Not a lot of plots in fiction?

There seem to be as many theories about plot out there as there are stories in the naked city. Some experts will tell you there are seven basic plots, some that there are 20 some that there are 36.

But then some people will tell you there is only one plot in the whole of fiction, and that plot is…

Man on a mission

Doesn’t have to be a man of course, very often it’s a woman. It can also be a hobbit, or a rabbit, if you’re reading Watership Down. But the important thing is – they are on a mission. They have an aim, clearly set out near the start of the book, and they work towards it through the story with varying degrees of success or failure until in the end we find out how they have done and what the fallout from that was.

Homer_British_MuseumIt’s a model for fiction which is as old as Homer’s Odyssey at least and probably older. One way or another many stories fall into it as a general definition I suppose.

My newly released book The Pick-Up Artist certainly does – the hero of my book wants to find a girlfriend, that’s his mission.

I read another opinion recently saying there are really two basic plots. There’s your man, on his mission, or hers or its, and then you have a second which is…

And then a stranger entered the room

<a href=It stuck in my mind when I read that because it pretty much describes the plot of my first novel Song of the Sea God. In it you have an island with people living quietly and then a stranger enters the room, or washes up on the shore in this case, and everything changes.

Mind you when he washes up he has a definite aim – he wants to be a god – which means he’s on a mission, take your pick.

So there we have it, if we want to get really reductive we can get down to two, or even one basic plot.

A question for you – have you ever read a novel which fell outside of either of these?

puaad02If you wish to take a look at the book on Amazon, and who knows, become one of the very first people in the world to own a copy …

Then why not give it a go click here in the UK and click here in the USA.

6 thoughts on “Not a lot of plots in fiction?”

  1. I do agree with you Chris when it comes to most mass market fiction especially in the action/adventure, mystery and romance genres. It’s not so easy though to pigeonhole some more literary works as “man on a mission” or “a stranger enters the room.” For example, John Grisham’s novel, ‘A Painted House’ is a story told by a man who is reminiscing about his life when he was seven years old. The boy had no goals – he was too young. Over the course of the summer, he paints part of his families house but, since that isn’t the accepted norm at that time, he’s in no rush to complete it. He isn’t focused only on the house in the story. It’s actually a character in the story just like all of the other people that walk in and out of his life that season are.

  2. John Grisham’s pretty mass market himself isn’t he? So I guess if even he is producing work which doesn’t seem to fit this definition then lots of authors will. It’s not like we have to go looking to Italo Calvino to do it. Personally I’m not a huge believer in this one plot theory, I find it too reductive, but I suppose it does serve to focus the mind when we are thinking about stories and what they do.

  3. Personally, I tend to go for books that don’t quite fit a pattern. Your book, Song of The Sea God is a case in point, and I just loved your originality. My all time favourite is The Book Thief, but there are so many others…

    1. Thanks Anita – I think Sea God is an unusual book in some ways, quirky narration and subject matter for example. Yet it does fit both the stranger arriving and the man on a mission plot descriptions. In some senses I suppose the might be seen as chance, but it’s fair to say that when I’m planning a book I do try to form a clear idea of what motivates my main characters, what drives them, and I suppose that’s what I’d behind the ‘mission’ idea generally.

  4. Chris, I’m sure there are plenty of stories that don’t fit this pattern – Raymond Carver’s shorts come to mind. However, I think that for anyone wanting to write a successful piece of fiction, it’s a good point to keep in mind. Most of the classics, the great stories that stick like chewing gum in one’s memory, do abide by it. You mentioned The Hobbit but there’s also Macbeth, Nineteen-Eighty Four, Anna Karenina, and all of Jane Austen’s output that fit the model. I wouldn’t describe it as a pattern. Unlike, for example, Joseph Campbell’s notion of the monomyth, it’s more of a guiding light, one that embodies flexibility but can always be seen, illuminating the way towards the end. Great piece.

    1. Hmm yes, I suspect you’d have to take it on a case by case basis with short stories – a lot of Carver’s do start with a kind of need which someone tries, usually unsuccessfully, to resolve, but there will be plenty of exceptions I’m sure.
      My feeling is that there very many exceptions to this particular ‘rule’ though I do tend to bear it in mind when I am writing as I find it helps me to focus!

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