faces King
    3. Faces Nobles (finds alter-­‐ego in Bruce)
  5. Goes to York to meet with Nobles
    1. Defeated (personally)
    2. Memory of Wallace fuels the fight
    3. Scotland achieves Freedom

Plot 4: Comedy

Basic format

  1. Evolution of Comedy
    1. Aristophanes – Dominated by two groups of characters
      1. One dark, rigid, life-­‐denying group
      2. One light, liberation group
      3. Turn of the Plot = Dark group turned away from obsessions
    2. New Comedy – Comedy becomes love story
      1. Resolves the problem of two lovers
      2. Change of Heart central to resolution
      3. Recognition must occur before Happy Ending
    3. Shakespearean Comedy – Tangled love
      1. Diverse pairing of couples
      2. Couples serve as contrast
    4. Summary
      1. Dark characters imprison light characters
      2. Characters “discovered” over course of story
      3. Characters discover who they should pair with?
      4. All separation is repaired/reconciled
  2. Approaches to Comedy
    1. General Confusion
      1. People question who they are
      2. People question why they are where they are
      3. People question what they are doing
    2. Transition between two states
      1. Twilight – Nothing is seen clearly
      2. Recognition – Dark figure of story is discovered
    3. Shadow of Confusion
      1. Upper Realm: Dark Figures hold power over lesser figures
      2. Lower Realm: Lives in the Dark Forces’ shadows
    4. Three Types
      1. Dark force casts shadows over other characters
        1. Real Hero lies within shadow of Dark Reign
        2. Dark Figure exposed, transformed, or eliminated
      2. Chief Dark Hero is the hero himself
        1. Wronged Heroine/Hero stands in shadows
        2. Hero goes through change of heart
        3. Hero and Heroine Emerge together
      3. No obvious dark figure
        1. General misunderstanding becomes the tension
        2. Truth redeems victims from oppressive circumstances
        3. Everyone comes to clearer understanding of situation

Plot 5: Tragedy

Basic format

  1. Anticipation Stage
    1. Hero/Quest is unfulfilled
    2. Hero sees a course of action
  2. Dream Stage
    1. Hero becomes committed to course of action
    2. Pursuit goes improbably well
    3. Hero gratified in his effort
  3. Frustration Stage
    1. Situation slowly turns
    2. Leans toward committing “Dark Acts” to carry out duty
    3. “Shadow Figure” threatens Hero
  4. Nightmare Stage
    1. Hero loses control of situation
    2. Dark Forces close in on him
  5. Destruction or Death Wish Stage
    1. Evil forces become aroused
    2. Final act of violence kills hero
  6. Divided Self
    1. The Call seems questionable to reader – not noble
    2. Hero pursues call because of personal appetites
      1. Romantic notions
      2. Undefined longing or sensation
    3. Hero struggles with call
      1. Not single-­‐minded about obligation
      2. Hero keeps his dark impulses in check
      3. Hero leaves comparative safety after lines have been crossed
      4. Hero overlooks key element before embarking
    4. Hero becomes increasingly isolated
      1. Roused from peace out of obligation
      2. Initially defines mission according to those he helps
      3. Becomes increasingly detached from community and isolated in his own thoughts
      4. Becomes increasingly/more deeply ensnared in the Quest
      5. Comes to destruction

Plot 6: Rebirth

Basic format

  1. Three Stages
    1. The Curse
      1. Main character inhabits dark, threatening force
      2. Main character given omen to overcome
      3. Dark force counteracted by “light” – promise to overcome
    2. Protection Stage
      1. Light figures protect against dark forces
      2. Main figure grows in innocence of curse
      3. Dark Prophecy comes true
    3. The Re-­birth Stage
      1. Dark, impenetrable forces maintain oath
      2. Hero lives in wintery state until helper comes along
      3. Helper defeats/Light promise takes effect and changes Main Character
  2. Basic Sequence
    1. Young hero falls under shadow of dark power
    2. All goes well; threat seems to be defeated
    3. Heroes find themselves imprisoned in dark, wintery state
    4. Stays in dark state until dark power seems triumphant
    5. Miraculous redemption – by hero, by young woman, by child

Example of ‘Rebirth’


  1. Six  fairies  invited  to  christening;  Seventh  (malevolent)  fairy  curse  child for not being invited
  2. Parents hide child; burn spindles; raise her as “Briar Rose”
  3. Sixteenth  birthday  comes  (curse  almost  defeated);  finds  a  woman weaving in castle
  4. Falls asleep in witches castle, fortified by briars, warlocks, dragons
  5. Prince defeats the enemy to place “true love’s kiss”

Plot7: Voyage And Return

Basic format

  1. Three Stages
    1. Anticipation Stage
      1. Hero/Heroine Exposed to new reality
        1. May be bored, drowsy reckless
        2. May be curious and go looking for alternative reality
      2. Hero/Heroine  pushed  out  of  their  limited  existence  into  a  world  of possibility
  2. Dream Stage
    1. Finds the new experience exhilarating
      1. Puzzling
      2. Unfamiliar
    2. Chooses to make it their home
  3. Frustration Stage
    1. Introduced to Dark Force that frustrates their happiness
    2. Dark Shadow continues to intrude
  4. Nightmare Stage
    1. Shadow dominates the alternative world
    2. Grows larger than hero/heroine and entire community
  5. Thrilling Escape and Return
    1. Situation becomes impossible
    2. Leave the “reality” not knowing if it was real or a dream

Example of ‘Voyage And Return’


  1. Alice lives “in her own world”, filled with fascination
  2. Alice falls into Rabbit Hole
  3. Meets the Rabbit and gets swept into fantastic journey
  4. Meets the Queen Hearts
  5. Returns back home, not sure if she had been napping