The number of so-called "basic plots" of drama and fiction has been subject to much speculation. The different classifications seem to reveal more about the person doing the classification, and on contemporary productions, than about the real essence of drama. Modern drama and fiction can even do without any discernible plot, if other things are happening sufficiently busily to distract the audience, or even if nothing at all is happening.

Back in Ancient Greek times, there were two types of drama: tragedy and comedy. (Well, maybe three, if we include the satyr plays as distinct from both.) Both had as subject the flaws and vices of humanity, the difference being in the profundity and manner of the treatment. Obviously these two did not constitute a classification of plot as such (though the satyr plays did tend to be uniformly about sex).

Aristotle's Poetics contains a discussion of abstract plot elements, such as beginning, middle, ending, reversal of fortune, discovery (unexpected revelations), complications, catastrophe, resolution. But clearly these are only formal elements which cannot define particular types of plot.

The overall shape of the plot can also be described. The episodic plot includes many different disconnected situations and alternates between tension and relaxation. The "heroic journey" of Joseph Campbell consists of several stages, defined as a call to adventure, a journey beset with trials, a supreme ordeal, a reward, and a final return to normal society. The "mountain plot" consists of a succession of complications or mini-climaxes gradually increasing in tension until the overall climax (catastrophe) which resolves the issue that generated the tension.

The "W-shaped" plot begins with a complication in an otherwise peaceful situation; complications deepen and the situation worsens to a low point, at which we begin to see a way out of the difficulties. At the point at which the difficulties seem to be overcome, a new barrier suddenly appears (the central reversal) and the whole cycle is gone through again, leading to a final resolution. This plot template enables Hollywood to make a film as simply as gluing two 50-minute episodes (1 hour minus commercial breaks) together.

More recently, the emphasis of classification has switched from the formal shape to the subject matter. (See The Seven Basic Plots.) The Irish playwright Denis Johnston classified eight "dramatic plots":

  1. Cinderella
    Unrecognised virtue at last recognised; the hero doesn't have to be a girl, it does not have to be a love story - the Tortoise and the Hare is the same plot. The essence is that Good is despised but recognised in the end - something we all want to believe.

  2. Achilles
    The fatal flaw; the basis of all classical tragedy, though it can also be comic, as in many farces.

  3. Faust
    The debt that must be paid, the fate that catches up with us sooner or later.

  4. Tristan
    The standard triangular plot of two women and a man or two men and a woman.

  5. Circe
    The spider and the fly; Othello, and The Barretts of Wimpole Street.

  6. Romeo and Juliet
    Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy either finds or does not find girl - it does not matter which.

  7. Orpheus
    The gift that is taken away. The action may be based on the tragedy of the loss itself as in Juno and the Paycock, or based on the search following the loss as in Jason and the Golden Fleece.

  8. The Irrepressible Hero
    As in Harvey filmed with James Stewart.

  9. The Wandering Jew
    Robert Blake (the Robert Blake?), who observed (not entirely convincingly) that Casablanca contained each of these eight basic plots, added a ninth: the Wandering Jew (Rick), the persecuted traveller who will never return home.

In his book "20 Master Plots" (1993) Ronald B. Tobias proposes the following list: (the examples are my own, suggestions welcome)

  1. Quest (Star Trek)
  2. Adventure (Huckleberry Finn)
  3. Pursuit (Moby-Dick)
  4. Rescue (Fidelio)
  5. Escape (The Great Escape (duh!))
  6. Revenge (Rancho Notorious)
  7. The Riddle (The Third Man)
  8. Rivalry (Adam's Rib)
  9. Underdog (?)
  10. Temptation (Dr. Faustus)
  11. Metamorphosis (Pygmalion)
  12. Transformation (A Christmas Carol)
  13. Maturation (Great Expectations)
  14. Love (Antony and Cleopatra)
  15. Forbidden Love (Tristan und Isolde)
  16. Sacrifice (Road to Perdition)
  17. Discovery (Oedipus)
  18. Wretched Excess (The Picture of Dorian Gray)
  19. Ascension (The Divine Comedy)
  20. Descension (Heart of Darkness)
The list itself is pretty comprehensive, although I don't see much distinction between "Descension" (whatever that means) and "Wretched Excess", nor between "Metamorphosis" and "Transformation". Why the reader should pay for the book, or indeed bother to read most of it, after having absorbed the list, is unclear.

