A mandala of all plots or why everything repeats itself in fiction

Not so long ago some Internet friends discussed a fantasy book on Twitter. They mentioned that other readers have criticized it for being roughly the same as other books of this genre. It made me think of a problem of repeatability in literature. Is it really a problem though?

Let’s face it – there is nothing new under the sun (nihil novi sub solum) and no author, no matter how they strain their imaginative powers, can claim they’ve used an original idea. Not really. How they use it is quite another story, though and that’s why writing and reading still make sense.

Ok., so how many plots available are there? Is their number somehow limited?

I’ve always favoured the theory about seven basic plots. It is short, elegant and somehow compelling. However, its versions differ.

An IPL (Internet Public Library) list includes just these fairly expansive and universal plot concepts:

  • man/woman vs nature
  • man/woman vs man/woman
  • man/woman vs the environment
  • man/woman vs machines/technology
  • man/woman vs the supernatural
  • man/woman vs self
  • man/woman vs God/religion

You can find the other version described in “The Seven Basic Plots – Why We Tell Stories” by Christopher Booker. According to that author the seven basic plots are: overcoming the monster; rags to riches; the quest; voyage and return; comedy; tragedy; rebirth. Christopher Booker establishes the endurance of these plots in works ranging from the Bible and Greek drama through 19th-century opera to the latest Hollywood films.

There are plenty of other lists, some of them pretty old, other quite contemporary and the numbers of plots vary greatly too. I will try to present some of them very shortly. To tell you the truth I think not all of them deserve a full description anyway.

Sixty-nine. Attributed to Rudyard Kipling by Ronald Tobias . Tobias doesn’t explain what the 69 plots were. Perhaps it was a wise decision.

 Thirty-six. Attributed to Carlo Gozzi and reprised by Georges Polti in The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations (1917). Polti states stating that there are precisely 36 emotions, which are, in his opinion, tied to the 36 situations. Nonetheless, many of his story lines unquestionably are timeless locomotives of plot, for example, Situation III, Crime Pursued by Vengeance (Hamlet anyone?) 0r Situation XV, Murderous Adultery, which pretty much sums up Fatal Attraction.

Twenty. From 20 Master Plots (And How to Build Them) by Ronald Tobias (1993). Tobias doesn’t claim these are the only plots, merely 20 the most serviceable ones.

Three. From The Basic Patterns of Plot by William Foster-Harris (1959). Not one to be distracted by unnecessary detail, F-H divines three basic plots: (1) happy ending, (2) unhappy ending, and (3) the “literary” plot, “in which the whole plot is done backwards [and] the story winds up in futility and unhappiness.”

Two. Of course plots can always be broken down to simply comedy- and tragedy-based, as Shakespeare did. In tragedies, everybody dies; and, in comedies, at least the protagonist lives. So simple it makes you wonder why bother with other classifications at all…

Two again. Also Tobias, mentioned before several times, concedes that his 20 plots boil down to 2, “plots of the body” and “plots of the mind.” Plots of the body are your action flicks, full of sound and fury, not necessarily signifying anything. Plots of the mind are more cerebral and often involve “searching for some kind of meaning”. Hmmm, sometimes I get the feeling no meaning is found throughout the whole book…

One. All stories can be summed up as Exposition/Rising Action/Climax/Falling Action/Denouement or to simplify it even further, Stuff Happens, although even at this level of generality we seem to have left out Proust.

If we talk about “one plot fits all”, what about the monomyth , also known as the hero’s journey? It is a basic pattern found in many narratives from around the world. Campbell allegedly borrowed the term from Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.

In a monomyth, the hero begins in the ordinary world, and receives a call to enter an unknown world of strange powers and events. The hero who accepts the call must face tasks and trials, either alone or with assistance. In the most intense versions of the narrative, the hero must survive a severe challenge, often with help. If the hero survives, he may achieve a great gift or “boon.” The hero must then decide whether to return to the ordinary world with this boon. If the hero does decide to return, he or she often faces challenges on the return journey. If the hero returns successfully, the boon or gift may be used to improve the world. The stories of Osiris, Prometheus, Moses, Buddha, for example, follow this structure closely.

