Every author strives for originality. However, anyone who has ever tried to come up with a ‘new’ plot will know that it is not easy. Every plot seems to have been done before. Is it impossible to come up with something truly original or is a challenge worth pursuing?
Seven distinct story types
According to Christopher Booker, every story follows one of seven universal plot lines. In his book, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, he gives a detailed outline of each story type as well as a wealth of examples from ancient myths, folk tales, plays and novels. Here is a summary of the seven story types with some examples from children’s literature.
- Overcoming the Monster – The main character battles against the villain(s) or an evil force and eventually triumphs against all odds. For example, What the Ladybird Heard by Julia Donaldson.
- Rags to Riches – The main character rises up from humble beginnings and gains everything they wanted before losing it and having to fight to get it back again. For example, The Peasant Prince by Li Cunxin.
- Voyage and Return – The main character travels to an unfamiliar place where they meet new people and overcome difficulties before returning with a newfound wisdom. For example, Greetings from Sandy Beach by Bob Graham.
- The Quest – The main character sets out to achieve a particular goal, but they must overcome a series of challenges to succeed. For example, The Big Fish by Pamela Allen.
- Comedy – A humorous story that centres on some sort of misunderstanding or confusion which leads to conflict, but is eventually resolved. For example, Grandad’s Teeth by Rod Clement.
- Tragedy – The main character’s actions set in motion a series of events that lead to their downfall or death. For example, The Boy Who Cried Wolf by Aesop.
- Rebirth – The main character has flaws, but is shown the error of their ways and eventually redeems themselves. For example, The Swap by Jan Ormerod.
Some stories may vary slightly from these basic plot lines or combine multiple plot lines, but they still bear the hallmarks of these seven overarching themes. Challenge your students to think of a book, film or play that doesn’t fit one of these seven story types.
One basic story structure
As well as following one of these seven plot lines, all stories also have the same basic structure:
- Sizzling Start™ – start with an action scene or at a moment of change.
- Back fill – the Who, What, Why is filled in as the story unfolds.
- Gradual build-up of tension – pebble, rock, boulder.
- Action climax – the main character almost fails, but triumphs against all odds.
- Character resolution – the character’s inner story is wrapped up.
This basic structure is covered in more detail in a recent Education Matters article: ‘Narratives – the pattern that authors use’. The Narrative Story Graph mentioned in the article is a visual representation of this story structure. To demonstrate how the seven universal story types, tie in with the basic story structure, two of the examples above have been plotted on the Story Graph template. Go to www.sevenstepswriting.com/samples/free-downloads/ to download these examples.
Don’t reinvent the wheel
While being faced with such limited options may seem to hinder creativity, in the quest for originality writers can use it to their advantage. Rather that wasting time reinventing the wheel, great writers put a new spin on tried and tested plot lines and structures.
Encourage students to do the same by familiarising them with the seven plot types and the Narrative Story Graph. Switching the focus from the basic plot line and structure to the actual content of the story will increase the alpha brain waves which boost students’ creativity. As the saying goes, knowledge is power.
Related article: Narratives – the pattern that authors use
For more examples of completes story graphs become a Seven Steps Online member at www.sevenstepswriting.com/info-seven-steps-online/.
Publishing and Content Manager at Seven Steps to Writing Success and a qualified primary teacher with over a decade of experience in creating educational resources.