How to Use The Seven Basic Plots to Write Better Stories

Here is a new exercise to help you develop new stories, from six word stories right through to novels. Use the archetypal seven basic plots from which all stories come as a backbone for new creative writing, alongside the six word story technique.

Using the Seven Basic Plots as writing prompts.

The Seven Basic Plots are essential for all writers. These plots are the backbone of literature, and offer excellent starting points for any piece you’re working on. They are considered to be the most common and most universal stories. They are based on the fundamental human needs of order, balance, and meaning. They offer a sense of satisfaction that readers can relate to.

They were all identified by Christopher Booker in his 2004 book “The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories”. 

What exactly are the seven basic plots?

The seven basic plots are:

1. Overcoming the Monster – (think Beowulf) – the protagonist has a goal that is threatened by a monster, which they must defeat or outwit.

2. Rags to Riches – (Cinderella)- a very poor person becomes wealthy, usually after a period of hard work and self-sacrifice.

3. The Quest – (The Lord of the Rings)- a hero embarks on an important journey to find something (or someone) of great value and significance, often symbolic in nature

4. Voyage and Return – (The Odyssey) – the protagonist leaves home with the intention of never returning, but then does return because of some incident or event that compels them to do so; this plot is also known as “The Odyssey”

5. Comedy – (Taming of the Shrew) – the protagonist is involved in some sort of mishap or misunderstanding that results

6.Tragedy – (Romeo and Juliet) – the hero has a serious weakness or flaw, and ultimately suffers for it.

7.Rebirth – (Beauty and the Beast) – the characters experiences force them to change to become a new version of themselves.

While these seven basic plots may encompass all possible story types in literature there is a lot more than meets the eye to interpret what they mean.

Use the Six Word Wonder to write stories from these basic plots

Now we have the seven basic plots in hand, our challenge is to generate six word stories, poems, memoirs, and jokes, using the plots as the story scaffolding.

Let’s choose one at random – lets say the quest.

What is the basic quest plot?

The quest is a story in which the protagonist has to go on a journey in order to achieve something.The quest is usually about an individual who goes on a journey in order to find something or someone. The protagonist usually starts off with some sort of goal in mind, but then they are faced with obstacles that make it harder for them to achieve their goal. They have to overcome these obstacles and reach their goal at the end of the story

People often think of quests as being heroic stories with knights and princesses saving kingdoms from evil dragons. But there are also many less traditional types of quests, such as those about finding one’s true self or learning more about oneself through travel or adventure.

The quest is the most common plot in literature. It is a story of adventure that typically includes a journey to some distant place. This type of plot usually has three stages: departure, initiation, and return. The hero leaves home with his or her companions, crosses the threshold into the unknown, and then returns home with important knowledge or valuable.

Now we’ve familiarised ourself with the elements of this plot, how do we turn it into six words?

An example of a six word stories about “the quest”

Let’s try a three sentence structure using the pieces – departure, initiation, and return.

Entered cave. 

Found treasure! 

And dragon. . .

In this rollicking fantasy, we’ve set out on a journey into the unknown – entering the cave. Found something valuable – the treasure. Then attempted to return home and hit a final obstacle – the dragon. We don’t know if the dragon ended our quest early. Perhaps the ellipses (the dot, dot, dot) implies we never made it back. Or perhaps the stories existence means we lived to literally tell the tale.

A second example of a six word stories about “the quest”

Here’s another try, using the same three sentence – departure, initiation, and return.

Met boy. Slapped boy. Left boy.

In this dramatic scene of heartbreak, the departure is metaphorical. The protagonist has gone from not having met the boy, to meeting him. We don’t know what happened – but we can fill in the blanks of the initiation that something the boy did went badly wrong. And lastly, in a mirror of the first sentence, the protagonists returns with knew knowledge. Don’t trust boys. (Or at least not that boy.)

A third example of a six word stories about “the quest”

Let’s try a new structure now – trying to capture the full quest in a two sentences.

I fell overboard. Rescued by mermaid.

In this nautical fairy-tale, you learn that the main character fell into the ocean, got into serious trouble, and was saved by a passing mermaid. Notice that you can infer the whole journey. We know I was in the ocean because there is a mermaid there. We know I was in serious trouble because we needed to be rescued. And we know I survived because the mermaid rescued us.

Turn a six word story into a full plot

In just six words, you have the bare outlines of a structured story. And better still, it follow one of the seven basic plots. So you know it will be a hit.

Now, all you need to do is flesh out your log-line into whatever length story is hidden within it. The mermaid story above could be expanded into a 1000 children’s fairytale, or a 60,000 word erotic thriller. The next wave of creativity involves you considering the genre of story you have, who your characters really are, and filling in the blanks.

Look at the six word story and ask; 

1) What does your protagonist want?

2) What is your protagonist’s main goal?

3) What’s at stake if your protagonist fails?

4) Who is your protagonist’s main opponent?

Then continue to work out the story until you’ve cracked a full three acts.

Using the seven basic stories and six words story combined

Hopefully you can see the power of combining the seven basic plots with the six word story form.

If you write a zinger six word story, why not enter it in the Six Word Wonder writing contest? It is FREE to enter and you could get published.

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