Campbell describes 17 stages or steps along this journey. These 17 stages may be organized in a number of ways, including division into three sections: Departure (sometimes called Separation), Initiation, and Return. “Departure” deals with the hero’s adventure prior to the quest; “Initiation” deals with the hero’s many adventures along the way; and “Return” deals with the hero’s return home with knowledge and powers acquired on the journey.


The Call to Adventure
The hero starts off in a mundane situation of normality from which some information is received that acts as a call to head off into the unknown.

Refusal of the Call
Often when the call is given, the future hero first refuses to heed it. This may be from a sense of duty or obligation, fear, insecurity, a sense of inadequacy, or any of a range of reasons that work to hold the person in his or her current circumstances. 

Supernatural Aid
Once the hero has committed to the quest, consciously or unconsciously, his or her guide and magical helper appears, or becomes known. More often than not, this supernatural mentor will present the hero with one or more talismans or artifacts that will aid them later in their quest. 

The Crossing of the First Threshold 
This is the point where the person actually crosses into the field of adventure, leaving the known limits of his or her world and venturing into an unknown, often dangerous realm where the rules and limits are not known. 

Belly of The Whale
The belly of the whale, a biblical metaphor, represents the final separation from the hero’s known world and self. By entering this stage, the person shows willingness to undergo a major metamorphosis.


The Road of Trials
The road of trials is a series of tests, tasks, or ordeals that the person must undergo to begin the transformation. Often the person fails one or more of these tests, which often occur in threes. 

The Meeting With the Goddess
This is the point when the person experiences a love that has the power and significance of the all-powerful, all encompassing, unconditional love that a fortunate infant may experience with his or her mother. This is a very important step in the process and is often represented by the person finding the other person that he or she loves most completely. 

Woman as Temptress
In this step, the hero faces those temptations that may lead him or her to abandon or stray from his or her quest, which does not necessarily have to be represented by a woman. Woman is a metaphor for the physical or material temptations of life, since the hero-knight was often tempted by lust from his spiritual journey. 

Atonement with the Father
In this step the person must confront and be initiated by whatever holds the ultimate power in his or her life. In many myths and stories this is the father, or a father figure who has life and death power. This is the center point of the journey. Although this step is most frequently symbolized by an encounter with a male entity, it does not have to be a male; just someone or thing with incredible power.

When someone dies a physical death, or dies to the self to live in spirit, he or she moves beyond the pairs of opposites to a state of divine knowledge, love, compassion and bliss. A more mundane way of looking at this step is that it is a period of rest, peace and fulfillment before the hero begins the return. 

The Ultimate Boon
The ultimate boon is the achievement of the goal of the quest. It is what the person went on the journey to get. All the previous steps serve to prepare and purify the person for this step, since in many myths the boon is something transcendent like the elixir of life itself, or a plant that supplies immortality, or the holy grail.


Refusal of the Return
Having found bliss and enlightenment in the other world, the hero may not want to return to the ordinary world to bestow the boon onto his fellow man. Why should he/she? 

The Magic Flight
Sometimes the hero must escape with the boon, if it is something that the gods have been jealously guarding.

Rescue from Without
Just as the hero may need guides and assistants to set out on the quest, he or she must have powerful guides and rescuers to bring them back to everyday life, especially if the person has been wounded or weakened by the experience. 

The Crossing of the Return Threshold
The trick in returning is to retain the wisdom gained on the quest, to integrate that wisdom into a human life, and then maybe figure out how to share the wisdom with the rest of the world. This is usually extremely difficult.

Master of Two Worlds
This step is usually represented by a transcendental hero like Jesus or Buddha. For a human hero, it may mean achieving a balance between the material and spiritual. The person has become comfortable and competent in both the inner and outer worlds.

