There Are Only Seven Stories
The idea that there are only a few basic plotlines governing all stories is not new or even controversial. Narrative archetypes have been explored for centuries, dating back as far as Aristotle’s Poetics written in 335 B.C.E. More recently, in 2009, English journalist Christopher Booker published The Seven Basic Plots, a 700+ page doorstop 34 years in the making, detailing his version of how all stories we tell can fit into one of seven archetypes, or meta stories.
Cooper seems reluctant to admit it, but he owes a considerable debt to various intellects before his time, including Joseph Campbell (Hero With A Thousand Faces); Bruno Bettelheim (The Uses of Enchantment); Karl Jung (Archetypes), and Sir James George Frazer (The Golden Bough), to name but the most recent few.
I will not be shy to give Cooper credit here. His seven plot archetypes are extremely useful when thinking about your movie and your script. These are not rules, but rather, templates to help organize your thinking and to place your screenplay in the rich constellation of great movie stories preceding you. You may or may not agree with Cooper’s categories. I take issue with #6 and #7 (see below). Both are actually larger umbrella categories that could encompass all of the previous five. But where this list is brilliant is how it can stimulate thought about your story’s archetype—your plot in the broadest terms.
It can be an incredibly powerful writing aid. It can keep you on your true north. As you plow into your second act (always the most difficult!) it can keep you from getting lost. No matter how complex you choose your plot to be, the “turns” and transitions in these plot archetypes hold a hidden key to proper structure. And when it comes to screenwriting, structure is the first back-breaking craft lesson you must learn.
In structuring a plot, we often reach for too much—overcomplicating and overdesigning what should be elegant and simple. In great art, regardless the form, there is always something simple and self-evident at the core.
These seven plot archetypes are simple and time-tested. Identifying which archetype you’re writing, and then following its general shape should help you grasp your plot in its most simple, accessible form.
Remember, these seven archetypes are not formulas. And in some of them there is overlap. Many enduring stories borrow from some if not all of them. Think of them as street signs on your journey. A means by which we stay on the right plot path, and not lose our way. Our job is to entertain. If our storytelling is not clear, then we fail that mission.
Cooper’s Seven Basic Plots:
1. Overcoming the Monster
2. Rags to Riches
3. The Quest
4. Voyage and Return
1. Overcoming the Monster
You can draw a straight line from Satan in the Bible, to Grendel, the monster slain by Beowulf, English literature’s first epic hero, to Frankenstein’s creature, to Dracula, to Norman Bates in Psycho and then to every slasher or villain in torture porn since. Each antagonist represents “the monster” to be faced down by the hero. In this archetype, a hero or allied group must marshal resources and rise up to defeat an evil force that threatens them individually or their community. The odds of victory are definitely long, the power of the Monster seems invariably inconquerable, and yet, through pluck, ingenuity, perseverance, and perhaps some divine luck, the overmatched hero will have his or her day. James Bond anyone? Catniss? Or the more obvious Indiana Jones? Vanquish the monster and you return order to the realm. You may even get the girl or the guy along the way. Conquering an unruly or difficult screenplay is the perfect metaphor. That’s where I come in.
2. Rags to Riches
Isn’t this the basis of our best movie fantasies? An orphan, a lost child, or a just plain innocent encounters unspeakable hardship, only use their special talents and true beauty to prevail. And in prevailing, the unlikely hero rises up of from his or her lowly station to win a fortune, love, and success—or all of the above. You can start the list of these plots with Cinderella and Robin Hood, move on to Slumdog Millionaire and The Social Network (though the Zuckerberg character did start with a degree of privilege) and find yourself all the way over on the other (tonal) side in Scarface. These are all quintessential American tales, so hard to resist, because what’s not to love in an underdog? You could argue that unless you are born into Hollywood royalty, every screenwriting success is a tale of rags to riches. Key to the archetype is the journey, starting with “the call to adventure”, leading to an initial success, followed by a big frustration that leads to the worst nightmare, finally setting up the resolution and the happy ending. Archetypally, that is your structure. The plot of Rags to Riches should resonate for all screenwriters. Isn’t that one of the reasons we took on this craft in the first place?
3. The Quest
Pick any adventure movie you love and chances are it falls into this plot archetype. The hero sets out to acquire an important object, or reach a special location, facing hardcore obstacles and temptations along the way. Finally victorious, the hero will always emerge with heightened self-knowledge or an elevated moral awareness. We can start this discussion with The Odyssey, Homer’s great historical epic poem, consider The Wizard of Oz, leapfrog over to Indiana Jones, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and Star Wars, and even less obvious candidates like Mad Max or Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle. What’s important in this plot is the clear goal of the hero—personified by Dorothy seeking the Wizard, or Luke Skywalker his father, or Indiana Jones the lost ark … and on and on. This archetype is extremely useful in helping identify which type of action movie you’re writing. If there’s a powerful object or person at the core that no one can seem to find, chances are it’s a Quest. And if it is a Quest, your plot will be shaped by all the clear obstacles your hero faces in trying to fulfill it. Not to mention all the obstacles you face in writing it!
4. Voyage and Return
It’s easy to see an overlap between the Voyage and Return archetype and the Quest. But the key in Voyage and Return is not so much the hero reaching for the golden chalice, but rather, finding him or herself in a faraway, alien world and having to find a yellow brick road home. Of course The Wizard of Oz and Cinderella are perfect examples of this archetype, as is The Hobbit (and sequels), and once again, the classic The Odyssey. Peter Pan, Sinbad and Alice in Wonderland are cherished examples as well. When you find yourself in unfamiliar, hostile terrain, how do you navigate your way home? The answers determine the shape of your plot. Many screenwriters say that about their second act—“I’m lost! What’s the way home?” Often the answer lies in trust, courage and belief in self. The rest, as they say, will write itself.
