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As everybody knows, there are just 7 basic plots. Overcoming the Monster. Rags to Riches. The Quest. Voyage and Return. Rebirth. Comedy. Tragedy.

Only kidding!

There are in fact only 2 basic plots: The Happy Ending and The Unhappy Ending.

No, no, no! I’m messing with you.

There are 20 master plots.

Actually, make that 36. My mistake.

Oops, no. There are 1,426 (according to William Wallace Cook in his classic how-to-write manual, Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots, published in 1928).

Basically, pick a number, any number, and someone at some time will have decided that that’s how many plots there are.

Like all advice – emotional, spiritual, financial – it’s best to take advice about plots and plotting with a very large pinch of salt. If it sounds too good to be true, guess what? If it sounds too good to be true, It’s Too Good To Be True. If all we had to do was master a few simple plot principles, we’d all be James Patterson.

This is not to say that one shouldn’t examine and consider the many and various theories about plots. Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots (2004), for example, is certainly worth reading – at least until he gets into all the crazy Jungian stuff. John Yorke, Into the Woods (2013) – that’s another good practical book about plotting for writers, with an emphasis on scriptwriting rather than novels or short stories. And if you really get a taste for the theoretical side of things, you’ll eventually find yourself getting into narratology and reading the likes of Gérard Genette, in which case, frankly, you’re on your own.

My own personal favourite guide to plotting is Patricia Highsmith’s Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1983), in which Highsmith – yes, that Patricia Highsmith, author of The Talented Mr Ripley and Carol – develops what she calls a ‘parthenogenetic’ theory of plotting. Basically, according to Highsmith, you begin with some little ‘germ’, some little speck of something (‘A child falling on a sidewalk and spilling his ice cream cone’) and then you start to experiment and play with it. And that’s it. There’s no secret, no one-size-fits-all. Highsmith puts a lot of emphasis on the sheer fun of plotting – and the dark, surprising twists that emerge when you truly abandon yourself to language and ideas.You can always tell when writers have truly abandoned themselves to the task of plotting: Highsmith herself does it; David Mitchell does it; Pitchaya Sudbanthad does it, in her recent, amazing multilayered novel Bangkok Wakes to Rain (2019).

Anna Burns, in response to a question about how and why she wrote last year’s Booker Prize-winning novel Milkman, explained that ‘I started writing it because it wanted to come. The point is, I can’t intend anything in my writing, or demand anything of my writing. I have no idea what is going to come.’

When it comes to plotting, then, you might use the standard models, but you might also simply ask: what wants to come?


This article is from a series of ‘How To...’ guides for emerging and developing writers, written in 2019/20 by Ian Sansom.

Ian Sansom is the author of the Mobile Library and the County Guides series of novels. He writes regularly for the Guardian, the TLS, and the Spectator. He teaches at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry. iansansom.net

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