Freedom to Live
Mastery leads to freedom from the fear of death, which in turn is the freedom to live. This is sometimes referred to as living in the moment, neither anticipating the future nor regretting the past. 

As usual, when somebody thinks of a theory, plenty of sharks…I mean critics try to take the shine off it and earn a decent living by publishing their negative opinions. Accordingly scholars have questioned the very validity of the monomyth, its usefulness as a tool for critical investigation and interpretation of narrative, and its male bias. Donald J. Consentino remarks, “It is just as important to stress differences as similarities, to avoid creating a (Joseph) Campbell soup of myths that loses all local flavor.” Marta Weigle rejects the idea of a “monomyth” in which women appear only exceptionally, and then as indistinguishable from men. Others have found the categories Campbell works with so vague as to be meaningless, and lacking the support required of scholarly argument. Right…

You can start wondering of course whether any taxonomy can encompass everything in literature, and secondly, there is no theory that would tell you anything beyond the obvious. A more useful approach would be to focus on what works today. By this light it seems to me that the most useful divide is: Everybody Gets Killed (or at least the hero[ine] does, e.g., Hamlet, Thelma & Louise, Romeo and Juliet, American Beauty, etc.) versus Only the Bad Guys Get Killed (the collected works of Spielberg, Lucas, Peter Jackson et al.). The former can be called a realistic apporach as it leaves you thinking life sucks and you are more or less right, whereas the latter is an optimistically pink approach as it  has everybody walking out of the cinema with one big smile (or one big smirk). Naturally any avid reader can come up with numerous subdivisions, such as the one exemplified by Disney animated fairy tales, i.e., The Bad Guy Gets Killed but by Accident Only so The Good Guy Has Still A Pair of Clean Hands. In the odd case no one gets killed, but this is mostly in works by sensitive lady writers that seldom earn back the advance and which books’ cover art usually includes people’s bodies without  heads. Indicating what their potential readers/buyers might be missing as well…

Now add to it the sizable genre of stories that may be characterized as The Protagonist(s) Angle to Get One Another in the Bedroom ASAP and we begin to get a pretty firm handle on the situation. My point is, never mind the 36, 20, 7, or whatever basic plots–take out sex, violence, and death and you lose 90 + percent of literature right there. Not the worst part, mind you.
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22 Responses to A mandala of all plots or why everything repeats itself in fiction

  1. Tracy says:

    I read The Seven Basic plots by Christopher Booker a few years ago – and though it's a book that could do with some serious editing it's definitely worth reading. The Hero With A Thousand Faces is on my wishlist.But I think regardless of the limited potential number of plotlines, there are always new angles to be uncovered, new ways of expression. Wolf Hall is about Thomas Cromwell and the very familiar story of Henry VIII and his marriage to Anne Boleyn – but it's like no other version anyone has written before.

  2. Anachronist says:

    Thanks Brooke! Your old post inspired me a bit as well! I think regardless of the limited potential number of plotlines, there are always new angles to be uncovered, new ways of expression. Tracy – that is exactly my point; no matter what trope/theme the author is using, it is important he/she uses it in a creative way, uncovering a new angle or trying to present an old story from a new point of view. The effects can be amazing!

  3. Aurian says:

    A difficult post to start the new year with, but I do agree, there are only so many plots/storylines to follow. It is the characters and the worldbuilding that makes a book worth reading (or not).Happy new year, and I wish you a lot of great books and blogging fun for 2012.

  4. Blodeuedd says:

    *shakes head out of confusion* now you go and be too smart for me again ;)but lol the last one that is totally my story I have been writing on. yes same old same old, but everything is the same old same old. Just with new clothes on

  5. Anachronist says:

    Aurian and Blodeuedd – I decided to start in style as I usually lack it. Let me at the begining of the new year present a more noble face…and no, I don't believe I can be too smart for anybody visiting my blog!

