They say that there are only seven basic plots in all of literature.
Is the above statement really true? With enough interpolation and oversimplification, you could say there's only one plot: conflict. But then you notice that it's not just conflict, but man's struggle. Struggle for what? Why, the struggle to overcome something. And this is where the term seven plots come from: the various struggles that come up in plots.
- Man vs. Nature
Man versus nature is one of the very first struggles faced. It is especially prominent in an uncivilized world. In modern times, this theme is primarily seen when civilized man is put into a less civilized setting - Tarzan, Robinson Crusoe, The Call Of The Wild and Moby Dick would all be excellent examples of this battle.
- Man vs. Man
Man versus man epitomizes the daily troubles we have with others. Although plenty of books have had more resourceful and intriguing plotlines, books driven by this conflict primarily revolve around resolution via violence or defeat. Some good literature that falls under this genre includes Shane, Othello, and Les Miserables.
- Man vs. Environment
After man has conquered nature (through civilization and order) and has conquered other men (or, better still, has learned to get along with him), he now must succeed in his new environment. Many times your environment is stacked against you: the stories of Dickens - Oliver Twist or David Copperfield, for example - often show the dangers inherent in one's environment. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we see the jaded cynicism of Alan Ball's haunting American Beauty as another man whose environment has seemingly failed him. Often this conflict is seen vividly in the oppression of minorities - Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man and Kate Chopin's The Awakening both have protagonists struggling against environments specifically and explicitly set up to restrain and dominate them.
- Man vs. God
Once man has conquered the external and physical elements of his world, he turns to the spiritual side. Frequently in modern literature this struggle has been transmogrified into a man vs. self conflict - stories such as Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha and the classic Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance rely on the internal battle of spirituality. For more overt battles with the heavens, see Homer's The Odyssey or the Book of Job in The Bible.
- Man vs. Supernatural
Although God is by far the most important supernatural being in terms of dealing with the day to day doings of mankind, occasionally lesser powers come into play as combatants to the success of man. Sometimes they are a direct antagonist, as in H.G. Wells' War Of The Worlds and Washington Irving's The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow. Often instead the supernatural in turn act as a catalyst for other conflict - William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist causes Father Mike to question himself, and Edgar Allan Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart uses the spectral beating of a dead man's heart to illustrate a murderer's descent into madness.
- Man vs. Self
Having now conquered all things that man cannot directly control - nature, God, other men, his environment, and the supernatural - he now finds that he must not be in conflict with himself in order to attain happiness. Sometimes these conflicts can be desperately dark and painful - Requiem For A Dream's sordid display of addiction and Hamlet's suicidal thoughts over the anguish of his mother's betrayal and father's death are eerie in that they touch close to home about the suffering of life. Other books which center on this conflict include Salinger's The Catcher In The Rye, Christopher Marlowe's Faust, Virginia Woolf's The Voyage Out, Wharton's Ethan Frome and John Updike's Rabbit, Run.
- Man vs. Machine
For some unseemly reason, once man has conquered the things he cannot control, and has mastered his own self, he is still unsatisfied. His stasis is immediately dropped so that he may invent new things with which he can conflict. One can only wonder if man is doomed to conflict by its very recidivism, or if in some sad masochistic existentialism, the reason we spend so much time analyzing and writing about (and, in this case, creating) our conflicts is that to be is to suffer. As the wise Buddha said, "All is suffering." Still, it seems almost maddening to think that we were not content with the struggles listed before, but have since added machines to our list. The battle with the machines usually arises out of a dystopia that occurs as appearance and reality are blurred. Of course, the first real exploration of this conflict lay in a novel based on the first invention of ourselves - Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Some other excellent pieces on this include Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey, Philip K. Dick's Man, Android, and Machine, and Kokaku Kidoutai's 1995 film Ghost In The Shell.
Are these all of the plots? It's hard to think of anything that doesn't fall into at least one of these catch-alls. But therein lies the beauty of this list. It provides an excellent backdrop for some of humanity's greatest literature: from the destructive hedonism and recklessness of Gatsby (man vs. environment) to the guilt of Dotosyevsky's Raskolnikov in Crime And Punishment (man vs. self), we see that there is still much to be written about the wanton conflict of mankind. Our best literature merely shines a new and relevant light on these conflicts within ourselves, drawing them closer to us and in turn, us to them. These books, like the 7 simple points above, serve as the common bonds through which we can see our fellow man and know him without knowing him at all, and understand him without explanation.