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Are There Just Seven Plotlines?

April 22, 2022

We all know it’s tough to be original. Look at Hollywood. How many times have you seen one studio put out a movie only to find a rival put out a near-identical release? In 1997, both Volcano and Dante’s Peak exploded on screen. Armageddon and Deep Impact came out in 1998. So did Antz and A Bug’s Life. In 2006, we were treated to the relative magic of The Prestige and The Illusionist.

I was amazed when Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down hit screens in 2013. They faced off against each other basically telling the same story but with different villains. Tombstone and Wyatt Earp dueled in 1994. It can happen with documentaries, too. Remember the Fyre Festival? Netflix and Hulu raced each other to get their properties to market.

Think of fiction. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn created a new genre of fiction that pays homage to that story. We ended up with The Girl on the Train, The Woman in the Window, The Woman in Cabin 10, The Couple Next Door, and Behind Closed Doors. Now consider nonfiction. In the last few years we received, and excuse the language, Unf*ck Yourself. Not to mention, Stop Doing that Sh*t, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, and Everything is F*cked.

In his 2004 book, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, author Christopher Booker shared thirty-four years of research. It has been referenced, quoted and challenged ever since. He contends that not only has every story already been told but there are just seven plots that we recycle, reuse and regurgitate.

Some enjoy this tidy summary as a way of codifying and simplifying storytelling. Detractors challenge it for dumbing down rich and varied narratives. I prefer to think of it as a launchpad, not a strict, definitive list. As writers, the plot should not limit or restrict our work. Every story can be creative in its own way even if we are tilling familiar ground. Here are the seven:

Overcoming the Monster

The protagonist sets out to defeat an antagonistic force (often evil) that threatens the protagonist and/or protagonist’s homeland.

I call this the Stephen King narrative. His stories follow this plotline. The majority of my writing is nonfiction for businesses. Patagonia has taken on this narrative in its fight to protect the environment while balancing their existence as an apparel manufacturer.

Rags to Riches

The poor protagonist acquires power, wealth, and/or a mate, loses it all and gains it back, growing as a person as a result.

Literary examples include Jane Eyre, The Little Princess, and Great Expectations. In a commercial context, this applies to Apple given its ups and downs during the Steve Jobs years.

The Quest

The protagonist and companions set out to acquire an important object or to get to a location. They face temptations and other obstacles along the way.

The Lord of the Rings springs to mind as does Raiders of the Lost Ark. The entire cryptocurrency category personifies a quest. Its biggest obstacle is communicating how it works to the general public. So far it has done poorly.

Voyage and Return

The protagonist goes to a strange land and, after overcoming the threats it poses or learning important lessons unique to that location, they return with experience.

The Time Machine, Back to the Future, and Gulliver’s Travels fit here. From a business perspective, this reminds me of brands trying to enter new markets. The Target chain failed when it tried to enter Canada. The company blew its brains out and beat a hasty retreat after trying to graft America onto Canada.

Comedy

Light and humorous character with a happy or cheerful ending; a dramatic work in which the central motif is the triumph over adverse circumstance, resulting in a successful or happy conclusion. It refers to a pattern in which the conflict becomes more and more confusing, but is at last made plain in a single clarifying event.

Think of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Alchemist, and Bridget Jones’s Diary. This one is tough from a brand perspective because no business wants to be a joke. KFC seems appropriate. It doesn’t take itself seriously and has playfully deployed the iconic Colonel. If you read up on Sanders’s real life, he overcame repeated adverse circumstances (seriously, I would love to write his biography!).

Tragedy

The protagonist is a hero with a major character flaw or great mistake which is ultimately their undoing. Their unfortunate end evokes pity at their folly and the fall of a fundamentally good character.

This includes Bonnie and Clyde, Citizen Kane, and The Great Gatsby. From a business perspective, this one is easy: Theranos, Uber, and WeWork. If you get a chance, read my blog on Yogababble on this site which covers WeWork.

Rebirth

An event forces the main character to change their ways and often become a better individual.

Rebirth is painful and is displayed in The Frog Prince, The Secret Garden, and Groundhog Day. Brands stumble all the time. Any equity accrued can be wiped out dramatically and quickly. The Will Smith brand is experiencing this very narrative. Lego bounced back after losing sight of customers and Kodak was stuck in the past before reinventing as an imaging business.


I am not perturbed by this list or construct. It is informative but not definitive. I agree that there are core stories. As long as they do not become generic and are told in refreshing ways, we will never run out of different and amazing narratives.

In my marketing career, I have found myself in the strange position of writing brand stories and marketing messages for competing companies at the same time. Any conflicts are always disclosed. These situations force me to creatively and strategically articulate the individual brand differences and advantages.

It is a fun challenge to pen a compelling brand story, to develop a winning marketing campaign. The next frontier in this type of work is melding fictional narratives into corporate missions. It makes sense. After all, brands overcome the monster, go rags to riches and often back again, and all pursue a quest. It is all storytelling.

Author

  • Jeff Swystun helps companies and brands grow their influence and value. His consultancy, Swystun Communications, focuses on the critical intersection of business and brand strategies. A prolific speaker and writer, he has spoken at over 100 conferences in over 25 countries, edited The Brand Glossary and Best Global Brands reports, and is quoted in over 250 publications including The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, and Fast Company.

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