Comedy as a plot archetype may be too broad a definition. I say this because many of the previous archetypes could easily be written under the umbrella of “comedy”. Is a Quest movie a quest or is it a comedy? Is a Rags to Riches really a comedy? Or both? Important in this archetype, however, and something helpful to our task of screenwriting, is the classical definition of comedy: a story of unwitting, escalating chaos and complications with a cheery tone and the inevitable happy ending. Many great comedies follow the recipe of chaos and misunderstanding and mistaken identity, resulting in the protagonist’s endless frustration, all of it removed in the end in triumph.
The key factor in determining whether you are writing Comedy or one of the other archetypes is to figure out your ultimate goal. Are you writing a comedic Quest? A comedic Monster movie? Or are you essentially writing a movie about comedic chaos and misunderstanding that leads to a pleasant resolution? Tough questions to answer—but you need an answer before you write “Fade In”.
For those of you into Shakespeare, Midsummer Night’s Dream is the perfect example of chaos comedy as plot archetype. In Hollywood’s Golden Age, there were scores of great comedies fitting the archetype, aka screwballs, including His Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby and The Lady Eve. For Peter Sellers’ fans, The Pink Panther sells chaos in spades; if you like J-Law, Bradley Cooper and David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook is a great modern example; and speaking of Bradley Cooper, so is the The Hangover—less for what tickles your funny bone (that’s subjective), but more for how chaos escalates through mistaken intentions and identity, all to be resolved happily in the end. Until the sequel. If you don’t properly identify which archetype your screenplay approaches, then you could be facing the chaos of the most dreaded word in our trade: rewrite!
If Comedy is defined by happy endings, then Tragedy is defined by the protagonist’s death, or at least, undoing. And we’re not talking here about hardship for its own sake. Important in this plot archetype is that the tragic outcome results from a flaw in the main character that leads to a series of terrible mistakes. In the end, we pity them—and hopefully learn their lesson.
Shakespeare’s great tragedies, Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear and Othello have stood for centuries as the ideal examples. In each, a fatal flaw (fear, greed, vanity, jealousy) leads to a sympathetic main character’s downfall. Film Noir faithfully embodies the tradition of the fatally flawed hero making fatal errors, resulting in a tragic outcome. Chinatown comes to mind here, an immaculately structured story and beautifully executed motion picture if there ever was one. Other great examples include The Godfather, a trilogy about succession to power, as the lust for power leads to Michael’s brutal undoing.
More intimately, the taboo-busting Brokeback Mountain holds up Jack Twist’s inability to accept himself as the tragic flaw that leads to his fatal undoing; and reaching back to another Brando classic, Streetcar Named Desire explores the tragedy of one fatally vain character (Brando) destroying another mentally ill character (Vivien Leigh). It’s getting harder to name more recent pure tragedies as they are increasingly out of favor for filmmakers and studios alike. One living exception is one of my current favorites, The Grandmaster, by Hong Kong wizard, Wong Kar Wai. Here we follow a compelling love story to its tragic conclusion caused by the lead character, Ip Man’s series of fatal choices.
The truth is downers don’t sell popcorn like they used to. The business culture of Hollywood knows that “up” and hope sell, so that’s what they make. But that shouldn’t stop you from sampling any. The great tragedies are immaculately crafted, and can yield profound life (and writer) lessons.
Stories of rebirth are triggered by a mounting sense of doom, as a dark force approaches, oppressing the hero at every turn. Only when it seems as if the darkness is insurmountable and has triumphed does the hero undergo a transformation that allows the situation to be salvaged leading to redemption. Beauty and the Beast, Despicable Me, It’s A Wonderful Life, and A Christmas Carol are some classic examples of tales of rebirth. And speaking of the holidays, How the Grinch Stole Christmas also satisfies this archetype. Seen as a series, Terminator 1 & 2 could pass as redemption stories, but we’d need more space than is here to debate how much of the Terminator’s “rebirth” results from programming or AI consciousness. Regardless, when the Machine turns to the force of good, we cheer and experience it as rebirth.
As an outlier, Casablanca explores the rebirth of Rick’s humanity, as he journeys from cynic to romantic martyr. Another outlier is Lars Von Trier’s sadly ignored small sci fi masterpiece, Melancholia, a confessional about his own crippling depression starring Kirsten Dunst, Stellan Skarsgard and Keifer Sutherland. (Von Trier offended many at Cannes and in L.A. for black humor comments he made about Hitler, and when it came to promotion and distribution, his little gem got ignored.) On the scifi front, obtuse as it can be, Kubrick’s special FX groundbreaker, 2001, which in design influenced NASA, and every Space movie since, is a classic rebirth movie.
Another story about rebirth that perhaps none of you have seen, Sunset Boulevard, is a must for anyone curious about how over the years in Hollywood, cynically, little has changed. Writer/director Billy Wilder, one of the true greats, redeems the main character, Joe Gillis, a failed screenwriter who sells out, by death. And no spoilers here—Gillis starts out dead. It’s a tale told by a dead man! The perfect metaphor for the screenwriter in Hollywood. No one works without us—no one—yet more often than not we are overlooked, or worse, despised. None to my knowledge have been killed (except in Robert Altman’s The Player).