There are only 7 basic plots

Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch was a Cornish writer who published using the pseudonym Q. Although a prolific novelist, he is remembered mainly for the monumental publication The Oxford Book Of English Verse 1250–1900 and for his literary criticism. Quiller-Couch is also well known for making it vastly clear to everywhere that there are only seven basic plots. Those plots:

  1. man against nature
  2. man against himself
  3. man against God
  4. man against society
  5. man caught in the middle
  6. man and woman

These, of course, can be made more specific like so:

Overcoming the Monster: Protagonist against an evil force. Examples: Star Wars, Perseus, War of the Worlds, any given James Bond film.

Rags to Riches: The poor protagonist gains things (such as power, wealth, love) only to lose them and gain them back. Examples: Harry Potter, Cinderella, nearly every rom-com ever written.

The Quest: A hero goes on a journey to find something important. Examples: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Stand By me, The Goonies, Lord of the Rings.

Voyage and Return: Where the protagonist goes to some odd place governed by odd rules and returns home having grown from the journey. Examples: The Wizard of Oz, Back to the Future, Odyssey,  Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Comedies: Light and humorous character with a happy or cheerful ending; or a character fighting against adverse circumstances resulting in a successful or cheerful ending. This is more than just humor, of course. Examples: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Wedding Singer…the list goes on and on.

Tragedies: Similar to that of riches to rags, only where the villain gets it in the end. Examples: MacBeth, King, Halloween, Friday 13th.

Rebirth: This is like a tragedy only the hero realizes his error before it’s too late. Examples: It’s a Wonderful Life, Beauty And The Beast, A Christmas Carol.

The Shakespeare correlation

Nearly every plot, every story, every character can be traced back through time to Shakespeare. We retell his tales simply because the plots were universal, meaningful, and had a resounding impact on the hearts and minds of humanity. That is how incredible the Bard was.

So what do we do, as artists, when we realize that there is only a finite amount of plots available to us? Simple. We tell those stories in our unique voices. I could write a Romeo And Juliet story. I could write a Midsummer Night’s Dream story, a Hamlet story, a Merchant of Venice story…you get the idea…and as long as I write said story in my voice (something only I possess), then that story is uniquely mine. If, on the other hand, I attempt to write of those stories, while copying Shakespeare’s rich and eloquent voice…then I’ve crossed a serious line and should be seen as nothing more than a hack.

If I simply copy and paste swathes of text from Shakespeare’s works…then I’m doing something illegal and action should be taken.

An undead example

Let’s punch this baby home a bit. George Romero did this little film called Night Of The Walking Dead. Wait, no…Night of the Living Dead (see what I did there?). You know the one…it’s most often attributed with being the first commercial zombie film (although many would argue that film is White Zombie). Since Romero released that film, thousands of others have appeared…all with very similar premises. Undead creatures seeking the flesh or the brains of the living. There are accepted tropes – ghouls with flesh hanging from their bodies, shambling about; a virus, a governing power or business gone amok; the search for a cure; the loss of power; incapacitating the undead through the brain; moaning…you get the idea. Every one of those films points back to Romero’s original. And yet, you have never once heard the man cry foul.

I write a lot of apocalyptic fiction. I know a lot of other writers who write apocalyptic fiction. We all understand that there will be similarities in our stories…it’s inevitable. If any writer in that community were to stand up and cry foul, they’d be laughed out of the community. We accept that and we write on. Why? Because it’s the professional thing to do.

Art is precious

Anyone that knows me, fully understands how I respect and honor the artistic process. Every writer, actor, singer, dancer, sculptor, designer, musician should hold the process up with the highest regard. And I would like to think, that if Shakespeare were alive today, he wouldn’t be pointing his finger at every single writer on the planet saying:

“Thous hast stole my work. Prithee, Chuck, anon, I drop my gauntlet!”

Good ol’ Bill. The most baller of all scribes.