After a year of attending a screenplay writing workshop, I bought the book Teach Yourself Screenwriting by Raymond G. Frensham as one of my reference books in writing. Unfortunately, someone borrowed that book and never returned it to me.
Anyway, I remember the first part of that book. It mentioned the eight basic plots. Frensham said that there are only eight stories in the world on which other plots — be it on film, TV, books, and even games — were based.
I couldn’t believe what I’d read. But after reading through, it made sense to me because I kept on seeing films and TV shows that have similar plot lines.
In his book, Frensham listed the eight stories as follows:
The story of Achilles in Greek mythology depicts Achilles as a strong hero but with a flaw which is also the cause of his own downfall. Thus, the phrase “Achilles’ heel” connotes a weak spot. This shows that nobody’s perfect and almighty. Stories of this kind prove that there will always be something that could go wrong which leads to failure or even death.
Examples of this story include Superman (the kryptonite), Samson and Delilah (when his hair was cut), and the Titanic (they said it was unsinkable).
Based on Voltaire’s 1759 novella, Candide, ou l’Optimisme, the plot depicts Candide as a good and innocent hero that could never be put down. His optimism kept him rising up despite the challenges around him.
Stories of this kind show a hero who is too optimistic that any obstacle is regarded as an adventure rather than a challenge. Variations of this plot show the hero overcoming all obstacles until the end.
Examples of this plot include Forrest Gump, Indiana Jones, James Bond, and Mr. Bean.
Who doesn’t know the Cinderella story? Based on an old folk tale, the plot depicts a persecuted heroine and the typical rags-to-riches or dream-come-true story.
Stories of this kind show the protagonist started as someone common, unrecognized, and unfortunate. In the end, the protagonist finds true happiness, fulfillment, or reward after suffering hardships.
Examples of this kind of plot include Pretty Woman and Rocky.
In Greek mythology, Circe is an enchantress who uses her knowledge of potions and her magic to transform her enemies into animals. The plot depicts a cunning character who seduces a naïve character into a trap as a form of revenge.
Stories of this type of plot have transformed into different modifications. It could either show the archetype of the predatory female, the long chase, the innocent and the victim, the spider and the fly, or the hunter and the hunted scenarios.
Examples of this plot include Othello and Dangerous Liaisons.
Faust is the protagonist of a classic German tale who made a pact with the devil in exchange for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. The plot depicts a theme of the debt that must be paid when fate finally catches up with the protagonist.
Examples of this kind of plot include The Devil’s Advocate and Bedazzled.
Orpheus is a poet and musician in Greek myths and legends. When his wife Eurydice died, he grieved and went to the underworld. His music softened the hearts of Hades and Persephone and his wish was granted with one condition: Orpheus and Eurydice should walk back to the upper world with Orpheus going ahead of Eurydice. While going up, he should not look back until both of them reach the upper world. However, when Orpheus reached the surface he looked back and saw Eurydice fade away. Stories of this kind depict a protagonist who has everything and everything is taken away in an instant.
Examples of this story include Dr. Zhivago and Rain Man.
Romeo and Juliet
Based on Shakespeare’s play of the same title, the plot depicts a tragic love story. It follows a formula: boy meets girl, both belong from opposing sides, boy loses girl, then the boy finds the girl again. Unlike the original tragedy, some stories of this kind have transformed the ending into a happy-ever-after.
Examples of this plot include West Side Story and When Harry Met Sally.
Based on a Celtic legend and other sources, Tristan had to fetch Isolde who was about to marry King Mark of Cornwall. While on their journey, they ingest a love potion which causes them to fall madly in love. Although Isolde marries Mark, the spell forces her and Tristan to seek each other.
Stories of this kind of plot depict the love triangle and illicit love affairs we used to know.
Examples of this kind of plot include Fatal Attraction, The Graduate, and The Wedding Planner.
“There’s no story if there isn’t some conflict.”— Wes Anderson
Do you agree with this list?
In 2004, a book by Christopher Booker entitled The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories discussed nine archetypal plots but only approves of the first seven. However, three of those nine are considered genres (comedy, tragedy, and mystery) and not plots.
If you will notice the films and TV shows today, most of the plots are either a variation of any of these eight basic stories or a mix and match of two or more. So much so that in brainstorming sessions, one would suggest, “X meets Y” where X and Y are the basic plots.
I believe that it is good for creative writers to be familiar with these basic plots. A good mix and match would do the trick in coming up with a new idea for your new novel or screenplay. Come to think of it, even if these were already told many years ago, there are still unique ways how to tell them today.