Georges Polti wrote "The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations" (1921) as an attempt at scientific classification based on the interactions between two or three characters: the addition of the third actor (due initially to Sophocles) proliferates the possibilities, as follows (after each situation is a list of possible dramatis personae and my example - as before, suggestions welcome):

  1. Supplication
    Persecutor, Suppliant, a Power in Authority (Tosca)
  2. Deliverance
    Unfortunates, Threatener, Rescuer (Fidelio)
  3. Revenge
    Avenger, Criminal (The Count of Monte Cristo)
  4. Vengeance by Family upon Family
    Avenging Kinsman, Guilty Kinsman, Relative (Hamlet)
  5. Pursuit
    Fugitive from Punishment, Pursuer (The Fugitive (duh again!))
  6. Victim of Cruelty or Misfortune
    Unfortunates, Master or Unlucky Person (?)
  7. Disaster
    Vanquished Power, Victorious Power or Messenger (Beowulf)
  8. Revolt
    Tyrant, Conspirator(s) (Julius Caesar)
  9. Daring Enterprise
    Bold Leader, Goal, Adversary (Henry V)
  10. Abduction
    Abductor, Abducted, Guardian (?)
  11. Enigma
    Interrogator, Seeker, Problem (Sherlock Holmes)
  12. Obtaining
    Two or more Opposing Parties, Object, maybe an Arbitrator (Judgement of Solomon)
  13. Familial Hatred
    Two Family Members who hate each other (?)
  14. Familial Rivalry
    Preferred Kinsman, Rejected Kinsman, Object (Jacob and Esau, King Lear)
  15. Murderous Adultery
    Two Adulterers, the Betrayed (?)
  16. Madness
    Madman, Victim (Psycho)
  17. Fatal Imprudence
    Imprudent person, Victim or lost object (?)
  18. Involuntary Crimes of Love
    Lover, Beloved, Revealer (?)
  19. Kinsman Kills Unrecognised Kinsman
    Killer, Unrecognised Victim, Revealer (Oedipus Rex)
  20. Self Sacrifice for an Ideal
    Hero, Ideal, Person or Thing Sacrificed (Abraham and Isaac)
  21. Self Sacrifice for Kindred
    Hero, Kinsman, Person or Thing Sacrificed (?)
  22. All Sacrificed for Passion
    Lover, Object of Passion, Person or Thing Sacrificed (Antony and Cleopatra)
  23. Sacrifice of Loved Ones
    Hero, Beloved Victim, Need for Sacrifice (La Traviata)
  24. Rivalry Between Superior and Inferior
    Superior, Inferior, Object (?)
  25. Adultery
    Deceived Spouse, Two Adulterers (Tristan und Isolde)
  26. Crimes of Love
    Lover, Beloved, theme of Dissolution (Bonnie and Clyde)
  27. Discovery of Dishonor of a Loved One
    Discoverer, Guilty One (Mrs. Warren's Profession)
  28. Obstacles to Love
    Two Lovers, Obstacle (Hobson's Choice)
  29. An Enemy Loved
    Beloved Enemy, Lover, Hater (Aida)
  30. Ambition
    An Ambitious Person, Coveted Thing, Adversary (Macbeth)
  31. Conflict with a God
    Mortal, Immortal (Job)
  32. Mistaken Jealousy
    Jealous One, Object of Jealousy, Supposed Accomplice, Author of Mistake (Othello)
  33. Faulty Judgement
    Mistaken One, Victim of Mistake, Author of Mistake, Guilty Person (?)
  34. Remorse
    Culprit, Victim, Interrogator (?)
  35. Recovery of a Lost One
    Seeker, One Found (Orpheus and Eurydice)
  36. Loss of Loved Ones
    Kinsman Slain, Kinsman Witness, Executioner (Die Walkure: Sieglinde watches Siegmund's death at the hands of Hunding)
(summaries due to Loren Miller.)

Note that something may have been lost in translation from French. I take "disaster" to mean a violent conflict devastating to one or other side. These "dramatic situations" entirely leave out the possibility of interaction not just between person and person, but between person and institution, or person and nature, as in Star Trek and Moby Dick. This may be reasonable since it was hardly practicable to depict such things on the stage at that point (although the conflict of man and dragon had already been attempted in Siegfried!). Also, there is overlap: what is the difference between "Fatal Imprudence" and "Faulty Judgement"?

Stan Hayward (author of "Scriptwriting for Animation") is quoted thus:

"There are only about seven themes in fiction, and they include Love, Money, Power, Revenge, Survival, Glory and Self-awareness. It is the quest for these that makes a story. Most stories have more than one theme and it is the superimposition of themes, with the arising conflicts, that makes a story interesting."

At the end of the day, what have we learnt? I submit that all attempts at classification are increasingly complex ways of stating the obvious: the amount of information or insight that we gain by assigning any drama or dramatic situation to a category is negligible. To pick out particular types are more basic than others is likely to lead to oversimplification and caricature. I have deliberately assigned some of the examples to more than one category to point out that a single plot, even a simple one, has many aspects which are only to be understood by a careful analysis of the work. The usefulness of the categories is purely negative...