If you’re looking for a plot, there are lots of lists you can consult for ideas. The lists contain various numbers of elements, from one to thirty-six (and possibly more), but most of them have it in common that they don’t make any value judgements. They’re just lists. If you decide you want to write—just as an example—a Polti number four, “vengeance taken for kin upon kin,” that’s your business. What the compilers of the lists aimed for was completeness, with the underlying assumption that what made a plot good was how it was handled.
Then there’s Christopher Booker’s 2004 book, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories.
Mr. Booker maintains (through 700 pages) not that there are only seven plots; but that there are only seven good ones. Any work with a plot falling outside of his list is, by definition, a bad work. On the good list are Crocodile Dundee and Brewster’s Millions; on the bad side, The Cherry Orchard, everything by Proust, and James Joyce’s Ulysses.
Also Rigoletto, no matter who sings the part of Gilda.
Um…pretty sure I heard different.
there’s no arguing with the fact that the meta-plot is the plot that sells
Mr. Booker has reasons for judging literary works as he does, and the reason isn’t because he’s a contrarian. He is a contrarian, as a matter of fact. Among other things, he passionately maintains that global warming is a sham; evolution is false; and neither asbestos nor tobacco causes cancer. –And don’t even get him started on the British Family Court System, or Social Services. But in the case of literature, Mr. Booker feels that the worth of a work depends entirely on how well it serves the specific purpose of providing Jungian-style therapy for the reader. A work’s plot, Booker feels, should parallel the human journey from total dependence in infancy; through adolescent efforts to break away from family (life’s greatest trauma); to establishment in the world as a mature individual. Life itself has a plot, the Meta-plot, and through repeated exposure to literature that mirrors this meta-plot, we come to terms with life.
First in the meta-plot story is the anticipation stage, in which the hero is called to an adventure (as the child wishes to be an adult). Then comes the dream stage. The hero has some success, and imagines that he is invincible (“I got an A on my math quiz!”). This is followed by the frustration stage, when life slaps the hero around a little (we all remember that stage, right?), and he discovers that he’s not invincible after all.
Then things get really bad. It’s the nightmare stage. The plot’s peak. Hope is lost, everyone hates you; everything sucks. Then—and not a moment too soon for most of us—comes the resolution, where the hero overcomes the odds. Life’s not so bad after all, and we learned plenty along the way.
That’s the meta-plot, the one, single, really good, wholly acceptable, therapeutic One Plot to Rule Them All (The Lord of the Rings is, predictably, on Booker’s approved list). The Seven Basic Plots of Booker’s title are encompassed by the meta-plot—subsets of the meta-plot, so to speak—and have names like Overcoming the Monster (Beowulf; Shrek); The Quest (The Pilgrim’s Progress; Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle); and Rebirth (Peer Gynt; Machine Gun Preacher).
As a matter of fact, I like Kafka, and Virginia Woolf, and D.H. Lawrence—all Booker bads. I like them a lot and I think they’re not only good, but great. I personally don’t believe that people need all the books they read to conform to the meta-plot to provide them with continual therapy.
But on the other hand, there’s no arguing with the fact that the meta-plot is the plot that sells. The Hunger Games outsold Women in Love. Peter Rabbit outsold The Metamorphosis. Harry Potter outsold everything.
So for my next book, I’m sticking with THE META-PLOT. Art aside, I could use the bucks.