How many plots are there, really? Ask a hundred writers and you may get a hundred answers, but you will find a consistent note in the answers: that the number of plots in this universe is limited and every storyteller since the beginning of history has merely tweaked the same plots over and over.
This question came up recently in a discussion. One famous author, who shall remain nameless, was definitive in his answer. He said: “There are many themes. Hundreds to thousands. But there are only four basic plots. Man against man, man against nature, man against God, and man against himself.”
A second, nameless author came right back. She said: “As for basic plots, there are really only three and they were painted on their authors’ cave walls long ago: man against man. man against god [which includes ‘nature’], man against himself.”
Then someone (I’m sorry. It may have been me) pointed out that Aristotle saw only two plots in the universe: Internal (character oriented) plots and external (action or event oriented) plots. Frankly, I like Aristotle better, because it avoids the word “against.” At the same time, though, I think we can expand on these ideas a little. Maybe we should call them “plot-themes” though, to avoid the ire of certain authors who shall remain nameless…
What is a plot?
When I began this series of posts, I compared a story to a house. The setting was the house itself in a settled location and also the props: the furniture and all the little knick-knacks that turn a house into a home. The characters are, naturally, the people and often the animals who live there and interact: from whence comes the story. Plot, I said, was like the air. It fills every room and is the medium through which all action takes place and through which all words must be spoken (since sound does not travel in a vacuum). Without air, all die; and it has a peculiar virtue in that air is invisible. So a plot should be invisible, at least until needed.
Plot is needed in two ways: First, it is needed by the storyteller to keep them on track—to help them tell the story they intend to tell. Second, it is needed by the storyteller to explain the story when the inevitable question arises: “What is your story about?”
Sticking with the story we have butchered in the course of these posts, how would you describe the story of Cinderella? If you are like my sixteen-year-old son, you will probably start at the beginning and tell the whole thing, taking longer than it would take to watch the Disney movie. After the third sentence, though, the movie producer would be snoring and probably have you bodily ejected from the building. I’ve read too many query letters like that. So that won’t do.
How about setting? It’s a medieval kind of story full of castles and clocks chiming twelve and shoes… That really doesn’t tell us anything. It might spark some interest in a medieval buff or someone with a clock fetish or Imelda Marcos, but even those people will ask for more information.
So maybe character? It is about a good girl and a wicked step-mother and step-sisters, and a charming prince… Oh, and there’s a fairy in it. Can’t forget the fairy, to which the movie producer is likely to say, “So?” Again, character alone doesn’t really say anything. What is the story about? You want to include character and maybe setting in a query letter for your novel, but the letter needs to be focused on something else. Plot is what the story is about. I can describe Cinderella with one word:
Not even venturing into the written word, mister movie producer, how many successful movies have been built around the underdog theme? The Bad News Bears, the Mighty Ducks, Rocky… How about Home Alone, You’ve Got Mail, It’s a Wonderful Life, or maybe Elf???
Not every one of these movies (and the larger list of movies, books, stories and plays that you can probably build) are purely underdog stories, but the gist of the story is there. In Cinderella’s case, a good little girl is crushed under her stepmother’s thumb, but by her loving nature, and with a little magical help, she is able to overcome her adverse condition and leap-frog over the head of her oppressor into the arms of happiness… Do you think?