But There’s Only Seven Plots!

I’m not even sure who opened this can of worms, but they’re all crawling around my brain now, and this seems as good a way as any to get the wriggly bastards back in their tin so I can get some real work done.

It’s probably apparent by now that I adore writing, and I adore talking about writing.  I love the craft, I love the debates I get into.  I have a presentation next week about Aristotle, and I get to use Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys as a comparison text, and I am just super pumped about that.

So, when people say things to me like “But there’s only seven plots” (or three plots, or whatever is the number of plots du jour), I have two reactions.  The first is a very measured, reasonable response – interest in the theory behind these, and occasionally discussing the limits of whichever system they’ve picked.
But the second reaction, the much more immediate one, and the one that frequently (and unfortunately) drowns out that previous response is less rational.  My eyes twitch.  I may or may not froth.  My brain becomes momentarily a ball of screaming no.

I’d really like to be reasonable about this.  It would make me very, very happy if I could.  But too many people have said it in the wrong contexts too many times.  I’m sorry.

It’s not even that the people who say it are particularly frustrating.  I just really want to react with “Good job.  Do you want a sticker?  Would you prefer gold star or happy whale?”  I mean … what do you get from that?

I usually see it plopped down in a conversation by people who mean well, bless their little button noses, but who aren’t actually engaging in the conversation.  “I’ve come up with an idea for a book I might write next,” I say.  “But it’s still in the planning stages, and I don’t know if it’s going to work out.”
“Well, there are only seven plots, you know,” they say.
Or, perhaps “I didn’t like this book,” I say.  “It was too unoriginal; the characters were cliché, and I could predict every plot turn at least 75 pages ahead.”
“There are only seven plots,” they say, “And nothing new under the sun.”  If they really want to drive me up the wall, they’ll say “Clichés are clichés for a reason.”

Good job.  Have a sticker and a cookie.

The problem I have with “there are only seven plots” is that it’s completely useless in about 95% of situations.
Here is where that is a useful statement:
I say: “There are only twelve plots.”
You say: “No, there are only seven.”
We have a discussion about the theory behind those plots, where the overlaps are, and where separate plots should actually be counted as one unit.  The discussion is very academic, but existentially satisfying.
Or:
You say: “I think that fantasy contains more examples of plot number five, but crime fiction contains more of plot three.”
I say: “I think you need to separate out urban fantasy from epic and high fantasy to say that, and do you think there’s a difference between true crime and fictional crime novels?”
We have a discussion about how those seven plots relate to genre.  The discussion is very academic, but existentially satisfying.

See, my problem is with the other 95% of the time, where that statement isn’t a discussion point, it’s a conversational endgame.  You’re not trying to initiate discussion.  You’re stating a fact.  You might think it’s helpful to tell someone there’s only seven plots when they’re talking about their novel and the problems with plot holes and clichés they’re having.  But you’re really not.  You’re saying “Your efforts don’t matter, and nobody should care about originality in fiction.”

When you say there are only X plots, you’re saying that Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and Franz Kafka’s The Trial are the same book, because they both involve struggles against a higher power, and a character out of their depth.
If those seven plots are really all that matters, why do some people love fantasy, but refuse to read romance?  Adore crime fiction, but refuse to read hard science fiction?
Harry Potter can be distilled down to “Boy discovers he is a wizard and attends Hogwarts.  He must defeat the evil Lord Voldemort, who has apparently returned from the grave.”  But does that mean his relationships with Ron and Hermione, all of the deaths that accompany his eventual victory, or the story of his parents’ time at Hogwarts are any less important to the story, to the experience and the world?

Just because something can be distilled (and sometimes needs to be – hello, elevator pitch) doesn’t mean that the distilled version encapsulates all of the whole.  There might be only seven plots (or two, or nine, or twelve), but darned if we can’t do some pretty varied things with them.

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