Plot Types: Are There 3, 5, 7, 9 or 36 Different Plot Types? [The Definitive Answer]

Thoroughly confused about how many different plot types there are? Yup, me too. So I did lots (and lots) of research so that you don’t have to. 

Why are there only a few different plot types?

Walk into the British Library, and you’ll find around 25 million books. That’s more books than in any other library in the world, and some of them date as far back as 300 BC. 

Science tells us that the human brain is driven by story, but with only a handful of different plot types in literature, does that suggest that the human race is not very imaginative?

Well, maybe. Ever give up on a book because it was just too complicated? Perhaps you lost track of all the different names or felt confused about who the protagonist was. Human beings like simple stories, and we like stories that feel familiar to us. 

“We tend to prefer stories that fit into the molds which are familiar, and reject narratives that do not align with our experience.”

– Andrew J. Regan et al., The Emotional Arcs of Stories are Dominated by Six Basic Shapes. 

So, 3, 5, 7, 9, or 36? Which is it?

In 1959, Foster-Harris used three basic buckets to define story — happy ending, unhappy ending, and tragedy (read that as a miserable ending). If you have a quick look at Amazon, you’ll find Christoper Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots (in which he discusses nine basic plot types, but dismisses two), Ronald Tobias’s 20 Master Plots and Georges Polti’s 36 Dramatic Situations. (affiliate links)

So are there 3, 7, 9, 20, or 36 basic story archetypes? Trick question — they’re all wrong. The correct number of basic plot types is 6, and we know that thanks to a simple sentiment analysis tool. 

What is the emotional arc of a story?

Kurt Vonnegut submitted his master’s thesis to the University of Chicago in which he described the shape of plots. It was dismissed because, according to Vonnegut, “it was so simple and looked like too much fun.”

You can find Vonnegut’s lecture on the shape of stories on Youtube. He plots out the emotional arc of a story based on the “Beginning-End” and “Ill Fortune (sickness and poverty) – Great Fortune (wealth and boisterous good health)” axes. 

The basic theory is that the character has ups and downs that can be plotted to a graph — this is the character’s emotional arc. The emotional arc doesn’t tell us about the plot or the meaning of the story, but it tells us part of the whole story.

Vonnegut mapped out the shape of stories by hand, illustrated below by the designer Maya Eilam. Each graph as a distinct shape and many stories can be mapped to those shapes. 

The Shapes of Stories by designer Maya Eilam

Vonnegut predicted that the shape of stories could be fed into a computer (why not, computers could already play chess!) and in 2016, some 35 years later, that prediction came true. 

“There is no reason why the simple shapes of stories can’t be fed into computers; they are beautiful shapes.”

– Kurt Vonnegut

Hang on, so technically we’re categorizing different emotional arcs, not stories?

Exactly. And it’s this issue that has drawn some criticism from the digital humanities community. Basically, this categorization is a dramatic simplification of a narrative or plot. 

But what’s wrong with simplicity? When we simplify plot types as the rise and fall of emotional arcs, we can provide new insights and trends into works of literature. 

How do we know how many types of arc there are?

After feeding 1,737 fictional English-language stories from Project Gutenberg’s fiction collection through a computer program, students have confirmed that there are just six basic story plots. 

The experiment that took place with students from the University of Vermont and the University of Adelaide analyzed language for its emotional content and categorized it based on what happens to the protagonist. 

They used a tool called a Hedonometer, which was invented to measure happiness or pleasure and spits out meaningful graphs. (You can find a version of the tool here, where you can look at the average happiness for Twitter. Be careful; this is a rabbit hole). 

While the plot of books may be complicated, through simple sentiment analysis, emotional arcs are generally easy to pin-point. For example, here is the emotional arc of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling, as plotted by the study. Although there are several complex subplots, by following Harry, we can see the highs and lows of the story. 

What are the six different plot types?

The six core plot types that form the building blocks of narrative are:

  1. Rags to riches (an arc following a rise in happiness)
  2. Tragedy or riches to rags (an arc following a fall in happiness)
  3. Man in a hole (fall-rise)
  4. Icarus (rise-fall)
  5. Cinderella (rise-fall-rise)
  6. Oedipus (fall-rise-fall)

What are the most successful types of story?

Using the data from the experiment, the students concluded that the most successful types of story are:

  1. Icarus (rise-fall)
  2. Oedipus (fall-rise-fall)
  3. Two sequential ‘man in a hole’ arcs (fall-rise, fall-rise)

Okay, so now we know how many types of stories there are, lets put these plot types under the microscope.

