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How Many Different Types of Plots Are There?

Some say there are 6, 36, or 1,462 plots for stories, novels and screenplays. How many are there? Does it matter?

There has been much discussion over the years as to how many different types of plots, stories, or dramatic situations exist. While writers of fiction and screenplays may not want to plan their novels according to these templates, it's a good idea to keep them in mind. Are there six, 36, or 1,462 different types of plots? Can you structure a story using a template?


Writers of fiction ofter encounter books and articles discussing the number of possible plots available for novels, short stories, and films. Some say six or seven, another influential list includes 36 situations, and others list dozens or even hundreds of possibilities. While it's unlikely that a writer will want to follow a strict template, it's a good idea to be familiar with them.

In 1895, French author Georges Polti listed The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations, which include situations such as pursuit, deliverance, abduction, adultery, and remorse. These are not plots, but rather elements that make up a plot. For example, vengeance taken for kin upon kin is a good description of the plot of Shakespeare's Hamlet, but this tragedy contains a number of other situations, such as slaying of kin unrecognized, madness, erroneous judgement, and many more.

Similar lists have been made in the study of folktales, and The Aarne–Thompson–Uther Index looked at folktales from around the world and classified them according to their types, establishing 134 tale types. The interest of this classification was to show how folk tales from around the world contain similar motifs.

And researchers analyzed over 1,700 English novels using "sentiment analysis" and found that there are six basic story types:

  • Rags to riches – a steady rise from bad to good fortune
  • Riches to rags – a fall from good to bad, a tragedy
  • Icarus – a rise then a fall in fortune
  • Oedipus – a fall, a rise then a fall again
  • Cinderella – rise, fall, rise
  • Man in a hole – fall, rise

While you can't write a novel or screenplay using these dramatic situations or tale types, it can be helpful to look at your work and identify situations of this type as key moments in the work. Many works of fiction contain multiple plot threads, and different characters experience their own dramatic situations; this is common in today's TV series, where one master story arc occurs, but where, in the background, there are smaller arcs concerning specific characters.


Probably the best known analysis of story is Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces, published in 1949, and very much influenced by Jungian archetypes. This book looked at the similarity of certain types of stories across cultures - Campbell called this the monomyth - and described the 12 stages of the hero's journey. George Lucas notably used this as the template for the first Star Wars movie, and many others have been influenced by Campbell.

Christophe Vogler, influenced by Campbell, wrote a memo outlining this structure for Disney in 1985, describing the 12 steps of the hero's journey, and later expanded this into a book, The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. He posits that successful Hollywood movies use this sort of structure. Obviously, not all movies follow this approach, but if you read the book, you'll see its influence in movies of all kinds. Vogler warned that one shouldn't follow this rigidly:

As with any formula, there are pitfalls to be avoided. Following the guidelines of myth too rigidly can lead to a stiff, unnatural structure, and there is the danger of being too obvious. The hero myth is a skeleton that should be masked with the details of the individual story, and the structure should not call attention to itself.

But he also said that with these ideas in mind, "you can almost always determine what’s wrong with a story that’s floundering; and you can find a better solution almost any story problem by examining the pattern laid out in the book."


TV writer Dan Harmon, who created Community and Rick and Morty, adapted Campbell's idea to create what he calls a "story circle." He narrowed the journey down to eight steps:

  1. A character is in a zone of comfort
  2. But they want something
  3. They enter an unfamiliar situation
  4. Adapt to it
  5. Get what they wanted
  6. Pay a heavy price for it
  7. Then return to their familiar situation
  8. Having changed

The story circle is a good tool for TV series, where episodes are short and there's less time for each stage, and it is perhaps more adaptable than Campbell's approach, which focuses on the heroic. Using the story circle, a writer can build a story arc for any character.

1,462 possible plots

In the 1920s, pulp author William Wallace Cook developed Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots, based on his own writings, which contained exactly 1,462 different plot scenarios. This is a bit extreme, but it's interesting to look through some of these and perhaps use them as prompts. Some could be simple templates for long works, but many are sketchy, and aren't sufficient for most stories. Here are a few examples that remind me of films or TV series that I've seen recently:

  • {A}, through befriending a needy stranger, becomes involved in an unpleasant complication.
  • {B}, without food or water, is adrift in a small boat at sea.
  • {B} is ambitious to “get ahead,” to advance herself in her chosen line of work; but she has difficulties that are disheartening.

In order, these germs could be the film A Simple Favor, with Anna Kendrick; The Tom Hanks movie Castaway; and the Peggy Olson story arc in Mad Men.

None of these formulae are sufficient for writing a novel or screenplay, but they can all serve to remind you of the type of story structure that readers and viewers are familiar with, and expect. Of course, you can break the rules, and go against these ideas, if your readers are willing to follow you.

Kirk McElhearn is a writer, podcaster, and photographer. He is the author of Take Control of Scrivener, and host of the podcast Write Now with Scrivener.

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