Asking how many different types of plots there are is kind of like asking how many different colors there are. There could be trillions or only one depending on how you’re counting.
Some people will say the Hero’s Journey is the only plot, but that’s like saying white is the only color with everything else being slight variations on it. You could also say every story ever written has a unique plot of its own, just like there are technically trillions of different colors, but this isn’t very useful when you’re trying to categorize stories.
How should we categorize plots? Recently a research team used computers to identify six basic plots: falling action, rising action, falling-rising, rising-falling, falling-rising-falling, and rising-falling-rising. This seems rather arbitrary though. Why not say there are just two: rising and falling which can be combined and repeated in different patterns? Or why stop at six? In fact, the computer analysis revealed the most popular stories were rising-falling-rising-falling and falling-rising-falling-rising, which weren’t on their list of six! (They called it a rising-falling-rising with a tragic ending, and falling-rising repeated twice.) Besides, these aren’t really plots (the interrelated sequence of events in a story), these are just the emotional beats to the story.
I’ve also seen people online list things like tragedy, comedy, romance, and mystery as plots, but I think of these more as genres. The same interrelated series of events can happen in both tragedy and comedy, so they can share the same plot.
I’ve also seen people list things like man vs. man, man vs. society, man vs. nature, man vs. himself, etc. as plots, but these are different types of conflicts, they don’t tell you what sequence of events happen in the story. So there’s a lot of confusion as to what a plot actually is.
I think of a plot as something like 1) Boy meets girl. 2) Boy loses girl. 3) Boy gets girl back. A series of events that are causally related. Not all stories need to have a plot. The movie Boyhood doesn’t really have a plot. It’s a coming of age tale, but events don’t lead to each other in a sequence of cause and effect. Boyhood is more like real life in that things happen to us, but the major events in our lives rarely fit together in a neat cause and effect sequence. Usually, real life is more like, “this major thing happened to me when I was 10, then nothing much happened until a different major thing happened when I was 13” and so forth.
Fiction usually doesn’t work if it’s too realistic. You need to mold it into a more exquisite shape in which the events are all linked together. In other words, fiction tends to have a plot while real life is plotless. A bunch of stuff happens to us, but it’s generally random. The thing that happened when we were 10 doesn’t directly lead to the thing that happens when we’re 40 because there’s too much chaos in the real world to draw straight lines like that.
For fun, I decided to come up with my own list of plots, but I’ve come to realize this isn’t really a list of plots so much as it’s a list of different types of stories. It’s just as arbitrary as anyone else’s list and it’s by no means comprehensive.
- Coming of age
- Forming a relationship
- Learning to be a parent
- Dealing with death or other tragedy
- Good versus evil
- Rags to riches/apprenticeship
- Gaining enlightenment/making an important discovery
- Solving a mystery
- Secrets revealed
- Getting out of trouble
Some of these overlap. An underdog story could also be a rags to riches or a good vs. evil story. (Speaking of which, I recently heard someone make the case that in the classic Biblical story of David vs. Goliath, Goliath is actually the underdog since David has a sling, which is as powerful as a .44 Magnum. So David vs. Goliath is like the scene in Indiana Jones in which a guy puts on an impressive sword display and Indy simply pulls out a gun and shoots him. David was not the underdog at all.)