6 Different Plot Types: A Definitive List

  1. Rags to riches (an arc following a rise in happiness)
    Aladdin, Puss in Boots, The Winter’s Tale
    Our plucky but downtrodden hero meets his or her true potential.
  2. Tragedy or riches to rags (an arc following a fall in happiness)
    Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet. 
    Our brave but downtrodden hero fails to meet his or her potential.
  3. Man in a hole (fall-rise)
    The Magic of Oz. Arsenic and Old Lace. 
    As Vonnegut puts it, “somebody gets in trouble and gets out of it again.
  4. Icarus (rise-fall)
    The Greek myth of Icarus, The Metamorphosis
    Life for our bold hero starts off all sunshine and rainbows, but it’s not long until everything goes sideways. 
  5. Cinderella (rise-fall-rise)
    Cinderella, Mossycoat, the origin story of Christianity. 
    Life seems to be going well for our hero, only for tragedy to strike. In this story, we root for the tides to turn, and for happiness to be restored. 
  6. Oedipus (fall-rise-fall)
    The negation of the Cinderella story, such as Oedipus Rex 
    Things start badly for the protagonist, seem to turn around for a while, but ultimately end in tragedy. 

Can a story have one than more plot type?

Remember, in the six basic plot types, we’re following the arc of the protagonist, but stories that have strong supporting characters will use multiple story arcs. Take the classic Trading Places, for example. While Louis Winthorpe III’s path follows a Cinderella story shape, Billy Ray Valentine follows the Rags to Riches story shape. They meet at the point where everything has gone wrong for Louis and join forces to rise to the story’s end. 

Recategorizing the 7 Basic Plots

Until now, Christopher Booker was the go-to authority on plot types. So, Christopher Booker fans, you must be feeling a bit miffed by now if you’ve memorized his seven archetypes. Let’s recategorize them and see if they fit into this new model. 

The Seven Basic Plots. The latter cites seven possible narrative structures: overcoming the monster (as in Beowulf ), rags to riches (as in Cinderella), the quest (as in King Solomon’s Mines), voyage and return (as in The Time Machine), comedy (as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream), tragedy (as in Anna Karenina) and rebirth (as in Beauty and the Beast).

Overcoming the monster – Beowulf, King Kong, Alien, they all have something in common. A hero or heroine is forced on a quest where they need to save their community/the girl/the human race. Most likely, this would be a ‘man in a hole’ plot.

Rags to riches – We’ve got this covered, it’s our first basic plot type.

The quest – Here, our daring hero, often accompanied by a friend, sets out on an adventure, often to undergo a journey along the way, ultimately to win the prize or the love interest before returning home again. This could also be a ‘man in a hole’ plot, but it might also be a ‘rags to riches’ plot.

Voyage and return – These stories are about heroes who find themselves in strange and unusual lands. Much depends on how the voyage goes. It could be simple, following a ‘rags to riches’ arc as the hero sets off happily, finds treasure and returns with it. Or, it could get more complicated. Say they follow the Oedipus plot, falling victim to a terrible storm, but finding a new land and claiming it as their own, only to be kidnapped by cannibals. 

Comedy – In terms of a Shakespearean comedy, like Much Ado About Nothing, there is some confusion and mischief that separates the lovers that must be resolved before they reunite again. This might follow the Cinderella plot.

Tragedy – We’ve got this covered too, it’s our second basic plot type. 

Rebirth – Here, our hero has lost him or herself and needs to find a path back to redemption. A Christmas Carol is a great example here, with Scrooge finding joy and magic in Christmas. Perhaps Scrooge is just a ‘man in a hole’, who, with a little help from the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Future, finds his way out of it again.

Applying the archetypes

Now you know the six basic emotional arcs, you can apply them to the stories you read or watch, writing your own stories, or looking at your customer’s journey through product marketing. The world is your proverbial oyster. 

If you’re looking to write a bestseller, then you may consider using one of the three most successful plots, Icarus, Oedipus, or two sequential ‘man in a hole’ arcs. Use the arc as a starting point and see where it leads. 

So what next? Well, it seems that studies are producing data rapidly and will soon be able to categorize not only books, but also tv shows, and the news. This means we may be able to fully understand the landscape of storytelling within the next decade — which could impact the art form, leading to more surprising and delightful stories. 

Writer, marketer, and co-founder of Nicely Said by night. Women in Games Ambassador. Currently at Hyper Hippo, focusing on narrative and marketing communications. Past experience includes the BBC, Virgin, and Disney. With a Master’s Degree in Electronic Communication & Publishing, Emma brings her 20+ years of experience to the Nicely Said blog. Emma has worked on multiple award-winning games, apps, and websites. She also hates belly buttons.

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