  6. heidenkind says:

    "even at this level of generality we seem to have left out Proust." LOLGreat post! Although I'm not sure a lot of the "plots" mentioned are actually plots. I've always understood plot to be not the stuff that happens, but the impetus behind the stuff that happens. And no one ever remembers the plot, they just remember the stuff (if they even remember that). Hitchcock had a word for it, what was it called… oh yeah, the MacGuffin. 🙂

  7. Anachronist says:

    According to E. M. Forster a story is a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events but here the emphasis falls on causality. 'The king died and then the queen died,' is a story. 'The king died, and then the queen died of grief,' is a plot.If I go more nerdy I might need a romance book to make me behave like a normal human being again. Please have some pity.Btw McGuffins are objects that serve the plot function and drive it forward.

  8. Ah the hero's journey! So universal!I don't think truly that people want something totally original. How would you identify with it? We all have aspects which are common to us all. Otherwise how could we connect to a vampire or an alien from another realm? The newness isn't the key, it is how you said… it's the creativity.I do disagree with Campbell's myth soup losing all local flavor. I actually think by connecting them all, it is preserved. We tend to dismiss what we either don't understand or cannot connect with.

  9. Anachronist says:

    We tend to dismiss what we either don't understand or cannot connect with.Wow Melissa, that was pretty nerdy too, thank ya!

  10. nothing wrong with nerds. some of my favorite people are nerds. I remember years ago being taught in English that there are three types of plot: man against man, man against himself, man against his environment. I liked Campbell's book. It is a bit dated but it still has some valid points like the call to adventure. Tolkien wrote about this problem: that all the stories have been told. He thought it was worthwhile to keep writing because they are as varied as leaves in the forest. I found a story index this year that categorizes folk tales into 2500 types. The Aarne Thompson Index. http://oaks.nvg.org/folktale-types.html

  11. Anachronist says:

    I found a story index this year that categorizes folk tales into 2500 types. The Aarne Thompson Index. http://oaks.nvg.org/folktale-types.htmlOh, a lovely addition, thank you! 2500 types? My goodness…definitely exceeding my expectations…nothing wrong with nerds.Really? *shakes head*

  12. Oh, I think this in Blodeuedd's fault for the post. ;D lol. Really great work here! I always say it's always the same, but the journey is the the part I look for. Each author has a different way of getting us there, and I want to see it. 🙂 Thank you!!

  13. Anachronist says:

    The Red Witch but you are a lovable one!Melissa, sure Blodeuedd is to blame. As always. ;)The journey is definitely the best part of any book. Thank you as well and my pleasure!

  14. What? Didn't you know I rock the nerdy? I read Campbell (his dry, dry academic pieces… for entertainment! lol). ;D

  15. Tracy says:

    2500 types of folk tale – that's pretty impressive.The journey is definitely the best part of any book.Absolutely!

  16. Anachronist says:

    Melissa no, I would never take you for a nerdy type…especially with those dolls on your blog. :)Tracy – impressive it is!

  17. You are very right. Plots are basically the same, but it's what you do with it that matters. The writing and the way it's presented, the characters and subplots and storyline, it all makes it unique and different. So much here to think about!

  18. Anachronist says:

    Nice to see you back from the holliday limbo, Jen!

  19. Karen K. says:

    Very thought-provoking. I agree that there is a great deal of repeating amongst plots, but when some stories are such blatant ripoffs that even I notice, it's just stealing. Case in point: Eragon, which is a cross between Lord of the Rings and Star Wars with all the good stuff (like writing) taken out. In my humble opinion, of course.Oh, and what's the difference between man vs. nature and man vs. environment? Is environment not always nature, like when you're in space?

  20. Anachronist says:

    Eragon is indeed a book without a shred of original thought – I didn't like it myself. There are other books like this one around. Well, copying other ideas is as old as writing itself I suppose…Man vs nature I understand as a fight against the forces of nature like hurricanes, storms, draughts etc. Environment is the sum total of all surroundings of a living organism, including natural forces and other living things, which provide conditions for development and growth as well as of danger and damage. I think it is a bit wider term than just nature, which could be definied as the forces and processes that produce and control all the phenomena of the material world. I hope it helped a bit 😉

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